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.

Monday, August 23, 2021

Belmont diary: First draft done

Or, in the theater world, END OF PLAY.

It always feels good to type those three magic words. It feels especially good when you have a hard deadline and you manage to finish five weeks early.

That's how I felt today as I emailed the completed script of my commissioned play to Chris Parsons and Susan Dempsey at Belmont Day School.

Six weeks ago, when we first discussed the play, I wasn't sure I'd make it. At ninety minutes, the play is one of the longest ones I've ever written. It also has by far the most roles. In the past, a play like this typically took me more four to six months to write. Knowing that, I started writing an extra half hour a day--two hours in total. That definitely helped. 

But I got lucky too. I don't know if it was the pressure of the deadline or just the story itself, but everything just seemed to click. All the characters came to life with their own unique personalities and their own agendas. The plot points all fell into place. And things that I'd introduced in the first scene suddenly took on a whole new meaning when I got to the last scene. Amazing when that happens, but it happens more often than you'd think.

As for the goals I set for myself after completing the rough draft, I was only moderately successful. I was able to cut the lead role's lines from 163 to a slightly more comfortable 154. But balancing the acts proved to be a little tougher. I only managed to slim down Act One from 56 to 54 pages and boost Act Two from 24 to 25 pages. I wish I could have done more, but I was afraid that any additional surgery would kill the patient.

One of the challenges with this particular play was coming up with a place to hide the treasure which the audience could figure out for themselves but wouldn't be so obvious that everyone would figure it out. I think I came up with a good one--a location that's fully visible to the audience for the entire duration of the play. I even provide a clue in the form a riddle that one of the characters finds, but it's coded enough that it should he tough to solve.

Still, every mystery writer knows that solving the mystery isn't enough. You also have to include a big fight scene or some other physical confrontation after the mystery is solved to serve as the climax. Something that puts the detective or whoever is solving the crime into real danger. It adds tension. It adds excitement. And it shows exactly what the hero was risking all along by poking their nose in.

In The Butler Did It!, the climax was the murderer attempting to smother the helpless butler with a pillow. In Lights! Camera! Murder! it was the murderer trying to trick the perky publicist into drinking poison.

This play is lighter than both of those so I made the climax lighter as well. Instead of putting a character in danger, I put the treasure itself in danger through some humorous swordplay. I think the moment works well, but I'll have to see what Chris and Susan think.

That's another reason it was nice to finish early. We now have five weeks to revise the play before rehearsals start October 1.

And that may prove to the hardest part of all.

Wednesday, August 11, 2021

Still waiting...

So it's been sixteen months since I signed with a literary agent and I feel as far from getting a book published now as I did then.

Book publishing is slow. And COVID hasn't helped. Because of the uncertainty of the effect the pandemic would have on book buying, editors put off making offers and already scheduled releases were pushed back several months or more. Things are opening up now, but I'm not sure the publishing work is quite back to normal.

I currently have three books out on submission--one has been out since April 2020--and I've only gotten a few rejections (which is good) and no nibbles. The proverbial molasses in January is faster.

The first book to go out was a chapter book adaptation of The Enchanted Bookshop. It isn't the play that many of you are familiar with. Instead, it's a new story featuring many of the same characters and their adventure inside the novel Treasure Island. My agent, the illustrious Stephen Fraser, submitted it to seven publishers--all big houses where I wouldn't have a chance of getting read without a rep.

As far as I know, it has received one official rejection but I believe that Steve heard from several other publishers that they're not really interested because he's stopped pushing it. And that's disappointing. I thought the concept was a natural for an easy reading chapter book series but that one rejection said that the premise seemed familiar and that the execution seemed old-fashioned, especially with characters like Pollyanna and novels like the Robert Louis Stevenson swashbuckler.

I can't argue with her. It is old-fashioned. On purpose. I can't use contemporary characters and novels with obtaining the rights and I can't be sure those will even be available to me. Besides, the popularity of the play has proven that teachers want to teach their students about these classic books. I still think the book series would find a ready tie-in with library summer reading programs and grade school curricula.

