As a TV writer, playwright, and producer, Zina Camblin’s transparency and willingness to take risks has helped her in her career through the years. She remembers these characteristics working in her favor when her agent wanted her to interview for Hulu’s 2019 series about the hip-hop collective Wu-Tang Clan.
She recalls thinking, “I’m not sure that I’m the best writer to interview for this job, but why not give it a shot?” because she loved hip-hop. During the Zoom call with Wu-Tang: An American Saga showrunner Alex Tse and legendary hip-hop icon (and Wu-Tang member) RZA, she didn’t pretend to be well-versed with the 12-member group’s massive catalog. She just decided to be herself. When RZA asked if she was a Wu-Tang fan, Camblin admitted she probably only knew two of their hits.
“I’m a [Tribe Called Quest] girl,” the Cincinnati native remembers saying. Instead of it turning RZA off, she says he reacted by cracking up and saying, “Oh, that’s dope!” “And then I got the job,” she adds.
Securing that gig was merely one from her 10 years of screenwriting. Notably, some of her recent TV writing credits also include Almost Family (FOX), The Right Stuff (Disney Plus), and Dear Edward (Apple TV). She was also a co-producer for the ABC crime thriller, Big Sky. But, recently, she realized her first love was being a playwright.
When the Cincinnati Shakespeare Company wanted to commission Camblin to write a modern spin on a play from the past, she accepted, even though she’d taken more than a decade long hiatus away from writing for the stage. The last play she’d written and produced was 2008’s And Her Hair Went With Her.
“I’m proud of the fact that I didn’t say no,” Camblin shares. “And that I didn’t let my fear around not having had a play produced in 15 years or me saying, ‘Oh, I’m a TV writer now, I can’t do this anymore, I don’t know how to do this anymore.’ Instead of letting my fears stop me, I said, ‘You know what? I’m gonna try. I’m gonna see where this goes.’”
When And Her Hair Went With Her made its world premiere with the New Jersey Repertoire Company, it was picked up in several theatres across the country. Variety called Camblin’s two-hander comedy set in a Black beauty salon “witty,” and “incisive and expansive.” “I wrote what I knew,” Camblin says. “I wrote about what it is to be a woman of color and our hair, and how our hair [is a] reflection of who we are.”
That 15-year-old play has opened doors and helped her agent land her plum TV writing gigs like Wu-Tang. “A lot of showrunners are open to reading plays, which is really nice for playwrights because sometimes that’s all we have as our resume is a play,” she explains.
As for agreeing to commission with CSC, she says, “It was a risk, but it was also a challenge that I wanted to undertake. I thought, ‘Well, what do I know— right now? What is in front of me that I can write about that is my own experience?’”
Camblin drew from working as a screenwriter for the premise for Wrecking Ball, a comedic stage play she says explores the personalities and power hierarchies inside a writer’s room. According to the play’s synopsis, audiences are prompted “to question the industry’s values, the creative process, and the sacrifices writers make for their art.”
“It’s the inside look at what goes on at this particular writer’s room with this group of six writers who’ve been tasked by the network with doing a TV adaptation of the play The Hot L Baltimore by Lanford Wilson,” Camblin explains.
The actual Hot L Baltimore television adaptation was a 1975 Norman Lear sitcom centered around a historic hotel facing demolition.
“[For Wrecking Ball], you have these writers who are coming from all different backgrounds who are put in a room together, who have to get along and create something for eight hours a day, five days a week,” Camblin says. “And it’s literally just a microcosm of our society, because we’re just all these different archetypes or character types being represented and having to navigate differences.”
In general, Camblin describes her writer’s voice as dark comedy that is not only funny, but “makes you think.”
“I like to have a lot of laughs, and then ‘shit just got real’ moments in my plays,” Camblin says. “But I like to approach it with comedy first, and then suddenly, the bottom kind of drops out. I’ve noticed that that’s kind of my thing.”
The writing bug bit Camblin early. While attending the School for Creative and Performing Arts, she remembers being an only child that wrote skits for her and her friends to entertain her parents and their dinner guests. Even back then, she always saw working in a theatre-related medium in her future. Professionally, she’s either been part of local and national repertoire companies as an actor, or crossed to the other side as a screenwriter, entertainment educator and a playwright. The real reason?
“Honestly, I wasn’t good at anything else,” Camblin admits. “I was terrible at math. I don’t know what other occupation I could’ve tried, except teaching what I do…. it’s how my mind was built.”
Producing And Her Hair… was when she realized she preferred being a playwright over acting. But during that time, she wasn’t working in Cincinnati. Part of why Camblin was excited to accept Wrecking Ball was that it also gave her a rare opportunity to reunite and create with CSC favorites Dale Hodges, Burgess Byrd and Darnell Pierre Benjamin, whose characters she developed based on their strengths as actors.
“I think that rarely in our lives do we get into a work situation where we get to create something with people we admire and are truly our friends, and that we have seen their work and that we admire their work,” she says. “And we get to all play in the sandbox together. I don’t think that happens very often. And who knows, this might be the only time it happens for me.”
Concurrent with producing nightly shows of Wrecking Ball, Camblin is also in the midst of rehearsals for her next production, Fiona: The Musical, scored by David Kisor. As a self-described music theatre nerd who’s loved Broadway show tunes since her SCPA days, it was a life-long dream to write a musical. “It was on my bucket list,” Camblin gushes.
The production is an adaptation of her children’s book about the Cincinnati Zoo’s treasured “little hippo that could” and her gutsy journey since being born two months prematurely.
Next year, Camblin hopes to either get a series she developed picked up or be on the writer’s team of an existing one (like ABC’s Abbott Elementary). Ultimately though, she wants to see her babies Wrecking Ball and Fiona out on the road.
“I love that these plays are starting in Cincinnati,” she says. “But, of course, I want them to tour to different theaters. I’d like them to tour around the United States to go to different theaters so more audiences can see them.”
Wrecking Ball runs through October 28 at the Cincinnati Shakespeare Company. For more information, visit cincyshakes.org.
Fiona: The Musical opens November 29 and runs through December 29 at the Ensemble Theatre Cincinnati. For tickets and showtimes, visit ensemblecincinnati.org.