Wednesday, December 31, 2014

A look back at 2014

I think it's important at the end of each year to review your accomplishments over the previous twelve months. Not only does it tell you how far you've come, but it shows areas where you you've fallen short so that you can redirect your course in the coming year.

In a nutshell, 2014 was my best year to date. Here are some of the things that made it so:
  • Made a record 230 submissions.
  • Received a record 50 productions through my publisher, including a healthy 24 productions for The Butler Did It! in its first year of release.
  • Received a record 17 productions from my own submissions, most of which were for You're Driving Me Crazy. Not bad for a series of plays written for teenage actors.
  • Had the world premieres of my short plays You're Driving Me Crazy #2, You're Driving Me Crazy #3, You're Driving Me Crazy #4 and Table for Three.
  • Achieved one long-time dream by working with a local high school to develop and premiere one of my full-length plays, Million Dollar Meatballs. This was by far the most satisfying--and educational--experience of the year.
  • Had my Australia and UK premieres.
  • Reached 42 in the number of states where I've had productions. Come on, Delaware, Georgia, West Virginia, New Mexico, Kansas, New Jersey, Alaska and Hawaii!
  • Saw local productions of The Butler Did It!, You're Driving Me Crazy #2 and Table for Three.
  • Won my first national award, the 2014 Beverly Hills Theatre Guild Play Competition for Youth Theatre, for Rumpelstiltskin, Private Eye.
  • And, just before the end of the year, Pioneer Drama Service released Rumpelstiltskin, Private Eye, my fourth published play (learn more about this in a coming post).
Will 2015 be even better? I hope so. And I've got some concrete goals to help that. See my post tomorrow.

Saturday, December 6, 2014

Thescon lessons

Yesterday, I led my new workshop at the Colorado State Thespian Conference. This year, I had two sessions on Friday instead of two sessions on Saturday. The turnout was much lower than last year. I had just 12 students at the first session and 6 at the second. But the students who were there made up for it in enthusiasm, and one obviously bright young man said my workshop was his favorite. Score!

The workshop was titled Five Ways to Punch Up Your Playwriting. And in case you're curious, the five ways I came up with were:

1) Give your play a hook

2) Give each character a dominant personality trait

3) Demonstrate personality through dialogue and action

4) Keep tension high

5) Give your characters a hidden agenda

I wanted it to be a practical workshop, with examples drawn from real plays and several writing exercises. And, as usual, I was blown away by their creativity.

For step three, I started by having two students perform a scene from Alan Ayckbourn's Garden (one-half of his House and Garden duo of interwoven plays). In it, a middle-aged man named Gavin reveals to his teenage son Jake that his wife--the boy's mother--has been cheating on him. I then asked the students to continue the scene.

I expected that the students would take the scene down the standard path, that Gavin would blow up, railing against Joanne's betrayal and demanding that his son take his side. The twist is that this is not how Ayckbourn wrote the character at all.

In fact, Gavin does not get angry at all. Instead, he makes excuses for his wife. He blames himself for her infidelity. He even enlists Jake in his effort to get her the help she needs. My point was that our characters come alive the more they vary from the standard human response.

What stunned me was how each student made the scene so completely their own. Their Gavins weren't the typical vengeful husbands I expected them to write, but they weren't Ayckbourn's marshmallow of a guy either. Instead, each Gavin came to life in a unique and surprising way.

Did I teach them anything? I don't know. But maybe by talking about the scene, I helped them systematize their thought processes in a way that will make their future writing more effective.

In any case, this workshop is a keeper. It needs refinement, that's for sure. I need to find more scenes for the students to perform and I need to come up with more exercises for them to do.

But I think the concepts we covered really get at the heart of what makes for powerful writing.

By the way, I'm available to lead this workshop at your school or writing group. If you're interested in getting a quote, email me with your specifics (e.g. location, number of students, length of workshop) and I'll get right back to you.

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

A Christmas Without Cash

I've got something a little different for you today. In the spirit of Christmas, I thought I'd share my short story, "A Christmas Without Cash".

I wrote it for the 2006 holiday story contest sponsored by the Colorado Springs Gazette. That contest is long gone--one of many casualties in the ongoing decline of the newspaper industry--but in its time, the contest was a ton o' fun and inspired some really good writing.

Sadly, my story didn't win the big prize. It's too goofy for that. But it was named the Best Funny Christmas Story.

Oh, and if this story seems a bit odd, that's because all of the entries to the contest had to include five specific items as prompts. See if you can guess what the items were.

* * *
By Todd Wallinger

It wasn’t until Millard took the well-aimed blow to the ribs that he knew it was Christmas.

All month the twinkling lights and festive songs had seemed distant to him, vague reminders of holidays past. But now that he was sprawled on the floor of the American Girl Place, having just missed out on the last of the doll outfits he’d wanted to buy, he knew that the Most Wonderful Time of the Year had arrived.

Millard meekly raised his hand. “Um, I was here first.”

The mountain-like man who’d knocked Millard down laughed. “Yeah, but I’m here now.”

And with that the man lumbered away, the small square box clutched in his hairy paw. Millard gazed up at the poster. It said: “Meet the Newest American Girl: Ugg, a Girl from Neanderthal Times.” Below the words was a picture of the doll herself, looking quite stylish with her bearskin dress and matching purse.

A single thought broke through the grogginess in Millard’s mind. Constance would be devastated.

Constance was his seven-year-old daughter, and the dress was the only thing she’d asked for. At last count she’d asked for it 4590 times, or seventeen times a day since ads for the outfit had first appeared in March.

Millard desperately wanted to give it to her. After all, Constance was a pretty good kid. That business she’d started recycling uneaten fruitcakes into a variety of building materials had sure helped out when Millard lost his job. In fact, it had enabled them to pay off their mortgage, both cars and buy a condo on Maui. Getting her the dress was the least he could do.

But how would he get one now?

“Hi, Honey! I’m home!” Millard called.

Honey greeted him at the door with a glass of red wine. “Hi, Millard. How was your day?”

“I’m afraid I’ve got some bad news,” Millard said as he reached for the glass.

Honey held the glass out of his reach. “What bad news?"

Millard sighed. He’d never get the wine from her now.

“You know that bearskin dress Constance wanted?”

“Yesssss,” Honey said. Millard was always amazed how long she could draw out a single word when she was angry.

“I wasn’t able to get one.”


“Now Honey, there’s no reason to get excited,” Millard said. “And please let go of my tie. I can’t breathe.”

Honey loosened her hold on Millard’s tie, but just barely. “That’s the only thing she’s been asking for!”

“I know. I know. But the place was a madhouse. There must have been 9000 people there. They even had to call out the National Guard.”

“Now you’re exaggerating.”

“All right. There were only 8000 people.”

“So what are we going to get her?”

“I don’t know yet. But I’ll think of something.”

That night, after he and Honey had put Constance to bed, Millard sat alone in the spare bedroom. By the light of the full moon, he could see Johnny Cash smirking down at him. Or at least a very good likeness of him.

Millard had made the room into a shrine to the Man in Black. In it he displayed all the items he’d collected over the years of scrounging flea markets and country music memorabilia conventions: Johnny Cash records, Johnny Cash commemorative plates, even the rare and highly-sought-after series of Johnny Cash action figures.

But the pride and joy of his collection was the nine-foot statue of the man Millard had lovingly built out of rubber bands.

Millard knew what he had to do. He had to trade it--and to the most loathsome person on the face of the earth. His brother-in-law, Orville.

Millard was at his brother-in-law’s house before dawn. Orville never got up before noon, but Millard had a reason for getting there so early. It was all part of his Master Plan.

