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.


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.


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?


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.

Thursday, February 1, 2018

Seguin Letter takes 3rd at district meet

Congratulations to these talented students from St. James Catholic School of Seguin, TX. Last week, their production of The _urloined Letter placed 3rd at the district level of Texas's University Interscholastic League One-Act Play Contest, making them alternates to State. 

But that's not all. Tex Hermes, who played gumshoe Nick Bullitt (in fedora, above) was selected to the All-Star Cast, while Maddy Dugi, who played femme fatale Trouble Maecker (in red), was named to the Honorable Mention All-Star Cast.

Great job, everybody!

Monday, January 29, 2018

Babka Without Borders takes 2nd in Pickering

It was just announced that my full-length comedy Babka Without Borders took second place in the 2018 Robert J. Pickering Award for Playwriting Excellence.

It's the second time I took second. In 2013, my full-length farce Kill the Critic! garnered the same award.

The award includes a $50 prize, so I'm very happy about that. Of course, it would have been even better if the play had taken first place as that would have come with a full production, but I can understand why it might not have won. The play requires a large cast (9M/12F) and a small-town community theater may have a hard time recruiting that many actors. That's why I targeted the play to high schools, which usually have a lot of talented students wanting to perform.

Still, it's nice to get this vote of confidence, especially since the play took me so far out of my comfort zone. Set in a cafe that straddles the border between two warring nations, Babka Without Borders is my most political play and includes a healthy dose of satire. And yet it keeps one foot solidly in the world of farce.

It's a quirky play, no doubt. But I like it.

And now it seems at least a few contest judges in Michigan do too.

Saturday, January 20, 2018

Another Enchanted Bookshop video

Texas's Fort Worth Academy has just posted a video from their recent production of The Enchanted Bookshop. It's only one scene, but it's one of my favorites--the scene where we first meet the bumbling smugglers Eddie and Fingers as well as the eternally tongue-twisted Officer Ketchum.

And this production includes one other twist. Margie, the lonely book lover who owns the shop, has been turned into a guy.

I think it works well--and shows just how flexible this play can be. Many of the famous book characters can easily be played by either gender--Robin Hood, for one, or the devious Fagin. Not to mention the non-literary characters like the smugglers.

Some schools have even gone so far as to add other book characters to the cast.

If it works, I say go for it. But if you're a drama teacher and you want to make the most of what this play has to offer, don't stop there. Can you team up with other teachers at your school to promote the joy of reading?

Maybe the English teachers can have students read from some of the books mentioned in the play. Maybe the school librarian could launch a reading contest with prizes to be awarded at the intermission of your performance. Maybe the art teacher could have students design their own book covers--whether for real-live books or for books that only exist in their imaginations. Maybe the entire school could have a costume day, when students are encouraged to dress up as their favorite book characters.

When it comes to sharing a love of reading, the possibilities are endless.

Thursday, January 4, 2018

The Purrfect Crime is now available

One thing about getting published. It never gets old.

My twelfth play, The Purrfect Crime, was released by Pioneer Drama Service today and I'm just excited about it as if it were my first play.

There's the first look at the artwork (love the cat, guys!). The updating of this website. The scripts. The T-shirt. And of course, the long, nerve-wracking wait to see how popular the play is.

But this one means even more to me than most because it was the last play I developed in Colorado Springs before moving to Phoenix last February.

I lived in Colorado Springs for 23 years. I started a children's theatre company there. Launched my writing career there. Wrote 3 novels, dozens of theater reviews and 22 plays, 7 of which received their first staged reading or world premiere there.

Most importantly, I made a lot of great friends there.

I love Phoenix. I love the palm trees. I love the hiking. I love the funky little restaurants that can be found in every strip mall (and there are a LOT of strip malls). And yes, I love the climate (even in summer!). This is where I plan to live the rest of my life.

But a little piece of my me will always remain in that lovely little city at the foot of Pikes Peak.

Since The Purrfect Crime was one of those plays that premiered in Colorado Springs, I've already written at length about its development. If you're interested in reading those posts, click here for the complete thread. If you're thinking about producing the play and would like to read an excerpt or review the ordering information, click here.

