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. 🙂