Saturday, December 24, 2011

The best Christmas present of all

As many have been doing in this troubled economy, my wife and I kept our Christmas gift buying to a minimum this year. But I still got what I most wanted. Yesterday, Pioneer Drama Service informed me that they will be publishing my second play with them in the spring.

The play is Long Tall Lester, the one-act western comedy that I've written about before.

How does that make me feel? Ecstatic.

In a way, this feels like an even bigger breakthrough than getting my first play published. One play can be a fluke. But two... well, maybe one small part of my brain is starting to figure out this playwriting stuff.

The only problem? I've run out of plays to submit.

It's not that I haven't been writing. I've been writing like crazy.

It's that I haven't finished anything. Call it the Siren Song of the New Work. As any writer knows, a new play, a new novel, a new anything, seems brilliant when first conceived. The characters are vibrant. The storyline mesmerizing. The dialogue sparkling.

And then you start setting it down on paper.

Soon the characters lose some of their luster. The plot points start stumbling over each other. The dialogue isn't quite so clever.

Then a New Work calls. This one promises to be different. This one promises to be perfect in every way.

So you drop the first work.

But the truth is that good stories don't spring fully-formed from the mind. They're born kicking and screaming, and they only reach maturity through a lot of sweat, tears and mind-numbing drudgery.

And so for 2012, I'll be making just one New Year's resolution.

Resist the Siren Call and finish something.

Monday, November 28, 2011

The other side of the footlights

Just finished a two-week run at the wonderful Millibo Art Theatre (formerly the Manitou Art Theatre) in Colorado Springs. Only this time I wasn't a playwright, I was an actor.

Yep, you read that right. I -- Mr. Introvert, Mr. Can't-Act-His-Way-Out-of-a-Paper-Bag -- took a rare turn on the proverbial boards.

It wasn't my plan, but when a prominent local director drafted me to appear in a play, who was I to question her judgment?

The play was "Out the Window", a hilarious 15-minute comedy written by the criminally talented Colorado Springs actor Jordan Mathews for FourPlay, a 44-hour theatre project. (That's my equally talented co-star Carolyn Sinon grasping me for dear life above.)

I was only on stage for about two minutes, but what I learned will feed my writing for a lifetime.

The thing that most surprised me about performing was how monotonous it was playing the role every night. And that was for just six performances! Carolyn and I had to change it up every night just to keep ourselves sane.

And that was the saving grace of the whole experience. Not only did it make performing more fun, it helped us come up with bits that squeezed every drop of laughter from the audience.

In our scene, we played two office workers taking a coffee break outside. Early on, we came up with the idea of me reading a newspaper as a veritable between my cocoon and the deluge of vernage spewing from her mouth.

We played with the newspaper a bunch of different way. Some of them worked, some of them didn't. But we didn't come up with the real payoff until the final night of the show.

That night, instead of holding a full section of the paper, I held only a single sheet. This meant that when she grabbed my newspaper, instead of it coming free in her hands, it ripped right down the middle in two long strips.

And I continued to read one of the strips, impervious to her rant, to the delight of the audience.

So what's the takeaway for me as a playwright?

Simply this. Trust your actors.

The script is merely a blueprint for the play. Lay the groundwork for the story, of course. But then step back and let the actors do what they do best: play.

The actors will be happier. The audience will be happier.

And your play will truly come to life.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

If Tony Kushner can't make a living at this, what chance do I have?

I can't help but love the always insightful scribblings of America's most influential theatre critic. No, not Ben Brantley of the New York Times. He's merely the most influential theatre critic on Broadway.

No, I'm talking about Terry Teachout of the The Wall Street Journal. He covers not just Broadway or New York, but the vast reach of our country's regional stages from Provincetown to La Jolla.

So it was with with considerable relish that I read his latest Sightings column, in which he commented on a recent interview with Tony Kushner in Time Out New York.

Turns out that Mr. Kushner, who wrote the groundbreaking Angels in America, can't live on the money he makes from plays. He makes the bulk of his income writing for movies.

Which led Teachout to ask, why does anyone still write plays?

For Teachout, the answer was simple. It enables the solitary writer to get out from behind his keyboard and collaborate with the nicest--and, I would add, most fascinating--people around.

Theatre also gives the writer an experience no novel or magazine article can emulate: the immediate and visceral response of your audience.

I concur. I have never felt as fulfilled or--let's just say it--happy as when I heard an auditorium full of normally cynical high school students laughing their earbuds off during one of my plays.

But there's something more. I write because I have to write. Money doesn't enter into it. And the voices that come to me, demanding to be heard, are ones that belong on a stage.

I don't know if I'll ever make much money from these ghostlike voices. But I do know one thing.

If I didn't write them down, I'd go crazy.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

The most important part of theatre

My new playwriting group, The Drama Lab, had its first meeting last night and everyone agreed it went very well. We had twelve people show up, including four actors and two playwrights beside myself.

I never worried about attracting writers. There's a healthy number of aspiring playwrights out there and we're one of the only places in town where they can see their stuff on a stage.

My big worry has always been actors. While we offer them a great opportunity to practice their craft, they have a lot more places to go.

But I was pleasantly surprised by how many people came just to watch. And I soon realized the incredible gift they bring to the readings. Their comments to the playwrights were spot on, and I know that hearing their laughter--or lack thereof--during the reading of my play helped me nail down which lines needed work.

Sure, playwrights are the ones who turn blank pages into stories. And actors breath life into those stories.

