Saturday, February 3, 2024

A gem of a school

I've been to Idaho three times in my life.

The first time was around 1975 when I would have been 12 years old. Back then, the highlight of my year was the two-week camping trip I would take with my family. Each spring, my dad would spread out one of those humongo gas station road maps on a card table in our living room and pick the state that would be our destination that summer.

Sometimes we headed north or east from our home in Wisconsin (a couple times we even went to Canada), but usually, like Horace Greeley's young man, we headed west. And that year our destination was the Gem State.

Most of that trip is a blur now, but I do remember two things. The first is that we stayed at Craters of the Moon National Monument, and I have to say, to my twelve-year-old eyes, the rugged rock formations really did make it look like we were visiting the moon.

The second thing I remember was the Idaho Spud candy bar that we picked up at the local grocery store. At the time I thought it was really made out of potatoes. It wasn't until I became an adult and somebody invented Google that I was able to figure out that it only looks like a potato. It's actually made out of marshmallow, chocolate, and coconut flakes.

The next time I visited Idaho was in 1991, after I was fired from the Company Which Must Not Be Named and I was looking for a new job. Micron Technology brought me up from Austin, where we were living at the time, and to this day, it was the only interview trip in which the company paid for my wife Tammy to go as well.

The plant was in Boise, and although we liked the combination of small city atmosphere and easy access to mountains, by the end of my interview I knew the company wasn't for me. The company seemed to know it as well because they rejected me before I even left the building.

The third visit was this week, and I'm happy to say it was more memorable than the first trip and much more successful than the second. That's because I was there on special invitation of Adrian McCracken, the drama teacher at Hillcrest High School in Ammon, a suburb of Idaho Falls.

Radio days

Adrian's students were performing my play The Last Radio Show and he wanted me to offer notes on their dress rehearsals. 

I couldn't wait. I'd directed the world premiere in 2016, but I hadn't seen it since so I was excited to see what another producing group would do with it.

There was just one problem. The trip was on February, and although I'd grown up in Wisconsin and spent over twenty years in Colorado, since moving to Phoenix seven years ago, I've gotten really wimpy weatherwise.

Maybe wimpy isn't the right word. I mean, I can handle 110 degrees days as well as anyone. It's the cold I don't like. A mid-winter blizzard was the last thing I wanted to deal with. 

I needn't have worried. When I arrived in Idaho Falls on Wednesday, the temperature was a balmy (for them) 42 degrees and stayed that warm for the rest of my visit. I commended Adrian on his masterful management of the weather, but he turned it around, crediting me with bringing the warm weather up from Arizona.

Either way, I'll take it.

I got in around 1pm, with the first rehearsal starting promptly at 5pm, so I had a few hours to check out the town and grab dinner. With a population of 67,000, Idaho Falls lacks a lot of the cultural things bigger cities have. But there are two things it has that Phoenix doesn't. A gorgeous river running right through the middle of it (the mighty Snake). And this cold white stuff that covers the ground in clumpy patches.

Weird.

When I finally stepped into the school's auditorium, I was blown away. It was huge, with a capacity of around 1800 and, as I was later to learn, top-notch lighting and sound systems. The set they'd come up was gorgeous, both lovingly detailed and period-appropriate. It was also much more spacious than the cramped set I'd designed for the world premiere. Excited, I took a seat about six rows back to watch the first dress rehearsal.

A strange thing happens when you see one of your own plays for the first time in eight years. You forget plot points. You forget scenes. You forget whole pages of dialogue. And you end up experiencing the play as though someone else had written it.

Which is both a blessing and a curse. A blessing because I got to enjoy the gags as if they were fresh and new. A curse because the weaknesses of the play were all too painfully obvious to me (none of which I will elaborate on here). But overall it was a useful experience because I could see how to improve my writing in the future. 

But that's not why I was there. I was there to help improve this production. So after I gave a disclaimed--that the director, not the playwright, is the boss--I offered my thoughts. 

