Saturday, April 22, 2017

Raising a stink


One of the worst thing about moving to Phoenix is missing out on all the great Colorado productions of my plays. One of the best things about moving to Phoenix is getting to see great Arizona productions of my plays.

I did a little bit of both yesterday as The Stinky Feet Gang had a dual world premiere: one at an elementary school in Fowler, CO and, just a few hours later, one at a Christian middle school in Glendale, AZ.

I got to see the one in Glendale. From where I live in Mesa, it took about 50 minutes to get to the school, and that's without much traffic. (Did I mention how big Phoenix is? For that entire drive, I was on the metro freeway system, going 65 miles an hour, and I still had about half an hour to go before I would see open desert.)

Director Jennifer Pellish warmly greeted me on my arrival (as did the school principal). She apologized for changing the gender of some of the roles. The Stinky Feet Gang is heavily male but, in a twist that runs contrary to everything I know about theatre, she had more boys than girls try out and had to change a couple of shopkeeper roles from female to male.

I told her not to worry. I understand the casting constraints schools (or community theaters, for that matter) are under so changing the gender of roles is fine with me. And you don't have to ask my permission.

I do get a little uneasy if a director adds characters or changes the dialogue in a substantial way. In those cases, it's best if you email me (see the link to the right).

Jennifer went on to say that it was one of the easiest plays she had ever produced, which was a great relief to me. I didn't get a chance to develop this play with a school and while I tried to keep it simple, you never know what challenges will pop up when somebody actually puts the play on its feet.

Anyway, the students did a fantastic job. They got a ton of laughs from the audience, and the parents told me they really enjoyed it.

It's always great to see a new play get up on its feet. Even if those feet reek to high heaven.

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

On character arc and Listerine



On opening night for The Purrfect Crime, I ran into a couple old theatre friends. Let's call them Bette and Joan.

We had worked together on several of my plays and I was honored that they'd come out to see this one, my last one to premiere in Colorado Springs.

Afterwards, we joined my wife for a couple beers at one of our favorite old haunts, Old Chicago. It was fun, but it was also bittersweet, because I was back in the Springs for just three days and I had no idea when, or even if, I'd ever see them again,.

But we didn't talk about that. We talked about the state of theatre in town. We talked about all the great old times we had had. We even swapped stories about the famous theatre types we'd met (the winner: Joan's story about being reduced to tears when introduced to the great Stephen Sondheim).

And then, under the tongue-loosening effects of the laughter (or maybe it was the beer), Joan looked me in the eye and told me I was a good playwright, but I wouldn't be really good until I gave my characters more depth.

She almost immediately apologized, saying she hoped she hadn't offended me. I assured her she hadn't. In fact, I thanked her. It's all too rare, I told her, to get such an honest opinion from people.

And I meant it. But it got me thinking. What she was talking about was character arc, the transformation that a character goes through as they react to the obstacles in their lives and strive to achieve their goals.

Both Bette and Joan come from acting backgrounds. And as actors, they want to feel that each of the characters they play has an arc. They feel that every character grows in some way, and it's the actor's job to make that growth visible, compelling and real.

Of course it's not true. As a playwright, I know that each story is the hero's story. Nearly all of my effort in crafting a story goes toward building the hero's arc.

Oh, sure. Some of the other characters--the antagonist certainly, maybe even a sidekick or two--may get an arc. And each of the characters is important. I don't out a character in a play unless that character serves the story in some vital way. But that doesn't mean the character has an arc.

But I get where Joan is coming from. We are each the hero of our own story, and when an actor is cast in a particular role, they want to feel as if their character has a life beyond the edges of the stage, a life that transforms in some meaningful way. It's that transformation that makes the character interesting to them.

And if an actor can find and portray an arc in a small role, I say more power to them.

Besides, this was kind of line with what my favorite readers Jeff and Debby told me. After watching The Purrfect Crime, they felt there was no one to root for.

It was a good point, and I tried to think of ways to make the entire bickering family more likable.

