Tuesday, April 16, 2019

Pioneer photo contest returns


Lakeside Lutheran High School of Lake Mills, WI won last year's contest
with this colorful action shot from their production of The Nifty Fifties.  

It's that time of year again. From today through May 3, Pioneer Drama Service is accepting entries for their annual photo contest. The winner gets a $200 gift certificate for goodies they can choose from the entire Pioneer catalog. To see the complete rules, click here.

So give it a shot. I know there's a ton of great photos out there. I've seen 'em.

Saturday, March 30, 2019

Writing Tip #2: Make Your Heroes Likable


One of the most common critiques I get about my writing is that my characters are often unlikable. My first impulse is to cry out, that can't be. That character was based on me!

I'm kidding, of course. My characters aren't based on anyone, living or dead.

But they are unlikable. And I think that's because I push their personalities so far toward an extreme that they stop being human. And that's a problem. If your characters are unlikable, then your audience doesn't have anyone to root for. You audience won't care what happens to them.

My soon-to-be-published play Real Pirates Don't Wear Tiaras is a good example. The story revolves around five pampered princesses who are forced to pose as pirates in order to save their skins. The princesses were likable enough, but I gave them princely beaus--and those guys were complete jerks: self-centered, lazy and, well, kind of dumb.

When I submitted the script to my publisher, they accepted it, but they also asked for changes. They thought the princes were fun, but they had no redeeming values. If the princes were so awful, why were the princesses even with them?

My publisher had a point. So I went back to the old drawing board.

There's a scene toward the end of the play where Blacktooth, the pirate who shanghaied the princesses in the first place, throws everyone--princes and princesses alike--into the brig. In the original draft, the princesses come up with the plan to rescue themselves:

                      EMERALD
          Oh, Norbert! I'd always hoped we'd be 
          together till the end of our days. I 
          just never dreamed the end would come 
          so soon!

                      NORBERT
          Don't be afraid, Emerald. I'm sure
          someone will save us.

                      RUBY
          Who's going to save us? Everyone we 
          know is knocked in this cell.

                      OPAL
          Well then, maybe we should get to 
          know more people.

                      RUBY
          Sure, Opal. We'll get right on that.

CRUSTY ENTERS. She goes to grab the key.

                      AMBER
          Wait. Maybe that's not such a bad 

          idea.

                      RUBY
          What idea?

                      AMBER
          Getting to know more people. In fact,
          I see someone we should get to know 
          right now.

                      DOROTHY
          Didn't you hear? That's the past due 
          notice from Mr, Skinflint. If Miss 
          Margie doesn't come up with three
          thousand dollars by tomorrow, Mr. 
          Skinflint is going to close the shop.

After I got the note from my publisher, I tried a version where the princes helped the princesses make their escape. But it didn't work very well. The play is about female empowerment, and there was no way to have them help without taking away from the princesses' independence.

So instead, I added some dialogue to have Donahue--the laziest, most cowardly prince of all--explain why he was the way he was. And the reason why was something that, I hope, we can all identify with:

                      EMERALD
          Oh, Norbert! I'd always hoped we'd be 
          together till the end of our days. 
          just never thought the end would come 
          so soon!

                      NORBERT
          I'm sorry, Emerald. I guess I've 
          failed you.

                      WILLOUGHBY
          We all did.

                      CARLTON
          That's right. We should have gone
          after Blacktooth like we said we 
          should.

                      RUBY
          Yeah. Now that you mention it, why
          didn't you?

                      DONAHUE
          Don't blame them. It was all my fault. 
          I'm the one who talked them out of it.

                      PEARL
          But why, Donahue? Why did you do that?

                      DONAHUE
          I don't know. I guess I was scared.
          Everyone expects prices to fight
          bloodthirsty pirates and evil knights 
          and hideous monsters with bad teeth. 
          But I don't know how to fight.

                      PEARL
                 (to the others)
          That's true. He's not much of a 
          fighter. But he does make me laugh.

