Thursday, December 20, 2012

I want to be a producer

As the saying goes, if your dreams don't scare you, they're not big enough.

Well, mine must be plenty big because they're scaring the bejeezus out of me.

That's because I just put down a $750 deposit on a mid-sized theater in bucolic Palmer Lake, Colorado, with another $450 due January 10.

I'm not exactly swimming in cash, so that $1200 cost me dearly ($200 is refundable as a security deposit). Why did I do it then? Because that's where I'm going to premiere my newest play, a wild and wacky backstage farce titled Kill the Critic!

This isn't a staged reading or even a script-in-hand performance like the one I did with my first play in September. This is a full-blown production, with real sets and a full tech crew and four weeks of rehearsal and--most radical of all--paid actors. I'm calling it a workshop production because I expect to do some serious rewriting of the script after I see how the audience responds to it.

But if there's one thing I learned from my reading in September, it's that I'm not a director. The attention to detail, the constant decision-making--my brain just isn't wired that way.

Heck, I can barely remember what each character is doing from one scene to the next, and that's in a script I wrote!

But I'm good with budgets and fundraising and promotion, which is why I've decided to serve as producer.

The theater's not perfect. It's a corner stage in a huge room of a small town arts center, designed more for musical concerts then dialogue-driven plays.

There are also no permanent seats. Attendees will have to sit on fold-out chairs. And there are big windows all around the room, so we'll have to black them out for the afternoon matinee.

Oh, and did I mention that a couple trains that blast right past the building every day?

But there were some factors that made the deal irresistible.

First, of all, there's the cost: $1000 for a week of rehearsal, plus three performances. And the room is huge, seating 175 per performance. I could have gotten a smaller theater in town for just $500 per week, but that one only seated 50, making it impossible to break even.

Best of all, they've already got a built-in audience base, a necessity when you're producing an unknown play with an unknown theatre company.

As it turns out, they do sell out. Another theater company sold out two performances of a musical version of Sense and Sensibility a month ago, so I know it can be done.

I've already got a director, a highly experienced drama teacher from a local private school. She's won national awards for her productions, and she thinks my play is hilarious so I know we're going to get along very well.

How can I afford her? Simple. I took in her in as a partner. I pay rent, she pays for sets and costumes, and we both split the profits.

I met her at Drama Lab, by the way, which is yet another reason why every playwright should belong to a playwriting group.

But now I've got work to do.

First, I've got to give the script one last pass. Then I've got to find an artist who's not only talented but cheap. I need a bold, funny logo for my bold, funny play, which will help in promotional materials and in the Indiegogo campaign I'm about to launch.

As a playwright and theatre critic, I've always sat on the sidelines before. But this time I'm jumping in with both of my size-12 feet.

Stop the world. I want to get on.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Lester on the small screen

A big shout-out to the drama class at Shelley High School in Shelley, Idaho, home of the mighty Boomers. They performed my western comedy Long Tall Lester last week and have just posted the entire show on YouTube.

This represents a couple of firsts for me. This is my debut in the beautiful Gem State, and this is the first time a video of this play has been made available to the public.

It's great seeing these talented students having so much fun.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Wide open spaces

Over the years, I've dabbled in mnay different forms of writing. Short stories. Magazine articles. Newspaper reviews. I've even tried (and been spectacularly unsuccessful with) novels and screenplays.

But now I'm focused on playwriting, and if I had any doubt about the wisdom of thatd decision a week ago, it's gone now. And that's because I just came back from the staged reading of my full-length comedy The Butler Did It! in Cheyenne, Wyoming.

True, playwrights don't make much money. And true, theatre no longer holds the vaunted place in our nation's culture that it used to (when was the last time a playwright appeared on The Tonight Show?).

But playwriting offers a couple of rewards all its own.

A sense of community. And a live audience.

And really, is there anything sweeter than the sound of laughter when you know it's come from your hard-won words?

Cheyenne is just over the border from Colorado, about 160 miles north of my home. Fortunately, my oldest daughter was wise enough to choose a college just 40 miles south of there, so I was able to keep travel costs to a minimum by crashing at her place for the weekend. I'm not sure how she felt about the arrangement, but I'm just cheap enough to say it worked well.