And then I had a revelation. No one wants to root for secondary characters. They're there to root for the main character, to hope that the hero achieves her deepest goals. And the hero in The Purrfect Crime was Cecilia, the eldest daughter and hard-driving businessman. She was the one I had to make more likable.

I looked over her entire arc in the story and I realized that, while she does transform, that transformation comes too late in the story. Only at the end does she warm to Wiggles, the cat who inherited the 36 million dollar fortune. I needed to find a place to have her show the first signs of softening.

I found the place. It came at the end of the first scene in the the second act. There was only one problem. I really liked the way the scene ended. It ended with a gag that I knew, from the three-day run of the show, always got a laugh.

But of course, it's not about the laughter. Even in a comedy, your most important goal as a playwright is to serve the story. To make the conflict compelling. To make the characters authentic.

To show the characters transform.

So I revised the ending of that scene. Here's the original version. It happens immediately after Cecilia kicks the fake pet psychics out of the house for attempting, she believes, to poison Wiggles.
(DIGBY grabs MADAME ZAMBONI and BUBBLES and starts to drag them off.)

BUBBLES: You'll be sorry!

MADAME ZAMBONI: Yes! Don't come running to us eef Weegles never speaks to you again!

(DIGBY EXITS RIGHT with MADAME ZAMBONI and BUBBLES.)

CECILIA: (To WIGGLES.) You owe me big time, Tuna Breath.

(CECILIA EXITS RIGHT with the bowl of cat food.)

WIGGLES: Is it that noticeable? (Breathes into her paw.) Oh, man! I've got to start using Listerine!

(LIGHTS OUT).
This is what I changed it to:
(DIGBY grabs MADAME ZAMBONI and BUBBLES and starts to drag them off.)

BUBBLES: You'll be sorry!

MADAME ZAMBONI: Yes! Don't be surprised eef Weegles never speaks to you again!

(DIGBY EXITS RIGHT with MADAME ZAMBONI and BUBBLES. As soon as they're out of sight, CECILIA throws her arms around WIGGLES.)

CECILIA: Oh, Wiggles! I can't believe we almost lost you! I don't think I could live with myself if I ever let that happen! (CECILIA and WIGGLES look at each other. Embarrassed, they quickly break apart.) Now go run and play. Or something.

(CECILIA EXITS RIGHT with the bowl of cat food. WIGGLES does a celebratory dance.)

WIGGLES. She likes me! She likes me! She really, really-- (Stops dancing.) Wait. Of course she likes me. I'm a cat. What's not to like?

(LIGHTS OUT.)
Is the second version as funny? Probably not. Does it make Cecilia more likable? I hope so. Does it serve the story better? Definitely.

William Faulkner told us that, as writers, we need to kill our darlings. He never mentioned it would feel so good when you do it.

Thursday, April 13, 2017

Badger meatballs


It's been 31 years since I moved away from Wisconsin. But much of my family still lives there and I try to get back there at least once in a year.

It's the place where I was born. The place where I went to college. The place where I met my wife. It's also the place where I first fell in love with theatre.

So it means a lot to me when I see my plays being done there. That was the case this week when I came across this video of Million Dollar Meatballs from the Prairie Farm Playhouse in beautiful Prairie Farm, WI.

I like how they made the most of their limited space by splitting the set into two playing areas, one on the stage and one in front of the stage. And I love the spirited silverware duel toward the end of Act II.

Great job, gang. And go Badgers!

Sunday, April 2, 2017

Trouble in Paradise Junction gets real


I rarely get to see the world premieres of my plays. So usually the first time they seem real to me is when I see the first production photos.

Before that, the play is just words on a page. But once photos becomes available, the play has real live actors and costumes and a set--none of which ever looks anything like what I pictured when I was writing the script.

And that's the way it should be. Theatre is a collaborative art. Once you send your baby out into the world--well, it's not a baby anymore. It's all grown up, with a life of its own, and it needs the contributions of others to give it that life. All you can do is hope it does well, and maybe calls you on Father's Day.

That's the experience I had this week when I saw the first productions photos from my play, Trouble in Paradise Junction. It's about a small town where everything is perfect--until a TV network offers the townsfolk five million dollars to film a reality show there.


