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 so I still get back there once in a while. And, of course, it'll always hold a special place in my heart as the place where I grew up (and where, of course, 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 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 was 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 where the voices in my head came from. 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 judgment. But they're also noble and generous and kind. And in the end, it's not the hero Joe Goode who saves the day. 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.

Sunday, February 12, 2017

The Enchanted Bookshop to be published



People often ask me where I get my ideas. The answer is complicated. Ideas come from all sorts of places.

Sometimes they come from dreams (Wicked Is As Wicked Does). Sometimes they come from brainstorming (Rumpelstiltskin, Private Eye). And sometimes they come from old MGM cartoons.

That last one was the case with The Enchanted Bookshop, a large-cast comedy which Pioneer Drama Service just accepted for publication.

I've always loved those old cartoons that featured book characters who come alive. The relentless onslaught of literary puns was a big part of the fun.

But there was one flaw with these cartoons. They always devolved into a simplistic chase scene.

Call me weird (and you wouldn't be the first), but I wanted the characters to . I wanted them to interact in a meaningful way. I wanted them to struggle and yearn and grow.

So I came up with a story about six famous characters--Dorothy, Robin Hood, Heidi, Tom Sawyer, Pollyanna and Sherlock Holmes--who team up to defeat a band of jewel smugglers after they use the bookshop as a dropoff point.

There's just one problem. By fighting the smugglers, they risk their very existence. One glimpse from a human and--poof!--they're gone.

Like my more recent plays, this one has a message too. Reading is vital. The reason these book characters were granted life was because no one was reading their books anymore. So their struggle is less about smugglers and more about staying relevant in a culture addicted to TV and video games.

Whoa! That makes the play sound pretty heavy. Trust me, it's not. The characters have a lot of fun too, especially when they argue about their back stories:
HEIDI: Was ist los? 
ROBIN HOOD: Was ist los? This is los! I mean this is the matter! That fetid feline stole my hat! 
DOROTHY: Wait a minute. Don't you steal from the rich? 
ROBIN HOOD: What? Oh, uh, sure. But that's different. I give everything I steal to the poor. 
DOROTHY: So it's okay to steal as long as you don't keep the stuff yourself? 
ROBIN HOOD: Yes! Well, not exactly. I mean it's complicated. 
DOROTHY: Not as complicated as you make it out to be. 
TOM SAWYER: I wouldn't talk, Dorothy. Didn't you swipe the Wicked Witch's shoes? 
DOROTHY: What? No! The Good Witch gave them to me! 
TOM SAWYER: Oh. So it's okay to keep somethin' that was swiped as long as somebody else did the swipin'? 
DOROTHY: If the person is dead, it's not swiping!
The play may get a title change before it's published. It's targeted for high schools and middle schools, but Pioneer's editorial staff believes that the word "enchanted" makes it sound younger.

They have a good point, but so far we've been unable to come up with a better title. Suggestions are always welcome!

Saturday, February 11, 2017

Radio days


Warren Epstein is the guy who gave me my first big break in writing. Nine years ago, he plucked me from a handful of other applicants to be the theatre critic for the Colorado Springs Gazette. I only held that gig for a couple years, but it was a fantastic experience and it helped me get my foot in the door of the local theatre community.

Since then we've gone our separate ways. He went into PR. I went into playwriting. But we've kept in touch, and even worked together on organizing a staged reading for several local writers last year.

So it was an honor when he invited me to appear on his arts radio show today to let me say a fond farewell to the Colorado Springs theatre community (yes, I'm moving). It was the fourth time I've appeared on his show but by far the most meaningful and I had a great time discussing all things theatrical with one of the funniest, warmest guys in the Pikes Peak region.

If you'd like to listen in, click here and jump ahead to the 28:06 mark.