The reading was held at the Atlas Theatre in downtown Cheyenne. Stepping into it was like stepping into a time machine. Built in 1888 as a tearoom, the stately building was later converted into a vaudeville house. The decorative filigree from that time still outlines the proscenium stage and balcony, and the whole place had the air of another, more elegant century.

The back wall of the theater was lined with vintage newspaper ads touting the once famous but now largely forgotten acts that had performed on that stage. My younger daughter just finished a run of Gypsy, and she was eager to know whether young Louise Hovick, later to become Gypsy Rose Lee, was one of them. I couldn't find any mention of her on those yellowed pages, but I did come across a listing for Evelyn Nesbit, the Girl on the Red Velvet Swing, who my daughter knew from another one of her musicals, Ragtime.

One of the actresses later told me that the upper two floors of the building--former hotel rooms now used mostly for storage--are haunted. That doesn't surprise me. A lot of old theaters are rumored to house ghosts, and I could see how this creaky old building would lead to fanciful tales. But this woman swore she felt the presence of the ghost each time she rummaged around in those upstairs rooms, and I for one was not about to doubt her.

The Cheyenne Little Theater Players, one of the oldest community theaters in the country, did an admirable job attracting people to the show. The theater holds about 250, and they managed to draw about 170 people to both of the performances, the most they ever had for a reading.

Considering how much physical comedy and other action I put into my plays, I was unsure how much I would get out of a staged reading or even whether the story would make sense to someone who hadn't immersed themselves in it for months like I had.

But I shouldn't have worried. First-time director Shawn Casey did a marvelous job making the story flow smoothly and effortlessly.

She created a new role--a Chaplinesque character she dubbed the Butler's Butler--and it was this young lady who handled the props. When the addle-brained Gram comes downstairs toting her antique rifle, the Butler's Butler was the one who placed it into her hands. When Jenkins finds himself accused of a crime he didn't commit, it was the Butler's Butler who tied him to a chair. Adding this actor helped communicate the actions in a clear, concise way while leaving the other actors free to concentrate on their scripts.

Another clever touch was provideed when the young cad Trevor was killed. Instead of having him make a quick exit, the stage was darkened, and when the lights came back up, the chair had been tipped backwards onto the floor--with Trevor still in it. The poor actor must have lain there like that for forty minutes until the intermission finally relieved him of his torture. I would have felt sorry for him except for the fact that he got the biggest laugh of the night.

The Friday night audience was great, enthusiastiuc and ready to laugh. The Saturday night crowd was a little more subdued. But the audience is never wrong, and the lack of response in some of the scenes made it clear where I needed to cut.

All in all, it was a wonderful weekend, and I'm grateful to the gang in Cheyenne for making me feel so welcome.

But now it's time to get back to work on my next play.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Six blocks from Times Square

A few months ago, I posted a sob story about my off-off-Broadway debut being cancelled. At the time, I'd contacted the producing company, Thespian Production, to find out why, but they never responded.

I've belonged to a few online playwriting groups and I know this would tick off most playwrights enough that they would give up on the theatre company. In fact, some playwrights would go further, passing the word around so that no more unsuspecting scribes would get duped.

I was tempted to do the same. But then, something told me to give them a second chance. I did, sending them my most successful 10-minute play to date, Fear of Clowns.

It worked. Thespian Production accepted it, and this time everything looks legit because the play is listed on their website and is scheduled to be performed at the Joria Mainstage Theater on West 36th Street in January.

The play they originally chose and then dropped, The Wanderer, isn't left in the cold. That one just got picked up by Oakland's Pan Theatre for their Anything Can Happen in 10 Minutes festival this month.

Not only is this the world premiere of the play, but it's also my West Coast premiere for any play I've written.

Sometimes things work out. Sometimes they don't. But you can give things a little boost if you just keep plugging away.

And you don't hold any grudges.

Monday, September 17, 2012

So you want to do a staged reading

I wrapped up the first staged reading of The Butler Did It! on Saturday. And it turned out way better than I ever expected.