DONAHUE makes a funny face. All the PRINCESSES laugh.

                      AMBER
          That's all right, Donahue. I guess we
          all feel trapped by the roles we play.

CRUSTY ENTERS. AMBER watches her as she goes to grab the key.

                      AMBER
          And I know somebody else who must feel 
          the way.

Following AMBER's gaze, NORBERT and WILLOUGHBY rise to their feet.

                      NORBERT
          Do you want us to knock her out for you?

                      WILLOUGHBY
                (pats himself all around)
          I might have a bottle of sunscreen on me.

                      AMBER
          No. Just stay back. I'll handle this.

And that's where I left it. The princes offer to help. The princesses decide to do it themselves. And even the least likable character reveals a touch of humanity.

That's what I call a win-win-win.

Tuesday, March 19, 2019

Talking Babka


I am just old enough that the Internet will never not seem like a miracle. Skype is one example. We actually had videophones in the 1970's, with Pittsburgh being one of the first places they were tested, but the technology never caught on. Besides being expensive, it turned out that people really didn't like being seen.

Well, Skype changed all that. Not only did they make it free (a miracle in itself), but they managed to get people to stop caring about that intrusive camera.

And that's great, because yesterday it allowed me to talk to the cast of a production of Babka Without Borders.

The school was Belmont Day School in Belmont, MA. Director and drama teacher Christopher Parsons was as excited to have his students meet me as I was to meet them, and other than one brief technical issue (mostly involving my forgetting to click my camera icon), the call went off without a hitch.

Chris was unable to set up his laptop to allow me to see everyone, so after each student ran up to the camera to introduce themselves, they returned to the bleachers so they could watch their intrepid instructor ask me the questions they'd submitted ahead of time.

Here are a few of them:

Q. How long did it take you to write the play?

A. Writing an hour and a half a day, I can usually finish a play in four months. But I struggled a bit with this one because it was difficult to get the tone right, and it ended taking me about six months.

Q. What was your inspiration for the play?

A. I once read about a town that straddles the border between Belgium and the Netherlands, and I was fascinated by a picture that showed the border wrapping around the outdoor patio of a cafe.

Well, that got me thinking. What would happen if the border didn't wrap around the cafe but cut right through it? And what if the two countries that divided the cafe weren't allies but enemies that went to war? It just seemed like a premise with tons of potential for conflict and humor.

Q. Why did you write the play as a single-set?

A. I love single-set plays because they're so theatrical. When you have one set to build, you can make it a lot more detailed and realistic. That was especially important for this play because I wanted the painted line that represents the border take a prominent role.

Of course, the main challenge with writing a single-set play is that you can't rely on scene changes to keep things fresh. So the way around that is to constantly shuffle the characters who are onstage.

Q. Are any of the characters based on real people?

A. No. My characters are always inventions. If they weren't, my family would have disowned me by now.

Q. Which character is most like me?

A. I don't know if Peter is like me, but he's the character I would most like to be. Between his idealism, his joie de vivre, and his gift of gab, he was a lot of fun to write, and I just love his whole approach to life.

Q. Which character was the hardest to write?

A. Luisa, for sure. She also had to play the sensible yin to Peter's romantic yang. But, as one of the leads, she also had to be likable. That's not an easy combination to make work. But I think as audience members, we also like characters who are earnest and well-meaning, so I tried to bring out those aspects of her personality as well.

Q. Why did you set the play in early 1900's Europe?

A. They're mostly forgotten today, but when I was a kid, I loved reading Leonard Wibberley's Mouse books: The Mouse on the Moon, The Mouse That Roared. They were funny books about a tiny European country ruled by a silly, pompous royal, but behind the funny was a very effective satirical take on modern politics. Bunkelburg and Primwick are very much patterned on that country.

Q. What do I want the audience to get out of the play?

A. I've always been struck by something John Glenn observed when he first orbited the earth. Looking down on that beautiful blue marble, he could see the continents as clear as day. But he couldn't see any borders.

