Tuesday, June 23, 2020

An Enchanted Bookshop Christmas to be published

Hearing yes never gets old.

Especially when it comes quickly.

That was the case with my latest submission to Pioneer Drama Service. I had been wanting to write a Christmas play for a long time. Christmas is my favorite holiday, and every year my family and I gather around a roaring big-screen TV to binge-watch our regular lineup movies and specials.

It's a Wonderful Life. A Charlie Brown Christmas. How the Grinch Stole Christmas (Boris Karloff and Jim Carrey). A Year Without a Santa Claus. And you'd better believe we run A Christmas Story on continuous loop all Christmas Eve.

But how do you come up with something original? All the "Santa Claus threatens to cancel Christmas until kids learn to shape up" stories have already been done. And I'm not interested in adapting classics like A Christmas Carol. Unless...

My play The Enchanted Bookshop put a new spin on some well-loved literary characters  What if I did the same with some of the great Christmas characters from literature?

I knew the play would be called An Enchanted Bookshop Christmas. But that's all I had. I struggled for a while to come up with a concept that would capture the spirit of the original while heading off in a whole new direction (for one thing, bumbling burglars were completely out).

I tossed around ideas for almost a full year, jotting down thoughts, starting a outline or two, only to dump everything in a junk file when I got sick of it all.

It wasn't until I put the play aside for a few months and came back to it fresh at the beginning of this year that the ideal concept came to me. Once I nailed down the outline, the writing of the play went very quickly.

I submitted it to Pioneer at the end of May, thinking it was already too late for this year. After all, it generally takes three to six months to get an acceptance, and another three or four months for editing. And theater directors often start planning their Christmas shows in the summer.

But despite the pandemic, the good folks at Pioneer moved lightning fast. They accepted the play in 24 days, and said they'd try to get it out by fall.

Like I said, the plot is entirely new, but I wanted to keep some favorite bits from the original. There's a new gag about some damage to a book that becomes very personal when the protagonist of that book comes to life (similar to Sherlock Holmes' broken "spine" in the original). There are more close calls as a human character nearly catches a glimpse of the Lits, which would cause them to disappear into their books forever. And there's another humorous debate as the characters argue about their backstories (I think you can guess which literary Amy appears in the scene below):
AMY: My sisters and I are so poor. We barely own anything! 
DOROTHY: Wait. Don't you live in a big house in the country?

AMY: That drafty old shack? Please. 
LITTLE MATCH GIRL: I wish I had a shack. 
DOROTHY: And a whole wardrobe full of gowns and dresses? 
AMY: Rags. 
LITTLE MATCH GIRL: I wish I had rags. 
DOROTHY: And plenty of firewood to keep you warm? 
LITTLE MATCH GIRL: Oh, I really wish I had firewood! 
AMY: I know a manuscript I could give you. 
I think the play's a lot of fun, and I know it'll put you in the Christmas spirit.

If you'd like to be one of the first schools or theater groups to put on the play, keep checking back at this blog. I'll be sure to post the link here as soon as it's released.

Wednesday, June 17, 2020

The Hero's Journey in Legally Blonde

A few years ago, I put together a lecture for the Colorado State Thespian Conference on the hero's journey in Star Wars. I broke down the movie into its major plot beats and showed how they match up with the three-act structure first laid out by mythologist Joseph Campbell and developed further by screenwriters Christopher Vogler and Blake Snyder, among others.

It was the most popular class I ever taught, drawing over a hundred kids in a room set up for a couple dozen. I was looking forward to teaching it again, but a year later, I moved to Arizona. Unfortunately, I've been unable to get myself on the staff of the Thespian Conference here.

But the lesson lives on. And that's because my post where I share my PowerPoint from the class has recently become my most popular post.

So I thought people might be interested in the other part of the class, the part where I applied the same structure to the 2001 Reese Witherspoon vehicle Legally Blonde.

Why this movie? Well, most writing students already know that the Hero's Journey works for testosterone-driven action and sci fi films like Star Wars. I wanted to show that it works just as well for something funny and light like this beloved girl power comedy.

