Zealey Bess, is an award-winning filmmaker and theatre director with a résumé that features work with the legendary Sidney Lumet, John Leguizamo, Kevin Smith, Matt LeBlanc, Frank Whaley, Bruce Beresford and many others. Her work has crossed boundaries and platforms for many years as an independent director and producer in film and theatre.
She has been directing theatre and film, specializing in new work since she arrived on these shores and established her company, Weird Sisters, as a theatrical entity in 1997. Under the auspices of her company she has developed numerous projects in collaboration with many writers both established and newly emerging on the New York scene. She subsequently directed and produced her debut film, the award-winning baseball trilogy: Play Ball! (Fanfare for A Common Man, Random Acts of Intimacy, Caught in Time) that screened throughout the globe including the Berlin Film Festival, Cannes Director Fortnight, and at over 40 USA festivals including New York, Newport, Seattle and Savannah. In addition to garnering Best Film at seven USA festivals, she was awarded 1st Prize for Best Short Film by woman director at the LA Women In Film Competition.
As a long-standing member of the Ensemble Studio Theatre based in New York, one of the leading developmental theatres of new plays in the USA, she has directed and produced numerous new works. NY Theatres where she has worked include The Foundry Theatre, Ohio Theatre, Soho Repertory Theatre, Abingdon Theatre, Cherry Lane Theatre, Playwrights Horizons, Here, Cort Theatre Broadway, and internationally the Edinburgh Festival, the Young Vic, the Strand Theatre, London. She directed the award-winning NY Fringe Winner
The Radicalization of Rolfe by Andy Burgh at the Players Theatre and the Soho Playhouse 2016, and most recently Paper Doll by Susan Eve Haar which was very well received at the Edinburgh Fringe 2017.
She continues to head Weird Sisters developing feature film projects and theatrical ventures in NY, Regionally and in Europe devoted to the promotion of prolific women artists and writers giving voice to new and thought provoking work.
Film Projects recently on the film festival circuit include the award-winning Mary and Louise, (Awards: Best Short film screenplay LA FF, Accolade Award Competition Special Merit, Best Composer Score, Brit Penrod Best Trailer, WIF Finalist), that pays tribute to Mary Pickford and Louise Brooks. Icarus Stops For Breakfast (Jerome Grant Finalist), a magical love story is due for release in the Fall 2018.
Full Length Features currently in development include Walking Shadows, the story of two unlikely Vets finding friendship and rebuilding their lives in the aftermath of Vietnam by Chris Ceraso and The Beacon, a psychological thriller by Bryant Martin.
She is a member of Ensemble Studio Theatre, SDC, Actors Studio PDU, NYWIFT, LPTW and Board Member of Dell Arte Opera.
She is on the Faculty for the Graduate Film Program at Tisch School of the Arts, New York University, New York Conservatory of Dramatic Art and is represented by Linda Weaver at Access Talent.
WATG: You are the fearless director! Hooray! So how did you get involved with WATG and this play?
Abigail: I met Mandi Riggi, our playwright, at The Actor’s Studio at the Playwright/Director Unit and we really liked each other’s work. I found her plays really provocative, interesting and on that edge of danger. So, we wanted to find a play of hers to work on together. When I got back from Edinburgh last year she had just written “Leviticus” for WATG and asked if I’d be interested in directing a stage reading. So, we all met for the first time in East Hampton and it seemed to be a match made in heaven. Immediately we seemed to get each other. The play has actually been developed over the last year up to us doing it here, which has also been a great experience because it’s enabled us to get to know each other and each other’s work. So, that was the beginning of the journey and when Sawyer asked if I wanted to go back to Edinburgh with this play it seemed like a no brainer.
WATG: You’re from the UK originally – London in fact. So you must feel right at home here in Scotland, yeah?
Abigail: Yes - My whole family are descendants of Scots, Italians and Irish so it feels very natural to be here. I mean this festival is a very crazy and insane headspace to be in, but we as artists are used to that aren’t we?
WATG: You have wonderful taste in finding the most interested jewelry and antiques. Real diamonds in the rough. How did this love for old things come to be and how do you think affects you as an artist?
Abigail: I think there’s been an aesthetic that has always appealed to me of clean lines and minimalism, but then I love things that look as if they have experienced a life. So, I suppose, when you are interested in those kinds of things they find their way to you, not the other way around. That has always been my attraction to the universe.
WATG: You’re also a yoga addict, we hear. What do you like about yoga and how did you get started practicing?
Abigail: Oh yes, I love yoga, because it’s a very wonderful way to exercise your body and mind. It also centers you, especially when things are feeling out of control. It’s a good way to let all of that go and really center on what is important and what can help other people. These are all things you need when working in this profession, which can sometimes feel very out of balance. And there is something very euphoric about it when you are in that space and connected with your breath.
WATG: Let’s talk about your background. You haven’t always been a director. You started out as an actor and opera singer. Where did you study and how did you make this transition?
Abigail: Yes, I was trained in both theatre and opera in London actually. I had this amazing coach in opera, Eileen Dixon, and I was really very fortunate to have some incredible mentors while I was there as well as attend some great programs at Drama School. But the thing is, which is really interesting I guess, which brought me to directing, I came to America to do what I thought was just a year at the Lee Strasberg school, because I was very interested in the Method. And my Mum said that was the biggest con job I ever pulled because I never came back. And then of course I started working at Ensemble Studio Theatre where I met my husband Denny and met so many wonderful people that I now work with so America became my home.
WATG: This play “Leviticus” has a lot of moving piece, complicated characters, important comedic timing and dramatic moments. How did you approach this play as a director to make sure all these beats landed?
Abigail: Whenever you work on a piece like this, because it’s a very heightened black comedy, which has not just heightened language but is also stylistic in its own way, it’s very important to play the truth. So, you’re not deliberately going for the laughs even though the tragedy of it is entirely comedic, because we as human beings tends to do that to ourselves. It’s breaking down what the relationships of these characters are to each other and also the arc of the story. And the most important thing is you tell the story. So, I think my process is always about breaking down the play into sections and then building the layers. So it’s skeletal at first, but then building on top of that and this makes it a very rich play. And because of the nature of the play it’s important that it’s paced so that you don’t lose the momentum or intention. What's most important is to trust the material.
WATG: What has been your favorite part of the process of directing this play? Any highlights you care to share?
Abigail: Well, I love rehearsal. It’s always great to dig into who and what these characters are, where they come from, why they are in the same room together. I love being in rehearsal, but then I love seeing the result of that and watching the actors fly and leave the nest. That’s always a huge joy.
WATG: What’s next for you after “Leviticus”? Staying in London to back to NY?
Abigail: I’m going to be directing a very funny musical in the New York Fringe called “The F#@%ing Wright Brothers” by David Zellnik. It’s very different from this play - a musical comedy, but also still has a lot of heart and tension between the characters. It’s going to be a blast.
Where can people keep up with your latest news online?
Facebook – Abigail Zealey Bess
Instagram and Twitter - @azbess
Come see “Leviticus” in the Edinburgh Fringe Festival from Aug 3-27 at 12pm (except for Tuesdays). Buy tickets here: https://tickets.edfringe.com/whats-on/leviticus
Keep up with Where Are They Going Theatre Company on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook @watgnyc