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.

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

My 5th year sales

I just received my annual royalty statement from my publisher, Pioneer Drama Service, and I'm thrilled to report that I had another record-breaking year.

Actual comparisons to previous years are difficult to make as Pioneer Drama Service changed the way they reported productions. In previous years, they provided a hardcopy report of all productions that had been paid for through April 30. This year, they provided access to their online system that tracks productions as they're booked, whether they're paid for or not.

The system works pretty slick. I can get a running total of my royalties to date. I can see the location, date and number of performances for each upcoming production. I can even sort by title, production date or when ordered.

This is a fantastic development. For the first time, I'll know about each production before it happens, making it possible to attend local productions and to send good wishes to those that are further away.

The only drawback is that for this one year, it's impossible to compare apples to apples. I no longer know which productions have been paid for, so from this point on, I'll only include productions that were performed in a particular fiscal year. This understates the totals for FY 2016, but the year was such a good one that it doesn't matter too much.

My total number of productions for the year more than doubled from 78 in 2015 to 159 in 2016. This was the first full year for Rumpelstiltskin, Private Eye and, as expected, this large-cast comedy was my big seller, with 60 productions. It had 15 in the four months it was available on 2015 and has 23 productions booked for next year.

Million Dollar Meatballs came out in August, but it's already doing phenomenally well and was my #2 title the year with 30 productions. As reported earlier, this play got me my 8th country, the United Arab Emirates, with a performance at an American school there in March.

You're Driving Me Crazy! came out in November, and that did almost as well, with 28 productions. However, it didn't earn nearly as much in royalties as the other two plays because this one-act tends to get one performance per production while the full-length plays get two or more.

The Butler Did It! was my #4 seller and showed a huge drop, with the number of productions decreasing from 34 in 2015 to 14 in 2016. However, it already has 9 shows booked for next year so I'm hoping that's an anomaly. The fun thing with this title is that it's been popular all over the world and this year added two more countries to my life list: Ireland (#9) and Oman (#10).

Long Tall Lester was #5 with 12 productions this year compared to 14 last year. I'm excited to see how popular this one-act continues to be in Canada, with a really strong showing at the Sears Ontario Drama Festival for St. Peter's Catholic Secondary School of Barrie.

How I Met Your Mummy came out in December and was #6, getting 10 productions in its first four months. I expect this one to do really well this fall as schools select plays for Halloween.

Finally, The _Urloined Letter, my first play, was #7, with 5 productions this year compared to 10 last year.

I have several more plays waiting for a response from publishers and I'm hard at work on another. I can't wait for you to see what's coming next!

Sunday, May 1, 2016

Putting the community in community theatre

I just got back from a trip to Leoti, Kansas. Janelle Downs of the Wichita County Arts Alliance had invited me out to see their production of Million Dollar Meatballs (she was the director). And while I was there, she thought it would be a good idea if I spoke at the local high school.

I wasn't quite sure where Leoti was, but I jumped at the opportunity. I love visiting small towns--they remind me of my own hometown in Wisconsin-plus it would be the first time I had seen this particular play performed by adults. I was interested to see how it stood up.

To get to Leoti, as any resident will tell you, just head east from Colorado Springs, turn onto a couple of different highways, and when you come to the first flashing light--213 miles later--you're there.

As I headed out late Thursday night, however, I was doubting my sanity. They'd been predicting a winter storm all day, and I should have left earlier, but I stayed in town to catch a performance of Rumpelstiltskin, Private Eye--my first opportunity to see that show. 

The show ended around 8:30 PM and I immediately got on the road for the 3 1/2 hour drive. Fortunately, the winter storm held off until I left town so I managed to avoid most of the snow and only had to deal with rain and cold and wind for the rest of the trip. If I kept a good speed, I figured, I should be able to get there by midnight, leaving me plenty of time for sleep before getting up for a full day of teaching.

And then, just 12 miles west of Leoti, I saw the sign. Central Time Zone. I had lost an hour.

So around 1:30AM (the weather delayed me as well) I pulled up to the place where they arranged for me to stay for the three nights of my visit. When Janelle told me it was an apartment attached to a seed warehouse, I wasn't sure what to expect, but it turned out to be wonderful--clean, new and more spacious than a five-star suite.

I crawled into bed and caught what little sleep I could before the alarm went off four hours later. The day dawned gray and rainy, but I was raring to go. I jumped out of bed, showered and drove a couple of blocks to the high school.

Julie Conard, one of the school's English teachers, escorted me to her classroom, where I was to speak to the first class of the day. As it turned out, Julie was in the show too, playing the part of the obnoxious telegram deliverer Tammy Tonedeaf.

