Sunday, November 12, 2023

The teacher's journey

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

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

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

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

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

Womp rat

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

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

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

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

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

You can't buy moments like that.

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

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

Friday, November 3, 2023

May the Force be with me

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

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

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

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

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

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

Even if I can't guarantee you a chair.

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

Wednesday, October 4, 2023

Okie Mummy on the tube

A big shout-out to Spotlight Children's Theatre in Tulsa, Oklahoma for yesterday's interview on the local ABC affiliate. Three young actors from their upcoming production of How I Met Your Mummy participated in the interview and did a great job fielding the host's questions.

To watch the entire interview, click here.

This same theater is performing An Enchanted Bookshop Christmas in December. Can't wait to see your next TV spot!

Friday, September 29, 2023

Belmont diary: Three little words

Oh, those words. The three little words that are the essence of beauty. The three little words that are the most magical in the world. The three little words that puts a catch to the breath, a flutter to the heart, and a flush to the cheeks.

I'm speaking, of course, about the words "END OF PLAY." (Why? What did you think I meant?) And I got to type those words today as I completed the script for Bringing Down the House, the large-cast comedy commissioned by Belmont Day School in Massachusetts.

Okay, so I actually typed those words a couple of months ago when I completed the first draft of the script. But today the play really is at an end because I just finished the final draft. All those months of hard work, all those months of staring at the screen and wracking my brain and typing and deleting and typing again, are done.

And boy, does it feel good.

The play is about a theatrical troupe that rents an abandoned theater so they can rehearse their brand new musical, only to learn that the building is going to be demolished the next day. In a flash, their rehearsal time is cut from six weeks to four hours, and craziness ensues as one interruption after another threatens to prevent them from mounting the one performance that could save the show.

And it's a monster. I'd say it was the biggest, most complex play I've ever written except for the fact that the last play the school commissioned from me was just as big and only slightly less complex (I guess they like them that way).

Like the last play, this one has a whopping 38 speaking parts. Unlike the last play, this one was required to include a dance number as well as a swordfight with real swords (I threw in an extra swordfight--this one with sledgehammers and protest signs--for good measure).

How do you get a handle on such a monster? Simple. You write an outline.

So that's what I did. And it helped. A lot. But well into the first draft, I still didn't know how to end the thing. I wanted a finale that was funny, of course, but it also had to be emotionally satisfying and--the toughest part of all--plausible.

I was stuck.

The characters, on the other hand, came easily. There's the upbeat composer who sees the world through rose-colored glasses. The gloomy book writer who only wears ash-colored glasses. The inept agent who talks a good game but never seems to deliver. The highly-strung director who's more concerned about his caramel macchiato than the suddenly truncated rehearsal schedule. And a whole slew of actors, from the coddled Hollywood star to the pretentious British veterans to the ever-hopeful chorus members.

I even included an annoying child star named Karlee who desperately wants a part in the show. I didn't plan to do much with her. I just thought she would be funny. So I threw her onstage, gave her a lively exchange with the director, then shuffled her off. Bing bang boom, she was gone.

Only she wouldn't stay gone. Karlee, as characters often do, took charge of her narrative and insisted on playing a bigger role in the play. 

I still wasn't sure what exactly. But that didn't matter. Karlee knew. As it turns out, what she really wanted to do was save the show. So I let her.

And just like that, I had my ending.

I can't say any more about that because I want to maintain the surprise for those of you who might want to read it. But I can share the scene in which she first appears along with the mother of all stage mothers, Sharon. Here it is:
KARLEE: Hey there, Mr. Davies!

CAMERON: Um, who are you?

KARLEE: Me? Why, I'm Karlee Keene and I'm here for my audition!

SHARON: Here are Karlee's headshot and resume. She's been in dozens of shows. Just dozens.

CAMERON: Sorry, kid--

SHARON: I'm not done. Here's a letter of recommendation from her voice teacher, a photo album with all her media clippings, a thumb drive with videos of her greatest dance performances, and her first baby tooth.