We came close to filling both performances, with around 65 people at the 3pm show and 55 people at the 7pm show (vs. a total capacity of 75). The play got lots of laughter and the talkback generated a surprisingly lively discussion, giving me tons of ideas to improve my play.

The biggest surprise? How much kids liked my play. I thought the mystery part would be too complicated for them. At times, even I'm confused by it.

But as we broke for intermission, one young lad loudly announced, "This is so funny!" (If only adults were so vocal!) And at the talkback, another boy--he must have been 8 or 9--explained in great detail how he was sure the rifle-toting grandma was the murderer because the audience was never told whether she was right- or left-handed.

Yes, it was tricky juggling the scripts and the props. But we made it work.

And did I mention this was my first time directing adults? All I can say is it gave me a whole new respect for theatre directors. The constant flow of decisions that needed to be made was exhausting, and I spent much time and energy double-guessing those decisions after I made them.

Sure, I made mistakes. But I also a learned a lot, both about playwriting and directing. Here are some of the things I'll try to remember the next time I do a staged reading.

1) People don't go to an amateur production for the play.

They go for the people. They want to support their friends and family who are going to be performing. The play itself is just an afterthought. So go ahead, invite everyone you know to your reading. But don't waste a lot of time marketing to people you don't know. They're not going to come anyway.

2) Associate with a school or other institution.

We used a theatre at a local Christian school, and it was a win-win situation. We got free use of the theatre, and they were able to raise funds for their theatre program by selling concessions during intermission. And it pulled in a lot of people who might not have known or cared about the play otherwise. Probably 75% of our audience was made up of parents from the school who wanted to see their beloved drama teacher take the stage for a change.

3) Schools are also a great (read: free) source of crew members.

Minimal lighting and sound effects can really make your reading come alive. And many students will work all day for no more pay than the experience and a meal (more on that later). When the performance time comes, don't forget to park a plaintive-looking student by the exit with basket in hand (pre-seeded with your own cash, of course). You'll be surprised how much money they'll bring in.

4) EventBrite makes managing your ticket sales a breeze.

And it's completely free.

5) If you can, do a script-in-hand performance rather than a straight reading.

Yes, it requires more work to arrange for costumes, props and sets. But it gives you a lot more insight into how your play works. And it's a lot more fun for the audience.

6) Two performances are better than one.

I was surprised how important this was to my actors. But it makes sense. They're not getting paid, so the laughter and applause from the audience is their only reward. Doubling the number of performances effectively doubles that reward. And it'll probably double your attendance as well.

7) Be open to change.

At the reading, you're no longer a playwright. You're a director. But you're a director with a unique power. You're free to change the script at will. So if something isn't working, dump it. At the climax of my play, the butler has to make an emergency phone call. The problem? He's tied to a chair. In my mind, I pictured this hilarious scene in which he picks up a pencil with his mouth and uses it to dial the phone. In rehearsal, this turned out to be almost impossible. Instead, we worked out a bit in which he knocks the phone onto the floor and uses his toes to dial. Much easier and just as funny.

8) Let your actors ad lib.

In the same way, give your actors permission to play around with the script. Maybe they have problems saying a particular line and would like to simplify it. Or maybe they don't think a line is in character. If you're lucky, they may find a funnier or angrier or more passionate way to say something. Actors are very good at getting inside their character. Let them do it.

9) But not too much.

The reading, after all, is a test of your words, your plotting, your pacing. If you have a line you especially like it, freeze it. You won't know how well it plays unless the audience gets to hear it.

10) Make yourself available to your actors.

If you're doing your job right during the rehearsal, you're going to look busy--too busy for your actors to approach you about questions they may think are trivial. Questions about the script are never trivial. And the best way to show that is to set aside time to sit down one-on-one with each actor and let them you questions in turn. Don't have time? Then do it when your actors are on break (You don't think breaks are for you, do you?)

11) You will never get enough rehearsal time

I originally budgeted 9 hours for rehearsal. Enough time to run through a 90 minute play at least four or five times, right? Wrong. With blocking, rerunning rough patches and answering questions, each run-through lasted about 2 1/2 hours and we only got three done. And you know what? It didn't matter. The performance went off without a hitch. It's amazing to see, but when the audience shows up, a kind of magic happens. Suddenly the actors hit their marks, remember their lines, show a whole new level of commitment.