Millard wrestled the statue out of the car and up the walk to the door. Then he carefully covered it with a bed sheet.

Orville opened the door, looking bleary-eyed even for him. “Go away, Millard. Come back when I’m can think straight.”

That might be a long wait, Millard thought.

Orville started to close the door.

“Wait!” Millard cried. “I’ve got something for you!”

Orville sneered. “What could you possibly have that I would ever want?”

“This,” Millard said, and he yanked the sheet off the statue.

At that moment, just as Millard had planned, the sun poked above the horizon, bathing the statue in a heavenly glow.

“It’s Johnny,” Orville breathed, and he lurched toward the statue as though it were a double-stuffed pizza.

Millard stopped him with a strategically-placed hand to the forehead. “That’s right. And it can be yours.”

“What do you want for it?” Orville asked, his hands grasping vainly for the statue.

“You know that doll outfit you bought for Lurlene?”

Orville’s gaze snapped onto Millard. “The bearskin dress, you mean?”

“Yes. Constance wants one for Christmas. Give me yours and you can have Johnny.”

“But Lurlene loves that outfit.” “I know, but Constance has been begging for one all year. And besides, Lurlene is forty-two years old now. She really ought to find some grownup interests.”

Orville stared at Johnny. For a moment, Millard thought he was going to chuck it all and walk back into the house. But then he scowled and said, “It’s a deal.”

Christmas Day had come. At the first hint of light, Constance dragged her parents downstairs for the opening of the presents. She’d always been an unusually strong girl.

“Which one will you open first?” Millard asked.

“This one,” Constance said. She tore into the small square package. A moment later, she stared inside with a look of pure astonishment. It was the bearskin dress.

“I thought you weren’t able to get one,” Honey said.

Millard smiled. “I traded Johnny for it.”

Constance looked stunned. “But--”

“It’s all right, Constance,” Millard said. “It was a sacrifice, but it was worth it.”

“Go ahead, Constance,” Honey said. “Let’s see how it looks on Ugg.”

But Constance didn’t touch the dress. Instead, with a somber look, she said, “Daddy, I think you’d better open this first.” And she shoved a large round package into his hands.

Curiously, Millard opened the package. Inside was a thick brass disk.

“This is just what I’ve always wanted!” he exclaimed. “What is it?”

And then he saw the engraving on the side. It read: “World’s Largest Rubber Band Johnny Cash, Designed and Built by Millard Farkle.”

“It’s a pedestal for Johnny,” Constance said, her voice thick with tears. “I sold Ugg to get it for you.”

Millard stared at Constance with a mixture of wonder and love. Then he opened his arms wide.

“Come here, Honey.”

“I’m Constance. Mom’s name is Honey.”

“Sorry. I meant Constance.”

The little girl jumped into her father’s arms and they gave each other a big hug.

Millard smiled to himself. They may have each given up what was most valuable to them. But they had each received something more precious in return.

He had just one question. How much could he get for a slightly used pedestal?

Copyright 2006 by Todd Wallinger

* * *

Did you figure out the prompts? They were: an American Girl doll, a fruit cake, a glass of red wine, a full moon and Johnny Cash.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

The butler forms a family

Just came across this article on the recent production of The Butler Did It! at Selah High School in Selah, WA. It's one of the best I've read, with vivid details and lots of interesting quotes. What's more, it was written for the Yakima Herald-Republic by a sophomore at the school.

Well done, Colton. You've got a bright future ahead of you as a journalist, if you choose to go that route.

The best part of the story? Learning how the cast became a close-knit family through the three-month (!) rehearsal process. As Aleksandra Pawlak, a foreign exchange student Poland who played Edwina Corry, said: “Being with all these people shows that I have a place here.”

That's theatre in a nutshell: providing a place--a family, a home--for those who may not fit in anywhere else.

Warning: The article does includes a spoiler, revealing the name of the murderer. If you don't want to know, you may not want to read the article.

Monday, November 10, 2014

A new playwriting workshop

I'm excited to be part of the Colorado High School Thespian Conference again this year. I'm even more excited to be unveiling a brand new workshop: Five Ways to Punch Up Your Playwriting.

This workshop is more practical that the one I led last year. It assumes that you're past the beginner stage and are ready to write scenes that grab your audience by the throat. In it, you'll learn how to give your play a hook, the one thing every character needs and the secret to subtext.

So if you're heading to the conference and you'd like to develop a more hard-hitting approach to playwriting, look me up. The workshop is at 2:15pm and 3:45pm on Friday, December 5 in Room 108.

Monday, October 27, 2014

10 things I learned in high school

And just like that, the world premiere of Million Dollar Meatballs is over.

As described earlier, the Discovery Canyon High School production of my play was the first time I got to sit in on rehearsals from auditions to final preview. And although I'm sad to see it end, I have to say it was a wonderful experience all around. Director Amy Keating did a fabulous job, encouraging the students to play with the script while remaining completely respectful of my intent. And the students themselves were amazing, making the characters come to life in ways I never expected.

The houses were smaller than I would have liked, with about 100 people on our biggest night. But the audiences made up for it through sheer enthusiasm. From the moment hotheaded chef Gordon Ramrod angrily tore off his aprons (yes, he was wearing more than one) to the final frenzied search for the diamonds, the auditorium was filled with that most beautiful of sounds: laughter.

Amy originally offered to produce the play because she felt it would be an educational experience for her students. What surprised me is how many things I learned as well.

Here are the top ten:

1. High school actors are absolutely fearless. You can ask them to do anything--eat food off the floor, slam into walls, have a pitcher of water poured into their lap--and they will throw themselves completely into it.

2. High school theatre directors are way underpaid.

3. If you make people laugh, no one will complain that your play is only 60 minutes long.

4. Don't ever, EVER have two things happening in a scene at the same time. While it may look exciting on the page, it's a confusing mess on the stage.

5. No matter how much you promote your play, it'll never outdraw the school's football game.

6. The amount of laughter a joke gets has no correlation to the amount of effort it took to think of the joke.

7. Shaving cream makes an excellent beard.

8. Given freedom to experiment, the actors will come up with better lines than you ever could.

9. Given freedom to experiment, the actors will also come up with much worse lines. As playwright, it's your job to know the difference.

10. Nothing gets a bigger laugh than a bad French accent.

And an extra one:

11. Theatre kids are some of the brightest, politest, nicest people you'll ever meet.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Meatballs on the air -- again

Million Dollar Meatballs will again be coming to your radio. This weekend, director Amy Keating, two student actors and myself will appear on the KCME Culture Zone, an in-depth arts program hosted by Keith Simon.

We didn't get to do a scene from the show, but the young actors do a great job describing what it means to appear in a world premiere play.

The show airs at 5pm on Sunday, October 19 and 7pm on Monday, October 20. KCME can be found at 88.7 FM.

Update: To listen to the broadcast, click here.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Rumpelstiltskin, Private Eye to be published

Just got word from Pioneer Drama Service that they'll be publishing my fourth play, Rumpelstiltskin, Private Eye.

The synopsis:
Fairy Tale Land has been hit by a crime wave. The Three Bears had their home broken into. The Three Little Pigs had their homes destroyed. Now Little Red Riding Hood's grandmother is missing. The crimes seem unrelated, at least if you listen to those shady Grimm brothers. Could an evil mastermind be behind them all? Only hard-boiled detective Rumpelstiltskin can crack this case.
As a film noir fan, I had a ball writing this one, and I know that students will have a ball doing it. The play is 60 minutes long, and with 29 roles (5M/12F/12U), it truly has a part for everyone.

Look for it in Pioneer's spring supplement in December.

