Wednesday, September 21, 2016

The Stinky Feet Gang to be published

I love writing westerns. My second play, a one-act comedy titled Long Tall Lester, came out in 2012 and it's been doing very well, getting about 15 productions a year. In it, a mild-mannered encyclopedia salesman defeats an evil gunslinger using brains instead of brawn.

For a long time, I've wanted to follow that up with a full-length western, only this time I wanted to do one without guns. As any writer knows, a gun can make any dramatic situation more... well, dramatic. But it can also be a crutch, short-circuiting the tension that should arise from the characters themselves.

Plus, I wanted this play to be producible by everyone from grade school to high school. And in my opinion, prop guns just aren't appropriate for those younger folk.

I racked my brain for months, striving to come up with a weapon that would be deadly but also kid-friendly.

And then it hit me: smelly feet. Funny, no? And, if you spend any time at my house, you know they can be just as deadly as any chambered weapon.

The play came together pretty quickly after that. I created Malodorous Mel and the Stinky Feet Gang. I created Rose Peddles and the other flower-named shopkeepers of Garden City. Then I set them against each other, and pretty soon they were running away with the story, battling each other with lemon juice and clothespins and, in the end, a pretty nasty concoction (suggested only--don't worry, your theatre won't smell like a locker room!).

The play has, I think, some very funny scenes. But it's not just about the gags. Lately, I've also been trying to sneak a small lesson into each of my plays, and the lesson here is about teamwork and persistence (with a little bit of hygiene thrown in).

As Rose explains, everyone in Garden City wants to get rid of the shopkeepers. First it was the cowboys. Then it was the sheriff. Now it's the outlaws. But by working together and standing up for what they believe it, the seven feisty women (echoes of the Magnificent Seven!) prove their worth.

So I was thrilled when Pioneer Drama Service told me yesterday that they were going to publish it: my ninth play with them.

The play should come out around December. Until then, I'll give you a taste (or should I say whiff?) of my favorite scene, in which Malodorous Mel explains to his underlings why they're the most feared gang in the territory:
MALODOROUS MEL: Now the Bad Breath Gang, they didn't have commitment. Sure, they refused to brush their teeth. But when push came to shove, they weren't above having an occasional breath mint. 
NOXIOUS NICK: Shameful! 
MALODOROUS MEL: And the Awful Armpit Gang. They didn't have commitment either. Not only did they take a bath every month, but I once caught them using deodorant! 
RANCID RON: Horrors! 
MALODOROUS MEL: And that's why we never take our boots off. Taking our boots off would let our feet breathe, and we don't want them to breathe. We want them to molder and fester and rot until they make everyone in the immediate vicinity sick!
I can't wait to see the cover art for this one.

Friday, September 9, 2016

Trouble in Paradise Junction to be published

So Pioneer Drama Service just informed me that they're going to be publishing my large-cast comedy, Trouble in Paradise Junction. I'm excited because this one really means a lot to me. Okay, they all mean a lot to me, but this one really really does. For a couple of reasons.

First, it's the play I've struggled with the most. I started it three years ago and I think I abandoned it and picked it up again four or five times. I didn't know where to go with the story. I sweated over the dialogue. I couldn't figure out how to make one of the special effects work. There were times when I thought the play would never see the light of day.

And then, earlier this year, everything fell together and I knocked out the second act in two months. It felt good. No, it felt great.

But there's another, more important reason the play means a lot to me. It's more serious, more heartfelt than anything I've ever written. Don't worry. It's still a comedy, and I think one of my funniest ones. But I layered the laughs with romance and drama and even a bit of poetry in the language.

It's basically my love letter to small town life. I know, it's the cool thing to dump on small towns, to make fun of the small-mindedness and provincialism of the people who live there. But I've always loved small towns. I grew up in a small town. And the people I knew there were some of the kindest, most sincere, most real people I've ever met.

I wanted to write a play presenting that other, rarely seen side. So I created the world's most perfect town, Paradise Junction. It's located in the Ozarks, but really, it could be anywhere.

What's the worst thing that could happen to a town like this? In my mind, just one thing: reality TV, and the temptations that come with it. Oh, the good townsfolk think they'll be able to resist those temptations, and for a while they do. But soon the cracks appear. Secrets are revealed, old feuds are rekindled and the town's annual pie-baking contest turns into a massive food fight.