12) Run through the entire play at least once without stopping.

If you do run out of time and haven't run through the entire play at least once, do a double-time rehearsal (going through every action and saying every word, but rapidly and without feeling). This really speeds things up and is an extremely effective way to practice entrances and exits.

13) Order too much food.

The last thing you want to do is put on a show with hungry actors. Just be prepared to eat leftover pizza for a week after the show.

14) Print too many programs.

People are always tempted to skimp here. Don't. Your cast will want to take extra copies home. And really, it's a cheap way to make them happy.

15) If you borrow props, don't use anything with sentimental value.

We lost a beautiful period table lamp at our second performance when the lead bumped into a side table. While the lamp wasn't expensive, it was the owner's bedside lamp and turned out to be irreplaceable. Good thing it was the lead's own lamp.

16) Have one of your cast members run your talkback.

Then sit back and SHUT UP! The talkback is not a time for you to explain or defend your play. It's a time for you to hear what the audience thinks about it. Your jawboning only inhibits that. (This was one of the hardest rules for me to follow!)

17) Keep your talkback to 15 minutes.

And make sure your audience knows ahead of time that's how long it'll run. As much as you may love to hear the audience go on and on about your play, it will quickly turn dull for them. And if they think it's going to last a long time, they may not stick around in the first place.

18) Take feedback with a grain of salt

All feedback is useful. But don't fall into the trap of believing that any one commenter speaks for the whole group. I was surprised how many times an audience member would find fault with one aspect of the production--that a particular character needed more backstory, for example--only to be followed by another audience member who said that they liked that aspect of the production. If you get several comments that cite a particular problem, you'd better be prepared to fix that problem. But don't try to please everyone. It'll never happen.

Friday, September 7, 2012

Critical mess

As if I didn't have enough to do--what with running a staged reading, managing a monthly playwriting group, judging professional productions for Colorado's Henry Awards and, most importantly, writing my own plays--I also review the occasional show.

It's hard work, probably the hardest of the tasks listed above. After all, it forces you to use both halves of your brain. Not only do you need think in an analytical way about something as subjective and ephemeral as theatre, but you also have to be entertaining and fresh and concise in your analysis.

But what's even harder is having to slam someone you know and who you know is going to read your slam. Anyone who thinks critics revel in the attack has never been a critic.

I started back in 2008 with the Colorado Springs Gazette. Now I'm writing for the Colorado Springs Independent. For now, they appear online only, though I'm trying to convince the powers that be that there are thousands of people dying to read my stuff in print (don't hold your breath).

But even if I never see my reviews in ink, I'll continue plugging away. Why? Because it forces me to be honest about my own playwriting. How can I be sloppy or boring or contrived if I criticize it in others?

And then there are those free tickets.

I probably wouldn't even bother you with these. Earlier this year, I had an opportunity to review a wonderful new play by Samuel Butler titled The Whale. At the time, I was between newspaper gigs, so the only place I could post my review was on my own blog. I went to the play, scribbled my thoughts, posted them here and didn't give it another thought.

But a funny thing happened on the way to Internet forum. My review became the most popular post I ever wrote. Even now, eight months later, it has gotten twice as many hits as my second most popular post.

So without further ado, here's the start of my latest review for the National Tour of La Cage Aux Folles in Denver.
"I suppose there was time when La Cage Aux Folles seemed cutting-edge, maybe even shocking. But that time wasn't last Tuesday, when the national tour opened a three-week run at the Buell Theatre in Denver. Instead this show, which first opened on Broadway in 1983, just seemed tired and musty, like a rerun of a 1950s sitcom in which the characters look like real people but act completely different than anyone you've ever met."
The tour is based on the 2010 revival, which won critical raves as well as three Tony Awards. Set along the French Riviera, the story (adapted by the great Harvey Fierstein) centers on a homosexual couple who own the area's most popular drag club. Georges is the suave master of ceremonies and easily flustered "husband." Albin is the flamboyant boa-wearing star and wisecracking "wife."
In an odd bit of "star" casting, Georges is played by the eternally tan and apparently ageless George Hamilton, whom Baby Boomers will remember as the guest star of 1001 TV shows in the 1970s and 1980s and Generation X-ers won't remember at all. I say "odd" because I doubt there's a single person alive who would buy a ticket based on his name alone, and yet he doesn't really bring much in the acting or singing departments.