In the meantime, let me leave you with the play's blurb:
Here's a pun-filled tale of feline fortune that all ages will love! Poor "Big Bob" Little. When this cantankerous old rancher dies. nobody mourrns -- not his eldest child, Cecilia, a hard-driving, money-hungry businesswoman; not middle child, Annie, a holistic, dizzy lass hoping to turn the ranch into a bovine meditation retreat; and not even youngest child, Little Bob, a lovable loser obsessed with the percussive arts. That's why it's no surprise when Bob leaves his entire $36 million fortune to his cat, Wiggles. Just what is a kitty to do with that much money? Enter a pair of purr-suasive cons who claim to be the world's foremost pet psychics. Not to let the cat out of the bag, but it's really an elaborate ruse to steal the kitty's diamond-studded toys. But when the corrked cat burglars learn that Wiggles needs a will of her own, they hatch a plan of have it all -- The Purrfect Crime! Can the family work together to stop a cat-astrophe? Or will they just end up fighting like cats and dogs? The Purrfect Crime is a claw-some blend of hiss-terical humor and cat-scratching action. Let the fur fly!

Wednesday, January 3, 2018

Writing twaddle

Happy New Year! Have you made any resolutions this year, maybe one to finally write that long-simmering stage play or novel? Well, you might find some inspiration in this article from the UK newspaper The Guardian.

In it, Travis Elborough and Helen Gordon share some of the hundreds of writing quotes they've collected in their 2017 book Being a Writer.

My favorite? This little gem from Katherine Mansfield: "Looking back I imagine I was always writing. Twaddle it was too. But better far write twaddle or anything, anything, than nothing at all."

This reminds me of the advice my high school writing teacher Ms. Aanrud always told us: Write something. You can always edit it later. But you can't edit nothing.

I've lived by these words ever since. Even when I can't think of anything to write, I'll scribble the worst dreck I can come up with just to get the juices flowing again.

It works. Sometimes it can take an hour or more of painful, pointless scribbling, but it works.

What's the best piece of writing advice you've ever gotten?

Monday, January 1, 2018

A look ahead to 2018

I love New Year's Day. The year is so fresh, so new, so full of hope. Everything seems possible. All that's needed to make it possible is some sensible goalmaking and a lot of hard work.

The hard work is yet to come. But here are my goals for this year, whether sensible or not.

1) Get some traction on my Enchanted Bookshop screenplay

I'd always promised myself that if one of my plays became a hit, I would try to develop it into a film. Well, that finally happened last year. The Enchanted Bookshop burst out of the gate as soon it was released in August and it's been going gangbusters ever since.

It currently has 79 productions either already performed or scheduled, and if these numbers continue, it'll become one of the most produced plays in the country.

I wrote a handful of screenplays around a decade ago, but I never did anything with them. Oh, I paid for professional feedback, but that feedback was never positive enough to give me confidence that they could get produced. So the screenplays just sat on my hard drive--unsubmitted, unread, unproduced.

Well, not any more. This play has already proven itself on the stage and I feel it could be just as successful on the big screen (or more likely, the small screen). All I need to do is finish it, which should take another couple of weeks, and then I'll start submitting it like crazy.

I know it's still a million to one shot, but at this point I'll take anything to show I'm on the right track. A contest win, a request to read the script from a real-live producer. It's all good.

2) Complete two plays

This shouldn't be too hard, but it does require focus. It takes me about six months of writing 1.5 hours per day to finish a full-length play. So if I concentrate solely on writing new plays and don't get sidetracked by other projects (screenplays, revisions of older plays, changing plays midstream, etc.), I should be able to achieve this goal.

3) Publish three new plays

I'm already a third of the way toward this goal. My play The Purrfect Crime will be released by Pioneer Drama Service any day now.

That means I only have to get two more plays accepted for publication. I currently have one play in review at Pioneer, three plays at other publishers and the two new ones I hope to write. So as long as my hit rate stays above 33%, I should be able to reach this goal too.

4) Lead a workshop at the Arizona Thespian Conference

When I was still living in Colorado, I led workshops four years in a row at the very large and very successful Colorado Thespian Conference (including a hugely popular one on the Hero's Journey in Star Wars).

I was hoping to teach a similar class in my new home, but so far I haven't gotten any response from the organizers. In the new year, I'll redouble my efforts to put my name into consideration.

5) Develop one new play with a school or theatre group

Most of my plays are unproduced before they get published. But every year or so, I like to work with a school to develop and premiere one of my scripts. The director and students bring fresh ideas to the material, and the audience response gives me important feedback.

I have already been throwing around ideas with a local middle school that produced one of my plays in 2016. If we can agree on a premise and a date, it should be a go.

But I'm always open to working with other groups. If you're involved with a Phoenix-area school or theatre company and would like to participate in such a project, please email me by clicking here.