My breakdown of Legally Blonde is shown in the chart above. Feel free to download it as a JPG by clicking on the chart itself or download a PDF version by clicking on this link.

Looking at it you'll notice that, unlike a lot of writing teachers, I don't dictate a page count for each of the story beats. After all, some very successful movies play fast and loose with the generally accepted onces (Star Wars itself takes 40 of its 125 minutes to get to the first beat).

But realize this. If you take too long to get to that next beat, you risk committing the only real sin of writing: boring your audience.

And yes, some teachers include several more beats, but I wanted to keep my template simple for the beginning writers I usually teach. Trust me, if you can cover these seven beats in your story, you're well on your way to crafting a compelling, structurally sound tale.

So let's jump in and see how the indefatigable Elle Woods forges her journey:

1) Catalyst--This is the beat that gets the whole story started. Some beginning writers confuse the Catalyst (or Inciting Incident or Call To Adventure, as some teachers call it) with Accepting The Challenge, but there's an easy way to keep them straight. The Catalyst is something that happens TO the hero. Accepting The Challenge is what the hero DOES in response to the Catalyst.

There are two ways to play the Catalyst. Some movies, like Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, starts with the Hero in a negative status quo, i.e. a world in which the Hero is already suffering (Charlie's poverty). In this case, the Catalyst takes the form of a positive opportunity for the Hero, something that will allow the Hero to break out of the status quo and build a better life (e.g. the Golden Ticket).

A more common--and effective--way is to start the Hero in a positive status quo, a world in which the Hero has everything they need to be happy. The Catalyst then becomes something that upends that blissful situation, snatching that perfect world away from the Hero.

The second path is the one that Legally Blonde takes. As the film starts, Elle Woods is well on her way to a SoCal version of nirvana. She has rich parents, a newly minted degree in fashion merchandising (my daughter looked into it once, it's much harder than it sounds), great friends, and the world's most eligible bachelor as her boyfriend. All she has to do is get that boyfriend to propose and the rest of her life will be bliss.

But Warner doesn't propose. In fact, he dumps her, making it very clear that he considers her unworthy of him. Elle is devastated. Her dreams of a "happily ever after" are destroyed.

2) Accepting The Challenge--This beat is the Hero's response to the Catalyst. And Elle goes big. Despite a (perceived) lack of smarts and a lifestyle that's been centered on swimming pools and the latest fashions, she's determined to follow Warner to Harvard and get her own law degree.  For this, she's convinced, is how she's going to prove to Warner that's she worthy of him and win him back.

As audience members, we already know this is a bad goal. Warner's a jerk. We don't want Elle to get back with him, now or ever. But we know this is part of the growth path she needs to follow to get to her True Happiness, so we go along with her.

Elle now enters the first half of Act Two, what Save the Cat's Blake Snyder called the Fun & Games section. Free of any real cost to her decision, she gets to explore all the ways that her new world (Harvard) is different from her old world (SoCal). This is always the funniest part of a movie, as it gives us a chance to see our Hero make a fool of herself as she flounders around trying to learn (or fighting against) the rules of this new world.

3) Stakes Are Raised--Also called the Midpoint or Turning Point, this is where things get serious. The fun and games are over. Now the hero really has something to lose.

In the movie, Elle goes to the Halloween party to win back Warner, only to be rejected one last time. After he shoots down her plan to get an internship, saying she's just not smart enough, she finally realizes she's never going to be be good enough for him.

In my class, I argued that this was one of the weaker beats in the movie since Elle's stakes aren't raised in any meaningful way. One of the students pushed back, claiming that this defeat provides Elle with the motivation she needs to succeed. But, as I pointed out, things really haven't changed for her. As audience members, we always knew she would never get Warner back. And sure, maybe she'll work a little harder now. But she's already working pretty hard in her classes.

Blake Snyder once observed that a lot of writers think the most important beat is the Inciting Incident or the Climax, but it's really the Midpoint. The whole movie revolves around this beat. The other beats are about what happens. This beat tells you why they matter.