But I wish I looked that good in a smoking jacket.
To read the rest, click here.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Why I write

It can be frustrating, staring at that blank screen hour after hour. Poking  through my tired brain cells for just the right word. Striving to keep my dialogue fresh, my plots compelling.

Sometimes it's enough to make me want to give up writing and take a job that's a lot less tedious. Like quality control in a ping pong ball factory.

And then I come across something that reminds me why I do it. Something like the following video:

That's my 10-minute comedy, You're Driving Me Crazy! It was performed early this month as part of a summer enrichment camp at Hunter College in Palatine, IL.

Nothing special you say. Well, maybe not. Kids act in plays every day across this country.

But this this isn't just any production. The description for the YouTube video says that the young man in the bike helmet, Nicholas R. Torres, was a "micro-preemie," one of those mirable babies born before 26 weeks of gestation. And apparently he has suffered  significant hearing loss all his life.

But none of that mattered on the night of the performance. On that night, he was an actor, stealing the show and making the audience crack up with the best of them.

That night, he was a star.

And that is why I write.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

The most important step in playwriting

In my monthly playwriting group, I spend a fair amount of time giving advice to new and aspiring playwrights. Many become frustrated because they're unable to get productions, even with the proliferation of playwriting contests over the last few years.

Well, the problem, to me at least, is obvious. If you want to get produced, then you've got to write plays that theatre companies want to do. And that means things that are easy to produce: small casts, simple set requirements.

It also means that you've got to write plays that audiences want to see. It doesn't matter which demographic you're targeting: sophisticated urban adults, small town families, whatever. You have to have someone in mind that you're writing for.

That mean seem like obvious advice, but it isn't. I recently gave feedback to a playwright who loves to dramatize the stories of the Brothers Grimm. In all their original, bloody glory.

The plays are very well-written. But who's going to see them?

Adults won't because they're fairy tales. Kids won't because they're too violent.

I've also seen 10-minute plays with 6 scene changes and dozens of characters. These can be hilarious, but they read more like a short film than a piece meant for the stage. Trust me. Cash-strapped, understaffed theaters don't need the hassle.

Obviously, if your main reason for writing is to express yourself, then write what you want and don't worry about getting produced. But if your goal is to see your works come to life, then don't whine if what you've written doesn't fulfill the needs of the marketplace.

After all, no one owes you a production.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Taking the plunge

Sarah Ruhl has never done it. Noel Coward did it only occasionally. Alan Ayckbourn does it every chance he gets.

What am I talking about? Directing your own work, of course. And I'm about to jump into the fray myself, directing a staged reading of my full-length play, The Butler Did It!

Yes, it had a successful reading at my playwriting workshop. But it still feels like a stranger to me. There are a million things I don't know about it.

Does the physical comedy work? Is there some gaping plot hole hiding somehwere in Act II? Does the play hang together as a complete piece of work?

And then there's the most important question of all. How will an audience respond?

I expect that some of these questions will be answered at the staged reading in Cheyenne. But there are other things I won't learn unless I mount the play myself. Unless I actually sweat through the details of guiding the actors and moving the furniture and hanging the lights and seeing if someone really can dial a telephone with their nose.

Because this is going to be more than a reading. There will be a set. There will be props. And the actors will act out all of the stage directions. I guess it's what they call a "script-in-hand" production.

So if you're in Colorado Springs on Friday, September 15, I'd like to personally invite you to the first staged reading of The Butler Did It!

There will actually be two readings, starting at 3pm and 7pm. It all takes place at the University School of Colorado Springs, 2713 W. Cucharras St. There's no cost to attend, but a donation will be accepted to feed the animals, er, actors.

You can get your tickets here:

Eventbrite - Staged reading of THE BUTLER DID IT!

