Tuesday, November 24, 2020

A virtual aloha

As further proof that theater is returning, though often in virtual form, I finally got that production in Hawaii I've been waiting for. I haven't been able to confirm the date yet, but sometime in October, Hana Arts in Hana, on the eastern tip of Maui, performed my play You're Virtually Driving Me Crazy, a virtual adaptation of my collection of driver's ed skits. 

Groups like this truly are the lifeblood of the community. Besides offering after-school art and drama classes, Hana Arts strives to keep native culture alive through workshops in hula and oli (traditional chanting), as well as their colorful and authentic dramatizations of local legends. 

Oh and yeah, this makes my 50th state.

Monday, November 16, 2020

Kansas bookshop goes on

Despite the pandemic, live theater is slowly coming back to, well, life, this fall as schools and community theater around the world figure out how to adapt mask and social distancing rules to their venues.

One of those theaters is the Holton Community Theatre in Holton, KS, which gave The Enchanted Bookshop the honor of being the very first production in their brand spanking new digs. Unfortunately, they had to cancel their final weekend of performances due to rising COVID cases, but they were able to perform their first two shows on November 7 and 8.

And by the way, the talented actors put together some charming in-character videos promoting the show. If you'd like to get some ideas for your own promos, like their Facebook page or check out this video featuring that dubious duo, Eddie and Fingers.

Friday, October 23, 2020

The room where it happens

It's small, but it's mine

I've written a lot of places. Sometimes it feels like I've written everywhere. Coffee shops. The backseats of cars. Motel lobbies. Poolside cabanas. The middle seats of airplanes. Pop-up campers. Busy teachers' lounges. Cramped little corners of lakeside cabins. Once I even wrote in an old train station that had been turned into a swanky mall (Denverites will know where I'm talking about).

But my favorite place to write has always been home. And now that many of us have been forced to spend a lot more time at home, I thought it would be fun to share my little space.

Fifteen years ago my wife and I lived in a wooded area outside Colorado Springs called Black Forest. Hundred year-old ponderosas grew for miles in every direction, and my office was in one corner of our house, with windows looking out at those ponderosas on two sides.

It was gorgeous. But it wasn't necessarily the best place to write. The natural beauty that surrounded me was a distraction in itself, and I often caught myself staring at a mule deer munching grass along the edge of our driveway or one of the area's unique squirrels with their tufted ears and jet black fur instead of writing.

Which is why the office I have now may just be the best place I've ever written.

My wife and I bought the house in 2017 when we first moved to Arizona. The office itself is a cozy little room with an exterior door and windows on either side of that door. This allows me to get my daily allotment of sunshine so I don't feel like a mushroom on those marathon days when I'm scribbling away for hours in order to meet some crazy deadline. But the office looks out on a simple courtyard--a relaxing sight to be sure, but not one that's going to distract me.

Not the world's greatest view, but it works

Because of the COVID crisis, and the economy, and the fact that apartments in the Phoenix area are way more expensive than they should be, both of our daughters have moved back in with us. As have their adorable but very opinionated dogs. So these days it often feels like our house is bursting at the seams.

And that leads me to the other great advantage of my office. It's situated at one end of our house, directly opposite the activity center at the other end, so even with the TV blasting and everyone talking and the dogs in full woof, I can barely hear a thing.

Like most writers, I used to write at a desk. But when we moved into the house I discovered that the office was smaller than I remembered and the desk was bigger than I remembered and there was no way I was ever going to fit it inside the office unless I set it on its end.

So I got rid of it. Now I do my writing in a leather recliner, and I would never go back. With a laptop, who needs a desk anyway?

Who says you have to hunch 
over a desk when you write?

My office is a place dedicated to reading and writing, with a bookcase in one corner and cast photos and newspaper clippings from some of my shows on the walls. But my favorite spot is the top of the file cabinet, for that's where I display some of the mementos that directors of my plays have been so generous to share with me. 

Look at the photo below, and you'll see the knife from The Butler Did It!, the KUKU sign from The Last Radio Show, the sarcophagus lock from How I Met Your Mummy and the diamond-studded cat collar from The Purrfect Crime.

And the puffin? Well, I could say it's my favorite animal, and that would not be wrong. I could say it inspires me to write about exotic creatures and far off places, and that would also not be wrong. But the real truth is that it was one of our daughters' Beanie Babies when they were younger and I couldn't bear to part with it after they grew up.

So yeah, writing is important. But it's not everything. 

A few mementos from my shows

Monday, September 21, 2020

Lights! Camera! Murder! is now available

A play which took me years of on and off writing and revising and tweaking to complete, went on to get rejected by several publishers, and was finally given up for dead has just been published by Brooklyn Publishers.

The play, of course, is Lights! Camera! Murder! I've told the whole crazy story before, so let me just say here what a joy it is to finally see this play in print. It's my first play with Brooklyn, and my 18th play overall.