The play was published at the end of December, and the world premiere happened in March at a school in Ashcroft, British Columbia. I haven't seen any photos from that production yet, but the second production was done a couple weeks later by a community theatre in Buchanan, Saskatchewan (did I mention how much I love Canada?) and that production was written up in the local newspaper, the The Canora Courier.

I set the play in the Ozarks, because that's how the voices in my head sounded. But it was based on Beaver Dam, the small town in Wisconsin where I grew up.

In the play, I poke some gentle fun at the townsfolk. Like the people in my hometown, the citizens of Paradise Junction can be opinionated and obstinate and quick to judge others. But they're also noble and kind and very, very generous. And in the end, it's not the hero Joe Goode who saves the town. It's the townsfolk themselves.

I was hoping that by honoring small town life in this way, other places would see their own hometown in the houses, streets and overgrown gardens of Paradise Junction. So I was more than thrilled when I read director Steve Merriam's words in the Courier article: "I was delighted to discover this light-hearted comedy that has many connections to our own lives in rural Saskatechewan."

It seems that other people may agree with Steve, as Trouble in Paradise Junction is one of my fastest-starting plays to date, booking 13 productions in the first 13 weeks it's been available: New York to California, South Dakota to Tennessee.

And no, it hasn't been done in the Ozarks yet. But I'm hoping it's just a matter of time. 🙂

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Making it purrfect


When developing a play, it's important to get feedback from many sources. Your readers. Your director. The cast and crew. And of course the audience.

Well, last week, I had the luxury of getting feedback from all four as my play The Purrfect Crime received its world premiere at Palmer Ridge High School.

On opening night, director Josh Belk confided to me that he had heard the jokes so many times in rehearsal, he didn't know if the jokes were funny anymore. Well, I'm the author and I'd reached that point four months before, after tweaking the script for what must have been the five hundredth time.

That's why the audience is so important. To them, the play is fresh every night. If they laugh, you know a joke is funny. If they don't--well, maybe it needs some work.

There was plenty of both during the three-night run of the show. I was pleased that the audience seemed to like the physical humor. The play is about a couple of criminals who pose as pet psychics to swindle the world's richest cat out of her fortune. The biggest laughs of the night came when the sassy butler, upon learning of the scheme, uses his gloves to slap the criminals--not once, not twice, but three times.

There were several jokes that didn't land, which is normal, so I'll be reworking those before I send the script to my publisher. But on opening night, my biggest concern was that the key scene, in which the criminals hold a fake reading, fell flat. Madame Zamboni, the main psychic, performed the reading as a cover so that her assistant, the slow-on-the-uptake Bubbles, could stuff the cat's priceless toys into a large sack.

With its farcical elements, this scene should have been one of the highlights of the show. But watching it on opening night, I was confused by what was going on. And I wrote the thing.

The main problem was that I didn't provide enough dialogue to make it clear to the audience what Bubbles was doing behind the rest of the cast.

Josh rode to the rescue by telling the actors playing the criminals to as lib some explanatory dialogue the next two nights. He also had the lighting crew bring up the upstage lights a little bit so that the audience could more easily see what Bubbles was doing.

It worked. On the next two nights, the scene went over much better, and I'll be revising the script to include the additional dialogue.

After the last show, I got a chance to field questions from the entire cast and crew. Meeting the talented students performing my plays is always the most rewarding part of my job, and these students asked some really great questions. It also brought home to me a great truth I've discovered about writing. If you want to find the plot holes in your script, let high schoolers read it. They'll zero in on those holes like Luke Skywalker firing at that vent on the Death Star.

The Purrfect Crime, as it turned out, has a plot hole the size of that Death Star, which I discovered when one of the crew members asked why--well, I don't want to give away the big reveal in the play, so let me just say that the motivation of the villain was lacking. I told the young man, half-jokingly, that I'd get back to him on that.  Only later did I realize that the fix was an easy one, and I'll be plugging that into the final script.