Across the board, the kids were well-rehearsed and extremely talented. And several of them had a real sense of comedic timing or came up with hilarious bits of physical humor. The big thing they had to work on was their delivery. Too many of them rushed their dialogue or didn't enunciate or project enough, which made it difficult to understand what they were saying. But then that's a common problem for young actors.

The next day was a full one. It started with three hour-long workshops in the library. Attendance was heavy, with about 100 students and maybe a dozen teachers and administrators at each one.

My first workshop was Five Ways to Punch Up Your Writing, a workshop that I originally developed for the Colorado Thespian Conference in 2013. At that time, it focused on playwriting, but for this visit I expanded it to address all forms of fictional writing.

The second talk was The Hero's Journey, Or Why Star Wars and Legally Blonde Are Really the Same Movie. It's been my most popular talk at both the Colorado Thespian Conference and Arizona Thespian Festival, and it was no different here, with students eagerly participating in the discussion of the George Lucas blockbuster.

The energy of the audience dropped off dramatically, however, when we got to the Reese Witherspoon vehicle, and I got to the sense that most of the students never seen it or didn't remember much about it. Which is why I'm going to replace that film with one that's more contemporary and way more popular: Barbie.

My final workshop was A Playwright's Journey, Or 48 Years to Overnight Success. I originally developed it for my visit to Kansas's Wichita County High School back in 2016, but I've expanded it considerably for this visit, adding a ton of quotes, cartoons, and interactive slides.

After lunch with Adrian at Red Robin, it was back to the school for a couple of question and answer sessions. The first was with the technical theater students, the second was with the cast and crew of The Last Radio Show. Both were extremely lively, with the kids firing an endless barrage of questions at me and me doing my best to keep up. I even got to quiz them about some thoughts I had on my next play.

Dinner was a delicious chicken alfredo provided by one of the theater students, and then it was back to the stage for the second dress rehearsal.

The cast had made significant strides from the previous night, and I was pleased to see that they had taken at least some of my notes to heart. Some of the actors still needed to slow down a bit, but with one more week of rehearsals ahead of them, I had every confidence in the world that they would get there.

We finished at 8:30pm--exactly twelve hours after the start of my first workshop in the library. I said my goodbyes to Adrian and the kids, then headed back to my hotel room where I immediately collapsed on the bed.

It was a long day, and an exhausting one. But it was also one of the greatest, most meaningful days of my life. And now I can't wait for my next school visit.

If you'd like to have me visit your school, I'm happy to provide a free, no-obligation quote. I charge $950 for a full day of workshops tailored to your particular needs. Travel and accommodations are, of course, extra. 

If that's too pricey for you, I can also do Zoom sessions for $100 per hour.

Complete details can be found on my Work With Me page. Or email me at todd.wallinger@gmail.com.

I'm easy to work with. Even easier if candy is provided.

Monday, January 1, 2024

A look ahead to 2024


I've got to tell you, it's getting tougher and tougher to pick my goals for the new year. The problem (and I know it sounds like a first world one) is that I'm actually pretty happy with my life right now.

I eat healthy (not as much fish as I'd like--my wife hates the stuff and so refuses to make it--but I squeeze it in when I can). I meditate regularly, which has greatly reduced my stress levels. I'm getting my writing in every day. And, miracle of miracles, even my doctor is satisfied how much exercise I do.

But a big reason I got to this point is because I set goals for myself in the past. And so, if I want to continue to improve my career, my health, my quality of life, I've got to continue to challenge myself in all of those ways. So here we go:

1) Finish three plays

Of course, I've got to start with a writing goal. And this one is the most important one to keep my career on track (and my royalties growing!).

I'm almost my done with my latest play, a time travel comedy, which I'll tell you more about soon (don't touch that bat dial!). That gives me almost twelve months to finish two more plays.

Normally, it takes me about four months to write a play. Once I get going, that is. But I often struggle with the concept, beat myself up for a month or two while I try to make it work, then abandon it in a fit of boredom before moving on to another play. And that can waste a month or two in itself.

So I think finishing three plays is doable. I leave the next one for my stretch goal.