Friday, October 10, 2014

Meatballs on the air

Want to hear a scene from the upcoming premiere of Million Dollar Meatballs? Then tune in tomorrow as director Amy Keating, two student actors and myself appear on The Ticket, a local arts program. The show airs at 2pm on KVOR 740 AM.

The Ticket is normally hosted by the illustrious Warren Epstein, but this weekend Jim Jackson of the Millibo Art Theatre will be filling in for him. I wish him good luck and an eloquent tongue.

Update: To listen to the broadcast, click here. Our piece starts just after the 30-minute mark.

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Million Dollar Meatballs premieres Oct 23-25

The world premiere of Million Dollar Meatballs is just two weeks from today. I had a ball sitting in on rehearsal the first couple of weeks, but now that I've given the director my final revisions to the script, my work there is finished.

Now comes the most important job any playwright can perform: staying home. Actors need room to breathe, to experiment, to play, and that's not easy to do under the watchful and ever critical eye of the author.

Not that it seemed to bother this cast. From day one, the young actors took ownership of their roles, and it's been a joy watching the characters come to life on the stage.

Of course, a large part of that is due to their wonderful director, Amy Keating. She's respectful of the text, but has encouraged her actors to shake things up if the script isn't working as written.

So if you're in the area in two weeks, I'd be thrilled if you could join us. It's truly a labor of love for everyone involved, and I guarantee you'll have a good time.

Performances are 7pm on Thursday, October 23 through Saturday, October 25 at Discovery Canyon Campus, 1810 North Gate Blvd. in Colorado Springs. To order your tickets, visit

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Fear in London

Just got word that my 10-minute comedy Fear of Clowns will be produced next month at a pub named The Horse & Stables in London. I'm thrilled as this will be my debut in the theatre-loving UK.

Friday, September 26, 2014

Coming alive

There's a great lyric from the musical Applause in which the headstrong Broadway star Margo Channing lays out for her young protege what she can expect from a life in the theatre. Among things like grabby stagehands and dark toilets in the halls, comes this little gem:

"You'll only come alive at night, when you're in a show."

That pretty much sums it up , doesn't it? And not just for actors, but for playwrights as well.

At least that's the way I felt this week, as I sat in on the rehearsals for the world premiere of my new farce, Million Dollar Meatballs, at Discovery Canyon High School.

It's a wonderful experience, and a rare one. I've attended rehearsals for my plays a couple of times before, but this time it's different. This time the play is still in development.

Oh, it's close to being done. I'm happy with the pacing and flow. I don't have to rewrite huge sections of dialogue and I certainly don't have add or delete any scenes.

But there are a ton of physical gags that I may discover aren't possible (a beard made of whipped cream?). And every new script I write seems to have plenty of "jokes" that just aren't be funny.

Fortunately, I found a dream director in Amy Keating, the school's theatre director. She has years of directing under her belt and really knows her stuff. And yet she's open to questions and suggestions from a relative newbie like myself. Just as importantly, she's been giving her students free rein to play with the script. After just two walkthroughs, we're already finding new directions to take the story.

One major change has been with the character of Humphrey, the maitre d' of the restaurant in which the play is set. I originally described him in the script as "maddeningly dense", but Amy had the idea of patterning him after the snarky maitre d' in Ferris Bueller's Day Off. And she found the perfect actor to pull it off, a young man with a smarmy delivery that reminds me of the Jim Carrey character in Liar, Liar. I've been tweaking his dialogue to bring that out some more and we even stole one line from another character because it fit Humphrey's sardonic view of the world much better.

I've also been punching up a lot of the jokes. One big surprise about this whole process is that I found I don't need an opening night audience to know which lines work and which don't. Between the understudies and the crew, about 30 people are present at each rehearsal and that's more than enough to get meaningful feedback (some local theatre companies don't get that many people to their actual performances), And these kids make the perfect audience, eagerly yukking it up--or not--through each run-through.

The most important thing I've learned? It turns out that there are three kinds of jokes.

One, is the joke that never gets a laugh. It may sound funny in your head when you're typing it on your laptop, but in the harsh bright light of the stage, it fall flats on its face.

Here, to great embarrassment to myself, is an example from the script. It's the scene where that dubious whipped cream beard comes into play. Beans, a stupid jewel thief, has disguised himself as a waiter and Cecil, the arrogant restaurant critic who popped in by surprise, sees right through his dubious costume.

CECIL: You're not Boris. Boris has a beard. You've just got a face full of whipped cream.

BEANS: I do?

CECIL: Yes. Right there.

(BEANS takes a taste of the whipped cream.)

BEANS: Ah. So that's why those cats were following me.

Ouch. The best thing to do with these jokes is rip them out of the script at your first opportunity and give them a quick burial in some dark alley.

Then there is the joke that gets a laugh the first time it's heard and never again. This type of joke  typically involve a degree of wordplay or wit, something that surprises you the first time you hear it, but once you "get" the joke, it doesn't offer anything new.

An example of this occurs when Tommy the Singing Telegraph Boy arrives on the scene:

TOMMY: Look, I need your help. If I don't deliver this message, then I won't get paid. And if I don't get paid, then I won't be able to get into clown college.

HUMPHREY: You want to become a clown?

TOMMY: No. I'd rather be an accountant, but my father insists I become a circus clown like him.

HUMPHREY: Those must be some pretty big shoes to fill.

TOMMY: You have no idea.

I don't mean to suggest these are lesser jokes. After all, most of your audience will only see your play once. Just don't rely solely on this type of joke.

Finally, there is that Holy Grail of Humor, the joke that gets a huge laugh no matter how many times it's repeated.

It's not witty. It's not particularly clever. I don't even know how to describe it except to say that it's just a long, oddly specific way to say something that could be said much simpler. And, as much as I hate to admit it, it's funny not because of the writing skill of the playwright but because of the delivery and timing of the actor.

An example of this comes when Cecil attempts to order some food from the sullen Russian waiter, Boris:

CECIL: All right, fine. I'll have the Duck L'Orange.

BORIS: I'm sorry, sir, but the duck flew south for the winter.

CECIL: Are you joking?

BORIS: Oh, no. The migratory habits of waterfowl are no laughing matter.

Believe it or not, that last line gets the biggest laugh in the play. Sure, it's a good line, but it gets a huge boost from the outrageously accent of the actor playing the part.

And yes, using an accent is a cheap way to get a laugh. But you know what? It works. Every single time.

So I'm now looking for ways to add more of these jokes to the script. After all, it's not my job to write funny lines. It's my job to write lines that the actors can make funny.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Keystone crazy

Over the last decade, as newspapers have slashed page counts, printed reviews of plays have become increasingly rare. Printed reviews of short plays are rarer still. So it was a pleasant surprise to be alerted to this little item in today's Erie News-Times:

"During that inaugural performance, 90 minutes' worth of material translated to 12 plays. The funniest was Todd Wallinger's 'You're Driving Me Crazy,' an excellent showcase for the talents of Shaun Taylor, who is riotously funny as a batty driving instructor opposite Dreihaup's skeptical student."

They're talking about Rollercoaster, a short play festival by Edinboro, PA's Laugh/Riot Performing Arts Company. Rollercoaster offers an interesting twist on these kind of festivals. Instead of programming the same 12 plays each night, they assign a number to 25 different plays and let the audience choose which ones get performed. Supposedly, this results in over a trillion combinations of plays, motivating theatregoers to return again and again.

Needless to say, I've been thrilled by the reception this little play has received. All four of my driver's ed plays have now been produced, but it's this first one which has garnered the most attention.

