Lewis Center for the Arts Alumni POV: David Zabel ‘88

Lewis Center for the Arts Alumni POV: David Zabel ‘88


(upbeat bongo music) – My name is David
Zabel, I was Class of ’88 from Princeton University. I had a concentration in English, and a certificate from
the Program in Theater. I recently made a deal for two years to develop television for Sony, which is why I’ve just
moved into this office. A major highlight of my
career of course happened in 2000 when I was hired onto “ER,” which at that point was
the number one drama in the world, and that
was a huge opportunity for me that I was hoping I wouldn’t blow, and it turns out that I
guess I did okay with it. I lasted eight years there, I got to run that show
in Executive Producer for five years. We did four episodes about Darfur. You know, I personally
wrote a few of them, and won a Humanitas Prize for that, which I was really very proud of. If you’re someone who’s
interested in pursuing a creative profession, a
creative arts profession, and if you have a mother like mine, then she will say to you,
“What about law school?” Not a single one in my family has ever pursued a career in the arts. They’re all very
successful, mostly lawyers. I think they’re proud that
I did something different and that it has worked out. I grew up in Manhattan my
whole childhood, my whole life. My grandmother was a theater nut, and so she would come
to New York twice a year and try to go to as many
plays as she could in a week, which usually meant about eight shows in six days, matinees
included, and drag me from a very young age to every
play she could drag me to, so I kind of got a
little bit of my interest and obsession in the
theater from my grandmother. A seminal experience
for me really happened almost immediately when I got to Princeton because the first thing I
did, literally, freshman week was I went and auditioned for a play. And I got cast in that play, and I found myself propelled
into this community of people who are doing theater,
both at Theatre Intime, which was the student-run theater, and at 185 Nassau, which
was the Program in Theater. I immediately felt like I
had a community of people that I fit in with, who accepted me, and who I felt simpatico with. There are really two mentors I
constantly think about still. On one hand, Carol Elliott
was an acting teacher and a director who was so
important to me in terms of helping me understand
new kinds of theater, and illustrating ways of
breathing life into characters, and putting plays and
stories up on their feet. The other big part was Michael Cadden. He was such a brilliant
teacher of modern drama in terms of understanding how a writer constructs
characters, constructs story, and creates dramatic narratives. And when I look back on it, I really see sort of the
framework of the education that resulted in what I
ultimately did with my career. Among a few other things, I
am focusing on a second season of this show called “Mercy Street” which I’m doing for PBS. “Mercy Street” is set in a Union hospital in the town of Alexandria
soon after Alexandria is occupied by the Union army, so it’s a Union hospital
in a southern town and a great cross-section of the war. The interesting thing to me
about being a show-runner that I think is one thing that I’ve managed to
find a good balance with is there’s the solitary
part of being a writer, and then there’s the sort-of
social administrative part of leading a production
and managing a production. In the case of “Mercy Street,” it’s as if we’re writing a six hour movie. The two writers and myself, we’re doing about seven weeks together in a room, and then after that,
the writers will go off and write their scripts. I’ve had some success, but I
have had many frustrations, disappointments, failures. There’s a tremendous amount of rejection in any kind of creative field
that is like the one I’m in. So you have to be able to face up to that. The beauty of being a writer
is that everything you learn is potentially useful and often turns out to be crucial at some point. So I still have moments where
I think, all of a sudden, you know, 25 years later, I
think (snaps) I’m glad I took that class at Princeton
because there’s some part of my brain that knows
a little bit about this and that’s sort of a
door into learning more that I need to know in order
to capture it dramatically. (upbeat bongo music)

Dereck Turner

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