Monday, June 18, 2012

That happy feeling

I just got back from my playwriting workshop, The Drama Lab. And all I can say is, why didn't I start one earlier?

Writing is the loneliest of artistic pursuits. Hunkering over a laptop for hours every day doesn't exactly contribute to social agility. Plus, writers tend to be introverted anyway, keeping the world at a safe and observable distance.

So it can be easy to get down about your own writing. I can't tell you how many times I've been tempted to toss out my current work, a dark backstage farce titled Kill the Critic! In fact, I did set it aside for two years because I didn't know where to take it.

But now I'm working hard on it and making progress. And it's all because of the Drama Lab. Their comments help me point the story and characters  in the right direction. Their laughter lets me know which jokes work and which don't. And their energy makes me eager to go home and write more.

If you're a playwright, I strongly recommend you join a playwrtiting workshop. Don't have one in your town? Start one.

Seriously, if I can do it (and I'm the least outgoing human on the planet), anyone can.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Lester unleashed

I'm pleased to announce that my second play has just been published by Pioneer Drama Service. Long Tall Lester is a one-act western comedy about a meek encyclopedia salesman who's drafted to fight the dreaded outlaw Billy Black.

Long Tall Lester is a lot of fun and is chock full of over-the-top characters that kids love to play (one high school student told me it was the most fun she ever had in a role).

The fact that it also teaches a great lesson about the power of brains over brawn can be a secret between you and me.

To learn more, visit the Pioneer web site. A perusal copy is $5.50 (cheap).

Monday, May 7, 2012

Christmas in May

The day I've been anticipating for almost a year finally came today.

My first royalty check!

How much was it? Well, let's just say I won't be quitting my day job soon. But it was more than I expected. And my editor was more than pleased with the numbers: 10 performances and 121 scripts sold.

Why? Because the play publishing biz is different than other entertainment fields. While books and CD's and movies expect to make their biggest splash their opening week--while the property is fresh--play scripts need time to grow.

After all, by the time the new batch of plays come out, most drama teachers have already planned their productions for the coming year. So they'll order a perusal copy, read through it, think about it.

And then, after a year--or five or twenty--if the teacher likes it and happens to have the right cast for it and gets approval from the Powers That Be, then and only then will they produce it.

So really, it's a minor miracle that any play gets done its first year in print. And it can only get better from here.

Those 10 performances, by the way, came from 8 productions in 7 states--MD, ME, MN, MT, ND, TN and TX. So you know what that means.

Only 43 to go.

Saturday, May 5, 2012

A new frontier

I suppose every playwright dreams of having a full-length produced. Sure, 10-minute plays are fun to write and can pack quite a wallop. And one-acts have their own unique draw, offering much more depth while maintaining a convenient bite-size package.
But the glory is in the full-length. I mean, let's face it. How many great American short plays can you name? (Well, there's Edward Albee's The Zoo Story and, um...)

Plus, there's that whole heady experience of knowing that the entire evening is devoted to your work.

Which is why I'm so thrilled that my first full-length play, The Butler Did It!, just won the Cheyenne Little Theatre's New Play Project. It'll get two staged readings this November in Cheyenne, Wyoming. As an aficionado of historic theaters, I'm especially pleased that they're mounting it in at the Atlas Theatre, a 125-year-old former vaudeville house in downtown Cheyenne.

The Butler Did It! is a comedy about a butler who gets falsely accused of murder and must find the real culprit while tied to a chair. It's the first mystery I've written, and it got a great reception at my regular writing group. But breaking up a play over five months of readings isn't the best way to judge its structure.

Mysteries are all about structure, of course. In fact, when I was writing The Butler Did It!, it felt like I was building one of those Jenga towers, each carefully placed plot element requiring yet another set-up or explanation or foreshadowing to make it fit. So I'm hoping that my reading up north will uncover any gaping plot holes I've been too blind to see.

I just hope no one gets hurt when it collapses.

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Clothes make the play

Now I know my play is real. I just received the first cast shirt from my publisher.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

What's in a name?

I got a call from my publisher today. They're busy trying to wrap up the edits on Long Tall Lester so they can get it into print in April.

They just had one problem. They didn't like the subtitle: The Orneriest Encyclopedia Salesman in the West.