Ordering info and a free script sample can be found on Brooklyn's website. Here's the blurb:

It's 1948, and Hope Holloway is an ambitious young press agent on Dial M for Migraine, a detective movie that's three weeks late and half a million dollars over budget. To finish the movie, temperamental leading man Roger Drummond has to film one last scene, a scene in which his character drinks a poisoned cup of coffee. 

Roger gives the performance of his life, writhing in agony as he collapses to the floor. But when the scene is done, and Roger remains sprawled on the floor, Hope has a horrible realization: the coffee really was poisoned! 

Worried about the bad press this will generate, Hope quickly hides the body so she can solve the murder herself. But who could the murderer be? Alberto Bologna, the hotheaded director who's only pretending to be Italian? Gwendolyn Chambers, the bubbleheaded starlet who can't read her cue cards without squinting? Tommy Novak, the gawky production assistant who has a crush on Hope? Or one of several other unlikely suspects? 

With its crazy characters and snappy dialogue, this sassy send-up of the Golden Age of Hollywood is guaranteed to be a blockbuster hit!

The theater world is still largely on hold with the COVID-19 crisis, but I'm hoping to see this play on its feet soon, maybe early next year.

Thursday, September 3, 2020

An Enchanted Bookshop Christmas is now available

Just in time for the new school year, Pioneer Drama Service has released the latest addition to the growing series of Enchanted Bookshop plays. 

It's titled An Enchanted Bookshop Christmas (echoes of those heartwarming Hallmark specials?) and it's my very first holiday play. The play's web page, including a script sample and complete ordering info, can be found here.

Here's the blurb:
Revisit or discover anew the beloved literary characters of the bestselling The Enchanted Bookshop in this very merry prequel. This time, they're joined by a whole crew of Christmas-themed characters, including the Nutcracker Prince, Amy March, the Velveteen Rabbit, the Little Match Girl, and even Ebenezer Scrooge himself! 
As the play begins, it's four days before Christmas and Miss Margie, the scatterbrained owner of the shop, is thrilled to have two very special guests — her serious-minded sister Ellen and book-loving niece Annabelle.  Ellen was recently laid off from her position as an astronomy professor, and she's certain she'll never find a job again. 
Her luck changes, however, when high-tech billionaire Philip Brantley stops in at the shop and Margie convinces him to hire Ellen for his new space project. With Ellen out shopping, Margie has a brainstorm to wrap the bookmark that Philip wrote his phone number on it and give it to Ellen as a Christmas present. After all, what could possibly go wrong? The present could go missing, that's what!
Now it's up to the Lits to solve the mystery of the missing bookmark and save the day for Ellen — all without giving away their magical existence. It's a hilarious, heartwarming tale that reminds us that the best gifts don't come wrapped in pretty paper and bows.
Of course, An Enchanted Bookshop Christmas had to be a prequel as the original play concluded (spoiler alert!) with the Lits disappearing into their books forever. And that was just one of the challenges in writing this play. After all, how can you create any kind of tension in a story when you know the heroes will survive for another play? Well, I came up with a neat little solution that I think works well.

Another challenge was deciding which characters to include. In my post about the original play, I explained how I came up with the six literary characters who formed the core of that story.

One of the most important criteria for me was that the characters be instantly recognizable from their costumes. This narrowed things down pretty quickly, and I ended up going with Dorothy Gale, Tom Sawyer, Pollyanna, Robin Hood, Heidi, and Sherlock Holmes (of course, Pollyanna may be the odd girl out here, as she's not particularly well-known outside the 1960 Disney movie).

I knew I wouldn't be able to stick to that rule in the new play. Sure, all of the new Christmas-themed characters are well-known and well-loved. But they're not visually iconic in the same way that the original six were.

Of course, the Nutcracker Prince had to make an appearance in the Tchaikovsky ballet have made him a happy part of many people's Christmas traditions. Sadly, to make room for the new characters, I had to axe some of the older ones (namely, Robin Hood, Heidi, and Sherlock Holmes). But with his pompousness and love of big words, the Nutcracker Prince ably filled Sherlock's shoes.

I love the book Little Women and I desperately wanted to include one of the March sisters in the play. And yes, I realize that, strictly speaking, Little Women isn't a Christmas story, but the novel does open with that famous scene by the hearth with the sisters (well, three out of four of them) complaining about how miserable the holiday is going to be. And admit it. When you thick back to the multiple movie versions, that's the scene you think of first.

 Of course, the natural choice would be Jo as she seems to be everyone's favorite sister (she's definitely mine). But Jo is too close in personality to Dorothy, and I didn't need two clever, headstrong leader types.

Meg and Beth seemed a little dull for what I was looking for. That left Amy. Fans of the book have some pretty strong opinions about this youngest member of the brood. Some consider her the most admirable of the four because she knows what she wants and isn't afraid to take it. Others resent that she often does so at the expense of her sisters. Still others (writers mostly) will never forgive her for what she did to Jo's manuscript (of course, I had to include a gag about that in the play).