If you'd like to read a sample, click here.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Gopher crazy

Apparently, You're Driving Me Crazy #3 went over so well at the Lakeshore Players 10-Minute Play Festival in June that the theatre company decided to take my play to the Minnesota State Fair. If you're going to be there this weekend, be sure to stop by the Front Porch Stage in front of the 4H Building to catch it. Performances are Sunday, August 31 at 11:00am, 11:45am, 12:30pm, 1:15pm and 2:15pm.

As a native Wisconsite, I wish I could go if only to try the fair's famous cheese curds. Yum-mo!

Break legs, everybody!

Friday, August 22, 2014

A mile high debut

I was thrilled to find out this week that my play Table for Three will be produced at the Rocky Mountain Short Play Festival at Red Rocks Community College in Lakewood, Colorado.

I'm thrilled for three reasons.

One, Table for Three was the first 10-minute play I write three years ago when I decided to jump headirst into the playwriting world. I've submitted it to several contests and it got rejected every time. It wouldn't have broken my heart if it had never gotten produced. When I wrote it, I hadn't found my voice yet. And rereading it now I don't think it's all that funny. But I do like it so I'm glad ithas at least one chance at life.

Two, this will be my first production in the Denver metro area. For five years now, I've been driving up to the Mile High City on a monthly, sometimes weekly, basis to enjoy its dynamic theatre scene. It means a lot to me to know that one of my works will now be part of that scene.

And three, I'll be sharing the stage with Jess Weaver, one of the best of the young playwrights in my playwriting group. In fact, both her play, The Addition, and my play were read at the Drama Lab. I like to think they were both improved as a result of the feedback they got.

The festival runs November 6-16 at Red Rocks Community College Theatre, 13300 West 6th Avenue, Lakewood. If you're in the area, I'd love for you to come.

You know I'll be there.

For more info, click here.

Saturday, August 9, 2014

Crazy down under

I just learned that You're Driving Me Crazy #1 won the Director's Choice Award at the Short + Sweet Theatre Festival in Canberra, Australia. I want to send a big shout-out to Kate Clark, who directed the piece. Thanks for doing such a wonderful job with it!

Friday, August 8, 2014

Why I love theatre - Part 1

Longtime theatre fans know that seeing a play can often be a magical experience. But there are nights when that magic reaches new levels of meaning.

That happened to me last night. I was seeing TheatreWorks' production As You Like It, one of Shakespeare's brightest comedies. And they did a fine job, making Will's words come alive with playfulness and wit.

In the spirit of Joe Papp's original Shakespeare in the Park, the production was performed on the grounds of the Rock Ledge Ranch--not outdoors, but inside a large tent that had been erected for the occasion.

I've been to several of these productions over the last few years, and the one drawback is that they are always at the mercy of the weather.

Last night's show was no different. The show opened to the accompaniment of a light rain pattering on the canvas, making it hard to hear the Bard's beautiful but often difficult language. Fortunately, the rain soon stopped.

But it was until the final scene that the Magic happened.

The four happy couples had just taken the stage, eager to unite in wedded bliss, when the power went out. The tent was plunged into darkness, and as the audience gasped, the stage manager's voice rang out: "Actors hold!" Three flashlights turned on and the stage was instantly bathed in a dim but workable light.

And then, all around the tent, audience members fished out their phones and flipped them on, adding what light they could. The stage manager called for the actors to proceed and we all dove back into the world of the play.

It was a small moment. But it was a moving one.

And it reminded me again how much of a two-way street theatre is. As creators and performers, we shine what light we can.

But without an audience to join us, we're all just fumbling in the dark.

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Character is not king

I've been a character-driven writer as long as, well, as long as I've been a writer. To me, characters are the most important part of any story. More important than plot. Even more important than setting. More important than voice.

In fact, when I start a new play, I can't even write the first line of dialogue until I've defined all of my characters and given each of them a distinctive personality and a compelling goal. And if I've created them distinctively enough and compellingly enough, the story will practically write itself.

Of course, there's nothing unique about this. As long as I can remember, the entire writing community has seemed to agree: Character is king.

Writing instructors teach it. Writing manuals show you how to do it.

Lately though, I've started to realize that character is NOT king.

Don't get me wrong. Having rich, complex characters is essential for any story. But it doesn't go far enough.

Character is not king. Relationships are.

I still start each play by creating my cast of characters. That helps me understand who the story is about and giuves me some idea where the story is headed.

But now, instead of leaping right into the dialgoue, I step back and take one extra step.

I think about the relationship each character has with every other character in the piece (or at least every other character they will interact with) and consider how that relationship is different from every other relationship in the story.

It is this difference, I believe, that really makes your characters come alive.

Let me give you an example: My Fair Lady. Maybe not the best example, but one which demonstrates my point and which I expect nearly everyone is familiar with.

If I had written the script (and I wish I had!), I would have broken out the characters like this (note that each character is given a descriptor, one or two dominant personality traits and a goal):

Henry Higgins--professor of phonetics, haughty, mysogynistic, wants to teach Eliza how to speak proper English

Eliza Doolittle--poor Cockney flower girl, feisty, wants a comfortable life

Colonel Pickering--friend of Henry, jovial, wants to win bet with Henry

Alfred Doolittle--Eliza's father and a dustman, lazy, conniving, wants to make money off Eliza

Freddy Eynsford-Hill--rich young man, starry-eyed, wants to win Eliza's heart

If you look over this list, you may think that this is all that needs to be said about each of the characters. But if you place them in interaction with the other characters, their personalities take on new and fascinating complications.

Take Henry Higgins. He's haughty and mysiogynistic, it's true. But this barely scratches the surface.

With Eliza his haughtiness takes on a patronizing tone and that's because Henry considers her his social and intellectual inferior. He treats her more like a scientific specimen to be experimented with than a real, flesh-and-blood person. Of course, their relationship changes as he finds himself falling in love with her, but his natural superciliousness continues to dominate his interactions with her, preventing him from showing any real affection until the very end when, in a fit of irony, he jokingly commands her to "fetch my slippers".

Henry views Pickering as a social and (near") intellectual equal. So while he remains haughty in this relationship as well, here this haughtiness takes a more competitive tone, playing off the old warrior's natural joviality to take the form of a friendly rivalry, as between two old drinking buddies.

By rights, Henry should treat Alfred with as much disrespect as he does Eliza. After all, they come from the same socioeconomic class. But when Alfred visits Higgins' house, Higgins is drawn to the man's gift for language and his utter lack of morals. Just as with Eliza, Henry is drawn to Alfred as a scientific specimen, but one to be studied and admired rather than controlled. Is this seeming inconsistency due to Henry's basic misogyny: behavior that is unacceptable in a woman is not only acceptable but admirable in a man? Perhaps, perhaps not. But it does add an unexpected depth to a character that we thought we knew.

Finally, there is Freddy. Henry and Freddy do not interact much, but Henry's attitude toward his romantic rival is spelled out in the song, "I've Grown Accustomed to her Face". Yes, Henry and Freddy are members of the same class, but Henry views the younger man as an intellectual lightweight, completely unworthy of Eliza's love. It does not even cross Henry's mind that that Eliza may be attracted to Freddy for his youth and good looks. All he can see is that any future marriage between the two is sure to end up in poverty and despair.

So there you have it. One character. Four very different relationships.

Of course, you could do the same for the rest of the relationships in the story: Eliza and Alfred, Eliza and Freddy, Freddy and Alfred (no those two didn't meet, but wouldn't it have been fun if they had?).

It's a lot of work. But I've found that it really pays off.

Now my story really is writing itself.

Sunday, July 6, 2014

Butler Abbey

I love seeing the posters that community theaters use to promote their productions. Most of these theaters operate on a shoestring, but what they lack in cash they often make up for in creativity.