I've got to admit, I never gave that part of it much thought.

I wanted some kind of subtitle, because I thought it added a nice period flavor, as in those old melodramas. And I thought the title I picked was funny and gave a pretty good picture of what the story was about.

But my editor said they didn't find Lester to be particularly ornery. And after a moment's thought, I had to agree with him. The whole point of the story is that Lester defeats the outlaw Billy Black through brains, not brawn. I guess I had always intended the subtitle to be ironic.

He gave me three alternatives, and also suggested I offer my own.

The three alternatives were: slickest, shrewdest, cleverest.

Think, Todd. Think. And fast. They're giving me first dibs, and if I don't respond quickly, like in an hour or so, I'll miss my chance. And rightfully so.

My mind went into hyperdrive. Lester is clever, but that doesn't really give any sense of conflict. It also doesn't roll trippingly off the tongue (of course, in that respect, orneriest was worse).

Slickest provides some nice alliteration. Slickest... enCyclopedia... Salesman. But, like orneriest, it doesn't really describe what he's like.

And shrewdest just make him sound like an evil banker.

So I decided to offer my own suggestion. Wiliest? No. Wisest? Yuck.

Quickest? Hmm, not bad. Wait. Not quickest. Fastest. As in Fastest Gun in the West. After all, Lester doesn't wield a gun. He wields an encyclopedia. And he unloads the five sets he brought with him pretty quickly.

So I sent them my suggestion: Long Tall Lester, or The Fastest Encyclopedia Salesman in the West.

They liked it. And that's the title you'll see it come out under in April.

I should be happy. It is a decent title.

So why does the same worrisome thought keep circling my mind?

Fastest? That's the best you could come up with?

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Travails of a playwright

So last week I was all excited for my New York City debut as Thespian Production was getting ready to perform my 10-minute drama The Wanderer.  No longer would I be a mere playwright. I would be an off-off-Broadway playwright.

The debut would be completely vicarious. The Big Apple is a long (and expensive) way to go for a 10-minute play. And besides, the good folks in the theater company promised they would send me programs as well as any reviews or other feedback they received.

And so it was with bated breath that I clicked over to their website, hoping to see my the title of my play in the lineup, maybe even get a glimpse of the cast.

Well, the cast photos were all there. There was just one problem. None of those bright shining faces were from my play.

My breath bating even more, I checked the lineup. Nope, my play wasn't listed.

I clicked around the website. No mention of The Wanderer anywhere.

The truth was clear. Paul and his cantankerous father Edmund were never going to have that talk in the police station.

With calmer breath, I sent the organizer an email, asking what happened and whether they had plans to do my play at a later time.

I mean, I get it. This is show biz, folks. Budgets are cut. Seasons are rearranged. Directors bail.

But it would be nice if they told me. Here it is a week later and I still haven't heard a peep out of them.

And so on Sunday, I submitted that play to five more contests.

Maybe it won't ever get done in NYC. But it will get done, one way or another.

Friday, February 17, 2012

Magic time

Before I got my first play published last year, I'd struggled for 13 years to reach print in the world of books. But if I'd known then what I know now, I wouldn't have bothered.

Why? Because seeing one of your plays performed provides more satisfaction, more pleasure, more joy then any book could ever give you. And it's all because of that little thing called an audience.

I'm having these thoughts because last night I got to see the first local production of one of my plays.

All right. Strictly speaking, it wasn't my first. That happened last month, when "Anger Mismanagement" premiered as part of the 24SEVEN theatre project. But as I've described previously, that was a rush job. And besides, I was guaranteed production whether I came up with a masterpiece or pure drivel (I'll let the audience for that one decide which it was).

But last night was the first time a play that I'd written for general production was done locally.

The play is "Fear of Clowns." And I couldn't have asked for a better production.

"Fear of Clowns" is a 10-minute comedy about a clown who visits a psychiatrist about an unusual fear (I don't want to give that away as it's a big part of the fun) and it was done as part of the Millibo Art Theatre's annual "Ten Minutes Max" show.

What made this production so meaningful to me is that there was one point when I was sure the play would never see the light of day.

