Thursday, March 29, 2018

You get what you pay for


Feedback is vital to every writer. We can cut and embellish and move words around all we want, but until we learn what others think of our stuff, we're just scribbling away in an isolation chamber.

So where do you find that feedback? A writer's group can be a big help when you're starting out. But if you want to take your writing to a professional level, then you need to hire a professional reader.

Eleven years ago, when I first started writing screenplays, I hired several professional reading services to give me feedback. As I discovered, almost all of these places are based in Los Angeles and are staffed by people who read full-time for the studios and earn extra cash by freelancing on the side.

The notes weren't cheap. Two to three pages on a feature-length script set me back $150, although some top-notch reviewers can charge upwards of $1000.

But they were well worth the money. The readers zeroed in on exactly what was wrong with my screenplays. I tried to use the feedback to make my screenplays better, but I never got them to the point where I felt comfortable submitting them to managers and production companies.

Well, not anymore. I just received my first set of professional notes for The Enchanted Bookshop and they were much more positive. In fact, the reader suggested only three minor tweaks to the script:

1) Change Lady in Red's tactics

As anyone who has seen the play knows, Lady in Red tries to sell Margie, the lonely bookshop owner, a cookbook with a lock on it. Why a lock? Because that's where the stolen necklace is hidden. Her intention is to leave the book at the bookshop so that the smugglers can pick it up later.

Well, the reader found it completely implausible that Lady in Red (Mystery Woman in the screenplay) would expect anyone to buy such a book. Also, Margie  would be instantly tipped off when the smugglers showed up the next day looking for "a book that don't open". Instead, the reader suggested that Lady in Red pretend to be interested in buying a book, then sneak the book onto a back shelf when Margie isn't looking (which she ends up doing anyway).

It's a great suggestion. Unfortunately, making this change means I'll have to dump some of my favorite gags in the play, but as Faulkner said, we have to kill our darlings. So out they go.

2) Focus the book characters' goals

The reader thought that the book characters bounce back and forth too much between two unrelated goals: saving the bookshop and stopping the jewel thieves. I wanted the book characters to start out being concerned about the shop to get the story moving, then switch to pursuing the other, more urgent goal when they discover the stolen necklace. The reader, however, thought it would be a stronger choice if I tied those goals together somehow.

I'm not sure this is a valid concern, but I'll think about it.

3) Dump the Book Fairy

The reader thought she simply wasn't needed. To her, the world-weary sprite seemed a little juvenile for the audience I'm targeting and had no real purpose in the story other to explain some things that would be better explained by the book characters themselves.

I have to smile at this one because my original draft of the play didn't include Book Fairy as a character at all. It only mentioned her in passing. But then, my publisher suggested I pull her in to provide a juicy role for some young actress. I played around with the idea a while, wrote a few test pages. And when I found that she made the story much stronger, I decided to keep her.

Still, the reader has a point. Something that works on the stage may not work on a screen. I'll have to weigh this one carefully.

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So there you have it, a glimpse into the kinds of things that Hollywood thinks are important.

If you're part of a writing group that challenges you, inspires you, makes you better, then I say more power to you. But I still recommend that writers of all levels look into hiring a professional reader, especially if you want to submit to your work to a major contest or publishing house.

Sometimes you really do get what you pay for.

Friday, March 23, 2018

Bringing characters to life

Besides seeing your plays on stage, the best part of being a playwright is hearing the impact your plays have had on people.

That was the case yesterday when I came across a Facebook post from Tiffany in GA. She had just seen a production of The Enchanted Bookshop and described the play this way:
A story about a bookstore that no one visits anymore because no one ever reads books anymore! Sound familiar? Such a perfect modern day tale that reminds us that the characters of a book really can come alive if we just give them a chance! When was the last time you read a book and then missed the main character when it ended? I know I'm inspired to dust off some of our old books and bring the characters back to life!
Thanks, Tiffany! That means a lot to me.