2) Publish three plays

Of course, the next step after writing a play is getting it published. And as I mentioned yesterday, I've got a head start on this goal because my climate change allegory The Real Reason Dinosaurs Went Extinct should be coming out any day now.

There's also Bringing Down the House, my commissioned play which I finished in October. I can't submit it to my publisher yet, but I will after I see the premiere in March and give it one final polish.

And then there's that time travel comedy, which I'll submit for publication as soon as I finish it. If these last two get accepted for publication, then I'll reach the goal even without counting the new plays I'll be writing. I could be aggressive and set the goal at four, but nah. I'll be very, very happy if these three (or any three) get published.

After all, it'll represent a 300% increase from last year.

3) Travel to Hawaii

I know, I know. I made this a goal last year and failed. But it's going to happen this year, ho'ohiki wau.

We've set the dates. We've lined up a sitter for Honey the Wonder Dog (our ever helpful daughter Brooke). And we'll be booking the hotel soon. All we have to do is a little more noi'i.

Of course, we do have other travel plans for the year. Tammy and I will be traveling with our daughter Ashley to support her at her ultra-marathons in Flagstaff and some rodent-inspired town in southern Utah. And we always try to visit SoCal at least once a year, either San Diego or Palm Springs/

But of course, Hawaii is the one we're most excited for (I'm even starting to learn Hawaiian, can you tell?). We can't let this trip slip away again.

4) Be more present

This is a big one. My mind is usually buzzing with so many things that I often fail to focus on what's right in front of me, whether that's a conversation with my family, a movie, or a particularly tasty dinner.

But if there's one thing I've learned from my meditation app over the last few years, it's this: The present moment is precious. It's sacred. And really, it's the only thing any of us really have. So I really need to work on this.

There's just one problem. When December 31 rolls around, how will I know if I've met this goal? There's no app to count how many minutes I've spent being present. No bathroom scale to measure my focus.

So all I can do, when I come to my year-end wrap-up, is be honest myself whether I truly made an effort to be present and whether I saw any improvements in my life as a result.

And now that I look back, I see that I'd made this a goal for myself just two years ago. I guess I would have remembered that if only I had, you know, focused.

Sunday, December 31, 2023

A look back at 2023

 

Stop the world, I want to get off!

Or maybe just slow the spinning a little bit. I mean, seriously. I've made it through sixty of these solar revolutions now, and I swear this was the shortest one yet.

Still, I have nothing to complain about. Theater is back and bigger than ever, and my playwriting career is thriving.

But how did I do with my goals for the year, which I proudly posted on this page exactly 364 days ago and have long since forgotten? Let's take a look...

 1) Publish four new plays

No. I ended up only publishing one, How to Enchant a Bookshop. And the only other play I finished writing this year (Bringing Down the House) was written on commission so I can't submit it to my publisher until after it premieres in March.

It's not that I haven't been writing. I have. In fact, I'm pretty sure I met my goal of writing 90 minutes every day. If there was a day when I knew I wouldn't be able to write (vacations, Christmas), I worked ahead to make sure I averaged 90 minutes per day.

And yes, sometimes that means writing in the back seat of the car while we're driving to our daughter's place in Tucson or a week at the beach in San Diego.

I just think I'm taking more time to write a play. I'm putting extra effort to develop my characters, and polish the dialogue, and make sure that everything flows in a natural way. I guess I like it that way.

In any case, I'm very close to finishing my latest play, a time travel comedy, so I'll soon have two plays in the publishing queue.

And then there's The Real Reason Dinosaurs Went Extinct. I finished that two years ago but it only got accepted for publication this year and won't actually be published until early 2024.

So I'm really excited for the new year. I may have fallen short in the number of new releases this year, but I've got a great head start on 2024.

2) Hit 10K Steps Every Day

Almost. I missed only 25 days over the year and 7 of those came in January when my smartwatch was new and I was still getting used to tracking my steps. By the time December rolled around, I managed to have a perfect month, hitting 10,000 steps every day. And I ended up with an average of 11,405 steps per day for the entire year. Not bad.

