Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Hoosier meatballs

I'd like to give a big shout-out to Cloverdale Middle School of Cloverdale, IN, where Million Dollar Meatballs will be performed tomorrow night. The talented students there put together this video promoting the show, and I've got to say, I'm really loving it.

The bold graphics and retro music give it the feel of a 1960's mystery/comedy, like The Pink Panther. And check out the credit for the costume designers at the end ("the parents")!

Great job, everybody. And break legs!

Friday, December 2, 2016

The Hero's Journey in Star Wars

So I had another amazing at experience Thescon today. I had around 25 students for Five Ways to Punch Up Your Playwriting, and I got some good participation, especially with the lively discussion we had around loglines and how to make them unique.

But the response to my workshop, Plot 101: Playwriting Lessons from Star Wars, blew me away. I figured those magic words, "Star Wars," would generate a lot of interest, but I never expected over 100 students (and several teachers) to show up. Unfortunately, my room had chairs for just 30 of the students, but the other 70 students carried on bravely, putting up with the hard floor for the hour and 15 minutes of my lecture. (I'll ask for more chairs next year!)

Actually, it was less a lecture and more a free-wheeling debate. Most of the students had already been exposed to the Hero's Journey structure, and they all had very strong opinions as to what the catalyst is and why the destruction of Alderaan does not make a strong midpoint. Surprisingly, the students were just as passionate in their discussion of my alternative example of the Hero's Journey, Legally Blonde.

You know how people with a strange, terrible disease often think they're the only one in the world with that disease? And then they find an online support group and they realize there are actually hundreds of people like them? Well, that's how I felt today, only my disease is Story Structure Geekitis.

I didn't bring enough handouts for all of the students, but I promised them I would post the diagram I taught from on my website, so here is the PDF version. Or just download the JPG above. Either way, feel free to print it, email it, tattoo it on your forearm, or whatever floats your boat.

Yes, it borrows from both Joseph Campbell and Blake Snyder, but I've simplified it to include only the seven plot points most important to a well-told story (I don't want young writers to get overwhelmed by the numerous plot points in those other works). I also changed some of the terms to more accurately reflect their purpose. Most importantly, I added the corresponding plot points in Star Wars to guide them as they develop their own stories.

The class was so popular that I've decided to turn it into a two-hour workshop in which I'll work closely with each student to help them structure their story according to the Hero's Journey. Look for this class to pop in Colorado Springs, probably sometime in January.

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

See you at Thescon!

This weekend, I'll be teaching at the Colorado High School Thespian Conference for the fourth time. I always look forward to it as it's an amazingly well-run event as well as a wonderful opportunity to interact with some of our state's most creative young minds.

I'm especially excited this year because I'll be introducing a new workshop: Plot 101: Playwriting Lessons from Star Wars. In it, I'll examine how this blockbuster film followed the story milestones defined by Joseph Campbell in the Hero's Journey. I'll also work with the students to help them apply the same story milestones to their own plays.

I'm also reprising my popular workshop, Five Ways to Punch Up Your Playwriting. Here I offer five practical tips that are guaranteed to make your script stand out from the crowd (Tip #1: Give your story a hook). The workshop includes examples from published plays as well as opportunities for students to practice the tips we discuss.

Both workshops are on Friday, December 2. Five Ways to Punch Up Your Playwriting is at 12:45pm in Room 210/212. Plot 101: Playwriting Lessons from Star Wars is at 2:15pm in Room 210/212.

I would love to have you join me. Or if you just want to stop by and say hi, that's good too.

Sunday, November 20, 2016

How I met my mummy

I rarely see my own plays. This year, I expect to get around 200 productions, but I'll only see two or three of them. So when it does happen, it's special.

This week, my wife and I are visiting our daughter Ashley, who lives in Tucson, so I took a side trip to see a production of How I Met Your Mummy at the American Leadership Academy, a charter school in Queen Creek, a suburb of Phoenix. As Executive Director Bill Guttery told me, it's a hugely successful school, having expanded from just one campus and a hundred-some students in 2009 to eight campuses and thousands of students today.

The drama program is no afterthought here. The auditorium is state-of-the-art and theatre director Leslie Infalt is highly experienced, knowledgeable and fully committed to her students.

This was the first time I had seen this particular play, and after the show, one of the actors asked me if they had lived up to my expectations. I told her the truth. They had surpassed them.

The play has one of my simplest sets, but the stage crew, led by construction teacher Bill Pollard, made the most of it, employing a few elegantly designed pieces to capture the creepy atmosphere of an after-hours museum.

The cast was just as fantastic. The audience was small (the school's football team was playing that night), but the actors really put their hearts into their performances--and got a lot of well-deserved laughs along the way.

After the show, I spent some time signing autographs and talking to the students. Bill also showed me how he built the sarcophagus and the oversized lock used to fasten the sarcophagus (I wish I'd seen it before I'd written the production notes for the script!).

Visits like this always remind me what theatre is about. Sure, it's partly about the art. And it's partly about the entertainment. And it's partly about the skills that are learned as a result.

But more than anything else, theatre is about people. It's about learning to work with a team of like-minded artists to create something new--and discovering something about ourselves in the process.