Friday, March 9, 2018

Cornhusker Bookshop builds community


And here's another article about one of my plays, a preview of a production of The Enchanted Bookshop by the Kearney Community Theatre.

In it, co-director Judy Rozema describes how theater builds community in their small Nebraska town. Not only did they get a huge turnout for auditions (75 children for 25 roles), but the kids who got cast come from 15 different schools and represent a wide variety of interests, from die-hard theater types to math whizzes to musicians.

"It just shows you that the arts can involve everyone. It encompasses all sorts of groups of people and personalities. It brings them together to make something that is a joint effort across so many areas of different interests."

More than half of the kids have never acted before.

"And they are loving it," Rozema adds. "This is something that is timeless, something that's not going to die regardless of what the funding does."

Thank you, Judy, and all you hard-working directors out there for making this something possible.

Wednesday, March 7, 2018

'Bama Rumpelstiltskin earns raves


I remember the first time I saw my name in print. I was about ten and it was printed in the local paper, the Beaver Dam (WI) Daily Citizen.

I don't remember what it was for, probably some Cub Scout activity. But I remember how proud I felt. And I remember all the greeting cards my parents received with a clipping of the article inside (yes, in those ancient days of the 1970's, they actually sold greeting cards that said, "I saw you in the newspaper...").

So I think it's a pretty big deal when young actors get a mention in their local paper for the hard word they put into the production and the excellence of their performances.

That was the case for this article in The Greenville (AL) Advocate. It's a review of the middle school's production of Rumpelstiltskin, Private Eye and the author makes a point of giving a shout-out to every single performer in this large-cast play.

I hope these mentions mean as much to them as mine did to me. And who knows? Maybe one of them will grow up to see their name in print a thousand times over as a playwright or actor... or even a kindhearted critic.

Saturday, February 24, 2018

Trouble in Paradise Junction video now online


Well, what do you know? My Video page has seen an explosion of hits lately and is now the most popular page on my blog.

I guess I shouldn't be surprised. Directors like to get set and costume ideas from previous productions. Actors like to see how other students performed their parts.

Well, if you're in either of these camps, you're in luck. I just came across two complete videos of Trouble in Paradise Junction.

One of these takes a few more liberties with the script than I like, even changing the title slightly (for the record, I'm good with minor tweaks, not wholesale changes to the dialogue). But the performances in it are excellent and I think both videos will be helpful to other schools and community theaters seeking inspiration.

But--as they say on those late night informercials--that's not all. I also posted a second complete video of The Enchanted Bookshop and the first complete video of Wicked Is As Wicked Does.

And to make the page more useful, I've added info on the length of each video and whether it's the entire play or a particular scene or excerpt.

So enjoy. And keep on posting those videos!

Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Great promo for The Enchanted Bookshop


It's kind of hard to read here, but the small print at the bottom of this poster offers a great deal for those attending an upcoming production of The Enchanted Bookshop. Come dressed as your favorite book character and get in free.

What better way to promote a love of reading while getting people excited about your show? I even saw a couple of book lovers on Facebook debating whether to dress as Jane Eyre or Clarisse La Rue.

Me? I'd go as this guy.

Saturday, February 3, 2018

Babka Without Borders to be published


Well, this was a good week. Just days after Babka Without Borders took 2nd place in the Robert J. Pickering contest, Pioneer Drama Service has accepted the same play for publication.

It's my lucky 13th play with them. And to be honest, I didn't think they'd take it.

As I mentioned before, this play is fairly political and veers dangerously close to satire (which George S. Kaufman famously said is what closes Saturday night).

Also, the play is set in 1910 -- not exactly the most popular time period with high school drama groups and community theaters.

But I'm really glad Pioneer did decide to publish it. It's very funny, even silly at times (a war launched over a babka-baking contest?). It has lots of meaty roles for both males and females. And it has an important message, one that both sides of the political aisle can agree on.