Here's a perfect example from the upcoming production of The Butler Did It! by Indianapolis's Center Stage Productions. Capitalizing on the feverish popularity of Downton Abbey, they Photoshopped the cast in front of a shot of the TV show's stately estate.

Blimey, that's a top-hole bit of work!

Monday, June 30, 2014

More free samples

I've just uploaded free samples for my unpublished full-length plays. This includes my backstage farce Kill the Critic!, my fractured fairy tale Rumpelstiltskin, Private Eye and my newest play, a restaurant face titled Million Dollar Meatballs. To read them, visit my Plays page or just click on the links below.

Million Dollar Meatballs
Comedy, 6M/6F, 90min

A pair of bumbling jewel thieves hide from the police in a struggling restaurant, only to misplace their diamonds in a plate of spaghetti and meatballs that gets served to the local restaurant critic. Read a sample.

Rumpelstiltskin, Private Eye
Comedy, 6M/11F/12U, 90min

Fairy Tale Land has been hit by a crime wave. The Three Bears had their home broken into. The Three Little Pigs had their homes destroyed. Now Little Red Riding Hood's grandmother is missing.  Could an evil mastermind be behind them all? Only hard-boiled detective Rumpelstiltskin can crack this case. Read a sample.

Kill the Critic!
Comedy, 7M/2F, 90min

On the night of his Broadway debut, Trevor Stanton kidnaps New York City's most powerful theatre critic to prevent him from writing a bad review. There's just one problem. Trevor accidentally poisons the critic, and as showtime nears he must take increasingly desperate measures to hide the corpse from a parade of outrageous characters. Read a sample.

If you'd like to see a full script for possible production, please email me by clicking here.


Wednesday, June 18, 2014

How to get media attention for your show

With fewer newspaper pages devoted to the arts, and TV and radio increasingly focused on Hollywood properties like the latest Spiderman reboot, it can be hard to get your little show the media attention it deserves.

But it can be done. Here are some ideas that have worked for me.

1. Find a slow weekend--Let's face it. In the vast universe of the theatrical arts, your show is a mere speck. If it opens the same weekend as the latest revival of Oklahoma! at Big City Arts Center, every media outlet in town is going to give their attention to Curley and Laurie. So the single most important thing you can do for your show is also the first: schedule it on a slow weekend when it's the only show in town and arts reporters are begging for stories. Yes, this requires planning ahead, but it pays off huge in terms of publicity.

2. Forget the fancy press release--You don't need it. What you need is an email that you can send to each and every arts editor, critic, report and blogger in your community (don't forget TV reporters and radio talk show hosts). Address it to them by name and make it personal. Did you enjoy their coverage of a similar show? Then say so.

And keep it short. Journalists are busy people. They don't have time to read your treatise on why you wrote the play or what you hope the audience takes away form it. Just give them a hook (more on that later) and the facts: date, time, venue, ticket prices.

Oh, and offer them comps--whether or not they report on your show. It never hurts to have local media types familiar with your work, even if it doesn't pay off until years later.

3. Give them a hook--What sets your play apart from everything else on local stages? Has it won a national award? Does it star some local celeb? Does the plot feature a twist that's never been seen before? Something's got to make your show unique of the reporters reading your email are going to click that cute little trash can icon.

4. Get photos--No matter who you contact, they're going to want photos. Be ready. Don't wait until you hear back from the local newspaper to do your photo shoot. They may not have time to wait.

Don't worry about getting a top-notch camera. A smartphone works fine. Focus instead on the content of the photo. To capture people's interest, the photo needs to include four things: 1) a glimpse of the set, 2) costumes, 3) two or more characters (one is boring), and 4) action (no talking heads). Do this right and you'll give readers a simple memorable image of what your play's about.

5. Be quotable--If you get interviewed for an article or news piece, you'll want to sound like you're talking off the cuff. But it doesn't hurt to come up with one or two "quotes" ahead of time that you can drop into the conversation. Why should people come see your show? What do you want people to get out of it? This is where you can include all thosee clever little things you wanted to say about your show in your email but didn't have room for.

6. Say thank you--Your mom always told you to write thank-you notes and that's still good advice today. After your story hits the print or the airwaves, send a brief email to the reporter thanking them for their time. If there's an error in the article, let it go. Trust me. The article always has an error. What's important is that you got publicity.

That goes double for theatre critics. If you get a negative review, you'll be tempted to argue with them by email or even on an online forum. Don't. It makes you look petty, and it makes the critic less likely to review your next show. Just suck it up and move on.

After all, what they say is true. The only bad publicity is no publicity. And besides, nothing is more important for your future promotional efforts than maintaining a positive relationship with reporters and critics today.

Even if you want to strangle them.

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Make 'em laugh


I caught the local production of The Butler Did It! twice last weekend, and I look forward to going one more time before it closes this Saturday I could write a 500-word blog on why I keep returning to my own play, but as is usually the case, Wall Street Journal theatre critic Terry Teachout has already  covered this issue.

As Teachout suggested, it's a treat. To hear an audience respond to your work is one of the great joys in life. And rarer than you might think.

Of the 100+ productions of my work since 2010, I've gotten to see exactly 7--and all but one were in Colorado. Theatres just don't have it in their budgets to fly playwrights in, and I don't have it in my budget to fly myself. So I enjoy most of my productions vicariously, either through production photos (always a blast!) or through emails from the director or cast members.

But Teachout left out one other important reason: to learn where the laughs fall. I've written comedies for 9 years now, and coming up with a good gag is as much a mystery to me now as it was when I started. Nothing can replace the immediate feedback of a live audience to tell you what works--and what doesn't.

And although actors like to say that every audience is different, I've found that the response remains remarkably consistent from production to production and performance to performance.

If you have fewer than 20 people in the theater (as we did Saturday afternoon), you won't get laughs no matter how funny your script is. Get more than 20 people in the room, and the same lines will get the same laughs time after time after time.

The Butler Did It! is already published, so it's too late to tweak the dialogue now. But studying where the laughs fall is sure to help me in future plays, even if writing a good gag remains more art than science.

Monday, June 9, 2014

Butler in Broadway World

And another review is in, this one from Christi Esterle by way of Broadway World. She writes:
Local playwright Wallinger has written a gently affectionate spoof of a drawing-room mystery, complete with a thinly veiled Agatha Christie clone and threaded with a black humor reminiscent of Arsenic and Old Lace. (One of the household members, a rifle-wielding granny convinced she's fighting the Boer War, is essentially a female variation on Arsenic's Uncle Teddy.) With shaky British accents and uneven comedic timing, the production at the Black Box is carried off with more enthusiasm than skill, but both the audience and myself found the show entertaining and humorous, and some performances do stand out...

While not perfect, The Butler Did It! has a lot of heart and humor behind it and is a fine offering from a Colorado author, and that is enough to recommend it.
To read the whole thing, click here.

Friday, June 6, 2014

Glowing review for The Butler Did It!

As they say in every backstage play ever written, the reviews are in!

Or at least one of them. This glowing review is written by long-time critic and theatre enthusiast Bill Wheeler, who runs the Theatre Colorado blog. Wheeler is one of the few critics in the state to make a point of reviewing new work.

Wheeler gave a big thumbs up to David Olson's portrayal of the hapless butler, describing his comedic timing as "spot on", as well as Daniel Robbins' "charming, engaging, and somewhat mischievous" turn as the priest.

As for the script, well, here's what he had to say: 
Wallinger's script delicately sets up the mystery and the final payoff. His characters are decidedly typical of the genre, bringing both credibility and complexity to the story. There is an elegant symmetry to the plot, as both the Barstows and the Covingtons have the illusion of wealth but a justified fear of poverty. The British upper class is the butt of the biggest jokes Wallinger weaves into his story.
After being a theatre critic for over 4 years, it feels odd to find myself on this side of the inkwell. But if all my reviews are this positive, I think I'll get to used it.