I think I struggled with it so long because I really wanted it to be like a Frank Capra movie. You know, the Golden Age director who made inspirational, heartwarming films about homespun heroes like Jefferson Smith in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington or George Bailey in It's a Wonderful Life.

No, I don't pretend to be anywhere as good as Mr. Capra. But I find a lot to emulate in the poetry of his dialogue and the quiet strength of his characters. And Joe Goode, the 14-time pie baking champion at the center of Trouble in Paradise Junction, is one of those characters.

Look for the play to be published around December. And sign up for my newsletter at right if you want to be among the first to find out when it's released (no pressure).

Until then, I'll leave you with Joe's opening monologue:
Welcome to Paradise Junction, the best little town in the world. We've got a saying around here. If things seem too good to be true, then you must be in Paradise Junction. Oh, it's not perfect. Not by any means. It just seems that things work out a little bit better here. It's the kind of place where the weather is always fine. It's the kind of place where every thumb is green. It's the kind of place where everybody's willing to lend a hand, even if they each got their own way of doing it...

Thursday, August 25, 2016

Five synopses

As mentioned earlier, I'll be collaborating with the talented director and students at Palmer Ridge High School on a new play this year. We still haven't settled on a play, so a couple weeks ago, I sent theatre director Josh Belk five ideas and asked him which ones he liked.

And here they are. Which play would you most like to see?

Lights... Camera... Murder!

Mystery comedy
Unit set: Hollywood sound stage

In the 1940's, a struggling studio pins its hopes on a swashbuckling movie starring their washed-up, womanizing star Allan Drummond. But when he remains sprawled on the floor after filming the climactic swordfight, a horrible realization sets in: Drummond has been murdered. Now it's up to Sherlock Holmes (or at least an actor from the next sound stage playing him) to figure out who put the fatal poison on the sword.

Zombie High

Multiple sets: Various high school locations.

When a batch of cafeteria food is zapped by a defective microwave, the "cool girls" at George Romero High start to turn into zombies--only nobody can tell the difference. Nobody but brainy science nerd Maggie, that is. Can Maggie convince the administration to take action before the entire student body is turned into shuffling, brain-craving monsters?

Pirates of the Caribbean Grill

Multiple sets: Various city locations.

A band of actors at a Pirate-themed restaurant get fired after taking their jobs a little too seriously (they think they're really pirates). Now they're on a quest to follow a "treasure map" they found scribbled on one of the restaurant's napkins.

Where There's a Will, There's a Way Dark Comedy
Unit set: Drawing room

After a rich old lady leaves her entire fortune to her cat, her disappointed relatives have their own ideas how to wrest the wealth from the pampered feline. Meanwhile, the cat knows exactly what's going on and desperately tries to get help from the clueless butler assigned to care for her.

Don't Say Macbeth! Mystery comedy
Unit set: Theatre stage

An inexperienced theatre director sets off a string of disastrous mishaps at a rehearsal for Macbeth after saying the play's title. But it soon becomes apparent that the trouble isn't all due to bad luck. Who could possibly want the production stopped--and why?

Josh ran these ideas past his theatre students and the ones they like the most are Zombie HighPirates of the Caribbean Grill and Where There's a Will, There's a Way. He personally was leaning toward the last one, but his kids were hoping for the zombie one.

Next step? I'll develop a one-page outline for each of these three plays to see which one clicks. I've often fallen in love with a premise, only to have the whole thing fall apart when I try to work out the details. (Believe me, I have files upon files of plots that will never be written.)

Meanwhile, I'm trying finish the bookstore comedy I'm working on and pursuing a second collaboration with a local church.

It's crazy, but I'm loving it.

Tuesday, July 5, 2016

Rumpelstiltskin on Parade

On the Fourth of July, while I was watching the always amazing parade in Monument, Colorado (at 90 minutes, it's so long it deserves its own time zone), it turned out I was part of another parade 700 miles away. The Waxahachie Community Theatre of Waxahachie, TX put together a float promoting their upcoming production of Rumpelstiltskin, Private Eye and filled it with happy, smiling actors.

Nice job on the float, everybody! And a great idea too. After all, what's more American than a team of talented kids putting on a show?

