Yaakov Bressler is a playwright and former medical researcher who currently lives in Harlem, NYC. I have the pleasure of also calling him a friend, and one of the most motivating people I know. When I went to watch his play, “The Golden Smile”, this past summer, I learned the amount of work he put into his writing was phenomenal! It's people like Yaakov, who are so passionate about the arts, who give reasons to writers such as myself the drive to continue to work hard in reaching our goals, even if or when we feel defeated.
Yaakov took a break and I took advantage, sitting down with him one recent afternoon to learn more about his passion, writing process and next play.
Q: Yaakov, thanks for having me here. Okay, so let’s start. How did you get into playwriting?
Yaakov: I’ve always been writing, just a little bit, on the side. If you like something enough, you’ll find time to do it. I was actively pursuing the sciences at Brooklyn College where I received my undergraduate education. I graduated with a degree in Chemistry then got a job working as a researcher at Columbia University. My plan was to go to medical school and love it. Honestly, throughout all that time, I was writing, again just on the side. During the gap year between my applications to medical school, I took a play that I wrote and held a reading. I was really surprised by how far I had gotten. Then I did not get into medical school. There were a lot of tears. When I didn’t get in, I saw that as an opportunity to pursue the arts. I always asked myself, while I was doing writing on the side, if I didn’t get into medical school what would I want to do most. The answer was always to write. So that’s what I’m doing.
Q: During your process of playwriting, did you experience any failures, and if so, how did you overcome them?
Yaakov: Oh yeah, oh yeah, I absolutely had failures! I think failures for someone who, y’know who is in a crazy, hmm... not crazy, but I think anyone, in terms of any career or in terms of life, failure can be seen as “missing the mark” or losing. But you can view it as a positive experience, a learning experience, and take lessons from failing, and figure out why you didn’t reach the goal. I had a production last summer in June that went very poorly, in terms of financially, that can be seen as a terrible failure – lost a lot of money, lost a lot of time, and reviewers didn’t say great things. Rather than viewing it as a failure, I took all the results and thought, “well, these were the things we weren’t doing right”. So in August my collaborators and I took a look at these previous experiences, we worked on some mistakes and re-made a great production. So yeah, failures are a part of it.
Q: Do you think it was a good choice to take this route into playwriting?
Yaakov: I can never know if it’s a good choice because there’s this - I never fulfilled all my other possibilities. I don’t think in terms of "Is this good or bad?". I think, "Is it good at the moment? Will it get better?" And I think the same for people who are in the medical profession who are thinking of doing other things. For someone writing, and going into the medical profession, I constantly ask myself, " Am I satisfied writing?" And right now I am. Will I grow as a writer? I think so. Do I have opportunities? Yes. So that’s a reason for me to stay in.
Q: What plays have you written?
Yaakov: My first play was called “The Golden Smile”. It’s an absurd musical. It takes place in a psychiatric ward with about a bunch of patients trying to figure out life. That was produced this past summer. There are some works in the progress. I haven’t finished the script, but another play is called “Magnificent Scientific”. It's in it's final stages. Ironically enough, it’s a play about medical research. The play that I’m working on at the moment is called “Young and Crazy”. It’s a dark comedy about anxiety and the ghost of Carl Young. Then I have one other small work in the progress called “Magic?” It’s a children’s comedy about being creative and doing magic.
Q: What’s the next step for your writing?
Yaakov: The next step I see for my writing is to write theater for the big Fringe festivals. If it succeeds, if it’s in the Fringe, then try to produce it with the company. I'd also like to go with further with writing film. Traditional forms of entertainment are moving, even music, moving into (easier-to-access) videos, so I think it’s a good opportunity for me. I’m passionate about tackling social issues with my writing, with entertainment, and I think with movies, TV shows, even short little videos, it’s a great way to do it. I see my next step as learning screenwriting, maybe take a course, or follow someone around who’s really good at it and learn what it takes to do both.
Q: Now that you’re immersed in playwriting, what about medical school?
Yaakov: So that brings us back to the question you asked me earlier, about failure and my attempt to get into medical school. Well (I believe) admissions is largely seen as a bureaucracy. And with entertainment, it’s anything but that, it doesn’t work that way. So when I didn’t get into medical school, I got very frustrated at the bureaucracy of it.