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Butler in the news

The Butler Did It! opens in my hometown tomorrow night, and to support that, the Colorado Springs Independent gave it a nice writeup today. Thanks, Indy!

And yes, I've got to stop saying "kind of".

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Going crazy down under

And my 10-minute comedy You're Driving Me Crazy #1 has just been selected for the Short + Sweet Theatre Festival (the world's largest short play festival) in Canberra, Australia. Which really is crazy because when I wrote this comedy about the driving instructor from hell, I thought it would only be of interest to high schools. I didn't think it stood a snowball's chance of getting into any adult contests.

But I submitted it--and its three companion plays--anyway. Between them, they've had four productions, gotten a reading in New York City, were used for classroom study in Colorado and Massachusetts and are scheduled for another four productions between now and the end of the year.

Sometimes you just got to submit.

Monday, June 2, 2014

Beverly Hills gumshoe

I just learned that my new play Rumpelstiltskin, Private Eye won the 2014 Beverly Hills Theatre Guild Play Competition for Youth Theatre, also known as the Marilyn Hall Award. No production is attached to this prize, but I do get a nice check.

The play has Rumpelstiltskin as a 40's-style gumshoe attempting to find the evil matsermind behind the famous crimes of the Grimm Brothers tales. It's full of fast-talking dames, tough yeggs and the worst puns this side of the Annoying Orange.

Although I've won a couple of regional contests and my backstage farce Kill the Critic! came close in the McLaren and Pickering awards, this is my first win in a national contest. Looking over past winners of this award, it appears that they favor social dramas, historical dramas and faithful adaptations of classic myths, so I feel honored that they selected my silly little comedy.

Saturday, May 31, 2014

On the air tonight

I just had a great conversation with my former boss Warren Epstein. The fact that this conversation took place on the radio didn't detract at all from the conviviality of that conversation.

Warren and I go way back. At least if you consider 2008 way back. That's when he chose me to replace the departing Mark Arnest as theatre critic for the Colorado Springs Gazette.

At the time, I was struggling to get anything published, and this opportunity to write (and get paid!) on a near-weekly basis for over 100,000 readers disciplined me to write fast and write well. And even though we've both moved on (Warren is now the communications director for the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center), I'll forever be grateful to him for giving me my start.

So I was especially excited when offered to put me on this week's edition of his radio show, The Ticket.

The Ticket is everything an arts show should be and so often isn't: lively, fun and very, very unstuffy. Warren has a knack for finding the humor in any topic and our conversation this afternoon was no different.

Dave Olson and Jenny Maloney from the Colorado Springs cast of The Butler Did It! were gracious enough to join me, and together the four of us covered a wide range of theatre-related subjects: what makes for a good play, the role of comedy in society, how to make money at this crazy game. I even got to put in a long plug for my monthly playwriting group The Drama Lab. And through it all, we had a blast.

To listen to the broadcast, click here. The audio players requires Flash, so it may not work on your mobile device. case, try opening it on your home computer.

Or click here to access the MP3 file directly. Click Download, select "Open with Windows Media Player" and click OK.

If you live in the Pikes Peak region, I encourage to tune into The Ticket each Saturday at 2pm on KVOR 740AM. Or listen to any of the archived shows on the show's web page. Either way, you'll learn about the wealth of art happenings in our area--and you'll have a lot of laughs in the process.

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Discovering meatballs

I'm thrilled to announce that my newest play, Million Dollar Meatballs, will get its world premiere at the Discovery Canyon Campus High School in Colorado Springs, CO in October. The play is a full-length comedy about a bungling pair of jewel thieves who hide out in the kitchen of a fancy restaurant and accidentally lose their diamonds in a batch of meatballs. I think it may be my funniest play. It's certainly the most frenzied.

I'm thrilled for two reasons. First, I really need to workshop it before I submit it to a publisher. It's a complicated farce with tons of physical humor, and action occurring in two rooms at the same time. I want to see how it works in the rehearsal room and I fully expect to rework whole sections of it to make sure it's easily producible.

Second, I've wanted to get involved with a local high school for a long time--and Discovery Canyon is one of the best. Amy Keating, who runs the theatre program there, knows how to get the best out of her kids. And she does something few other drama teachers do: she gives budding young playwrights an opportunity to see their own works on the stage.

So I can't wait to work with Amy, and to see her kids bring this crazy fireball of a play to life.

Friday, May 16, 2014

The butler comes home

If you're one of my Colorado Springs readers, I want to let you know that The Butler Did It! will be performed at Black Box Theatre, 1367 Pecan St., next month.

Since it was published a year ago, The Butler Did It! has been performed in 17 states and Australia, but this is the first time it'll be produced in my own home town.

When I've got a play in town, it's always tempting to pop in to rehearsal. Last year, I poked my head in quite a bit during rehearsals for Kill the Critic!

But then I had a good excuse. I was a producer and a big chunk of my money was on the line.

My presence didn't help. My spy--I mean my daughter--was in the cast and she reported that--big surprise!--the cast members felt intimidated by me.

For one, they wanted to know why I never laughed. Didn't I like their work?

What they didn't know is that I rarely laugh at my own stuff. Comedy is just too serious a subject to me.

So this time I've decided to stay away, and I have no qualms about it. The production is being directed by my friend Nancy Holaday, who did such a great job with Kill the Critic!, and I have all the confidence in the world that she'll bang it out of the park again.

Just as important, much of the cast of Kill the Critic! has returned to star in this production, and if anyone is going to make me laugh, they will.

The show runs June 5-14. And if it's anything like Kill the Critic!, tickets are going to disappear fast. To order yours, visit the Black Box web site.

Friday, May 9, 2014

Lester wins in Canada

I want to send out a great big congrats to the gifted theatre students of Blackville Middle School in Blackville, NB. Their production of Long Tall Lester at the New Brunswick Drama Fest--Canada's largest school theatre festival--garnered awards for props and costumes as well as an honorable mention for one of the actors.

Interestingly, Long Tall Lester won a whole bunch of awards at last year's festival as well when Millerton School of Derby, NB performed it. The conclusion is obvious. ;)

Great job, everyone!

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Why you need a publisher

I often hear from playwrights who say that they don't want to be published. They hate the thought of splitting royalties with a faceless corporation. Even more, they hate the thought of giving up control over their plays. As a result, they spend a big chunk of their time promoting their play, arranging for the performance rights, collecting the fees and the myriad other activities required to get a play produced.

Now everyone has the right to pursue their career the way they see fit. But if your goal is to make some money at this game, then I think this view is shortsighted.

Last May, Pioneer Drama Service published my first full-length play, The Butler Did It! Now that it had the imprimatur of a major publishing house, I thought I would bolster their promotional efforts by advertising it myself.

I ordered 250 postcards, bought a big spool of postcard stamps and mailed them off, focusing on community theatre companies that had done goofy comedy/mysteries like mine.

The total cost was around $200. That may seem like a lot, but if the postcards resulted in just 2 productions, I'd break even.

So yesterday, I received my annual royalty statement from Pioneer. I was thrilled to see that The Butler Did It! had gotten 24 productions. Surprisingly, however, not a single one came from those postcards. They were all a result of Pioneer own promotional efforts.

I'm sure a few came from people stumbling across Pioneer's website as the result of a Google search. But I suspect that the bulk came from people who were already loyal customers of Pioneer, and knew what to expect when ordering a play from their catalog.

So yeah, my postcards earned me a big fat goose egg. And that's for a play that's already published. Imagine how much more difficult it is to get a production with a play that hasn't been published.

