Monday, December 6, 2021

That ticking timebomb

I don't usually discuss movies in this space. In fact, I haven't yet. But no movie has captured the travails and triumphs of the writer's life quite like tick, tick... BOOM!, which premiered on Netflix a couple weeks ago. And I can't say enough good things about it.

The film is based on the stage musical written by Jonathan Larson, who went on to fame and immortality as the genius behind Rent. What is now believed to be an undiagnosed case of Marfan syndrome led to Larson's sudden and tragic death from an aortic aneurysm on the morning of Rent's first off-Broadway preview. He was only 35.

tick, tick... BOOM! was Larson's third musical, coming a couple years before Rent's first staged reading in 1993, but his first to get multiple productions and serious attention.

I saw the stage musical in 2015 at Denver's now defunct Ignite Theater. To be honest, I was underwhelmed by it all. While I was drawn to the premise, I found the music to be mostly unforgettable and the production painfully claustrophobic, constrained as it was to a small black box stage dominated by a stack of weird, too-steep levels. I also felt the main character was unsympathetic and, frankly, annoying--a wannabe composer absolutely convinced of his own greatness despite failing to demonstrate it at any point in the two-hour-long musical.

Here's the thing. Although the musical was largely based on Jonathan's life, and even though the main character is named Jon, the stage musical is only semi-autobiographical. That's because it changes some key facts about Jonathan's life and fills in the rest of the cast with fictional characters. So there's nothing in the stage version that guarantees that he will ever find success.

When it came time to adapt the stage musical for the film, first-time director Lin-Manuel Miranda--who seems to be everywhere these days--made one strategic decision that changed the whole trajectory of the film. What he did, quite simply, is drop the semi.

From the very first scene, the film presents itself as the story of the Jonathan Larson, the creator of Rent. And it reminds us that we lost him right as he'd reached the cusp of success (no spoilers here).

That changes everything. No longer a wannabe, Jonathan is seen as the genius he was. What's more, we feel his struggle every time he runs into a brick wall trying to put his latest musical on its feet. As producer after producer slams the door on his dreams, all we can think is one thing: How can these people be so blind?

Andrew Garfield's ebullient performance also goes a long way toward making Jonathan a character you can't help but love. His Jonathan practically bounces off the walls as he leads his friends in an impromptu ditty about the Bohemian life ("Boho Life") or drools over his best friend Michael's newfound financial success as a Wall Street hack ("No More").

And guess what? The music is no longer forgettable! Say what you will about Lin-Manuel's directing chops but the guy knows how to stage a musical number. Song after song leaps off the screen with fantastic sound, dynamic camerawork, and a wry sense of humor. And while the dancing may not be as ambitious as it is in some musicals (this is an intimate, small-scale show after all), it is energetic and perfectly matches the spirit of each piece.

Seriously I've been humming the songs ever since I saw the movie a couple weeks ago.

Oh, and another thing. Having belonged to several writing groups, I know that many beginning writers love to write about their struggles breaking in. As if there's something unique or compelling about their story.

I've got one piece of advice about that. Don't. That's a story for the geniuses to tell, not us mortals.

Wednesday, November 24, 2021

DC Bookshop Christmas wins raves

Photo by Cindy Kane Photography

As the theater world crawls slowly back to normalcy, it's nice to see local media outlets support that comeback with enthusiasm. Preview articles, of course, are a big part of that. But I've also been heartened lately to see it include reviews as well.

Reviews are a funny beast. When I was the theater critic for the Colorado Springs Gazette, area theater companies--especially the smaller, hungrier edgier ones--were desperate to have me review their shows. They'd send me special invitations, make sure I got the best seats in the house. And of course, they all said they looked forward to reading what I thought of their production--both the good and the bad.

As it turned out, they didn't really want to hear the bad. More often than not, my negative comments would earn a firestorm of  would Which is fine. It's human nature to defend yourself when you feel yourself being criticizes. Perhaps I was a bit more critical of the local productions than a small-city critic had a right to be. But my reviews were always honest and heartfelt.

After that experience, I vowed I would always read reviews of my own work with an open mind. I would try to understand what they were getting at and see of I could learn from it to make my won writing better. Just as important, I would never, ever respond to the review directly. The work should speak for itself. If it doesn't, then that's on me.

Of course, as a writer of youth plays, I'm mostly immune from negative reviews. Nobody wants to be "that guy" who rips apart a kid show in the local press. The reviews are pretty soft, as they should be.

Plus, the reviews almost always focus on the talent--the local actors, directors and designers who put the show together. Also as it should be. I'm lucky if I even get my name mentioned as author of the play.

So it's refreshing when I actually receive constructive criticism in a review. That happened this last week with a couple review of last weekend's production of An Enchanted Bookshop Christmas at Arlington, VA's Encore Stage.

The first review, published Sunday in the online-only DC Metro Theater Arts, said that the plot has a lot of fun moments, and singled out the dog-ear scene and the Gift of the Magi update as highlights.

Interestingly, it also notes that Cinderella got a lot of laughs. Which is cool because I didn't even have this character in my script. Apparently, the theatre company modified the script to have this famously lovelorn princess frantically search for her slipper at the start of each night.