I first came up with the idea for the play during one of my brainstorming sessions. Having just finished writing The Purrfect Crime, I felt it was time for another restaurant play (Million Dollar Meatballs was three years old and had become one of my biggest hits). So I racked my brain to come up with a new twist on this familiar setting.

That's when I remembered a real-life restaurant I once read about. Restaurant Den Engel is just like any other quaint cafe in Europe except for one thing. It lies along the border between two countries: the Netherlands and Belgium.

An image immediately struck me: a restaurant where the border doesn't run along the edge of the restaurant but smack dab through the middle of it.

The kitchen is divided between two countries. The dining room is divided between two countries. Even one of the tables is divided between two countries.

And I gave it one more twist. Whereas the Netherlands and Belgium have long been at peace, I wanted to explore what would happen if the two countries that share my restaurant went to war.

How would the restaurant's staff serve their customers? Would the babkas that the restaurant is famous for suddenly become contraband? And how would a certain maitre 'd win the heart of the waitress he loves now that they're supposed to be enemies?

You can find the answers to all these questions when the play is released this August. Until then, you'll have to satisfy yourself with this short scene (though you can find more on my Free Scenes and Free Monologues pages). In it, the lovelorn maitre d' mentioned above woos that most serious-minded of waitresses.

LUISA: Peter, please. You're in my way.

PETER: Forgive me, Luisa. I only want to ask you a question.

LUISA: Can't you see I'm busy? If Hildegard catches us chatting again, she'll have our heads!

PETER: Too late. I've already lost my head. Over you.

LUISA: Please let me pass.

PETER: Then say yes, and you can be on your way.

LUISA: But I don't even know what the question is.

PETER: I will gladly tell you the question as soon as you tell me yes.

LUISA: I tell you no.

(LUISA tries to go around him, but PETER blocks her way again.)

PETER: All right. Fine. I'll tell you the question. Luisa Brandt, will you go to dinner with me tonight?

LUISA: Dinner? That's your idea of a date?

PETER: What's wrong with dinner? You eat, don't you?

LUISA: If I'm lucky.

PETER: Huh?

LUISA: Look, every morning I make my family a hearty breakfast. Sausages. Eggs. Maybe some ham. There are so many mouths to feed, I barely have time to feed my own. Then, as soon as I finish there, it's time to rush over here. Babka. Kolaches. Knish. All day long I rush around serving food.  Just once I'd like to do something that doesn't involve food!

PETER: Ah, but this is different. This time you'll be the one who is served.

LUISA: You're wasting your time, Peter Bergmann. There's nothing between us and there never will be.

PETER: Give me one good reason why and I'll leave you alone.

LUISA: You want a reason? I'll give you a reason. We're from two different worlds. I'm from the Grand Duchy of Bunkelburg and you're from the Royal Principality of Primwick.

PETER: Oh, but that's such a little thing. Are our countries so different?

GRETA: Yes!

OSKAR: He didn't ask you.

GRETA: Well, someone has to tell him the truth.

PETER: Frau Ziegler, how can you say our countries are different when we share so much in common? A common border. A common language. We even have a common love of babka.

GRETA: If you call what those people make babka.

OSKAR: Have you ever tried Bunkelburg babka?

GRETA: I don't have to. It's from Bunkelburg. That's all I need to know.

LUISA: (To PETER.) Do you see? There can be no peace between our two countries. Not as long as a border separates us.

PETER: But Luisa, in love there are no borders.

LUISA: What do you mean there are no borders? What do you call this line in front of you?

PETER: This? Why, this is nothing but a bit of paint on the floor. See, I will show you.

(PETER boldly steps across the line.)

KARL: Um, you can't do that.

PETER: Well, I've done it.

KARL: I know, but you need to show your passport or you're going to get me in trouble.

LUISA: Peter, please. You don't want to get Karl in trouble.

PETER: No. I wouldn't want to get Karl in trouble.