But in the end, it's the audience that makes theatre happen. Without them, we're just shouting into a dark and empty room.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Making theatre where you live

Westcliffe, Colorado is a town that takes its theatre seriously. And that's largely because of one woman, Anne Kimbell Relph.

Relph is a former stage and screen star who in 1992 planned to retire by buying her dream property, a large ranch just outside this little town in the shadow of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains.

But a funny thing happened on the way to the dream. Relph learned that the six-decade-old Jones Theater was about to be sold and turned into a laundromat. Horrified, she bought the building and rechristened it the Westcliffe Center for the Performing Arts, eventually adding a costume shop, youth theater and radio station.

That's where my one-act comedy Long Tall Lester was performed this weekend along with three other plays, all winners of the New Rocky Mountain Voices Competition. The two-night run attracted about 75 people in this town of 300--a percentage of the local populace that any New York City playwright would kill for.

The historic 184-seat theater is still used to show first-run movies, but it also hosts community theater productions, high school plays, bluegrass concerts--even the occasional opera. Ever supportive of her community, Relph also offers the theater for free to local fundraising groups.

Oh, and that ranch? Fuhggedaboudit. Relph lives with her husband in the small apartment above the theater.

And she couldn't be happier.

Monday, August 8, 2011

Shameless self-promotion

I can't help myself. My one-act comedy, The __urloined Letter, has just been listed on the Pioneer Drama Service web site. Which means that I am now, at long last, a published playwright.

The feeling is not unlike the one I felt a year ago when I sent my eldest child off to college. You're glad they're on their own. You just hope they remember to keep in touch.

If you enjoyed those film noir parodies on Who's Line Is It Anyway?, in which the great Ryan Stiles addressed the audience in sly asides as the hard-boiled detective, you'll love this play. The dialogue is fast-paced, the characters outrageous and the gags come at you thick as bullets from a .357 Magnum.

You can check out the play here.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Lester lives

Just got word that my one-act play Long Tall Lester won the New Rocky Mountain Voices short play contest. Not only is this my first contest win, but the play will be performed at the historic Jones Theater in Westcliffe, Colorado--just 100 miles SW of my home--so you can bet I'll be in attendance for both of the performances.

The play is a fun little one-act about a meek encyclopedia salesman forced to confront a notorious outlaw when the regular sheriff heads for the hills.

What makes this win especially meaningful to me is that it resurrects a play that was first (and last) performed five years ago by Pikes Peak KidStage, the children's theatre company my wife and I founded in 2005.

There's a scene in which the saloon girl Floozie Feathers cozies up to the title character to persuade him to take on the gun-toting desperado. I thought it would be awkward for a preteen boy and girl to act out such a scene so I engaged in a bit of creative casting. I had my 10-year-old daughter Brooke play Floozie and my 13-year-old daughter Ashley play Lester. Sure, there were some embarrassed giggles, but it was all just part of the fun.

Can't wait to see these characters brought to life by adults.

Friday, July 15, 2011

That breath of life

Just had lunch with Jim Jackson, a former circus clown and all-around great guy who does more than anyone else in Colorado Springs to promote the development of new works. With his wife, the incomparable, multitalented Birgitta De Pree, he runs the Manitou Art Theatre, a funky little 87-seat theatre in a former auto body shop on the west side of town.

The reason for our meeting? We decided to start a playwriting group.

It's a real win-win-win. Local playwrights get an opportunity to hear their works read. Local actors get to hone their craft. And Jim and Birgitta get new people into their theater as well as a first look at any production-worthy pieces that come out of the group.

Should be fun. More importantly, it'll get new works off the page and onto the stage. Of all the arts, theatre is the most like life itself -- but it requires good actors to give it that breath of life.

Now all we need is a name...

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Breakthrough at last

So I achieved a dream of sorts this Sunday. After years of struggle, I found out I'll finally be published, with Pioneer Drama Service accepting my one-act film noir spoof The __urloined Letter for publication this fall.

I've been writing stories since I was old enough to hold a pencil, and writing every day since 1997--when I was a tender young 34. Since then, I've completed three middle-grade novels, several picture books, four plays and four screenplays. And over that same time period, I've racked up a staggering number of rejections.

At one time I was keeping track of them, but I finally gave up when I surpassed the 160 rejections that Jack London got while he was trying to break in. (I believe the only author who had more rejections was the mystery writer Erle Stanley Gardner, who reportedly received a whopping 900 rejections before having anything accepted for publication.)

As a theatre critic and film reporter for the Colorado Springs Gazette, I've had over 50 newspaper articles published. But it's not the same. There isn't the same sense of permanence, even if the articles are archived in the black hole we call the Internet.

So yeah, it feels good. Damn good.

For one thing, it legitimizes my choice to spend an hour a day pounding away at a keyboard when I could be drinking cheap Shiraz on my sun-dappled deck.

For another, it inspires me to write more plays.

But as good as it feels, it doesn't come near to the joy I felt when I first saw the play performed at Pine Crest School in Fort Lauderdale last year.

Seeing the talented young actors bring my words to life, hearing the audience's laughter and, as I like to remember it, their thunderous applause, gave me a deeper satisfaction than anything I have ever done. And it answered the question that has been bugging me since I was a kid:

What do I want to be when I grow up?

The best part of getting my play published is that I may just get the opportunity to see it performed again. And that would be worth more than any royalties I could ever receive.

Just don't tell Pioneer that.