As I've said before, I'm all for having theatre companies add their own favorite literary characters to the show. But you have to be careful. My dialog is tight. There isn't a single line in the script that doesn't advance the plot. So adding dialog tends to make things drag. But if Encore Stage was able to delight the audience with their additions, I say more power to them.

The review concludes by saying that the show is full of spirit and a great way to kick off the holiday season.

The second review, which came out Tuesday in the Sun Gazette, liked the way I set up the promise of the second act with the ominous curtain closing line at the end of the first act ("What could possible go wrong?"). But it also complains that there are too many literary characters thrown at the young audience, resulting in "a bit of visual and verbal clutter."

Okay, this is completely fair. And it bring sup to one of the dirty little secrets of youth theater. The script isn't written for the audience. It's written for the director. And directors of youth plays want lots of parts with a fairly balanced number of lines among the parts.

So yeah, if it gets a little confusing trying to follow all of the characters, I apologize. But believe me, the director and the kids performing the play love it because it means more of them get to perform in the first place.

The reviewer goes on to praise the way I tied up all of the intersecting plot elements at the end. Which I find especially gratifying because I worked really hard on plotting this one.

The show runs one more weekend (December 3-5) at the Gunston Arts Center in Arlington. If you want to see what the raves are about, I encourage you to get yourself down there. And maybe read some of the stories of the characters to your kids ahead of time (I especially love The Velveteen Rabbit by Margery Williams). It'll make the show that much more meaningful for them. And you.

For tickets and information, visit the www.encorestage.org.

Photo by Cindy Kane Photography

Wednesday, November 17, 2021

The purrfect fundraiser

Photo by Jordan Simal

Well, my heart is nice and toasty now.

That's because I just came across a write-up in the News Virginian on Crimora Players' production of The Purrfect Crime. Turns out they're doing the show as a fundraiser for Presley Kelso, a nine-year-old girls who's been battling leukemia since 2019.

"Sometimes the kids come, the ones that we're doing the program for," says Carla Coffey, one of the actors in the show. "When they come, you can see their faces laughing and shining. It just makes the whole show. It really does."

What other reason do you need to write than this?

The show runs November 19 to 21 at the Crimora Community Center. Visit the theater company's Facebook page for complete details.

Friday, November 5, 2021

Hitting it out of the park


What do you do when you want to perform a play for thousands of schoolkids but COVID restrictions prevent the performance from being held indoors? You move it to the local ballpark! At least that's what the Enchanted Playhouse Theater Company of Visalia, CA is doing with this weekend's production of The Enchanted Bookshop.

Founded in 1991, Enchanted Playhouse was the first theater company in the area to cater to young audiences. Over the years, they've produced dozens of classic children's tales, from Beauty and the Beast to Treasure Island, working with local schools to offer free performances at the Fox Theatre. The program has been hugely successful, drawing upwards of 3000 students per show.

Unfortunately, COVID hit them hard, and when the Fox shuttered its doors, the directors were forced to cancel several shows. But they didn't give up, and eventually inked a deal with the local minor league baseball team, the Visalia Rawhide, to produce a show in their 2468-seat stadium.

Performing in such a spacious venue is not without its challenges, especially in making scene changes invisible to the audience. But the production as a whole has been a real win-win. The theater company gets to present The Enchanted Bookshop in a less intimidating atmosphere than a full-blown theater while the baseball team gets people gets to expose their venue to people who may never have attended a game.

Enchanted Playhouse looks forward to returning to the Fox in April. But the deal with the ball team has worked out so well, they plan to produce at least one show a year at the ballpark. "Not only do we want to help local school children with literacy and the chance to see a live theater performance," says EPTC board president Shanna Meier, "but also expose them to our local treasures."

Sounds like a home run to me.

Friday, October 1, 2021

Belmont mystery: Final draft done!



It's October 1--the day my contract with Belmont Day School said the final draft was due--and I'm glad to say I just got it in under the wire.

I turned in the first draft back on August 23, but with the multiple challenges of starting up school under new COVID guidelines, my contacts at the school weren't able to provide their inputs on it until this Monday. Fortunately, the inputs were few.

One of the reasons the school wanted to commission a play was because they'd struggled to find a play with plenty of strong female roles and no cultural insensitivities. I've always striven for both in my plays, but I was surprised and a little dismayed to find that even with my best efforts, I managed to include a couple of things that weren't completely sensitive. What's more, they distracted from what I was trying to achieve with those characters. So I'm really glad I was able to get feedback on the play.

I guess it just goes to show. A lot of the biases we deal with are so ingrained in our culture we don't see them even when we're looking for them.

On that note, I also changed the gender of one of the roles--a touchy-feely guru type who turns out to be something else--to a woman because I needed another female role and I wanted to break this particular stereotype.

Other than that, co-director Chris Parsons and Susan Dempsey think the play is terrific and can't wait to start rehearsals next week.