My informal goal of hitting 250 steps per hour (out of 10 hours per day) has been a lot harder to achieve. I only had four perfect weeks during the year, but I quickly discovered that this goal is wildly unrealistic and can actually put a damper on your personal relationship (nothing like getting up from a restaurant meal with your wife to squeeze in those extra 100 steps you need before the hour runs out).

 So while it's important to keep walking throughout the day, and has really helped me feel better and have more energy, I don't want to be obsessive about it either.

3) Work with an Online Italian Tutor

Not even close. I just got too busy. It was impossible to a weekly session with a tutor.

Or at least that's what I tell myself. The real reason is I chickened out. I know in my heart that the only way to become truly fluent in a foreign language is to speak it a lot, especially with someone who's native to the language. I just can't get myself over the hump of actually committing to a particular tutor and meeting time.

But I did continue to develop my reading and listening skills by following a boatload of Italian Instagram accounts.

4) Travel to Hawaii

Nope. It was a simple matter of money. I didn't have any.

But my plays are doing really well this year, and it looks like the royalty check I'll be getting in May will cover not only the usual debts I accrue over the previous twelve months and some desperately needed home improvements, but a week-long trip to the islands. (Thank you, Pioneer!)

We're now planning a trip to Oahu in September, when the weather is perfect and the tourists are largely gone. It's going to be kupanaha.

Wrapping up


So I went 0 for 4--not a great year for goal reaching. But it's not all bad. That's because I managed to achieve two goals that I'd failed to achieve in 2022 and which I'd left off my list for this year.

The first was leading a workshop at the Arizona Thespian Festival. I don't know what changed, but after submitting my Hero's Journey workshop for several years and not getting any response, they finally gave me a big thumbs this year. I've reported on my experience elsewhere, but let me just state for the record that it was well worth the wait.

The second was to see more plays. Similar to my experience with the Thespian Festival, I'd applied to be an adjudicator with the ariZoni Theater Awards last year with no response. Well, for whatever reason, I got accepted this yea. So far I've seen five productions, and while I'm not allowed to express my opinions on them here (the ariZonis are much stricter than Colorado's Henry Awards ever were), I can say that the experience has been a blast.

I finally feel like I'm getting plugged in to the local theater scene. And that's what makes this year feel like a huge success instead of a letdown.

Maybe I'm just bad at picking goals?

Saturday, December 2, 2023

Enter stage left

As I've mentioned before, it's rare when I get to see a production of one of my own plays. It's not that they're not being performed. Since I moved to the Phoenix area six years ago, there have been 21 productions of my plays here.

It's just that I don't want to insert myself in what is normally a private, educational experience. Most of my plays are performed by schools and, as I've been told many times by teachers, the presence of the playwright makes kids super nervous.

They don't need that kind of pressure, so I generally opt to skip those shows.

But it was different a couple months ago when I learned that Stage Left Productions in Surprise--a northwest suburb of Phoenix--would be performing An Enchanted Bookshop Christmas.

For one thing, it was being performed by the youth theater arm of a highly regarded professional theater. For another thing, it was being performed by a mixed cast, with Margie the bookshop owner, her sister Ellen, and billionaire Philip being played by adults with a ton o' stage experience.

Oh, and one more thing. I'd never seen the play performed before.

So I contacted artistic director Cody Dull and he set me up with a pair of tickets for today's afternoon performance (even better, I was able to attend with my wife Tammy, who sees even fewer shows of mine).

A weird thing happens when a playwright sees one of their plays for the first time, especially if it's been a few years since they'd written it. They forget they wrote it.

Or maybe that's just me. Either way, I saw the play with entirely new eyes. I'd forgotten the plot. I'd forgotten most of the dialogue. I'd even forgotten the ending. So it was a very eye-opening experience. In a way, I got to experience the play the same way a lot of the audience did (except for the one guy who said he'd been to performance to date).

And I really liked it. Sure, there were some implausible parts. And some of the jokes fell flat. But overall--in my humblest, most objective opinion--I found it quite funny and heart-warming.