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Embrace rejection

When I speak to students, one of the main points I try to make is not to fear rejection, but to embrace it.

That may sound like a strange, even horribly wrong, philosophy. After all, our competitive society teaches us that failure is bad. Success should be our one and only goal.

But if you want to be successful in writing, acting or any field, it's important not just to seek success but to seek rejection.

Why? Because it means you're trying.

When I first starting writing--I was writing short stories and middle-grade novels then--I was afraid of rejection. So I didn't submit. I kept my stories to myself. Unmailed. Unrejected. Unread.

That was a eight-lane freeway to nowhere. I didn't start to succeed until I adopted the opposite philosophy. Instead of fearing rejection, I decided to pursue it.

It was all because of an article I'd read. I don't know where I saw the article or even who had written it. But it opened my eyes to a new, life-affirming philosophy. And it goes like this.

Each of us has a certain number of rejections to get through before we see our first success. We don't know what that number is, but it's a fixed number, and once we reach it, the world will open up to us and acceptances will start pouring in.

This may seem like a small philosophical change, but it's actually huge. And that's because it does a 180 on your behavior. Instead of avoiding rejection, you seek it out. Instead of refraining from submitting, you submit like crazy.

Once I adopted this philosophy, I started submitting dozens of times a month. And shortly after, I started receiving rejections dozens of times a month (when I received a response at all). But I started getting something else too. I started getting nibbles.

A publisher would reject my manuscript but invite me to send more. Or they would reject my manuscript and tell me how to improve. Or they would reject my manuscript but tell me I had come this close to receiving a publishing contract.

No, not acceptances. Not yet. But close enough to acceptances that it convinced me I was on the right track.

My number turned out to be 220 or so (I wasn't obsessive enough to calculate that number exactly). I received my first publishing contract. And after that, as I had hoped, the acceptances started coming in a steay  (this was after I had switched to writing plays).

I still get rejections. In fact, I get more rejections than acceptances. But I get more acceptances than I used to. And I wouldn't be having any success at all unless had I first learned not to fear rejection, but to embrace it.

Here's a similar take from Kim Liao, a short story writer who has aimed for 100 rejections a year for each of the last few years. That's not as easy as it sounds, and she hasn't made it yet. But she's on the right track. And I have no doubt that, with her passionate embrace of rejection in all its many forms, she'll eventually achieve the success she currently only dreams of.

Don't fear rejection. Embrace it.

Tuesday, June 7, 2016

Butler in Oman

I was excited to see photos from last week's production of The Butler Did It! by the Aspirations Players in Muscat, Oman--the 9th country my plays have appeared in. It was, in fact, the first production this group has ever done, and I feel honored that they decided to perform one of my shows.

Great job, all! I hope you have a long, successful future!

Monday, June 6, 2016

RIP Peter Shaffer

The man who was our greatest living playwright died today. Sir Peter Shaffer passed away peacefully at a hospice on County Cork, Ireland.

I had the great good fortune of meeting Sir Peter in 2007 when he came to Colorado Springs for the new-defunct Colorado Festival of World Theatre. The festival was featuring his rarely performed one-act farce Black Comedy and, as part of the festivities, he agreed to give a brief talk for a small group of devoted theatregoers.

The talk was, as expected, smart, funny, and insightful, and afterwards, I gathered my courage to say hello. He was unfailingly gracious, speaking to me for several glorious, uninterrupted minutes until his handler whisked him away. I wish I remembered everything we talked about, but what stood out to me most was that, even at the age of 81, he was still very much plugged into the world of contemporary theatre. When I asked him which emerging playwrights he was most excited about, he rattled off four or five names with barely a pause.

Sir Peter was a brilliant writer, one who excelled in both comedy and drama. Equus may be the greatest psychological drama in the English language, and Amadeus (for which he won the Academy Award) is one of the greatest films ever made.

Less well known is the aforementioned Black Comedy. I don't know if it's the funniest play ever written, but it's the funniest play I've ever seen (take that, Noises Off). In fact, it's the play that has most influenced me in my own writing. Black Comedy was the first true farce I'd ever seen and the intense, almost balletic, physicality of the piece is what opened my eyes to the possibilities of physical humor in the theatre.

Thank you, Peter. You lived on this earth for 90 years, but your works will live forever.