KARLEE: I've got to be in your show, Mr. Davies! I've just got to!

CAMERON: Sorry, kid, but the auditions are over. I've already cast it.

SHARON: Oh, but that's not fair! You haven't given Karlee a chance!

KARLEE: Who's playing the scrappy young orphan who brings joy to every heart with a smile and a song?

CAMERON: There is no scrappy young orphan.

KARLEE: Is there a scrappy old orphan?

SHARON: I'm telling you, Mr. Davies, you're missing the chance of a lifetime if you don't put Karlee in your show. She's going to be a star.

CAMERON: Look, lady, I'm sure you're kid's really talented, but there's no room for her in the cast. All the characters are adults.

SHARON: Oh, that's no problem. Karlee can play any age from three months...

KARLEE: (Acts like a baby.) Googoo gaga.

SHARON: To ninety-three.

KARLEE: (Hunches over and speaks in a croaky voice.) Now where did I put my reading glasses?

SHARON: A huge star, I'm telling you. Huge.

KARLEE: You've heard of a quadruple threat? Well, I'm a quintuple threat! I can sing, dance, act, and play two kazoos at the same time! (Pulls out the kazoos and plays them loudly and obnoxiously.)

CAMERON: Stop! Stop! Stop! (KARLEE does.) I'll tell you what. Give me your name and number and I'll call you the next time I do a kid's show.

KARLEE: Oh, but it's got to be this show, Mr. Davies. My childhood is slipping away as we speak!

SHARON: Why don't you song your audition song, Karlee? Show him what you can do.

KARLEE: All right. This is a little dittie called "Tomorrow" from Annie. (Poses and opens her mouth to sing.)

CAMERON: Nooooo!

KARLEE: What's the matter?

CAMERON: You've got the part! Just don't sing that song. Never never never ever.

KARLEE: Gee, thanks, Mr, Davies! 
Karlee ended up being my favorite character in the play, and she wasn't even in my original outline.

That's the thing about outlines. Sometimes they can be useful. If nothing else, they give your story a sense of forward momentum.

But you should never feel tied to them. Let the story grow. Let the characters take the wheel, if they want.

Sometimes it doesn't work out. If so, just delete that part.

But sometimes, the things you add late in the game end up being the best part of the play. Sometimes a a new character will swoop in and take charge of the charge.

If they're any good, let them. The writing is easier when your characters do it for you.

Wednesday, August 16, 2023

How to Enchant a Bookshop is now available!

Just in time for the new school year, Pioneer Drama Service has released my 24th play, How to Enchant a Bookshop. Set in the same world as The Enchanted Bookshop and An Enchanted Bookshop Christmas (not to mention The Enchanted Bookshop Musical), it tells the story of how Margie's beloved bookshop became enchanted in the first place.

At 45 minutes, it's the shortest play of the three, making it perfect for classroom use, an evening of one-acts, or pairing with one of the other Enchanted Bookshop plays for a full evening of entertainment. It also requires a smaller cast (6M, 8F, 4 either) and is even easier to produce than those other plays (no need to destroy books here!).

Brain drizzling

I had a ton of fun writing this play. But coming up with the title was a real bear. In just a few words, I had to communicate to potential customers that:

1) The play is a part of the Enchanted Bookshop universe.

2) It represents the origin story of that universe.

3) It stands alone, with no need to have seen the other two plays.  

I brainstormed for weeks, but I kept coming up with the same few problematic titles. Here are some of them and the reasons why I rejected them.

Enchanting the Bookshop--Too close to the original.

The Enchanted Bookshop Begins--Sounds like you need to see the original.

The Fairy Who Enchanted a Bookshop--Wrong focus.

An Enchanted Grand Opening--No connection to the bookshop.

An Enchanted Bookshop Grand Opening--Too clunky.

An Enchanted Bookshop Opening--Too close to the original.

The Bookshop that Became Enchanted--Too clunky.

