Saturday, May 11, 2024

Finding Winona

Setting has always been of the utmost important to me. Often, the germ of an idea for a new play comes not from the plot or a character, but from the setting, whether that setting is a creepy mansion, a failing French restaurant, or a bookshop.

So I suppose it's ironic that the setting of my plays rarely includes a specific city.

Location, Location, Location

It Happened on Route 66 is the big exception. From the get-go, that play has been about capturing a specific time and place, so when I first sat down to write it, it was important to me to set it in a real town along the Mother Road and to bring that town to life through the specificity of the dialogue and the richness of the characters.

During my initial brainstorming, I considered several small towns along that fabled highway. Tulsa. Amarillo. Flagstaff.

But when I remembered that famous line from the song "Get Your Kicks on Route 66," I knew that Winona, Arizona had to be it.

Route 66 Trivia: Being east of Flagstaff, Winona is the only town that's out of order going east to west in that song.

It didn't hurt that I've lived in Arizona for the last seven years so I already knew what small Arizona towns are like. However, I've never been to Winona itself.

Until today.

My wife and I were in Flagstaff to cheer on our daughter in her first 38-mile ultra-marathon, and the day after the race, as we headed back to Phoenix, I managed to talk them into buzzing through the tiny town. After all, it's only 13 miles east of Flagstaff--a quick jaunt, no?

I wanted to see how close modern-day Winona was to the quaint roadside town of my imagination. I especially wanted to see if there was actually a diner there. And could it possibly be named Ookie's?

Gettin' My Kicks


I've always loved Route 66 towns. Tulsa makes a big deal about being the birthplace of the highway, apparently because the guy who first pushed for it came from there, and I remember taking a picture of a big Route 66 sign on one of the bridges over the road downtown.

Not the largest Route 66 sign in the country.

Flagstaff is pretty much built along the old highway, with many Route 66-themed burger joints and other restaurants stretched along its length.

But my favorite Route 66 town has to be Williams, Arizona. We spent a weekend there a couple of years ago and absolutely loved it. That town, by the way, calls itself the Gateway to the Grand Canyon, even though it's 54 miles away from that big hole in the ground. But there's no bigger town closer to the canyon, so I guess they can get away with it.
Route 66 Trivia: Williams was the last town on Route 66 to be bypassed by Interstate 40.
What I love about Williams is that even though it's pretty small, it really crackles with life. And that's due its ties to the Main Street of America.

The main drag is lined with neon signs that hark back to the time when Route 66 was in its heyday. And it seems that every other shop in town sells some kind of Route 66 memorabilia. But the town also has some great restaurants and brewpubs, and a killer view of an extinct volcano named Bill Williams Mountain to the south.

Prices are cheap in Williams.

So I had high hopes for Winona. The town had lived and died by its connected to that legendary highway so I figured there would still be a lot of remnants from its glorious past.

My pre-trip research held promise. It revealed that a gas station named the Winona Trading Post had been built along Route 66 in the late 1940's. It was the main business in town back then, and--miracle of miracles--it's still in operation today in the same sand-colored, cinder block building. What's more, a photo of an old postcard I found online showed that the sign on the store boasted a cafe.

I had my diner!

What once was.


An inconvenient truth


I'm not embarrassed to tell you that my heart was racing a little as we pulled off I-40 onto the frontage road that led to the gas station.

That's when it saw it. The cafe sign was gone. There was no diner anymore. The building had been turned into a convenience store.

Let me correct that. An extremely tacky convenience store.

Smiling on the outside. Crying on the inside.

Of course, they had some cheap little Route 66 trinkets for sale. There was even a little exhibit of historical items from the road on display. But sadly, no sign of the cafe itself.

Still, I stood in that store for a few minutes and tried to imagine the millions of travelers who'd passed through the cafe over the years. Who were they? What were their stories? And did they ever order the all-you-can-eat special?

I went outside and looked around. I smiled to see that there was a garage next to the store. I later learned it had been built in the late 1940's or early 1950's so my play wasn't completely accurate when it said that the nearest garage was in Flagstaff. But I thought it funny that there was a tow truck out front, just like the one from Ed's Towing that Sally told Lovey was getting repaired.

