Friday, March 29, 2024

Belmont Diary: To Life!

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

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

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

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

Protesters battle the demolition crew for control of the stage.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Every good musical needs a kick line.

Wednesday, March 27, 2024

Chi-town Bookshop sends a message

J Shuman Photography

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

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

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

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

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

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

In all its beauty.

Sunday, March 10, 2024

Chi-town Bookshop makes reading fun

 

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

And that's what I tell them.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Merry Adventures of Robin Hood

The Adventures of Tom Sawyer

The Wonderful Wizard of Oz

Heidi

Pollyanna

Oliver Twist

Treasure Island

Doctor Doolittle

Alice's Adventures in Wonderland

Frankenstein

Hopalong Cassidy

White Fang

Moby Dick

Robinson Crusoe

Little Women

The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes

Crime Never Pays

20,000 Years in Sing Sing

Mary Poppins

Don Quixote

Gone with the Wind

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

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

It could really be a slog.

Saturday, March 9, 2024

Belmont Diary: Another Op'nin', Another Show


What could possibly beat the excitement of an opening night?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, February 23, 2024

Sign of support

I think every playwright dreams of seeing their name in lights. Maybe that's silly. Few theaters outside of Broadway even have lighted marquees, and those that do usually just display the title of the play.

And that's fine. I mean, seriously, how many of us amateur-theater playwrights are famous enough that our names can sell tickets?

Pretty much none, I'd say.

But still we can dream, can't we?

Well, that dream became a kind of reality for me this week when I came across this photo in my Facebook feed. Greenwood Little Theatre of Greenwood, MS is producing The Enchanted Bookshop next month, and to promote it, they took out an entire billboard.

Sure, my name is pretty small. In fact, you may not even be able to read it in the picture. But still, it's up there, hanging high above the tree-lined streets of Greenwood.

And besides, it's not about the playwright or even the play. It's about the people putting on the play. And that is one serious sign of support for a community theater that has survived and thrived for 68 years (second longest-running theater in the state!).

Well done, guys. I hope you sell a ton of tickets,

Friday, February 9, 2024

George Washington Ate My Homework to be published

I have a file in my playwriting folder titled "Story Ideas." It's where I dump all the plots I've thought of but haven't been able to break yet.

Whenever I finish a play, I go through the file again to see if any of the ideas click.

Filed away

Whole Latte Love spent a couple of years in that file. It started out as a You've Got Mail wannabe, with a large unnamed coffee chain trying to put a smaller shop out of business. I played around with that concept for a long time, but I still couldn't break the story.

Then I thought maybe it would serve a magical coffee. That didn't help either, because I couldn't decide which magical spell to use.

It wasn't until I got the idea of having the shop serve six magical coffees which get mixed up by a newbie barista that the story took off.

It Happened on Route 66 also spent a lot of time in that file, back when I thought of it as a 1950's version of Waiting for Godot. The idea was that the denizens of a greasy diner were waiting for a rock star, but he never shows up so one of the soda jerks is drafted to pose as him.

The problem was that it was too close to the previously published Pioneer play The Nifty Fifties. The solution was to flip the conflict, making it revolve around a celebrity (now a movie star) who arrives by accident (he car breaks down(, doesn't want to be recognized, and is forced to pose as a waitress in order to escape the press.

Time passages

But no idea spent as much time in that file as my time travel comedy. The concept was to make a historical Enchanted Bookshop, with several famous figures from history making their appearance and much of the humor coming from the anachronistic interaction among them.

There's one thing that all time travel stories have in common. They take place over several locations and several eras as our heroes travel through time fighting evil, righting wrongs, or just trying to get history back to the way it was before they screwed things up. And that was my approach too--at first.

But I soon realized such a play would be difficult to produce, requiring often cash-strapped schools to create dozens of sets and possibly dozens upon dozens of costumes (after all, those historical scenes would have to include at least a few background characters for authenticity). So I rejected it.

Besides, I prefer writing single-set plays. The format poses a fun challenge, and I love seeing the incredible detail theaters put into their sets when they only have to build one of them instead of dozens. 

Of course, the fact that my single-set plays sell a lot better was also a huge plus.

But how can you make a time travel play single-set? I racked my brain. I scribbled ideas. I deleted those ideas. I scribbled some more.

Nothing worked.

Stormy weather

Then one day I had a brainstorm. What if the entire play took place in a mad scientist's lab? What if the time machine he invented broke? And what if, as our result of that, our heroes timeport more and more historical figures into the present so that they have to figure out how to get them back?

There was still one problem. How would our heroes know they changed history if they're stuck in the lab?

That's when I had my second brainstorm. What if there's a hamburger restaurant upstairs and our heroes realize something's wrong when a couple of employees come downstairs to complain about the noise and it turns out the restaurant has become a very British fish-and-chip shop?

I loved it. There was plenty of conflict. The situation was a gold mine for humor. And it would be a piece of cake to produce, with a single-set centered around a simple, boxy time machine and period costumes required for just nine historical figures.

A non-working title?

But what would I call it? Well, my working title was Hysterical Figures, but I knew that was corny as heck and didn't really communicate the fact that it's a time travel story.

For a while I went with Time Warped, which gets across the time travel idea but doesn't let potential customers know that it involves historical figures. (It was also the title of a short-lived Trey Parker show in the 90's, but nobody remembers it so that wasn't a concern.)