Let's be honest. Borders are inherently arbitrary, and their main purpose is to separate people. As human beings, our goal should be bringing people together, not building a wall between them.

Q. Why did you choose babka?

A. I needed a pastry that was Eastern European, but "Kolaches Without Borders" didn't sound right and blintzes would be difficult to throw with the required precision (besides which, I've always been a big fan of Seinfeld).

Q. What kind of babka is your favorite?

A. Chocolate, definitely chocolate. Everything else is lesser babka.

I'm always available for Skype calls, so if you'd like to pick my brain about the play you're performing, send me an email by clicking here.

Thursday, March 7, 2019

The show must go on


Nobody shows more resourcefulness than community theaters. And they have to. From shoestring budgets to time-strapped volunteers, these scrappy little performance groups face no end of challenges.

In the case of the Driftwood Children's Theatre, that meant the director quitting just days before opening night. But, as they say, the show must go on. And so stage manager Valerie Parker--who hadn't directed a show in decades--stepped up to the plate.

Not only that, but they had just four days to build the set. But they were all ready for their first of several special performances for area third-graders earlier this week.

If you're in the area this weekend, be sure to check out the show. And if you're not, you might want to check out this local newspaper article that tells the whole inspiring story.

And yeah, the set looks fantastic.

Sunday, February 10, 2019

Rave review for Bay State Butler


Gateway Players of Southbridge, MA opened their 44th season this weekend with The Butler Did It! and I understand the cast did a fantastic job. At least that's the word from The Citizen Chronicle's theater critic Katie Alicea-Tilton in her enthusiastic review of the show.

The Butler Did It! was my first full-length play and my second mystery, so when I wrote it I was still feeling my way around this challenging genre. For inspiration, I turned to Agatha Christie, not just for the classic misdirection techniques she used in her novels but for the character of Edwina Corry, a world-famous mystery author who serves as the amateur detective in the story.

I soon realized there are two mistakes you can make in writing a mystery. One, you make it so easy that everybody figures it out. Two, you make it so hard that nobody figures it out.

Admittedly, the clues I planted were pretty hard--so hard that I worried I was veering too close to the second of those two mistakes. To make up for it, I added one line of dialogue that completely gives away who the culprit by showing that they know more than they're supposed to.

I know that some hardcore mystery fans have picked up on it right away. But apparently, the play still manages to fool most of the people who see it.

And yeah, I'm really glad that the critic and her mom were fooled.

Friday, February 1, 2019

Writing Tip #1: Raise the Stakes!


Stakes are important. They're what make us care about the story in the first place. Without stakes, there's no tension. Without stakes, there's no one to root for.

Every writer knows they need to give their hero a meaningful goal, but that's not what we're talking about here. Stakes go deeper. Stakes answer the question: what does the hero lose if they don't reach their goal?

This is a lesson I had to relearn when I was polishing the script of the pilot for The Enchanted Bookshop TV series.

In the teaser, Miss Margie is threatened with eviction because she's several months behind on her rent. Shortly after, the Lits have a brief exchange what they can do to help.

Pollyanna picks up the NOTE from the counter.


                      POLLYANNA
          What's this, Dorothy?

                      DOROTHY
          Didn't you hear? That's the past due 
          notice from Mr, Skinflint. If Miss 
          Margie doesn't come up with three
          thousand dollars by tomorrow, Mr. 
          Skinflint is going to close the shop.

                      POLLYANNA
          Oh, no! What's going to happen to 
          us?

                      DOROTHY
          Who cares what happen to us? It's 
          Miss Margie I'm worried about.

                      TOM
          Yeah. This shop is her life.

                      POLLYANNA
          Hey, I've got an idea! Why don't we 
          open a lemonade stand? I'll bet we 
          could raise the three thousand dollars 
          in no time!

                      DOROTHY
          You know we can't do that, Pollyanna.
          That would break the two rules the 
          Book Fairy gave us when she first 
          brought us to life.

                      TOM
          That's right! If we ever leave the 
          shop or are seen by any humans, we'll
          disappear into our books forever.

