|Playwright & Composer Austin Zumbro|
You could say that Austin, who wrote the script, music and lyrics for BACT’s hit show, THE DAY THE CRAYONS QUIT, THE MUSICAL, spent 20 years preparing for the bow he took on opening day.
As a student in the Oakland schools, he loved his classes but missed having the arts in the curriculum, so, he did it himself—writing plays, filming videos and making music with his friends. He learned the piano, taught himself guitar. And, at summer drama camp, he acted in plays as a camper, directed them as a counselor, and ultimately wrote the plays himself.
In high school, he learned he had a gift for songwriting . . . by losing a bet.
“I was bowling one day, and my friends wagered that, if I lost, I would have to write a song about them,” he said. “I lost, wrote the song, and it got a good reaction. So I had a moment in which I learned, ‘Oh, I can make up a melody and play chords. It’s not magic—you just have to write it down and remember what you played.’”
When Austin got to Stanford University, he parlayed his newfound skill into taking requests for songs from fellow students. He also joined the university’s improvisational theater troupe and performed with it for the next four years.
“I didn’t know it when I applied, but Stanford has a very strong improv program,” he said. "We had two-hour practices three times a week, and we did 20 to 30 shows a year. It was a great experience! I learned how to get up in front of people, and I’m comfortable with that to this day.”
Austin’s improv experience and encompassing memory has served BACT very well in emergencies, when he has stepped out of his role as BACT’s beloved patron services manager to fill in for actors on stage at the eleventh hour in shows like If You Give a Mouse a Cookie; The Little Engine That Could; Pinkalicious; and James and the Giant Peach.
“Some people would find that too stressful, but I’m willing to jump in and do my best,” he said. “I know the audience and the cast will be supportive. That’s what’s so wonderful about theatre—it’s a supportive community with everyone trying to make the show great!”
At Stanford, Austin majored in human biology, with an emphasis in neuroscience and psychology.
“I love learning about the brain and behavior,” he said. “I like to think about people and their motivation, their stories. That’s also why I’m attracted to theatre.”
For BACT, Austin has created a comedy, Rudolph the Ugly Duckling, and productions for schools, including The Gold Rush Musical; Labcoats and Scapegoats: A Science Fair Musicalamity; and Rock the Block: A Walk and Roll Musical.
|L to R: Actors Anna Smith, Jacqueline Dennis, Carina Salazar, Brett Jones & Chloe Condon. Photo by Joshua Posamentier.|
“I spent a long time with the book, trying to read into the letters,” he said. “The book is so successful because Daywalt and Jeffers use very short letters and simple drawings to create very rich characters on the page—that’s why people identify with the story. So I was sitting with the relatively sparse words and pictures and thinking about who would write that kind of letter, what other words they would say, and why they would choose those words. I tried to be really true to that in the script and the lyrics.”
Austin’s choice of musical genres for the play came out of the same desire to bring his characters to life in ways that are faithful to their personalities and stories.
“I knew what kind of song I wanted to have, but I had to learn how to make it sound right,” he explained. “I created long playlists within each genre—gospel and blues, opera, musical theatre, etc.—and I tried to absorb them all to figure out what elements make them what they are. I also asked people with more experience. Then I synthesized what I’d learned for each number, and worked with our music director, Kevin Roland, to match the songs to the talents of the actors.”
Playwrights don’t necessarily participate in rehearsals for their shows, so Austin was “thrilled to be in the room” throughout the development of his play.
“It’s been a joy to be part of the team,” he said. “I feel incredibly privileged to have done my part and see it come together! I wrote it, but that’s just the first step. Nina Meehan (the director), the actors, and the artistic team deserve all the credit for beautiful execution.”
On opening day, Austin’s biggest question was whether the show would “appeal across the generations.”
“I know what I like,” he said, “and I work with kids all the time, but I was trying to write a show for everybody.”
Judging from the laughter and the thunderous applause the show received that day and throughout its run, he succeeded—from A to Z!