The second book was a middle-grade novel about a kid inventor titled Edison Young and the Ravenous Robosaur. I first wrote it way back in 1999, way back when the world was still innocent and carefree (yeah, right). The novel badly needed updating, but I was able to take care of that in a couple months and sent it off to Steve in August. He absolutely loved it and promptly submitted it to six publishers and even handed it off to the agency's film agent.

So far, Edison Young has received four rejections. One publisher loved the humor but said the set-up and execution felt overly familiar. Another said she found the concept intriguing and the imagery well-done but she didn't fall in love with the writing enough to take the plunge. A third thought the book was too short and the story undeveloped. And the last one brushed it off with a perfunctory "not my cup of tea."

Steve hasn't given up on this one yet, but new markets are few and far between.

And that brings us to my third submission, a chapter book version of Wicked Is As Wicked Does. This one is a direct adaptation, featuring all the characters and plot points of the play. But that title is way too long for a possible series so I shortened it to just The Wickeds.

I was worried about this one. The first two got immediate and extremely enthusiastic responses from Steve. In fact, he read them both in just a few days. And he sent them out to publishers a day or two after that.

This one was different. Six weeks after I sent it to him, he still hadn't read it.

Wait. Let me change that. He started it, but hadn't finished it. Which may be worse than not starting it at all. At least that can be blamed on being busy. Stopping halfway through can only mean one thing. It didn't grab him.

I thought the book was done for. Kaput. Dead on arrival.

Then, a few days later, I got the email. He finished it. And he loved it, calling it "completely hilarious."  As it turns out, he really had been too busy to finish it. He had a boatload of deals to negotiate.

He ended up sending The Wickeds to--not six, not seven--but eleven publishers. That was a month ago and I still haven't heard anything.

Do I wish things moved faster? Yeah. Is it driving me crazy? Kinda. But I just keep reminding myself that I'm in a much better position that I was two years ago, when I didn't have anyone representing me.

The books are out there, somewhere. And any day, I could get The Call (or, more likely, The Email) telling me I'm going to be a published novelist.

In the meantime, I've got the play commission to keep me busy. And a couple more play ideas I'm burning to write.

This is, after all, is the writer's life. Never stop writing. And never, ever stop hoping.

Wednesday, July 28, 2021

Belmont Diary: Rough draft

I did it. I finished my rough draft of my Belmont mystery in--let's see now--42 days. And that includes five days I took off for trips to Williams, AZ (home of the world's largest Route 66 sign) and San Diego.

I'm pretty sure that's a record for me. But I managed to pull it off for a couple of reasons.

One, I knew exactly what the teachers and students were looking for in terms of setting and theme. And two, I didn't have the luxury (or temptation, perhaps) of endlessly toying around my words. I had to keep moving forward.

I still have a ton of work ahead of me. My rough drafts are really rough. And by that I mean I'd rather get a root canal without anesthetic than let anyone see them. The characters aren't all over the map. The dialogue is clunky. The plot is riddled with holes.

But the basic story is there, and that's what counts.

The script came in at an even 80 pages. That means it should run about 80 to 90 minutes, which is exactly what the school is looking for. The only problem is that the acts are uneven. Act One comes in at a bloated 56 pages, Act Two a too slim 24. My first order of business is to make those a little more even.

The other thing is the distribution of line counts. I was happy to find that the main character, a flighty, self-absorbed socialite named Pansy, had 163 lines--much less than the 350 that the main characters in The Butler Did It! and Lights! Camera! Murder! had. And not easy to do in a mystery, where you typically have one character leading the investigation of the murder (Pansy does here).

But it's necessary if I want the play to have a life after Belmont. My publisher recently told me that a play will often struggle to find productions if it has one big part and lots of small parts. What theater teachers are looking for is an even distribution of parts or at least a healthy mixture of big, medium and small parts--something I've vowed to make happen from here on out.

Yep, there's a lot of work to do. And only 64 days to do it in (the final draft is due October 1).

But the hard part is done. The rest is all revision, and I love doing that stuff.

Time to get back to... play.