Of course, most of the credit for that went to the supremely talented cast. Every single one of them got a well-earned laugh from the audience, from Margie all the way down to the Little Match Girl. And the direction was top-notch, a particular challenge in a mixed cast like this. The pacing was perfection and the cast really played together like a team. I was especially impressed with how they managed so many characters on what I thought was a fairly small stage.

Interestingly, Cody announced before the beginning of the show that the play was being performed in repertory with Jones, Hope and Wooten's Dashing Through the Snow, since they could use the same set (the lobby of an inn in the JHW play, a bookshop in mine).

Anyway, I enjoyed the performance so much that when I ran into Cody after the show, I told him that I'd like to work with him in the future. He was surprised, since he'd assumed I'd already had a relationship with the East Valley Children's Theatre in Mesa.

I didn't tell him I'd submitted four different plays to their Aspiring Playwrights Contest over the years with not even an honorable mention to show for it. What I did tell him, in an email after our conversation, was that I had a new play that was almost done. Would be interested in looking at it?

Yes, he would be.

Oh, happy day. I would love to develop a relationship with a local theater. Of course, I'm currently working with Belmont Day School in Massachusetts on Bringing Down the House, but the development process is so much more effective when the playwright can sit in on rehearsals.

So I'm putting a final polish on that play now. If he decides to develop it, great. If not, I'm no worse off than if I'd never sent it.

I'm just glad I discovered am exciting new (for me) theater company.

Sunday, November 12, 2023

The teacher's journey

So yeah, I was a little nervous presenting my workshop on the Hero's Journey at the Arizona Thespian Festival on Saturday. As I mentioned in my last blog post, I hadn't presented it in seven years, and although I'd practiced it several times in the last couple weeks, I was worried something would go wrong. Either the projector wouldn't work, or the attendance would be next to nil, or the kids wouldn't be responsive.

It didn't help that the staff member who checked me in had me sign an agreement that said, in his words, I wouldn't hit any of the kids. (He added that if any of the kids acted up, I should report it to the staff--and they wouldn't hit them either.)

But like most things, the experience was not as bad as I had feared. Funny how life works out that way.

The first of my two sessions was fairly lightly attended, with only about 25 students and adults sitting toward the back (waaaay back) of a long, narrow room meant for 90. But then came the second session and it was completely different. The kids poured in and poured in and kept pouring in until nearly every seat was occupied and the latecomers had no choice but to sit at the front (mwah ha ha!).

The discussion was lively too, with both students and adults eagerly answering my questions, such as which event in Star Wars represents the catalyst?--and particularly fanatical Star Wars fans filling in details I'd forgotten, even though I just rewatched the movie last week. (I can never remember the name of the creatures that Luke Skywalker practiced his sharpshooting skills on.)


Womp rat

The Q&A session that followed was especially lively, with lots of questions fired out me from all sorts of directions. My favorite question came from one girl who asked whether the Hero's Journey can be applied to an entire series of films--the MCU, for example. Huh, I replied. I'd never thought about that before.

After a brief thunk, I went on to say that you can certainly apply individual stages of the Hero's Journey to a series of films, (Stakes Are Raised perhaps, or All Is Lost), but that it would be very difficult to fit all 15 stages into the entire series as well as each film and it's really in the individual films where you want to make sure you follow the Hero's Journey.

But maybe someone has already done it. I'll have to do more research (i.e. bingeing the tube).

If I had any doubts about coming back next year, they all vanished a few minutes after my talk was finished. That's when a shy young student from Mesa approached me to say that she'd played the Book Fairy in her school's production of The Enchanted Bookshop four years ago and that experience is what made her fall in love with theater in the first place.

She even asked to take a selfie with me--a first. (Ryan Reynolds eat your heart out.)

You can't buy moments like that.

All in all, it was a fantastic experience and I would highly recommend other playwrights and theater artists to get involved with this wonderful conference.

As for my plans? I believe Ahnold said it best...