How Bookshops Become Enchanted--Too general.

Please Don't Enchant the Bookshop!--Sounds like some weird anti-play.

An Unlikely Story--Unclear connection to the original.

Nope. The only real option was the one I ended up with, How to Enchant a Bookshop. That title ties it to the other plays, makes it clear that it's a different play, and even though it doesn't spell out that it's the first play of the trilogy, I'm sure Pioneer customers are smart enough to figure that out.

Something old, something new

One of my goals with the Enchanted Bookshop plays was to keep a core of returning characters for continuity. So this play again includes audience favorites Dorothy Gale, Tom Sawyer, and Pollyanna, not to mention the beating heart of the bookshop, Margie herself (or would that be Bombalurina?).

But I also wanted to introduce a few new characters in each play in order to keep things fresh. For this play, that includes Cinderella, my all-time favorite fictional character Don Quixote, and the ravenous rodents from Beatrix Potter's The Tale of Two Bad Mice.

I'm surprised it took me this long to include characters from Potter's oeuvre. I never read her books as a young'un--I was more of a Dr. Seuss kid--but I discovered them when my daughters were young and quickly fell in love with them, particularly the muted beauty of the watercolors and the understated humor of the text.

As anyone who follow this blog knows, I often struggle with my writing, but those two mice were a piece of cake to write for (no pun intended)--and so much fun! Their elevated language flowed out of my fingers and I always knew what to have them talk about: food! I'm sure audiences will eat them up (pun fully intended).

An auspicious start

Will How to Enchant a Bookshop be as successful as the other plays? I sure hope so. It has certainly charged out of the starting gate, booking its first production the same day it was released (it normally takes two to three weeks for a new play to accomplish that).

Want to check it out yourself? Just head over to the play's web page where you can read a sample or order your own perusal copy.

Or take a leap and book the second production. You'll make two little mice very happy.

Wednesday, August 9, 2023

Belmont diary: The H word

I hate writing.

Well, maybe not at first. I always love starting a new play. I love thinking up characters. I love brainstorming action scenes and the broad strokes of the plot.

But then I start the script itself. And I almost always immediately get bogged down in the dialogue and the entrances and exits and the finer points of the plot.

You know, the actual writing.

This hating phase is the worst. Because it makes the whole process such a chore. You dread opening up your laptop. You dread looking at the words you wrote the previous day. You dread racking your brain to think up new words.

But eventually--hopefully--things turn. That can happen any time in the writing process but it most often seems to happen when you finally break the story. When you figure out where the story is going, how it needs to end, and what path it has to take to get there. When that happens, you just open your brain and let the words pour out onto the page.

And you learn to love writing again.

This is all a very roundabout way of saying that last night, after weeks of wrestling with the story and fighting with the characters and generally just hating my play Bringing Down the House, I finally figured out the ending. Within an hour, the last couple of scenes magically fell into place, and I wrote write the three sweetest words in the English language: END OF PLAY.

Oh, there's still a lot of work to be done. As I expected, I missed the school's target for lines per role, and even though it was only intended to be a guideline, I'm going to try hard to beef up the smaller roles.

I also have several scenes that are really just sketches at this point. Those will need to be nailed down and cleaned up.

And then I have to figure out what to do with that pesky dynamite.

But the story has a backbone now. And the work is a joy. Every evening, I can't wait to open up my laptop. I can't wait to read what I wrote the previous day. I can't wait to polish those words to a glimmering sheen.

And I love loving writing again.

Friday, August 4, 2023

The Real Reason Dinosaurs Went Extinct to be published

This summer has been brutal. Temperature records have been shattered all over the world. Here in Phoenix, we just ended a streak of 31 days above 110 degrees F (the previous record was 18!). And saguaros--those giant cactuses that evolved to thrive in the Arizona heat--are dying because it's too hot even for them.

Climate change is real, people. We need to do something about it. And we need to teach the next generation about it too.

