Saturday, January 1, 2022

A look ahead to 2022

I can't lie. I'm excited for the New Year. Despite the various crises threatening to destroy our way of life, and there are a lot of them--climate change, increasing political extremism, and the neverending pandemic--there are a lot of good things too.

I truly believe most people are good at heart. Technological advancements are allowing us to make progress on many of the health and environmental problems we face. And then there's puppies. You've got to love puppies.

On a more personal front, 2022 offers a fresh opportunity for me to pursue my newly rekindled passion for playwriting. For this reason, I've focused almost entirely on playwriting goals this year--with one personal goal thrown in for good measure.

New directions

1) Complete three new full-length plays

My last two full-length plays took me three months each to write. And I've got a good start on my next play. If I can maintain this level of productivity--and there's no guarantee that I can--I should be able to finish four plays in 2022. But I'll keep my goal to a more manageable three.

2) Publish four full-length plays

This would represent a new record for me. My previous record was publishing three plays in one year, which I achieved in both 2015 and 2017.

But I've got a head start here too, since Heuer Publishing has already accepted The Last Radio Show of publication. And I've got two more plays completed: The Real Reason Dinosaurs Went Extinct, which I submitted to Pioneer Drama Service in December, and It's a Madhouse!, my commissioned play which I plan to submit to Pioneer after it premieres at Belmont Day School in March. There's no guarantee that those will get published, but if they do, I would only have to publish one play that I have yet to complete.

3) Lead a workshop at the Arizona Thespian Conference

I loved teaching at the Colorado Thespian Conference when I lived in that state. The interaction with students was so much fun and their enthusiasm for all things theatrical was infectious. I've been aware that AZ has its own version of the conference, but I only recently learned how to apply to be a workshop presenter. You can bet I'll be submitting my application in time for this year's conference in November.

4) See more plays

This shouldn't be hard to achieve. I haven't seen any plays since the beginning of the pandemic. But things are starting to open up again (or they were before omicron reared its ugly, spike-covered head, and I figure it's time to start venturing forth. Toward this end, I recently volunteered to be a judge for the ariZoni Awards, the AZ version of the Henry Awards which I judged for when I lived in Colorado. I haven't gotten my assignments yet--that won't happen until the new season is planned out in June--but I look forward to returning to the theater this fall. 

5) Be more present

I'm actually pretty happy with my personal life these days. My health is excellent. I work out on an elliptical for a half hour every day, which has enabled me to shed 25 pounds from my peak weight. And my daily meditation practice, which I started in October 2020, has really helped me deal with the stress of my day job.

Sidebar: Need a good meditation app? I really like Insight Timer. It features a ton of internationally recognized meditation experts, its massive database of meditations is highly searchable, and it costs nothing to join.

But I need to start applying some of the lessons I've learned from meditating to the times when I'm not meditating. And the most important of these is being present. Whether it's eating, going for walks, or talking on the phone, I tend to rush through things, focusing on getting to the next item on my to-do list rather than on the here and now.

This goal differs from my goals in the past because it's not measurable. There's no target value--no Being Present Factor--that'll allow me to determine whether I achieved this goal or not. But that doesn't mean it's not important. In fact, for this very reason it may be more important, even critical to my mental health and my enjoyment of life.

Therefore, I'm going to make focusing on the present my personal goal for the year. And next New Year's Eve, when I look back to see how well I met my goals for the year, I'll have to keep this one subjective.

Or am I focusing too much on the future again? 😉

Friday, December 31, 2021

A look back at 2021


Well, it was another crazy year. And not just because of COVID, although that didn't help.

Fortunately, my family managed to stay healthy. We got our shots and our boosters as soon as we could. I was also able to work from home for my day job all year, allowing me to spend what would have been my commute time for more productive projects--namely, working out and learning Italian. And that time working out (I use a elliptical) allowed me to see LOTS of movies and TV shows. Like many people, I fell in love with The Crown, The Queen's Gambit and Derry Girls.

But I fell short in one big area. My playwriting.

Literary dreams

This was the first year since I was first published in 2011 that I didn't have a new play released. And that's because for the first half of the year, I was focused on launching my (still non-existent) literary career.

As I've mentioned before, I managed to snag my first literary agent in March 2020, and for 15 months after that, I focused on writing novels.

My thought process was this. Sure, my plays were making money. But I'm a long ways from being able to support myself solely through playwriting--especially with the pandemic crippling public performances for a second year. If I wanted to become a full-time writer, I would have to find success in another field. And the most likely field, it seemed to me, was writing children's novels.