Looks fine to me.

As for the rest of the town, it mostly consists of a few dozen houses scattered over the foothills to the north (Winona has never been incorporated so I have no idea what the population is). But I instantly recognized one sight that loomed over the town like a dark cloud on the horizon.

It was the Darling Cinder Pit Mine, which Sally referred to as the largest cinder pit mine in the country. When I got back home, I went online to reconfirm this fact. Turns out it's actually just the largest cinder pit mine in the state--and might not have even held that title in 1955, when the play was set.

Clearly, Sally got some bad info.

Not the largest cinder pit mine in the country.

After taking a few pictures, I climbed back into our car and we headed home.

Final thoughts


Was I sad that I didn't get to see the cafe where It Happened on Route 66 might have happened? Sure. But then so much of that once-vital highway has been lost to time, I shouldn't have been surprised. And I wasn't.

Still, I'm happy I went, if only to get a sense of what might have been. I'm even happier to see how popular the play has been with schools and community theaters. The sets I've seen photos of do a fantastic job of bringing to life the diner I'd hoped I'd see. And in this way, on stages all across the country, Ookie's Diner remains open for business.

May it never close.

Wednesday, April 17, 2024

Crazy in the Great White North

One of the things I like best about being a playwright for the amateur market--mostly schools and community theaters--is the amazing places where you get to be produced.

If I wrote for professional markets, I'd get produced in New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, maybe a few of the regional theater hubs like Minneapolis and Seattle. And that would be it.

Well, I've been produced in all of those cities. But I've also been produced in quaint little hamlets with fantastic names.

Like Farmers Branch, TX.

Soap Lake, WA.

Knysna, South Africa.

Angels Camp, CA.

Punxsatawney, PA (of groundhog fame).

Locust Grove, OK.

Soddy-Daisy, TN.

Marceline, MO (boyhood home of my childhood hero Walt Disney).

Sadly, I've never had a production in my own fantastically named hometown of Beaver Dam, WI. But if I ever do, you can bet you'll hear about it here.

Anyway, now I can add one more amazing place to the list. The school district in faraway Inuvik, Northwest Territories will be performing You're Driving Me Crazy! at the end of this month.

I find this fascinating for several reasons.

It's my first production in the Northwest Territories, leaving the Yukon as the only Canadian province-slash-territory where I haven't been produced.

It's my first production in the Arctic Circle.

It's also my furthest north production. Four years ago, I had posted about a production of The Enchanted Bookshop Musical at an elementary school in Iqaluit, Nunavut. That was pretty far north, but not as north. 

Inuvik is so far north, it enjoys 56 days of 24-hour sunlight in the summer and 30 days of 24-hour darkness in the winter. The coldest temperature ever recorded there is -70 degrees F, although the average daily high is -9 degrees F in January and a balmy 67 degrees F in July.

The town has a population of 3137, predominantly Inuit. And it offers plenty of watery recreation as it's located on the enormous delta where the Mackenzie River empties in the Arctic Sea.

Unfortunately, I can't find any information about my particular production. That often happens when a school district rather than a particular school licenses the play. But I feel honored that they've selected You're Driving Me Crazy! and I wish the cast and crew broken legs all around.

Oh, and just for fun, I did a quick check to see where my other compass extremes have been. Here are those:

Southernmost Production: Eight--count 'em, eight!--different shows at my friend Gemma's wonderful performing arts school Standouts in Wellington, New Zealand.

Easternmost Production: How I Met Your Mummy at Te Puke High School in Te Puke, New Zealand--just 314 miles north and east of Wellington.

Westernmost Production: You're Virtually Driving Me Crazy! by Hana Arts in Hana, Hawaii (on the island of Maui).

Can you tell I'm a geography nerd?

Wednesday, April 10, 2024

Pioneer's photo contest is back

Got some great production photos you'd love to share? Want a chance to win up to $250 in Pioneer Drama Service materials and royalties? Well, now you can combine both by entering Pioneer's annual photo contest.