Oh, we have a title now! I'd originally proposed It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad Mystery. I thought it captured both the genre of the play and the crazy energy of the plot. And, as a callback to a certain 1960's caper film, it passed my smile test. Chris and Susan, however, wanted a shorter title and felt that kids wouldn't get the reference. Which I'm sure is true, but I was hoping at least some in the audience would get it (I figure that few of my cultural reference jokes are understood by everyone).

I may end up reverting to that title when I submit the play to my publisher. But for Belmont's production the title will be a much more svelte It's a Madhouse! I was a little worried that this too might be considered a little insensitive. I mean they're not called madhouses anymore. But the saying is so commonly used that I think the word has lost its original meaning and now only ever means a place where confusion and chaos reign.

And to make the title more meaningful, I changed some of the dialogue to give "madhouse" an entirely new, third meaning (a kind of pun, really).

Chris and Susan still need to read and approve this final version but we're almost there. Now's the fun part: putting the play on its feet.

I can't wait.

Monday, September 13, 2021

Show me the Bookshop


It really feels like live theater is coming back. My bookings started picking up in the middle of August, right when most schools across the country were opening back up for the new school year. Total bookings for the season are still a little behind my best season of 2018-2019, but they're an order of magnitude above where they were a year ago so I'm not complaining.

I'm starting to see more media mentions as well. Stained Glass Theatre of Joplin in the Show Me state of Missouri opened their production of The Enchanted Bookshop last weekend and they managed to snag a really nice (four-minute!) plug on local TV station KSNF for their last set of performances this coming weekend, including an interview with two of the actors (who play Margie and The Lady in Red). You can watch the entire clip here.

Co-director Janelle Rawlings has been in touch with me throughout their rehearsal period and has been more than generous in sharing photos and videos from the show with me. I always appreciate that.

By the way, if you're confused about the mention of a cast of 40 for this show (the Pioneer catalog says 23), there's a very simple reason for that. They added parts!

Yes, I allow that for this play. In fact, a lot of school and theatre companies have done the same thing (the play readily lends itself to that). But I always ask that you email me first and let me know, which Janelle was kind enough to do.

Who did they add? Prince, Princess, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, the Farmer's and the Three Blind Mice, and the Three Musketeers. They loved having this flexibility because it allowed them to cast every kid who auditioned while reserving the longer and more demanding parts for the adults.

If you're in the Joplin area this weekend, I strongly urge you to attend. See the details below. Stained Glass Theatre is a very talented, hard-working group of folks with a real passion for telling positive, uplifting stories. I know the show is going to be great!

Wednesday, September 8, 2021

The Last Radio Show to be published


Wow. That was a long wait.

Five and a half years after the world premiere of The Last Radio Show--and five and a half years after first submitting it for publication--my old-time radio farce finally got that big thumbs up. And from a new publisher for me, Heuer Publishing.

I'm thrilled--and a little shocked.

When I first submitted the play to my main publisher, Pioneer Drama Service, I thought it was a slam dunk. The play was a big hit when it premiered at the Block Box Theatre in Colorado Springs. And it fit in well with the kind of plays I already had published there.

There was just one problem. Okay, two problems. 

First, the main character--a mild-mannered office boy named Jimmy--has what amounts to an eight-minute monologue at the climax of the play when he saves the radio station by performing all of the parts in a superhero show. (Fortunately, he doesn't have to memorize it. Just as in the old days, all of the radio shows are performed from scripts that the actors hold in their hands.)

And second, the play is somewhat hard to produce, requiring dozens of sound cues and, as it turned out, a sort of juggling act as the radio actors switch back and forth between their radio scripts and the sound effects they have to make.

Pioneer passed, saying the play was too complicated for the schools that make up the bulk of their customer base.

Still, I managed to get a second production of The Last Radio Show in 2017 from Johnston Heights Church in British Columbia (one of only two so-far members of my five-timers club). I was told it was a huge hit there as well.

So I submitted it to all the usual suspects. Eldridge Publishing. Dramatic Publishing. Heuer Publishing. YouthPLAYS. All four rejected it.

I started to think it would never get published.

But a funny thing happened on the way to the trash bin. In 2020, my mystery/comedy Lights! Camera! Murder! got published by Heuer Publishing through their youth-focused subsidiary Brookyn Publishers. It did okay too, getting two productions in a year hard-hit by the ongoing COVID crisis.

So I decided to approach them with it again. After all, this strategy worked for me once before (Pioneer originally rejected Long Tall Lester before accepting The _urloined Letter).

After three months of review, The Last Radio Show was finally accepted it for publication, this time by Heuer itself. They focus more on the community theater marker so it makes a lot of sense.

I couldn't be more excited. When I first produced the play, I'd promised my insanely hard-working cast and crew (we threw the play together in three weeks) that their hard work would be rewarded when the play got published. I kept them up to date on the latest developments from the submission front, and they kept me up to date on their latest theater adventures. To be honest, it was kind of depressing to tell them about the rejections, but they kept the faith--and today that faith was rewarded.

If there's a lesson in all this, I suppose it's to never give up in a play or a book or whatever it is you're working on, even if it's been rejected by every publisher in the civilized world (speaking of which, exactly how many publishers does the uncivilized world have?). It may get a second chance at life.

Just don't stop writing. Or, come to think of it, submitting.