Then I remembered a middle-grade novel I'd written in the early 2000's titled George Washington Ate My Homework. The book only had one historical figure travel through time--the titular President--but it never got published so I figured I was free to reuse it.

The title was perfect for the play. It tells you it's a time travel tale. It tells you that at least George Washington travels through time. And it passes the smile test

And so, with the manuscript completed and a title selected, I sent it off to Pioneer and they accepted it 17 days later (second only to the 7 days it took It's a Madhouse! to get accepted).

Science stuff

There are so many good scenes, it's hard to decide which one to share with you. So let me give you an excerpt which shows how the three students who form the comical heart of the play find the time machine in the first place:

NAOMI: So what does Dr. Bizwang have you doing? Cleaning up and stuff?

JUNIE: No, of course not! I have a lot of responsibilities around here. I'm--I'm his research assistant. 

NAOM: His research assistant? What does that mean?

JUNIE: Well, um, it means I assist with his research. And stuff.

NAOMI: Stuff?

JUNIE: You know, like science stuff.

WARNER: So you understand what all these gadgets do?

JUNIE: Oh, yeah. Most definitely.

WARNER: All right. What does this thing do? (Picks up a random gadget.)

JUNIE: That? Uh, it's very technical. You wouldn't understand.

WARNER: Well, what does this thing do? (Picks up another gadget.)

JUNIE: Um, that's pretty technical too. You wouldn't understand.

WARNER: Is there anything I would understand?

JUNIE: Yes. Whatever you do, don't push the red button.

WARNER: What red button?

JUNIE: The one under the "Do Not Push the Red Button" sign.

WARNER: (Turns to the time machine.) Okay, you've got to know what this thing is!

JUNIE: I sure do. This happens to be a time machine.

WARNER: Whoa! You mean it can send us back in time?

JUNIE: Well, yeah. But I wouldn't recommend it.

WARNER: Oh, come on! We could skip surfing the web altogether! Do all our researching in person!

JUNIE: Listen to me, Warner. Last week, Dr. Bizwang tested the time machine by sending a mouse back to 1492 and it never returned. Do you know what that means?

WARNER: It found the world's biggest hunk of cheese?

JUNIE: No! The mouse is stuck in a time warp! Do you want to be stuck in a time warp, Warner?

WARNER: That depends. What's the cheese situation like?

The play should be released in time for the new school year in the fall, if not sooner. In the meantime, you can read the synopsis and cast list by visiting the play's web page on the New Play Exchange.

And if, while you're there, you check out some of my other plays, I'm not going to complain.

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 on the moon.

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

The next time I visited the Gem State 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 feeling seems to have been mutual because the company rejected me before I even left the building--the first and last time that's ever happened to me.

Third time's a charm

Visit number three 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.

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 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 in February, and although I grew up in Wisconsin and spent over twenty years in Colorado, I've spent enough time in Phoenix now that I've gotten really wimpy weatherwise.

Maybe wimpy isn't the right word. I mean, I can handle 115 degrees days as well as anyone. It's the cold I can't stand. 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 close to that for the rest of my visit. I commended Adrian on his masterful management of the weather, but he turned the compliment 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 may not offer as many cultural and recreational activities as big cities do. But there are three things it has that Phoenix doesn't. Crystal clean air. A big 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.


First time all over again

When I finally stepped into the school's auditorium, I was blown away. The space was huge, with seating for 1800 and, as I was later to learn, top-notch lighting and sound systems. Apparently, it was only a few years old. Idaho Falls, like most places in America, has long put sports first. But the principal at Hillcrest fought for and got the funding for a state-of-the-art performing arts center.

If only more high school principals were so forward-thinking...

I was just as impressed with the set, which was 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 lines. Heck, 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.

I also offered some tips on delivering their lines to make sure they get the maximum laughs. And I shared a couple things I'd learned in blocking my show that I felt would make their actions clearer.

A packed day

The next day was scheduled to the minute. 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 adapted it to address all forms of fictional writing.

In it, I explained how things like defining a dominant personality for each character and adding hidden agendas subtext can make your story come alive. The workshop also includes several scenes from actual plays, allowing the students to flex their acting muscles.

The second workshop 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 asking questions and offering their own thoughts on the George Lucas blockbuster.

The energy of the audience dropped off dramatically, however, when we got to the Rese Witherspoon comedy, and it became clear that most of the students had never seen it or didn't remember much about it. Which is why in future versions of this workshop, 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 this one for my visit to Kansas's Wichita County High School back in 2016, but I expanded it considerably for this visit. This talk is my personal one as I include cartoons, quotes, and trivia questions to share the lessons I learned during my decades-long struggle to get published.

After a relaxing 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 but very insightful barrage of questions at me and me doing my best to keep up. I also asked for their thoughts to help me solve a problem with my next play.

During the break that followed, I signed 26 posters for the cast and crew. Dinner was a delicious chicken alfredo provided by one of the theater parents. 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'd taken at least some of my notes to heart. A few of the actors still needed to slow down a bit, but with one more week of rehearsals ahead of them, I have every confidence in the world that they'll get there.

Wrapping up

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. I met some great people. I learned a ton. The passion of the kids inspired and reenergized me.

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. 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.