The rules are simple. Email up to five photos to PhotoContest@PioneerDrama.com with the name of the play or musical, name and location of the producing group, and name of the director.

And yeah, the photo above is the kind of thing they're looking for: great set, colorful costumes, lively action, and fun facial expressions. 

Of course, the show has to be from Pioneer and must have been performed in 2023 or 2024. The deadline for entries is May 10, with the winner and two runners-up (each winning $100 in Pioneer stuff) being announced on May 21.

The really cool part? The winning photo will be featured in Pioneer's next catalog! You know your actors are going to love that. 

But don't take my word for it. Get all the deets by reading Pioneer's latest newsletter . And start sifting through those awesome production photos today!

Friday, March 29, 2024

Belmont Diary: To Life!

Four hours to rehearse and mount a brand new musical? No problem!

So I received the final feedback from Christopher Parsons, who directed the world premiere of Bringing Down the House (for a synopsis, cast info, and 20-page sample, click here), and I was glad to see that his recommendations for improving the play were fairly minor. In fact, he had just four: two about adding more one-liners for certain characters, one about shortening a serious scene, and one about the handling of the dynamite crates.

I also went through the script a few more times myself--the first time I'd looked at it since I sent it to Chris back in October. This time away was immensely helpful, as it allowed me to look at the play with brand new eyes. And made it painfully clear what needed to be fixed.

I was relentless in my edits. I beefed up the humor. I trimmed the fat. And I was surprised to find one embarrassing error in which one of the characters couldn't be where I said she was because she'd previously exited from the opposite side of the stage. That forced me to rethink her whole movement and I ended up adding a brief little scene with her that's not only funny but should really boost the tension as we head into the third act.

Protesters battle the demolition crew for control of the stage.

I'm really, really happy with the script now, which is why I submitted it to Pioneer yesterday. But what made me even happier than finishing the script was receiving over 100 photos from the show (111 to be exact) and seeing the fantastic set Chris and his team came up with.

I wrote the play so that only the barest of sets is necessary, making it easier for cash-strapped schools and community theaters to produce. Since the entire play revolves around the rehearsal for a musical, all you really need is a stage, a table, a chair, and a couple of building columns that the demolition crew prepare to drill into for the dynamite (no holes are actually drilled).

Narcissistic movie star Yvonne stops the show (quite literally).

I got the idea from a production of Gypsy I'd seen years ago at the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center. They used tables and chairs as needed for some of the scenes, but there was no backdrop. The whole show was performed on a bare stage so that the cinder block wall at the back of the theater--which I'd never seen before--served as the backdrop. It was one of the coolest sets I'd ever seen, and it really punched up the theatrical feel of the show. We weren't just watching a musical. We were IN a musical. 

You can easily do the same kind of thing with Bringing Down the House.

Assistant director Robin learns that "the Twizzlers are everything."

Of course, if you're feeling creative, you can build a theatrically-inspired set, adding whatever random  stage detritus you can throw together for authenticity. And that's exactly what the Belmont folks did, building a faux brick back drop to make the set really look like an old, abandoned theater in lower Manhattan, which you can see in these colorful photos.

Anyway, it's a beautiful set. And I'm thrilled that the play has finally been brought to life and that it was received so well.

A great big kudos to everyone at Belmont Day School and especially co-directors Christopher Parsons and Susan Dempsey for a job fantastically done.

Let's make this a regular thing, shall we?

Every good musical needs a kick line.

Wednesday, March 27, 2024

Chi-town Bookshop sends a message

J Shuman Photography

It's not often one of my plays gets mentioned in a major newspaper like the Chicago Tribune.

Okay, it had never happened before. But it has now.

The Kirk Players of Mundelein, IL, who I posted about three weeks ago, are back in the news with their upcoming performance of The Enchanted Bookshop (April 5-7 at Mundelein High School). Although it's billed as their annual children's show, it features a mixed cast, with 15 roles played by kids and 8 by adults. But first-time director Nat Brautigam is quick to point out that the show isn't just for kids.

