He might have begun his career as an actor and a playwright, but Walt Vail soon gave up life upon the stage for a full-time life behind a computer.
“At my age, acting has become much more difficult because it creates too much anxiety, anxiety like standing on stage and suddenly forgetting your lines. Now that’s anxiety which I can do without,” said Vail, whose one-act play Neighbors will be featured along with Mark Borkowski’s one-act Within the Skins of Saints at the Walking Fish Theatre, 2509 Frankford Ave., through June 19.
Neighbors, according to Vail, revolves around a couple with a 6-month-old baby who are having terrible, dangerous difficulties in their marriage.
“The couple’s neighbors have been watching them with binoculars for many, many months through their window blinds,” Vail explained. “Actually, this particular play began in a workshop at the Philadelphia Company some years ago. The challenge was to set your play in an ordinary place such as a living room and think of something different for the people to do.”
Vail decided his characters would play games with chairs, such as making the chairs into racing cars so they could pretend they were racing. With that as his premise, he explained that the play then developed more over the years, with readings and more productions, and eventually became much more personal.
“As I dug deeper into the storyline, I realized the play was partly about alcoholism” Vail said. “I thought at first it was about a young woman who wanted to have a baby but suddenly realized she had to take care of it while at the same time wanting to go back to her career.
“I thought about making it all about postpartum depression, but then realized how much I had her drinking throughout the play,” Vail continued. “That made me realize her drinking was a large part of the problem. I myself have never been a drinker, but I have been a facilitator, so I think I knew enough about the problem to make it real.”
While Neighbors suddenly took a turn in its storyline, Vail said that is not a surprise.
“Sometimes, many times, you have an idea in your mind and then it goes off somewhere that ends up surprising you. You’re drawing unconsciously on your own experiences, and after a while the ideas become a little more conscious as you write,” he explained. “I remember in one of my early plays I was writing about my brother’s broken marriage, and soon began to realize that the play was actually about my fear of having a broken marriage myself.”
Attending John Bartram High School, where his interest in theater first began, Vail recalled working and trying to save up enough money to go on to college.
“In my senior year in high school, in order to save up that money, I began working every afternoon at a G.E. plant. And that’s when I discovered what I didn’t want to do with my life — and that was work in a factory. Most of my fellow students were going to have to work in factories, so I knew I was going to college — no matter what.”
Realizing his dream, Vail headed off to Penn State, majoring in psychology but acquiring enough credits to take electives like acting and writing courses. Once graduated, he began to do the things he thought were what he desired most, until acting soon fell by the wayside.
Today, Vail is a member of the Philadelphia Dramatists Center’s Playwright’s Circle, where plays in progress are read aloud. He also uses reading by actors of early drafts to inform himself about how his plays are working.
His next play, Young Frederick Douglass, is part of the Juneteenth Legacy Theatre’s Juneteenth Festival of New Plays in New York. His play Peepers, which is based on Neighbors, currently is scheduled for production in late August and September by Vagabond Acting Troupe. And his play, Silent Night, is set for production at Philly’s Fringe at The Rotunda Sept. 1–7.
Vail said he’s thrilled to have Neighbors staged at The Walking Fish Theatre, admitting he’s faced certain kinds of challenges inherent to writing plays.
“You have to be more inventive when writing just one act,” Vail concluded. “The challenge is to do something right away that grabs the audience’s attention and then get them interested on an emotional level right from the beginning.”
Neighbors and Within the Skins of Saints are being presented through June 19 by B. Someday Productions and The Jeffrey James Repertory under the umbrella of “Funny Dangerous”••