When I first read this, it was like the heavens opened up. It changed my whole approach to writing. No longer did I dread the long hard slog of Act Two. Instead, I relished the challenge of coming up with a turning point that would raise my story to a whole new level.

In fact, the Midpoint is such an important beat, you could almost say it launches a whole new act, with the second half of Act Two becoming Act Three, and Act Three becoming Act Four.

A four-act structure? Why not? After all, a lot of films break their stories into four different worlds, with the middle two worlds occupying the Second Act. Legally Blonde does it with Southern California, Harvard, the law firm, and the courtroom. Star Wars does it with Tatooine, the Millennium Falcon, the Death Star, and the X-Wing Fighter.

If you think of the Midpoint as an act break, then you've split the three acts into four. And making the Midpoint an act break should really hammer home how life-changing this beat needs to be.

Still wondering if you've raised the stakes enough in your story? Then ask yourself one thing. What does your hero stand to lose now that they didn't before?

If the answer is nothing, rework it. Your readers (if not your hero) will love you for it.

4) All Is Lost--After the struggles of Act Two, your hero should lose it all at this critical beat. All Is Lot is where the mentor often dies, as when (spoiler alert!) Obi Wan Kenobi is killed by Darth Vader. Killing off the mentor is a highly effective story choice as it forces your hero to prove themselves by fighting their final battle alone.

But you can't have a death in a romantic comedy, so what do you do? You find another way to get rid of the mentor.

Legally Blonde handles this extremely well. After Elle gets the internship, Callahan becomes her mentor--and he's a good one. He teaches her how to do research. He teaches her how to build a case. Most importantly, he teaches her how to think like a lawyer.

Unfortunately, this all comes tumbling down when Callahan tries to seduce her. Not only does this convince Elle that no one will ever respect her for her brain, it also makes it impossible for her to work with him any longer. The relationship, if not the mentor, is dead.

5)  Final Push--Here the hero picks herself up, dusts herself off, and makes one last attempt to achieve her goals. And this time she has to do it alone. Or at least without her mentor. In most movies, the hero has allies she can lead into battle.

Elle does this by taking the lead of Brooke's defense team. Emmett may be guiding her, but it's up to Elle to win or lose for her client. She's the one who argues the case. And she's the one who makes the observation that finally turns the case her way.

For more on this, read on...

6) Final Victory--And now for the payoff. The hero succeeds, finally achieving their goal. But there's a little more to it than that--and it's all in the way they win.

As we know, the hero of every story must follow an arc. They start out being one thing (Act One), and through the lessons learned from their mentor, and the battles they've fought with their allies, they become something else (Act Two).

In Act Three, they may even reject their old self and attempt to achieve their goal based on their new skills only. But they only succeed when they combine something about their old self and their new self.

Star Wars does this. Luke starts the movie with mad piloting skills. In Act Two, he learns to use the Force. But when he gets to Act Three, he loses confidence in his ability to use the Force and relies solely on his piloting skills to destroy the Death Star. He quickly discovers that's not enough. He keeps missing the target. It's only when he combines his new self--the Force--with his old self--the Pilot--that he hits the target and succeeds in blowing up that massive space weapon.

Legally Blonde does something similar but opposite. At first, Elle tries to win the trial by being her new self--a quick-thinking, hard-nosed defense attorney. But it's not enough. Her legal arguments are going nowhere. Only when she combines that new self with her old self--a beauty expert--does she recognize that Brooke's stepdaughter must be lying about washing her freshly permed hair.

Not every movie does this. But if you want to make your story the best it can be, you're going to want to find a way to have your hero combine their two selves.

7) Final Reward--Now the hero gets to revel in their victory. But the main point of this beat is not to show how the hero revels. It's to show how much they've changed.

Elle has definitely changed. No longer the bubble-headed blonde who only cares about looking good and landing a wealthy husband, Elle is now a successful lawyer who has proven herself to everyone by graduating it the top of her class.