Which is why I'm excited that after almost two years of seeking a publisher for my play The Real Reason Dinosaurs Went Extinct, I finally snagged one.

Brooklyn Publishers, which also publishes my Hollywood mystery Lights! Camera! Murder!, will release this large-cast comedy climate change allegory in 2024. And even though this is my 25th play to be published, I'm just as excited now as I was when I learned that my first play, The _urloined Letter, would be published. (Has it really been twelve years?)

When I finished writing the play in December 2021, I was worried that it was dead on arrival. Why? Because that was the exact same month that a little Netflix movie named Don't Look Up came out.

It had a lot of similarities. Both are about a massive space object headed toward earth (a comet in the film). Both center around a pair of scientists striving to warn the public about the imminent threat. And both are thinly veiled allegories for climate change.

But there are a lot of differences too. My play is less preachy. My play is also less dark, featuring a funny, light-hearted tone that's perfect for young audiences. And my play features the animals that kids love the most: dinosaurs!

Oh, yeah. And my play really happened (okay, not the talking dinosaur part, but definitely the deadly asteroid part).

Anyway, the hubbub around the movie (and it was extremely controversial) has died down, and Don't Look Up hasn't become one of those flicks that gets replayed endlessly on cable TV. So I feel that now is the perfect time to bring the play to life.

To give you a taste of it, let me share the scene when the scientists, Professor Broadbeak and Doctor Duckbill, and their young friend Snaggleclaw go to warn the citizens about the asteroid: 

PROFESSOR: Mayor Spiketail, I'm glad you're here! We have some very important news to share with the townsfolk.

MAYOR: Well, I'm sorry but we're all very busy right now. Can't you come back in, oh, three or four years?

PROFESSOR: I wish we could, Mayor, but we can't. We have to tell them now.

MAYOR: Oh, no, you don't. We've had enough of your ridiculous warnings and predictions. Unless this one means the end of life as we know it, we simply don't care.

SNAGGLECLAW: Ha ha. Funny you should mention that.

PROFESSOR: It does mean the end of life as we know it.

MAYOR: What?!

DOCTOR: We don't mean to alarm you, Mayor, but an asteroid is hurtling toward us at a very high rate of speed.

MAYOR: And what, pray tell, is an asteroid?

DOCTOR: It's basically a rock in space.

GRAYTOOTH: Get a load of the "scientists," everyone! They're afraid of a little rock.

(The PLANT EATERS laugh.)

DOCTOR: But it isn't a little rock. It's actually quite large, about five or six miles across.

JABBERJAW: Well, which is it, Doctor? It can't possible be both!

DOCTOR: Look, its precise size isn't important. What's important is that it's headed directly toward the earth!

LOFTYNOSE: Well, even if it does strike the earth, what are the chances it'll strike one of us?

DOCTOR: That's not the point. If the asteroid strikes the earth at all, it'll cause massive devastation.

PROFESSOR: Earthquakes! Tsunamis! Shock waves! Wildfires! Thermal radiation!

SHARPTONGUE: Oh, come on, now. You're sensationalizing things!

JABBERJAW: It couldn't possibly be that bad!

(The PLANT EATERS laugh.)

PROFESSOR: Fine. If you don't believe us, take a look for yourselves. Our telescope will show you.

GRAYTOOTH: Nothing doing. If I can't see it with my own two eyes, it doesn't exist.

As you might have guessed, the play is crammed full of scientific details about how dinosaurs of the late Cretaceous Period lived--and the impact that the asteroid had on the earth. For this reason, I hope to offer teachers a free study guide that reviews these facts and poses questions for classroom discussion. Brooklyn Publishers is considering that suggestion now. Stay tuned.

Climate change isn't going to be solved piecemeal. We, the citizens of the world, have to work together to make fundamental changes to our way of life.

That's why this play is the most important one I've ever written. No, it's not going to change the world. It may not even change any minds. But maybe, just maybe, it will some young person think about things in a different way.

At least now it will get that chance.