Late last year, I was deep in the middle of a rewrite on it when my playwriting software locked up. Feeling a sickening lurch in my gut, I rebooted the program.

When it came back to life, my worst fears were realized. The current version was gone, and all I could find on my hard drive were dusty old versions that bore little resemblance to the version I'd clawed from the shalelike strata of my mind.


You can probably predict the next step. I tried to recreate it from memory, but as anyone whose ever been there knows, that's a fool's errand. I hit a wall, unable to find those words again.

That's when I thought back to a quote from humorist Garrison Keillor. I don't remember his exact words, but they were along the lines that if you lose a manuscript, forget what you wrote before. Write it fresh. It'll be better.

I tried. And he was right.

Freed from the shackles of my old words, I conjured up new words, new thoughts, new directions. I invented a whole new section of dialogue in which the clown describes his love for an aerialist ("She can fly.") and the difficulty he has expressing that love.

The dialogue was painful. It was heartbreaking. And it was exactly the thing I'd been looking for to add depth to my piece.

The performance went great, due in no small part to the MAT's Jim Jackson, a real-life clown who played my lead character with a bittersweet gentleness.

I was grateful for every laugh he got (never as many as you hope for, but always more than you deserve). But what really surprised me were the number of "awww's" from the crowd. I knew my play was sad, but it wasn't until I saw a world-class performer bring it to life that I realized how much the audience would welcome that gentle clown into their hearts.

Thank you, Jim--and the rest of the team at the MAT who gave it their all.

For this playwright, it was truly a magical night.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Two crazy nights

I just finished the most exhilarating, liberating experience of my life. And it didn't involve hang gliding, alcohol or drugs of any kind. Unless of course you consider caffeine a drug.

I'm talking about 24SEVEN, a wild, wacky and wonderfully exhausting 24-hour theatrical event.

Yeah, I know. No big deal. Lots of cities do those.

But not here. Not in Colorado Springs. Out cultural community is notoriously conservative, so it came as something of a relief (miracle?) when the highly regarded Springs Ensemble Theatre announced they were going to give it a shot.

Here's how it went down for myself and the six other writers who committed to this project (and should be committed, period).

The event began at 7 p.m. on Friday at a non-descript office that's used by one of the writers in his day job. The rules were explained and we picked the seven prompts out of a hat (actually, a shoebox).

Location: New York City subway

Character name: Lola

Prop: Rat

Sound cue: Ringing phone

Line of dialogue: ""The more coffee I drink, the more it throbs."

We were given until 4 a.m. to complete a play that included all of these prompts. The only requirement was that the play be at least 10 minutes long. Coherency was merely an option.

Faced with this task, I felt nothing but bone-gnawing fear. Why? Because I'm the world's slowest writer. It takes me weeks to write a 10-minute play, six months for a full-length. But here I had just 7 1/2 hours.

I knew I couldn't overthink it. I had to just open my mind and turn on the faucet.

So that's what I did. Starting with that line of dialogue and working forwards and backwards from it to figure out who said that it and who were they with and what, oh what, were they fighting about.

It was glorious, the words coming so fast I felt like I was flying. Much different than the nitpicky slog my writing sessions usually consist of.

I sent off my "masterpiece" at 3 a.m.--a full hour before the deadline. At 5 a.m., the producers read, reformatted and printed out the scripts. At 6 a.m., the directors got to read the scripts and they were given only an hour to cast their plays from an array of head shots taped to the wall.

At 8:30 a.m., the actors "finally" rolled in and rehearsals began--grinding, mind-numbing rehearsals that lasted the entire day, not ending until the first showtime at 7:30 p.m. The plays were well-written, well-performed and well-received, surprisingly so, considering the headlong rush to production involved.

In fact, the whole event was so successful that the producers intend to repeat the madness in six months.

There's just one problem. Yesterday, when I returned to my regular writing--the full-length play I've been working for the last three months--I hit the wall. My writing returned to that painful slog.

I don't know what it'll take to recapture that sense of urgency again. Establishing lots of mini-deadlines? Chugging gallons of coffee? Strangling my internal editor? I don't know.

All I know is that I need to do something. I miss flying.