My other plays did well too. Last year, I was a little worried because the number of productions for The _urloined Letter had dropped from 9 in its first year to 4 in its second year. But this year it nearly regained all that lost ground with 8 productions. And Long Tall Lester did even better, its 18 productions representing a healthy 20% increase over its inaugural count of 15 productions.

As a playwright, you often feel like your plays are your children. And it can be hard to send them out into the world without you.

But plays are meant to be produced, and the best way to achieve that is to get them picked up by a publishing house that will give them as much care and attention as you would yourself.

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Hawkeye whodunit

Nothing makes me happier than seeing photos from productions of my plays. And Gehlin Catholic School (Go Jays!) of Le Mars, IA took some great ones for their production of The Butler Did It! this weekend.

They also got a fabulous writeup in the Le Mars Daily Sentinel. Of course, my favorite part of the article has to be these very kind words from director Mark Morehead:
Morehead said he selected the play particularly because he appreciated the slapstick comedy in the script.

"I started reviewing scripts last fall," he said. "I came across this one and I read through it once and I laughed hysterically through the reading. ... It has really great one-liners."
Break legs, everyone! I hope the audience laughs as much.

Sunday, April 27, 2014

What I learned at the conference

I just got home from the Pikes Peak Writers Conference and what a wonderful experience it was. Overwhelming, yes. Exhausting, definitely. But wonderful, through and through.

I met a lot of great people--both newbies to the writing field and grizzled veterans. And I was re-inspired but some incredible speakers, from the hard-driving TV reporter and novelist Hank Phillippi Ryan to the hilariously foul-mouthed screenwriter/novelist Chuck Wendig. Chuck's mantra: "Care less. Write more."

On Saturday afternoon, I led a workshop on improvisation titled, ""Whose Story Is It Anyway?" My premise was this: in both novels and plays, it's the characters who drive the story, not the author. But when novelists are stuck in their writing, they're often recommended to use tools that require more writing. Instead, I suggested they do what actors do: get up off your feet and do some improv. It 'll force you to use a different part of your brain and might even kickstart a whole new slew of ideas.

I led a mini-version of this class at a conference preview this February and it phenomenally well. The room was packed with writers, and the five victimess-er, volunteers--I was assigned threw themselves wholeheartedly into the exercises. It didn't hurt that most of them had had some theatre experience.

So I was little disappointed when Saturday arrived and only seven people showed up. What made matters worse, nearly all of them had planned on sitting out the activities and just watching.

Writers--what are you going to do?

But with a little arm-twisting, I was able to get all of them on their feet, and they had a ball. In fact, they had so much fun that when class time came to an end, they hogtied and forced me to come up with additional imrpov games they could play.

Okay, the hogtying was an exaggeration, but the games were not. The participants stuck around another half hour to play improv games until it was time for dinner. They especially enjoyed a game of Quick Change set in a meat freezer and a free-form activity set on a deserted island in which the writers potrayed characters from their own writing.

Last year, I led a class titled Intro to Playwriting and only seven people showed up (including the moderator). I blamed the low turnout on the irredeemably boring title of my class and decided to jazz things up this year by changing the title to Writing Plays for the (Surprisingly Lucrative) School Market.

Again, only seven people showed up (including the moderator). But it all worked out. The attendees were very enthusiastic and they peppered me with a wide range of questions. I may have even inspired a couple to try their hands at this little-known field.

I may not return next year. But my experience this year was extremely rewarding, and I hope to continue teaching classes elsewhere.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Sit down already!

I don't know how he does it. Not only has Broadway producer Ken Davenport found commercial and critical success with shows such as Kinky Boots, not only does he hold some of the most popular producing seminars in the country, but he also writes a fabulously entertaining blog.

When Ken wants to know how Broadway audiences feel about something, he doesn't just wonder about it. He goes out and asks them.

That was the case today, when he posted the results of his survey in which he asked Broadway attendees whether take part in standing ovations and why.

The survey found that 99% of Broadway shows earn a standing O. I see about 50 shows a year, and I would estimate that 80% of those shows get the audience on their feet.

Is that too high? I think so. And Ken's survey bears me out. Turns out that 80% of Broadway audience members stand up even when they they're not that thrilled with the show.

Why? Well, the survey provides lots of explanations, but I think only one gets to the heart of the matter: People are rewarding the performances, not the show itself.

I get that. Actors work damn hard, and a great performance can make even a ho-hum script seem brilliant.

Still, standing ovations are supposed to mean something and if 80% of productions get them, how are we supposed to reward the 20% that are truly outstanding?

I don't know. But if each of us were a little less eager to jump to our feet, maybe we could start making standard ovations special again, instead of merely expected.

Saturday, March 22, 2014

Bluegrass butler

A big shout-out to Community Christian Academy in Paducah, KY, who performed The Butler Did It! last night. I love this dramatic photo of the title character, especially since it gives a glimpse of the fabulous set the kids put together. Great job, everybody!

Friday, March 21, 2014

Butler in Hoosierland

The Butler Did It! got a nice mention in the Clarion, the student newspaper of Connersville Senior High School in Connersville, IN (Go Spartans!). They'll be performing the play April 25-27, but they announced the play's selection now to start building some buzz.

I rarely learn why my plays get chosen, but I liked director Suzy Brown's explanation of her choice in the article:

"This particular play was chosen because the selection committee thought it would be fun for the students. It also has a smaller set, which is easier for production..."

Guess I'd better crank out some more single-set plays!

Saturday, March 15, 2014

Polar vortex

A big Wolverine state shout-out to the talented drama students of Burt Township School in Grand Marais, MI (Go Polar Bears!), way up north along the frigid shore of Lake Superior (how many schools offer a unit on snowshoeing?).

They performed my play The Butler Did It! last night, and it looks like they had a blast. And I'm thrilled to see that, like many of the high schools doing this play, they were able to make it work with just a minimal set. Nice job, all!

For more photos from this production, check The Agatelady blog.

Thursday, February 27, 2014

On the road in Oz

They sure are busy Down Under. Talkwalker alerted me to another article in the Cowra Guardian about the Cowra Musical & Dramatic Society's March 28-29 production of The Butler Did It! Turns out they're taking the show on the road, with two more performances the following week in Billimari, New South Wales.

Break legs, all!

Dinner and a show

After an absence of ten years, dinner theatre returns to Grantsville, UT tonight as the Old Grantsville Church performs my comedy/mystery The Butler Did It!

The stalwart group took some great promotional photos, which you can see on their Facebook page. The photos must be working, as three of the four performances have already sold out.

Broken legs to all! Wish I could be there.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

To pay or not to pay

The other daym I spoke with a youngish playwright who's had two local productions and now wants to get produced in larger markets. He wanted to know how I broke in, and I told him I 'd entered and won a couple of contests.

"But what about entry fees?" he asked. "Isn't there an ethical concern?"

That question goes right to the heart of a controversy that's been bubbing on various playwright forums for years. The vast majority of playwrights say that these fees are completely unethical and that contests that charge them should be boycotted.

In fact, the opposition to fees is so strong that fee-charging contests will often have their inboxes deluged with hostile emails from playwrights attacking them for their policy.

I think this is misguided. And it's a great disservice to beginning playwrights who should be more concerned about building their careers than saving a few measly bucks.

Here are five reasons why you should not be afraid to enter fee-charging contests:

1) If you're any good, you'll come out ahead.--The main argument against paying fees is that actors and directors don't have to pay to participate. Why should the playwright?

Well, for the very simple reason that the playwright is the only one who can earn royalties on the play. After a show closes, the director isn't going to get any money. The design team isn't going to get any money. And the actors really aren't going to get any money. But getting a production can open many lucrative doors for the playwright.