As director, Josh was more concerned about ease of production, and after the run ended he came up with a great idea, suggesting that some of the scenes be moved to the same day so that there wouldn't need to be so many costume changes.

Last but far from least was the feedback I got from my readers Jeff Schmoyer and Debby Brewer. They're longtime members of the playwriting group I started, but they've also been members of a novel writing group for many years, so they live and breathe plot, character and all those other writerly concerns. (They even run their own nano-publishing company, Jmars Ink.)

In this play, their main complaint was that there was no one to root for. It's a good point. The members of the Texas oil family who own the cat are pretty self-absorbed, which was necessary for the setup of the story.

But Jeff and Debby's advice reminded me that the characters, and especially the main character, needs to become likable at some point or the audience won't care what happens to them. Fortunately, I thought of a great way to soften Cecilia, the hard-driving businesswoman who wants the cat's fortune for herself but ends up driving the chain of actions that saves the cat from a kidnapper.

I always learn a ton when I work with students on developing my plays, and I couldn't have asked for a better cast and crew than the ones I was blessed with here.

A big thank you to everyone involved. I hope you'll see your names in the published version of the script soon!

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Bringing communities together


Leola Area Theatre of Leola, SD got a great writeup in the Aberdeen News for their production of How I Met Your Mummy. In the article, co-director Richard Jasmer talks about how they use the proceeds from the show to fund college scholarships for two local youth. They even announce the winners at the show.

But what really caught my eye was Jasmer's mention how they receive a lot of support from other communities in the area, with members of the amateur theaters in those communities going out of they way to see each other's shows.

"It's kind of neat to just go around and support each other," Jasmer says.

That's why I love community theater. It's not just a fun hobby for the actors. It's not just entertainment for the audiences. It's a way of bringing communities together.

And what could be better than that?

Monday, February 13, 2017

By the time I get to Phoenix


So I had a crazy busy day today. A crazy busy theatre day. And those are always the best.

This afternoon, I sat in on a blocking rehearsal for The Purrfect Crime at Palmer Ridge High School. Before I headed home, I messaged back and forth with a community theatre director in Kansas to make sure she could open the script for The Last Radio Show I sent her. And then, in the evening, I brought the first scene of my newest play to my playwriting group, The Drama Lab.

Did I mention it would be my last day in Colorado?

Yes, as I've been hinting in some of my posts lately, I'll be moving tomorrow to start a new job. I've been laid off from my day job for ten months (I'm an electrical engineer) and the writing isn't enough to cover my living expenses, so I'm excited to start this new chapter of my life with a great job and a great company.

Better yet, the job is in Phoenix, a city I've always loved. My wife and I lived there previously--from 1991 to 1993--and while we've also loved 23 years we've spent in Colorado Springs (especially the vibrant, supportive theatre community!), a part of me always missed the desert climate and palm trees in the Valley of the Sun.

Plus, my older daughter loves in Tucson now, so it'll be nice to see her more often, though it also means seeing my younger daughter, who's a college student in Denver, less.

Eventually, I plan to get involved with the theatre community in Phoenix, and more specifically Chandler, the suburb where we'll be living. But not yet. I've got four plays in various stages of development, and I need to clear those off my plate before I take on any new projects.

Yes, the job means I'll spend less time writing. There's no way I can maintain the 4 1/2 hours a day I was putting in when I had nothing else on my agenda but watch Kathie Lee and Hoda. But I hope to get in at least 2 hours a day, which should enable to complete about four plays a year.

I'm going to miss sitting in on rehearsals for The Purrfect Crime as the students have really started to make it their own (they're toying with the idea of replacing the cantankerous matriarch's walker with an electric wheelchair, which would provide tons of comic potential). But I got most of what I needed for tweaking the script from the table read last week. And besides, if anything comes up or any questions arise, director Josh Belk and I will be just an email link away.

It's the Drama Lab writing group that I'm going to miss the most. I started the group five years ago and I've made a lot of fantastic friends through it. But I left it in good--no, better--hands and I have every confidence in the world it will continue to thrive and grow in the future.

My baby is all grown up. And yes, my eyes are always shiny like that.