Most of my plays are written for young people to perform. And several of them lent themselves to being adapted to novels. So I found a literary agent with several big books under his belt and cranked out three novels (well, more like two and a half) in a little over a year.

The first novel was an adaptation of my play The Enchanted Bookshop. The second was an adaptation of my play Wicked Is As Wicked Does. And that half of one was an update to a middle-grade novel I'd first written over 20 years ago and which had won me a local writing award: Edison Young and the Ravenous Robosaur.

But a funny thing happened on the way to my literary success. It didn't happen. Not because my agent wasn't any good. He worked hard peddling my manuscripts to all the major publishers. It's just that none of them were interested in it.

Then an even funnier thing happened. I learned I hate writing novels. To be honest, they're a lot of work. They require a lot more words. And I get bored out of my skull writing descriptions. Give me dialogue (and a few choice stage directions) and day.

So I was torn. Do I pursue something that I love that may never support me? Or do I stick with something I don't love but has a greater chance of making me money?

It was about this time that I got word that my long-simmering play The Last Radio Show (first performed in 2016) got accepted for publication. And then Belmont Day School in Belmont, MA commissioned me to write a play.

The universe was sending me a sign.

So I decided to devote myself to playwriting. And I decided that, even if I would never get rich from it, if I can crank out a fair number of plays over the next few years, I might be able to make it full-time.

Well, guess what? Writing is actually fun again. And after just six months, I've already got a nice pipeline going. The Last Radio Show is in editing at Heuer Publishing and should come out in early 2022. My commissioned play--It's a Madhouse!--is in rehearsal. I just submitted my bext play--a large-cast comedy about dinosaurs--to Pioneer. And I'm well on my way on my next play.

So I no more novel writing goals for me next year. I'm going to focus on playwriting, with a goal of completing--and publishing--three.

Last year's goals

1) Sell a middle-grade novel series

None of the three series my agent pitched got sold. Call this one a big fat Fail.

2) Write the first book in a third middle-grade novel series

Success. This was my adaptation of Wicked Is As Wicked Does. This got the most positive feedback of any of my submission (one publisher called it "a really finny, irreverent story"). But sadly, no one bit.

3) Write another school play

Another success. I wrote not one but two: It's a Madhouse! and The Real Reason Dinosaurs Went Extinct.

4) Buy all my books from independent bookstores

With regards to this goal, I was a very good boy, buying all of my new books from my local indie bookshop, Changing Hands Bookstore in Tempe, or my favorite online bookseller, Alibris, which is essentially a conglomeration of hundreds of independent brick-and-mortar booksellers.

That is, until Christmas rolled around, and I needed a book--fast!--as a stocking stuffer for my wife. That's when I caved on my principles and coughed up $11.44 to purchase Mindy Kaling's Why Not Me? from Mr. Bezos. Maybe it'll help pay for a screw on his next space rocket.

Summing up

So my success rate was pretty good, almost 75% if you give me partial credit on that last goal. But I didn't achieve my main goal, which was to sell a book series.

At this point, I don't think that'll ever happen. And I'm okay with that.

After all, I've got a new play to finish.

Monday, December 6, 2021

That ticking timebomb

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Guess what? The music is no longer forgettable. Larson's angular melodies really benefit from the driving guitar work and dynamic vocal performances they're given here, so much so that I've been humming the tunes almost non-stop still I saw the movie almost two weeks ago,

And let's give Miranda some credit. The guy knows how to stage a musical number. Song after song leaps off the screen with dynamic camerawork and a wry sense of humor. And while the dancing may not be as ambitious as it is in some musicals (this is an intimate, small-scale show after all), it is bursting with energy and perfectly matches the spirit of each piece.

You've especially got to love the chorus of past and present Broadway greats in the moving diner-set anthem "Sunday".

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

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

Wednesday, November 24, 2021

DC Bookshop Christmas wins raves

Photo by Cindy Kane Photography

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo by Cindy Kane Photography

Wednesday, November 17, 2021

The purrfect fundraiser

Photo by Jordan Simal

Well, my heart is nice and toasty now.

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

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

What other reason do you need to write than this?

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

Friday, November 5, 2021

Hitting it out of the park


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

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

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

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

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

Sounds like a home run to me.

Friday, October 1, 2021

Belmont mystery: Final draft done!



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I can't wait.