My first play, The _urloined Letter, was named a semifinalist in the Nantucket Short Play Contest. I paid $10 to enter and won exactly nothing. No production, no prize money, nada. A lot of playwrights would say I got ripped off. But entering that contest got my play read by several judges, one of whom decided to produce it at his school 3 years later. He covered the entire cost of a trip for me to see the production (in Fort Lauderdale, no less!) and to talk to his students about playwriting. And that production got me my first publication. The first year it was in print, The _urloined Letter received 9 productions for a total royalty of $200. Yeah, I'd say that $10 was money well spent.

2) It's really not that much money.--The standard fee is $10 for a 10-minute play, $25-$30 for a full-length play. If you're not willing to invest that much in your career, then maybe you're not that serious about it to begin with. Also realize that a lot of the so-called "free" contests require you to send in one or more hardcopies, and the cost for paper, ink, binder, envelope and postage can easily equal or exceed that entry fee. Not to mention the gas you burn up driving to the post office. Why doesn't anyone take a stand against that?

3) Fees don't bother screenwriters.--Screenwriting contests often charge $50 or more to enter, and nobody in the screenwriting community complains. Of course, that may be because the prizes are significantly higher, often $10,000 to $30,000. But playwrights never argue against fees based on the paltriness of the prizes. They argue against them on principle. That's something that just doesn't bother screenwriters.

4) The competition is less.--This may seem cynical, but it's true. There are so many playwrights who refuse to enter fee-charging contests that if you do enter one, your odds of winning are dramatically higher. No-fee contests often attract 300 or more entries while fee-charging contests typically get around 50. Does that make those contests less prestigious? Maybe. But I think the fee-charging contests get the cream of the crop while the free contests get a lot of dreck (trust me, I've been a contest judge). After all, if it costs nothing to enter, there's nothing to lose in submitting that wildly inappropriate or amateurish play. Paying a fee, on the other hand, focuses your attention amazingly, and there aren't many playwrights who would waste that money on a play that's not any good.

5) You get a better read.--Let's face it. Charging a fee carries with it an obligation to give each script a full read. While I don't mean to suggest that skimming is a widespread problem, I know for a fact that judges are much more likely to toss a script aside if the playwright didn't pay to enter.

In the end, the decision whether to pay a fee is a personal one, and it depends on your own circumstances. If you're an experienced playwright and have already made a name for yourself, then great. You can afford to take a stand against fee-charging contests.

But don't bully younger, more junior playwrights into following your lead. They should be allowed to seize every opportunity they get.

Sunday, February 9, 2014

Whose class is it anyway?

Yesterday, the Pikes Peak Writers Conference gave a free preview of their April conference at the Marriott Hotel in Colorado Springs, and I was honored to be one of the instructors selected to teach a class.

My class was titled, "Whose Story Is It Anyway?", a take-off on the popular TV show Whose Line Is It Anyway? with writers take the place of the experienced improv stars. In leading the class, I may have sounded more like Harvey Fierstein than my usual self (I was still fighting a cold I picked up in Chicago), but I thought it went well. The writers who volunteered to help me performed at the top of their game, and the sellout crowd ate it all up.

The most popular activity? A version of The Dating Game in which each of the guys played a character from one of their books.

It was a big experiment on my part, and I think it worked. There may not have been any breakthroughs. The participants may not have gained any new insights about their characters. But if it challenged the audience members to think less and write more, if it inspired even one writer to get off their butt and act out their character the next time they have writer's block, then it was worth it.

Here's hoping the full class in April goes even better.

Thursday, February 6, 2014

Northern exposure

I was thrilled to see that the talented thespians of Osakis High School in Osakis, MN (Go Silverstreaks!) tied for third place at an area competition with my western comedy Long Tall Lester. Congrats!

And a big kudos to the Osakis Review for mentioning it in print.

Which provides me the perfect opening to plug my play once more. Need something to take to competition? Long Tall Lester is the play you're looking for.

With its small cast and single set, Long Tall Lester is easy to produce, but it packs a ton of action and laughs into that svelte frame. In fact, it's so much fun, the audience (and your cast) won't even know they're getting a lesson on the power of words over weapons.

Want to learn more? Just visit my publisher's website.

Saturday, January 18, 2014

The Butler of Oz

Remember my post about The Butler Did It! getting a reading in Australia? Well, they must have liked it because they decided to give it a full production. And director Cassie Bird had some really nice things to say about it in the Cowra Guardian:

"It's a fast-paced show where a lot happens. Everyone who came along was really impressed by it, they thought it was really funny..."

The article doesn't say when the production will run, but I'm thinking it'll be soon.

To read a sample from the play or to order it yourself, please visit my publisher's website.

Break legs, everyone!

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Why I Write - Part 2

I don't often hear from people producing my plays, but when I do, the results can melt the frost right off this old heart.

I just received the following email from a special needs teacher in Massachusetts who has been cast in an amateur theatre production of You're Driving Me Crazy. She liked the play so much she decided to have her students read it in the classroom:

To my surprise and delight, a student who had refused to read anything for me (from a book -- "I hate to read. I won't do it.") jumped at the chance to be Kendra, with no qualms about gender.

A shy student then took over for me as Ms. Granville and was hysterical. The 'non-reader' then agreed to read a play in the curriculum anthology! We are on a roll. They all read below grade level, if they can read.

And some of them are great audience members who willingly 'retell' the play etc. ...The class I teach is a self-contained Social-Emotional/Learning Disability classroom, and I am thrilled that we have all enjoyed the experience of your play.

Nancy Hilliard, M. Ed.

It doesn't get any better than that.

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

A new resolution

I don't know about you, but I'm a big resolution guy.

I know, I know. Everybody dives into each New Year with high hopes for self-improvement, only to give up two weeks later when that diet or newly purchased gym membership gets pushed aside by the busyness of life.

Keeping to diets and a strict exercise regimen are not a problem for me. And that's becuase of one very simple reason. I don't even try.

Instead, my resolutions revolve around writing. In 2012, I fell way behind in submissions, so for 2013 I vowed that I would submit one play to one contest or theatre company each day of the year.

How did I do? Well, I was absolutely faithful for three months. And when I finally quit midway through April, it wasn't because I got lazy or busy. I simply ran out of submission opportunities. And for the rest of the year, I continued to submit to opportunites as they popped up. As a result, I ended up with a total of 191 submissions for 2013.

Some could look at that and say I failed. But I say that's 191 possibilities for production or publication that I hadn't had before. And that's probably 150 more than if I hadn't made that resolution.

So what is my resolution for this year? Well, I intend to keep submitting. Last year's resolution established a habit that I feel confident I'll continue in this bright new year. But to be honest, it shouldn't be that hard because there just aren't that many opportunities I can submit to.

And that brings me to the main problem that I faced last year. I don't have many opportunities to submit to because I don't have much new material.

It's not because I didn't work hard. I maintained my hour a day writing commitment every day without fail (if I missed a day, I made up for it with an extra hour the next day).

It's just that I struggled to finish anything. And that's largely because every day, I put off my writing until I was plumb exhausted--I often wrote from midnight to 1 am or later--and then I was surprised when my writing wasn't very good.

So this year I'm going to focus on the quality of my writing. I'm going to do my writing first thing when I get home from my day job, when my brain is sharp (no more Facebook until I'm done!). And I'm going to get to bed by midnight so that my brain will be fresh the next day.

I suspect that last one will be the tough one. I'm a night owl, and I love to stay up late surfing the web or watching Marx Brothers movies.

But since the beginning of this year, I've stuck to my new resolution reasonably well, and I already see the payoff in my writing.

That, I trust, will be all the motivation I need to keep going.