She has achieved her True Happiness. But, as in the best of these endings, it's a very different happiness than what she pictured in Act One. This is made painfully clear at the end when Warner asks her to take him back--and Elle rejects him. What better way to show how much she's changed?

I know a lot of writers reject templates like these, thinking it inevitably leads to formulaic stories. And yes, if you follow them blindly, it can lead to a story that's completely predictable and dull. But that's your job as a writer: finding new ways to make those old structures work.

After all, they've been used to tell stories for thousands of years, so much so that they've become a part of our DNA. Who are we to change them?

Wednesday, June 3, 2020

Mini Meatballs

This week, we've been talking about some of the challenges keeping theater alive in these days of coronavirus.

I've been really impressed with the resourcefulness that actors and directors all over the world have shown. But perhaps no one has impressed me more than the teachers and students of Sherman High School in Sherman, NY. When their production of Million Dollar Meatballs was cancelled by the state's stay-at-home orders, they came up with a totally ingenious way to let the show go on.

A little thing called Lego.

Their handiwork can be seen in the video above. I don't know if it was inspired by The Lego Movie or one of my favorite shorts of all time, but it's a lot of fun. And I've got to say, that's one of the most detailed sets I've ever seen--of any size.

You may not want to take on such an intricate, manually demanding technique. But let their creativity be an inspiration for you.

In theater, there are no bounds to what you can do.

Tuesday, June 2, 2020

Centennial State Zoomers

So that Chicago area production was not quite the world virtual premiere of The Enchanted Bookshop. Montezuma-Cortez Middle School in Cortez, Colorado streamed their Zoom performance of the play on May 9, which you can view above (the play itself starts at 12:37).

This production was different in a couple ways. First, it was more of a reading. Most of the kids memorized their lines, and they all wore costumes, but the stage directions were read by a narrator.
And second, the cast used screen sharing to show all speakers in a scene at once.

The Chicago production only showed one actor at a time, which gave it a slick, movie-like feel but required each of the performers to turn their camera on before they start speaking and turn it off after they're done.

Screen sharing gives the production more of a theatrical feel because it allows the audience to keep track of who's in the scene. It's also easier to manage since each actor only has to turn their camera on when they enter and turn it off when they exit.

I think both are great choices. It's really up to the director as to what they're going for.

Like the Chicago kids, the ones in Colorado did a Q&A after the show (that starts at 1:53:19). If this is a new trend, I like it! Maybe we can keep it going after the pandemic is over and we can all perform live again.

Friday, May 29, 2020

Zooming along

The last couple months have been brutal for amateur theater, with thousands of shows being cancelled or postponed.

Pioneer Drama Service and other publishers have done a great job bringing out tons of new plays designed to be performed over Zoom or other social apps, AKA "virtual theater". But I'm glad to see that some drama teachers are making Zoom work for traditional plays as well.

That's what's happening on Saturday, May 30 at the Chicago area's Kids W.A.Y. Acting Academy. Jossie Harris Thacker, a former dancer on In Living Color, founded the academy several years ago to provide a safe place for kids to develop self-confidence while practicing their performance skills. She also offers classes that teach kids how to use their acting tools to combat bullying.

In early March, Harris Thacker was deep into rehearsal with The Enchanted Bookshop when the statewide shelter-in-place order went into effect. Instead of cancelling the show, the resourceful director decided to move it online.

Her biggest challenge in rehearsing on Zoom? Getting twenty kids to sit still!

Their hard work paid off, and the production is now getting a lot of media attention, including a write-up on the Chicago Now blog and even a mention on local TV.

It may be the world's first Zoom production of this best-selling play.

Harris Thacker encourages everyone to watch tomorrow's Zoom broadcast. If you'd like to support these amazing kids by tuning in, please register on the academy's website (its free!). The show starts at 6 p.m. CST, and will be followed by what's sure to be an animated Q&A with the cast.

I know I'll be there!

Monday, May 18, 2020

My 9th year sales

It was supposed to have been my best year yet. Over the last twelve months, I had not one but two new plays come out--a musical version of my top-selling play and my first foray into the ever popular pirate genre. Add to that the steady number of hits my other thirteen plays had been getting and I should have seen a tidy increase in royalties over last year.