Greta Gerwig's 2019 film went a long ways toward redeeming Amy in the eyes of many, but even in that film she remains very much a brat. And that made her perfect for my purposes, as she lent a smart alecky tone to the proceedings.

Of all the characters, I had the most fun writing her, and I think she got many of the best lines. Will she make an appearance in a future installment? You'll have to wait and see.

The Velveteen Rabbit was one of my favorite stories growing up. The way this ratty old stuffed animal came to life at the end really stuck with me, so I knew I had to include him. But reading the story again as an adult, I was stuck by how--well, emotional--he was. That gave me a fun personality play with.

Of course, the fact that the toy was contaminated with scarlet fever provided a couple of gags, one of which involves a bottle of hand sanitizer (which I thought up before this whole COVID crisis, I swear). An additional advantage of including this character is that as a rabbit, he can easily be played by a boy or girl.

Although this story isn't normally identified as a Christmas story, the rabbit was originally given to the Boy as a Christmas gift so it worked well. I had my third character.

Then there's the Little Match Girl, who would provide sweetness and light (and make a perfect counterirritant to Amy with her constant griping about being "poor"). This one was a bit of a cheat because the original Hans Christian Andersen story actually takes place on New Year's Eve. But who can forget the image of her peeking through the window of the rich family's home at the huge feast laid out for them--something we normally associate with Christmas?

I also had to include that well-meaning couple from O. Henry's The Gift of the Magi. Do you remember their names? They're James and Della Young, and while they play a smaller role here, they get some of my best lines as well as one fun scene where they seem destined to repeat their ill-fated gift-giving forever.

Of course, Ebenezer Scrooge had to show up as the curmudgeonly antagonist. One early version had him going through his famous transformation behind the scenes over the course of the play and while that was an interesting concept, it stole the focus away from the main plot. Still, a hint of that remains in the play, and Scrooge ends up a much nicer, more compassionate figure than he was in the beginning.

All that was missing was the fat man himself. I didn't want to include the actual Santa because that might suggest that Santa himself is no more than a literary character (didn't want to go there). So instead I had one of the characters make a surprise appearance dressed as Santa. I think this will be a big hit for audiences and put everyone in the proper holiday mood.

One set of characters that didn't make the cut? The lively denizens of The Elves and the Shoemaker. This isn't always thought of as a Christmas story but does take place at least partly on Christmas Eve. I would have loved to include them but the large number of elves got a little unwieldy in practice. I ended up giving them an equally crucial role in the story, being the characters that, in their book at least, inspire Annabelle to believe in Christmas.

So there you have it. One new play, seven new literary characters come to life.

Whether you're putting on a special Christmas performance this year, or holding off for another year, I hope you'll buy at least a perusal copy. I truly believe it'll warm your heart.

And isn't that really what we're all looking for these days?

Friday, August 7, 2020

You're Virtually Driving Me Crazy! is now available

We've all been forced to adapt in these difficult times. I've been doing my day job from home since March, so I've had to come up to speed on Microsoft Teams and other technical tools to help me stay productive. I've also learned how important it is not to eat a chili beef burrito immediately before going out in a face mask.
Pioneer Drama Service has been forced to adapt as well, and that's because the market for traditional,  live performance plays has taken a temporary but very big hit. Most schools across the country have switched over to distance learning for the foreseeable future so there's little opportunity for kids to perform in front of an audience.

But kids still want to perform, and drama teachers still want to teach them. So what to do? 

Simple. Offer plays designed to be performed over Zoom or one of the other videoconferencing apps. 

Pioneer has taken a particularly strong lead in this area. For most of the summer, they've been cranking out virtual theater plays at the rate of two or three a week.

Sometimes these plays were specifically written to be performed online. Sometimes they're adapted from previously existing plays.

And now, I'm proud to say, they've adapted one of mine.

It's You're Virtually Driving Me Crazy, an adaptation of my hugely popular collection of driver's ed skits You're Driving Me Crazy!

One of the key requirements of virtual theater plays is that they not feature much movement. The plot must be driven entirely by dialogue, and that dialogue must be delivered by stationary actors facing the camera.

Even something as simple as an actor handing a prop to another actor is discouraged as it can be challenging to pull off . The first actor has to hand it off screen and the other actor has to pretend to grab a replica from the opposite side of the screen at the same time and same angle. 

As it turns out, my play didn't need much adapting. Since it revolves around teachers and students in a car, the basic requirements of dialogue and lack of movement were already met.

One character--a walker-toting grandma--didn't make the cut as the walker she needed would be too hard to handle. And a few of the lines had to be changed. But other than that, it's the exact same play.

Ordering info and a sample script are available on the play's web page. As with the original, the four 10-minutes scenes can be performed individually or together.

Oh, and if you want to learn more about this exciting new art form, read or print out Pioneer's free publication, A How-To Guide for Virtual Theatre.

Wednesday, July 15, 2020

The Hero's Journey in Legally Blonde

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But there's one key caveat. If you take too long to get to that next beat, you risk committing the only real sin of writing: boring your audience.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

For more on this, read on...

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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