I'd like to give a great big thanks to everyone at ALA. You really made me feel welcome.

And a special thanks to Assistant Director of Academics Raleigh Jones, who sent me the photos shown here plus a whole lot more. Believe me when I say I'll always treasure them.

Thursday, October 20, 2016

Free performance rights to The Last Radio Show

For the first time ever, I'm offering free performance rights to one of my full-length plays.

The play is The Last Radio Show. Set in 1948, it's about a radio station in trouble. Their broadcast tower keeps falling over. The electric company is about to shut off their power. And now they're losing actors, one by one. Can this ragtag crew keep the show going? Or will they be shut down for good?

You can read a sample by clicking here. If, after reading that, you want to read the whole thing, please email me at I'll send you a PDF of the entire script.

There's absolutely no cost and no obligation. If you decide the play is not for you, that's the end of it. But if you do decide to produce it, I'll grant you free performance rights for the whole of 2017. Perform it once, it's free. Perform it a hundred times, it's still free. All I ask is that you let me know the performance dates and location for my records.

Why am I giving it away? For one simple reason. The play got rejected by the first two publishers I sent it to and I want to get more productions for it before I submit it to a third. Any productions that you good people are able to give it will help convince the next publisher that the play has worth and that it should be made available to the public.

The Last Radio Show does have a couple challenges. It requires a lot of sound effects, both live and recorded. And one publisher thought it was a little male-heavy, with the two biggest parts being played by men.

However, the play doesn't require a lot of memorization. All of the on-air skits are read from scripts, as was done in the golden days of radio. And I just think the play is a lot of fun. I directed the world premiere in Colorado Springs this January and that production got more laughs than any of my plays.

The free script is only available through November 30, so if you're interested, please act now. Thanks!

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Catnip comedy

It's always nice to get reviewed, whether the review if good or bad. Of course, good is a whole lot better than bad.

Fortunately, Attic Productions' production of my mystery/comedy The Butler Did It! just got a rave review in The Roanoke Times. Critic Mike Allen praised Anthony Neal's droll delivery as the butler (seen above) and described the play as "amusing, engagingly plotted catnip to amateur sleuths."

To read the whole review, click here.

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

On naming plays

Writing plays is hard. Writing the outline is hard. Writing the first draft is hard. Writing the final draft and every draft between those two drafts is hard.

But the hardest words any writer has to write are the two (or three or four or five) words at the top of the script, i.e. the title.

After all, the title has a big job to do. It should be memorable. It should tell you what the play is about. And it should suggest what genre the play belongs to. (For comedies, I also like my titles to pass the smile test. If the title is funny enough to make you smile, it's a keeper.)

If the title does all that, and you find that it's never been used before, then you've hit the play-naming quadfecta.

I was thinking about this today because I've been wracking my brain for a title for the cat heiress comedy I'll be developing at Palmer Ridge High School. But then I usually torture myself over my titles.

Million Dollar Meatballs is one of my favorite titles. But I didn't come up with it until I was halfway through the first draft. Before that, I had gone through half a dozen titles, each one more forgettable than the last.

The problem was that the original version had the diamonds being hidden in a bottle of ketchup. And I didn't like any of the ketchup titles I came up with. So I put the script away for a year--yes, an entire year--until I could figure out how to get the diamonds from the ketchup bottle to a plate of meatballs just so I could call it Million Dollar Meatballs.

I'm glad I did. That play is now one of my most successful, and I think the title helps.

How I Met Your Mummy was originally titled Now Museum, Now You Don't. I liked the pun there (surprisingly, it had never been used as the title of a play), but it doesn't really tell you what the play's about. The museum isn't the important part of the story. The mummy is.

So I played around with "mummy" titles. Unfortunately, all the good ones were already taken: I Want My Mummy, Mummy Dearest. Then my friend Jeff Schmoyer suggested a pun on the title of the sitcom, How I Met Your Mother.

I loved it, but I had to check whether it had ever been used before. Luckily, it hadn't, although it had been used for an episode of an obscure animated series. I didn't think that would lead to much confusion, so I went with it. And it's worked out great ever since.

Could I come up with an equally good title for my cat heiress comedy? Well, not the way things have been going for me lately. I hate the title Where There's a Will, There's a Way. Again, it doesn't really tell you what the play is about and it definitely doesn't pass the smile test. And all the other titles I came up with were extremely lame.

Then today I stopped by Palmer Ridge. I wanted to see the stage where the play will be performed and to meet some of the students in the school's theatre program. It's always better to write a character with a specific actor in mind, even if the actor doesn't end up playing that part.

I took away a lot of ideas for characters. But the biggest takeaway came from an offhand comment by director Josh Belk. He said he'd been wracking his brain for titles and the only thing he could come up with was The Purrfect Murder. Then he immediately dismissed it, saying it was too cliched.

Wait a minute, I said. That's actually a great title. But there's no murder in the play, just a kidnapping. Why not change it to The Purrfect Crime?

I immediately Googled it. Sure, it popped up as an episode of an old detective show, but I couldn't find a single play with that title.

So it's official. The title of my next play will be The Purrfect Crime.

The lesson here? If you're ever stuck on the title for a play or novel or whatever, check the episode list of old TV shows.