Then COVID-19 happened.

Schools and community theaters started shutting down in mid-March and the number of new bookings went to zero practically overnight. Although I haven't seen too many cancellations, most of the performing groups are pushing their already booked productions into next year. And that means they're pushing back the payment of their performance fees as well.

As they should. Nothing is more important than keeping every single person healthy and safe.

But I'm trying to make a full-time living as a writer, and this whole mess just pushed that goal out another year or two. If I was 25 or 30, that wouldn't be a big deal. But I'm 57. And I'm not getting any younger.

So the year was a tough one. But not as tough as it could have been. While most of my plays showed a dip in productions, the musical had a very strong start and several older plays show surprising strength, which bodes well for their longevity in the school and community theater market.

My total number of productions for the year was 315, a 13% drop from the 361 I had last year and just slightly better than the 312 I had the year before that. That drop was entirely due to losing the last six weeks of the year, and if hadn't been for the COVID-19 crisis, I would have made it over the top.

For the third year in a row, my bestselling play was, of course, The Enchanted Bookshop. This year it had 121 productions, which is down from the record-breaking 156 I had last year but is a pretty good showing for an abbreviated year. And it's already got 27 productions booked for next year.

My #2 play for the year was Million Dollar Meatballs, topping You're Driving Me Crazy! for the first time. With its 32 productions, this restaurant farce is really proving to be an evergreen play, and I couldn't be happier.

One of my brand new works, The Enchanted Bookshop Musical, was #3 this year with 29 productions, an impressive number for a large-cast musical. Interestingly, although it was third in the number of shows, it was second in terms of revenue due to the additional royalties I get from the sheet music and CD sales. In fact, this musical and the play that inspired it generate more in royalties than my others thirteen plays combined. But perhaps the best thing about the show is that it got me two of my three new countries this year: Greece and India.

My #4 play was my collection of driver's ed shorts, You're Driving Me Crazy!, with 25 productions. That's a significant drop from the 39 shows it had last year and the high-water mark of 61 it had in 2016-2017, its first full year of publication, and is a much bigger drop than you'd expect from the quarantine hit alone. Recently, however,, Pioneer Drama Service has been promoting it as something that can be easily adapted to virtual theater (think Zoom) so, with any luck, things will pick up soon.

Most of the rest held steady or showed only a slight dip so I won't bore you with the details. But I do want to talk about Babka Without Borders, my quirky comedy set on the border of two mythical European countires. Although it only ranked #9 out of my 16 plays, it was by far my most improved play of the year, going from a big fat goose egg in its first year of publication to a respectable 11 this year. And to provide the icing on this coffee cake (ha! get it?), it also brought me my seventeenth country with a production in South Africa.

In their annual letter that accompanied the royalty check, Pioneer warned their playwrights to expect even fewer productions next year as large public gatherings are limited by continued social distancing requirements.

I hope we get a vaccine soon, for the health of theater as well as my pocketbook. But more important than those is the health of you, the actors and directors and crew members who make theater happen.

Be well. Stay safe. And keep the faith.

We'll get through this. Together.

Tuesday, May 5, 2020

Golden State trouble makers

Nearly all of this spring's theater productions may have gotten cancelled due to the COVID-19 crisis, but some schools are digging into their archives and posting productions from the recent past.

That's the case with Valley Christian Middle School in Cerritos, CA. They performed Trouble in Paradise Junction way back in November and just posted a video of it to YouTube (seen above).

I have a soft spot for this school because this is the second play of mine they've done in the last year, having produced The Enchanted Bookshop last March (you can find their recording of that show on my Video page).

I'm super impressed with their production of Trouble. Here you've got a show that calls for eight widely different sets--from a diner to a dance studio to a sprawling town square--and yet they were able to make it all work by swapping out a few simple set pieces. The performances were great, and they got a ton of laughs from the enthusiastic audience.

Great jobs, guys! Stay healthy, and I hope to see you back on stage again soon!