I knew ahead of time that the school didn't have any writing or drama classes or so I created a brand new presentation just for them. What I came up with was "A Playwright's Journey, or 48 Hours to Overnight Success". In it, I talk about my decades-long struggle to get published and the over 200 rejection I had received before I got there. I also offer some life lessons that I hope aren't too preachy, thinks like Practice, Practice, Practice and Don't Fear Rejection, Embrace It.

I ended up speaking to five different English classes, from 7th grade through juniors. The students seemed to enjoy my talk, although many were shocked when I told them it takes 10,000 hours to master any subject (thank you, Malcolm Gladwell!). I figure it took me at least that much time before I saw any success in writing. But then I'm a slow learner.

After lunch, Julie brought me into the auditorium to talk to the choir kids, who also happened to be the theatre kids. The school doesn't put on a show every year (it depends on class size, and in a small community like this, class size can vary 4X from one year to the next), but when they do, it's the choir kids who do it.

Many of the kids had heard my talk earlier in the day so I had to come up with something different--and quick. I grabbed my scripts of You're Driving Me Crazy!, threw some chairs on the stage for a car and, in a matter of minutes, we were doing cold readings of this driver's ed-themed play. The kids were great--so funny and talented--and after the impromptu performance I was gratified to hear one of the boys say he couldn't wait to get involved in the school's theatre program next year.

After school, I had a short break, then headed to the First Presbyterian Church for the final dress rehearsal of Million Dollar Meatballs. Normally, I don't offer feedback to the casts of my plays--I figure that's the director's job--but when Janelle herself asked me what I thought, I knew I had to share. And I told them the raw, unvarnished truth.  They did a fantastic job. Sure, there were a few places where they needed to pick up the pace and their delivery of some of the lines needed tweaking. But they were having a lot of fun with the play, and I knew the audience would too.

The next day was Saturday, and I spent most of the afternoon exploring Leoti. There wasn't a lot to see--even the residents will tell you that--I did get some nice pictures of downtown and the courthouse. Another highlight was a mural that the Arts Alliance had only recently put up. Between the sunflowers, the cows and the quilting patterns, it did a great job of capturing the down-home spirit of the town.

That night was the opening performance. The First Presbyterian Church had donated the use of their stage and the Arts Alliance squeezed in several large round tables for the audience. A long table was set up for the pre-show pot luck dinner, and soon it was filled with a wide and very tempting selection of casseroles and pasta dishes.

Of course, many of the cooks were inspired by the meatball theme of the play and brought their own version of those beefy orbs. There was a chipotle meatball dish that I found especially tasty.

The show didn't quite sell out, but it was close. We were sitting elbow to elbow as the house lights went down and the stage lights went up. The play started, and within minutes, the house was filled with laughter. I smiled. To me, it's the most beautiful sound of the world.

At intermission, there was a brief concert as some of the local children sang solos and duets to the accompaniment of a piano. As I sat there, soaking it all in, I was filled with a warm glow. This, I thought, is what community theatre is all about. Good food. A fun-loving cast. Hearty laughter. And the most talented kids in town.

Scratch that. This is what community is all about.

I heard somebody say they wish that more people had attended the show. I quickly did the math in my head. Leoti has a population of 2000 people. The church fit about 100 people, and with two performances, that meant 10% of the town's population would see the show,

I'd kill to get 10% of Colorado Springs' population to one of my shows.

The second act started and the laughter, if possible, was even louder and more enthusiastic. After the show, I talked with the audience, autographed a few programs and then said goodbye to my new friends, who already seemed like old friends.

I left the next morning. The rain had finally stopped, though the sky was still a somber gray. I glanced in my rear view mirror, and as I watched the houses and the grain elevator growing smaller, I said one final goodbye.

You know, it's funny. A couple of months ago I had never heard of Leoti, Kansas.

Now I'll never forget it.

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Meatballs in the Middle East

Million Dollar Meatballs is circling the globe. After a run in Taiwan in February, my restaurant farce landed at the American International School in Abu Dhabi last month.

Great costumes, guys! And I love the foodie posters on the walls.

Wednesday, April 6, 2016

Lester wins big in Ontario

Just got word that St. Peter's Catholic Secondary School of Barrie, Ontario cleaned up at the Sears Ontario Drama Festival district competition with my one-act comedy Long Tall Lester. They won awards for acting (three, actually), stage management, technical achievement, outstanding production and spirit. In fact, it was the most awarded show at the festival. The students now move on, competing April 15 at the West Region showcase in Cambridge, ON.

You can read the whole story here.

Congratulations, everyone! And break legs!

Update: At the regional showcase, the school picked up awards for comedic performance and musical composition/performance. Nice job!