Tuesday, November 7, 2023

Belmont diary: The finish line

So last week I received notes from director Christopher Parsons on my "final" revision of Bringing Down the House. I'm always a little nervous when I'm waiting for notes because I fear that the changes are going to be many and painful. You know, like juggling the order of events. Or changing the ending to something more uplifting. Or making the main character a goat instead of a duck.

Fortunately, that hasn't happened yet. And Chris's notes were especially benign, as he requested only 12 minor line edits. 

I won't list all of the edits here, but there were a couple that I'd like to discuss as they raise some interesting issues with respect to theater and playwriting. 

The first is that early in the play I had Sidney, the show-within-the-show's book writer complain about the theater they rented saying, "It looks like it hasn't seen a show since Macbeth. And by that, I mean the original production."

I thought that was a funny line. But beyond that, there's a lot of things that go wrong in the show-within-the-show, and my idea was that this violation of one of the theater world's most pervasive superstitions--the uttering of the word "Macbeth" onstage--was what set the bad luck in motion.

But Chris felt uncomfortable having the word said as part of the play, and it occurred to me that a lot of other directors might have the same objection. Besides, the line would be just as funny with the title of any other play that's known for being old. So I changed it to Romeo and Juliet.

No, I don't have a trigger now for all of the disasters that happen to our happy troupe, but I also won't have any directors passing on the play because of a single word.

And besides, I think the new line may be funnier.

The other note is that at a later point, I had Cameron, the temperamental director, address the cast with, "All right, listen up, guys." Now to me, "guys" is a gender neutral term. It refers to both males and females. But I grew up in the Midwest where that's common usage. And apparently it's heard in Southern California as well because Legally Blonde: The Musical has the song,  "Omigod You Guys," which is something Elle says to her very female sorority sisters.

But Belmont School is in Massachusetts and that sense of the word may not be standard there. So no worries. I changed the script.

Still, I'm thinking of changing this and a couple other lines back before submitting the script to my publisher.

Oh, yes. There's another thing worth mentioning? The one line I thought for sure I'd have to change actually made it through the school's DEIB review.

It's when the show-within-a-show's lyricist Elliot informs Cameron that they're changing the show to a pirates vs. aliens thing. The new title? Invasion of the Booty Snatchers.

Anyway, I accepted all of Chris's change requests so my work is now largely finished. All that's left is to wait for the production in March, and to make one final, final revision based on Chris's last batch of notes from actually mounting the show and on my own viewing of the play (nothing like audience reaction to learn which gags work and which don't).

But it feels really good to reach this milestone, and to provide a script that Chris and crew are now eager to produce.

Wish them luck.

Oops. scratch that. Wish them broken legs.

I've got to brush up on those theater superstitions.



Friday, November 3, 2023

May the Force be with me

After two years of trying to get into the Arizona Thespian Festival, I'm pleased to announce that I finally got accepted this year. And I'll be presenting the same workshop that I did my last year at the Colorado Thespian Conference, all the way back in 2016.

It's titled Plot 101: Playwriting Lessons from Star Wars. In it, I talk about the Hero's Journey as first proposed by mythologist Joseph Campbell in 1949 and later expanded by Hollywood types Christopher Vogler and Blake Snyder.

My version is a little simpler. Instead of 12 or 14 or 15 steps, I slim it down to just seven. I don't want to overwhelm beginning writers. And I want them to absorb the seven steps so that it quickly becomes a part of their writing DNA. That's hard to do with 15 steps.

The workshop was a hit in Colorado. I had asked for an extra large room, but even that wasn't enough. Over 100 students showed up, and most of them had to find places on the the tables or floor.

The best part? The students were really involved. Like passionately, emotionally involved. They love Star Wars (and the other movie I discuss) and they really wanted to understand how the story was put together.

This year, I'll be presenting the workshop in the last two slots of the festival, 1:15pm and 2:45pm on Saturday, November 11. If you're attending the festival, stop by and say hi. Or better yet, come and join us. I guarantee you'll have an out-of-this-world time.

Even if I can't guarantee you a chair.

Update: If you attended one of my workshops (or even if you didn't) and would like to download a copy of my you can find the one for Star Wars here and the one for that other movie here.