So if asking myself the question 'Have you thought of going back to medical school, Yaakov?' The answer is yes. I’m constantly questioning whether I am happy playwriting, am I happy doing this creative art? There’s not a lot of security in it, I might not make a lot of money, and it’s important not to fool myself. I’m giving myself this chance to write, but if it’s not working, I’m not going to sit and write for twenty years only to find out that my writing isn’t good and no one likes what I’m doing. So I’m constantly questioning myself. I’m constantly putting myself under criticism and if I ever reach a conclusion that I want a more stable life, the things I’m passionate about I can get in other careers, in administration, in medicine, in research, or in science. Right now I’m pursuing theater. If theater doesn’t work I could go back (to medical school). I could go to nursing school. I could go to graduate school for science. It’s certainly on my mind.
Q: Besides financial difficulties, what other difficulties do you encounter as a playwright?
Yaakov: Well everyone assumes playwrights are starving people, borderline hungry. Not exactly. But you do have to get a day job, unless you find someone to financially support you, which isn’t a prospect for me, so you have to get a day job. You might find a job that doesn’t require too much brain power, because your mind’s being used to think about your art. A part of me wishes I didn’t have a day job, I wish I could only write, but it’s not realistic. I’m lucky that I can work part-time but some people get stuck writing after working all day. You can always make it work. Three to four hours a day is a full day of writing.
There is also the difficulty of focusing, although that might be a personal issue. It’s very difficult to sit in front of a blank screen and just work. Science seems so easy because you have a textbook with pages and chapters and tests and courses, so you know what to do next. With a play, a creative idea, what’s next? I have to write the textbook. It’s a bit more tricky. Inspiration can also be difficult -- to regularly have a reason to be passionate about what you’re doing. I solve that by surrounding myself with people who inspire me.
Q: So let’s say a person wants to pursue writing, but feels like s/he can’t do it because of the financial challenges, what would you tell them?
Yaakov: Flo, you are doing that right now. You’re in college studying English, but you're also writing outside your studies. If something’s important to you, no matter what your profession may be, you will find time to do it on the side. If someone’s passionate about playing baseball, they could be an accountant, lawyer, or doctor, and they’ll still play once a week. That’s how you have to view writing. You can get a lot done with a part time approach. Now if a part-time approach is frustrating because you’re not accomplishing the artistic goals you've set, then you have to ask yourself if you have the means to pursue this art for a certain period of time. If you do, then do it. But, put yourself on a timeline, and set realistic goals. Hit those goals and you’ll be successful. If you don’t hit those goals, you can consider how to restructure your dream.
Q: What advice would you give to kids, in either middle school or high school, who want to pursue writing?
Yaakov: You can really like a craft but as a profession, it takes on a whole new shape. When you write as a craft, you sit down for an hour in between your classes, you feel awesome, you have these ideas, you write them down. Writing as a profession, your work day can be about eight to ten hour long. For eight hours, you’ll be sitting there with a blank screen in front of you and your colleagues many not be working with you, or next to you. You have to ask yourself if you can handle working alone. Also, do I have ideas that I can keep counting on to come up? If you believe yes, then you should pursue a writing profession. But, if that’s challenging or you feel uncomfortable, then there’s nothing wrong with pursing another profession, that includes writing. A lot of people I know who are very successful in acting or writing have other things they do. They’re a businessman, real estate broker, even a lawyer. You can do it on the side. They don’t have to contradict.
Q: Is there anyone that has influenced you? Do you have a role model?
Yaakov: In terms of individuals, you know there are writers that I look up to. There are people, like my colleagues and peers, that provide emotional support. But If I could name one, it’d be my former boss and mentor Glendora Bates. She is a lawyer turned social worker turned scientist. She has a degree in each of those fields from Columbia University. She's done a lot in her life and the thing I’ve learned from her, and was encouraged by, was her ability to not doubt yourself or be insecure, and to switch directions when necessary.
Q: Tell me more about what you're currently working on.
Yaakov: Last December my co-writer and I presented a first draft of a new play that we are also co-producing. My co-writer’s name is Robert Keller. He’s a distinguished comedian and actor. We are writing a play called “Young and Crazy” which is about anxiety, the ghost of Carl Young. This reading was the chance to hear from the audience. I encourage those who are passionate or curious about mental health or those who are curious to stay abreast of it's progress, and with any future readings, be sure to check it out.
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FLORENCE SEA HEE KIM