If you've seen the play, then you might remember that this is pretty close to what the Lits say soon after we meet them.

The scene does a lot. It introduces the two rules that the Lits have to follow. It describes what'll happen if Margie doesn't pay her rent. And it throws in a little humor by showing how the overly optimistic Pollyanna would address the problem.

Unfortunately, it failed do the one thing it needed to do: lay out the stakes for the Lits.

That's because I played it safe. In my mind, I knew that the Lits would disappear into their books forever if Margie lost the shop. But I didn't want the stakes to be about them. I didn't want the Lits to seem selfish.

So I made the stakes about Margie. And I thought if we saw how much the Lits care about her, then we'll be rooting for them.

The problem is that it doesn't make us root for Margie. As my manager pointed out, why do we care if Margie loses the shop?

And if I had any doubt about his wisdom (I didn't), I got almost the exact same criticism from a reader at a screenwriting competition.

John's suggestion was to add a scene showing Margie doing a reading to kids at a library. If Margie loses the shop, then the kids lose their stories.

It's a good suggestion, and I'm sure it would work. But one thing I've learned is that if you need to clarify something and your choice is between explaining it by providing additional dialogue or simplifying it by removing the source of confusion in the first place, the better choice is to simplify.

So this is what I came up with:

Pollyanna picks up the NOTE from the counter,

                      POLLYANNA
          What's this?

                      DOROTHY
          Didn't you hear? That's the past due 
          notice from Mr. Skinflint.

                      TOM
          If Miss Margie doesn't come up with 
          the money by tomorrow, that old miser
          will shut down the shop and we'll 
          disappear into our books forever!

Short. Punchy. And, I hope, more effective.

Yes, it leaves out the two rules and it leaves out the fact that Margie could lose the shop. But I can always drop those into a later episode.

Right now, in the pilot, I have one job, and that's to lay out the stakes that will keep viewers coming back.

What are the stakes in your story? What does your hero stand to lose if they don't reach their goal?

Wednesday, January 23, 2019

Fifth Time's the Charm


If Saturday Night Live can have a five-timers club, then maybe I should start one too.

I'm kidding, of course, but the thought crossed my mind because I just got word that Johnston Heights Church in the Vancouver, BC suburb of Surrey has just booked one of my plays for the fifth time.

We've had a long, fruitful relationship going all the way back to 2014, when the church's drama group first produced The Butler Did It! They found it the old-fashioned way, by searching the Pioneer Drama Service website. Their production was such a hit that after it was over, Carol A., who oversees the play selection there, asked me to recommend another play.

At the time, I was trying to get a second production of Kill the Critic! so I sent her that, not really believing that a church would be interested in my naughty farce. They weren't, but Carol did think it was hilarious.

So a sent her a play that Pioneer had just published, Million Dollar Meatballs. That one was perfect for them and became play no. 2.

In 2017, Carol emailed me again, asking what else I could send her. I had directed a wildly successful world premiere of The Last Radio Show the year before, but was unable to get any publishers interested in it. Carol decided to take it on, and they gave it an equally successful second production. So successful, in fact, that she said the church was shaking from all of the laughter.


Last year, they went one step further. They presented the world premiere of my play Lights! Camera! Murder! (changing the name to Lights! Camera! Action! to that it wouldn't raise eyebrows when seen on the church's marquee).

Unfortunately, I wasn't able to make it out there for the show, but they sent me a video of it so I could gauge the response and use that to punch up the script.

And this year. Well, they took me up on my suggestion to do one my published plays and selected The Purrfect Crime.

More important than the plays, however, is the money that this vibrant, missions-oriented church has been able to raise through these productions. Every year, they choose one local charity to donate a large chuck of their proceed to. One year it was a homeless shelter. Another year, it was a group supporting Syrian refugees.

So yeah, I'm thrilled that they like my plays. But I'm even more thrilled to know that they're using my plays to help make life a little easier for so many people in need.

Keep up the great work, guys!