A Pen and a Dream
For Tufts graduate Aury Wallington—who has written episodes of acclaimed TV series 'Sex and the City' and 'Veronica Mars' as well as plays, film scripts and novels—writing is all a matter of paying attention.
Working your way up the showbiz ladder is not always a glamorous enterprise. Just ask Aury Wallington, who made the leap from producer's assistant to writer for acclaimed HBO series "Sex and the City" only after paying some highly unpleasant dues.
"One of the show's producers had this ancient golden retriever who was sort of incontinent, and my main job that first year was to follow the dog around, get on my hands and knees, and scrub the pee stains out of the rugs in the office," recalls the 1991 Tufts graduate, a member of the show's staff for its full six-season run.
Just five years later, Wallington was tapped to write a pivotal episode in the show's final season. She'd come a long way from her days of cleaning up after aging canines—and as proof, there was a director's chair with her name on it.
"The director would do a take and then turn to me and say, 'Was that OK?' I was drunk on power!" Pennsylvania-born Wallington jokes.
For Wallington, the thrill of seeing her own words translated into a performance was first realized at Tufts. "I loved the drama department. Anything you thought up, you could do," she says. "If you wrote a play, they would put it on. If you wanted to write a play, they would find someone who would help you write it. If you wanted to direct something, they would find you a stage and they'd find you a budget. I just thought it was the best."
Wallington wrote the last play directed by Sherwood "Doc" Collins, a beloved Tufts drama department professor for 33 years and the head of the department for more than 10, who passed away in 2003.
"It was called 'Billy and Zelda's Last-Chance Dance,' and it was a P.G. Wodehouse-ian farce about a group of friends who spend a weekend in the country," she says. "For the head of the department to want to direct it himself… It was the biggest confidence boost. And it was a big success, which was so much fun."
So much fun, in fact, that Wallington eventually decided to make playwriting her career. After graduating from Tufts and spending several years teaching in Houston through the recruitment program Teach for America, she landed in New Orleans, where she wrote plays on the side while tending bar to pay the bills.
"If you want to be a writer, everything's material," she says. "People are always saying, 'You must have this crazy life, because everything funny happens.' But it's not that; it's just paying attention and looking at something that could normally be so frustrating or so boring, and trying to find the humor in it or the story in it."
Wallington's own story took a sudden twist in 1994. Her best friend from Tufts, who was actor John Leguizamo's roommate in Los Angeles, came to visit her in New Orleans. While Wallington's friend was staying with her, Leguizamo called him, mentioning that he needed a new assistant.
"My friend handed me the phone," Wallington recounts. "John said, 'Oh! Do you want to be my assistant?' It was 10 at night, and at eight the next morning, I was on a plane to L.A. I left my friend to pack up my apartment and drive my car over to L.A. with all my stuff in it. It was," she deadpans, "kind of spur-of-the-moment."
During her two years working with Leguizamo, Wallington helped him write his Tony Award-nominated one-man Broadway show, "Freak." After that project ended, she opted for a change of scenery.
"I moved down to Mexico to follow the bullfighting circuit around," she laughs. "I was a bullfighting groupie for 'El Nino Oro de Guanajuato'—the Golden Son of Guanajuato, this little mountain town that had a bullfighter." The resulting movie script made the Sundance Writers' Lab finals. "It was a very purple piece about a crippled bullfighter—I was reading a lot of Hemingway!—whose affair with an aging tourist destroys them both," Wallington describes.
From left, "Sex and the City" actresses Cynthia Nixon, Sarah Jessica Parker, Kristin Davis, Kim Cattrall.
She then moved to New York City, where she got a job as assistant to Jane Raab, a producer on a show called "Sex and the City" that was then in its planning stages. After a year working with Raab, Wallington was promoted to script coordinator. She made it her mission to become one of the pantheon of "Sex and the City" writers.
But it wasn't easy, since the show had a policy against promoting assistants to become writers. Undeterred, Wallington impressed the show's writers by winning a 1999 MTV fiction contest—and also by shaping the writing style of the show's central character, a sex columnist.
"Any time there was written stuff—if Carrie Bradshaw [played by Sarah Jessica Parker] wrote a Vogue column, or there was a review of her book in the Times—I would write it," Wallington says. "Usually, they're just props; they're just gibberish. But if I'd hear, 'Carrie writes a column on how men are the new black,' I'd go, 'Oh, OK,' and I would work on writing the most funny, charming 500 words."
Wallington's efforts paid off. "The producers noticed that the props were actually these really funny, witty little articles," she says. "They saw that I worked nonstop and that I was trying as hard as I could to write, and then, in the final season, they gave me an episode."
Wallington still gets excited when she recalls her experience as a writer for the show.
"The best part was the table read, which is when you gather all the actors, writers and producers around the table, and the actors read the script out loud," she says. "The table read is the place where you can hear, is it getting laughs? Do the actors like it? Does it seem doable? So at the table read, I was so nervous, you have no idea. But then," she recalls proudly, "everyone was laughing."
Wallington says her "Sex and the City" triumph "opened a million doors," including writing for the first season of UPN's critically acclaimed detective drama "Veronica Mars."
But Wallington says she feels more comfortable in the comedy realm, where her current TV project – "Courting Alex," set to debut on CBS this month – resides. She describes the show as "sort of Bridget Jones-y, so it's getting back to the single, thirty-something woman living in Manhattan, dealing with dating and friends." She also writes the novelizations of FOX's hit show "The O.C.," which stars Tufts graduate Peter Gallagher.
Wallington has also been busy with some original projects. Beside writing feature movie scripts on the side, her debut novel, "Pop!" will be released this year by Razorbill Books, Penguin Books' young adult imprint. "With TV writing, you're writing other people's characters," she explains. "This is the first thing I've written in a while that's completely my own invention."
Writing a novel, Wallington adds, requires "a thousand times" more self-discipline than writing for television. "In TV writing, you're in a room with people, you have strict deadlines, they require you to write fast, and it's a collaborative effort," she says. "Plus, you finish it, you turn it in, and then two months later, you watch it on TV. With novels, there isn't that instant reward."
Speaking of reward, Wallington didn't abandon her initial dream of being a playwright— she achieved it. In 2003, she wrote "Virgin at the Vieux Carre," a one-woman play that had a sold-out off-Broadway run and was directed by a friend of hers from Tufts, 1991 graduate Pat Diamond.
Ultimately, Wallington is just grateful to be making her living doing the thing she loves the most: writing.
"I came close a million times. I'd hear, 'Wow, you were one of the top three people for this writing job. We're giving it to someone else, but you were so close,'" Wallington remembers. "It was encouraging enough to make me keep doing it, but it was also just so discouraging, because I thought, 'When? When is it ever going to happen?'"
She starts to laugh. "When I got my 'Sex and the City' episode, people said, 'Wow, you're an overnight success!' and I thought, 'Yeah, a 10-year, toiling-every-day overnight success!'"
Profile written by Patrice Taddonio, Class of 2006
Patrice Taddonio, a native of Holland, Pennsylvania, is an English major and a communications and media studies minor. Currently editor of The Tufts Daily, she interned with the Improper Bostonian magazine during her sophomore year and worked as a temporary text editor with the Associated Press at last July's Democratic National Convention. A member of the Class of 2006 and a songwriter, Taddonio has also performed on guitar and vocals at on-campus venues and at Boston-area benefits.
This story originally ran on Jan. 9, 2006.