"There are new things that I find every night in rehearsal that get a laugh out of me and make me really invested," he said. "It's the actors, it's the story, it's the kids. It's so beautiful."

As for the message of the play, it couldn't be simpler. "Read a book," says Brautigam. "Find your next adventure there and bring the characters to life in your home."

I couldn't have said it better myself. To read the whole article, click here. Better yet, if you're in the Chicago area, check out what is sure to be a magical production.

In all its beauty.

Sunday, March 10, 2024

Chi-town Bookshop makes reading fun

 

When I lead workshops at schools or theater conferences, one of the most common questions I get is: Which of your plays is your favorite? I'm not the first writer to say that choosing a favorite play or novel or story is like choosing a favorite child. You just can't do it.

And that's what I tell them.

But they never let me off the hook, so I usually turn the answer around to something like: This is what I like about some of my plays.

I truly believe The Last Radio Show is my funniest play, especially with the way the skits-within-the-play capture the rapid-fire cadence of those old-time radio shows.

Million Dollar Meatballs is a perennial favorite of producing groups, remaining as popular today as it was when it was first published nine years ago, and has the best physical humor of any of my plays.

I'm really happy with how my latest play, It Happened on Route 66, turned out. While it has a similar humor to my other plays, this 1950's-set comedy adds layers of romance and nostalgia that seems to hit a sweet spot with audiences.

And of course I have a special fondness for The Enchanted Bookshop. Not just because it's my best-selling play, but because schools and community theaters have found a ton of creative ways to use their production to encourage kids to read.

Some theaters give a free book to each child in the audience. Others encourage kids to attend the play dressed as their favorite book character. Still others have characters from the plays read books to the kids, either before the show or in on online promo.

The Kirk Players of Mundelein, IL have found yet another way to make reading fun.

This long-running community theater (58 years and counting!) is performing the show April 5-7, and to encourage kids in their community to read, they're holding a drawing for two free tickets to the show. To enter the drawing, kids need to read one of the books referred to in The Enchanted Bookshop and comment on the theater company's Facebook page as to what they liked about the book.

That's a lot of books to choose from. For those keeping score at home, these are the books on that list:

The Merry Adventures of Robin Hood

The Adventures of Tom Sawyer

The Wonderful Wizard of Oz

Heidi

Pollyanna

Oliver Twist

Treasure Island

Doctor Doolittle

Alice's Adventures in Wonderland

Frankenstein

Hopalong Cassidy

White Fang

Moby Dick

Robinson Crusoe

Little Women

The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes

Crime Never Pays

20,000 Years in Sing Sing

Mary Poppins

Don Quixote

Gone with the Wind

Not all of these books have characters in the play, of course. Some, like Moby Dick and Don Quixote, are only mentioned in passing (although the Don Quixote character does play a major role in my lighthearted prequel, How to Enchant a Bookshop.)

Anyway, I love the idea of this drawing. I'm sure it'll motivate a lot of kids to read, although there's at least book on this list that I hope no kid picks up.

It could really be a slog.

Saturday, March 9, 2024

Belmont Diary: Another Op'nin', Another Show


What could possibly beat the excitement of an opening night?

How about the excitement of an opening night for a brand new play?

That was the case for me yesterday as Belmont Day School in Belmont, MA premiered the play that they commissioned from me, Bringing Down the House. I wasn't able to attend, but director Christopher Parsons filled me on the deets. 

"The performance went off with a hitch," Chris said in his email, "and I'm thrilled to report that everyone thoroughly enjoyed the show. The cast delivered outstanding performances, and the audience response was overwhelmingly positive."

With a report like that, I couldn't be happier.

Of course, the play isn't perfect. No play is right out of the gate. But Chris will be sending me his recommendations for improving the play over the next few days--based on his rehearsing it and performing it and basically living with it for the last five months--and that'll allow me to give the script one final polish before submitting it to Pioneer.

By the way, that "an explosive comedy" in the poster isn't mine, but I kind of love it. Going to have to work that into the blurb.