Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Hawkeye meatballs

And if, after watching that clip of Million Dollar Meatballs, you want to see the whole play, you can--thanks to the Wolf Creek Players of Dysart, IA. Their production was a hoot, with some clever ad libs (their actors broke into laughter more than once), and they even figured how to stage the "swordfight" at the climax of the play with a larger-than-life knife and fork (check it out starting at the 1:04:57 mark).

Nice work, everyone!

Monday, November 16, 2015

Why high school theatre survives

It's a sad fact that all across this country, high schools are cutting their theatre programs, especially if that school is in a small community. Especially if that community isn't all that prosperous to begin with.

However, it's also true that a lot of these schools are keeping their theatre programs alive, and often that's purely due to the passion and dedication of the teachers and students.

That's what happened at Fort Lupton High School, which I visited last Friday so I could see their production of my play Million Dollar Meatballs. A year ago, this school--the only high school in a small agricultural community northeast of Denver--dropped all of its theatre classes due to budget constraints.

But Connie Garcia, the school's Spanish/ESL teacher (lower left in the photo), refused to let the program die. There were too many students who loved theatre, too many students for whom performing was their only creative outlet.

So she recruited some other teachers and former students to help out and, like Mickey and Judy before them, they put on a show. They did it on a shoestring, often making dozens of calls to find someone who could donate a single prop like the old stovefront used in the play.

Their commitment paid off. The performance I saw was very well-done, and the audience ate it up, laughing hysterically in all the right places (and some that weren't right!).

A bonus--for both the students and myself--was a Q&A session Ms. Garcia arranged earlier in the day. We assembled in the school auditorium and then, for an hour, I fielded questions from about 25 students, This included the entire cast and crew of the play as well as a handful of students from the school's creative writing class.

Like the kids, the questions were smart and funny. They were also surprisingly wide-ranging. Here are my favorites:

Q. What made you start writing?
A. I've always had so many stories in my head I needed to get them down on paper or it would explode.

Q. Which of my plays would I most like to see as a movie?
A. Million Dollar Meatballs. It's the most visual.

Q. What should I do if I find myself stuck in my own writing?
A. Make sure you know what your story is really about. Writing a one- or two-sentence synopsis can help with this. Also, try writing with a partner, which can get you out of a rut and take your thinking in new directions.

Q. Where do you get your ideas?
A. I usually start with a familiar setting, like a restaurant or museum, than try to twist it in some funny way.

Q. What's your zodiac sign?
A. Aries.

All in all, it was a wonderful experience and I want to thank Ms. Garcia and the entire staff at Fort Lupton High School for giving me this opportunity.

With dedicated teachers like these, high school theatre won't just survive. It'll thrive.

Friday, November 13, 2015

On encouragement

When I was in 9th grade, I had a class called Novels. All we did was read and read and read, and although I had to endure some abuse for carrying around a copy of Lisa, Bright and Dark for a couple of weeks, it was my favorite class.

One day, my teacher brought a special guest, a friend of hers who was a professional poet. She'd invited him to speak to our class about writing as a career.

As it happens, I had just completed my first novel, 83 hand-scrawled notebook pages about survival in the Far North titled Muktuk, The Story of a Banished Dog. Yeah, it was pretty much the Jack London ripoff it sounds like.

The Poet read it. I don't know whether he was just being nice or what, but he said that he liked it. He was especially impressed by its length, and predicted that in a few years I would have sweeping, thousand-page tomes on bookstore shelves across the country.

Of course I ended up writing silly little plays instead. But his encouragement stayed with me.

Today I'm driving up to Fort Lupton High School to see their production of Million Dollar Meatballs and to speak to the students about writing as a career.

Today I am that Poet.

I hope I do him justice.

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Cornhusker gumshoe

Photo by Jory Schweers/Daily Sun staff

This upcoming production of Rumpelstiltskin, Private Eye by the Community Players in Beatrice, NE got a great writeup in the Beatrice Daily Sun. I liked this quote from director Tyler Rinne:
"It's a funny, goofy show that we can play up the crime and fairy tales in a funny way," Rinne said. "The cast and I have had fun mixing the cute and fluffy creatures of our favorite fairy tales with the familiar tropes of hard-boiled crime fiction."
From the costumes seen here and on my Photos page, it appears that they leaned more toward the hard-boiled and less toward the fluffy. And I think that's cool.

But what I like even more is what the kids had to say about the play:
Emily Allen, 10, who plays the Ugly Duckling, said they have had a lot of fun and laugh a lot during rehearsals. "I think this character fits me pretty well," she said. "I like to be funny, so this role has been fun to play."
Break legs, everybody!

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Start your engines!

My sixth play has just been published by Pioneer Drama Service. You're Driving Me Crazy! is a collection of  four 10-minute comedies set in a driver's ed class. You can perform them all with a combined cast of 7 (2M/5F) or use different actors for a total cast of 13 (5M/8F). Here's the blurb:
Most people have some funny stories about learning to drive, and driver's ed seems to add to the absurdity of this rite of passage. These four scenes take a hilarious look at the world of driver's ed, especially from the instructor's perspective. In them, we meet: 1) a nervous teacher who doesn't seem to know the first think about driving, 2) a teenage girl who brings some unexpected guests to her first driving class, 3) a teenage boy who's forced to share a car with his temperamental ex-girlfriend, and 4) a teenage girl who can't break away from her smartphone long enough to learn how to drive. You'll love the unique structure of this piece, composed of four individual 10 minute plays, each standing alone yet related thematically. Whether performed individually, making them perfect for talent shows and speech competitions, or together for an evening's entertainment, you're guaranteed miles of smiles and gallons of laughter.
To order a preview copy or read a sample from the script, please visit the play's webpage.

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Stealing from the best

I don't know why I didn't see this before, but this clip of Million Dollar Meatballs has been posted on YouTube since last October. In fact, the clip is from the world premiere, which was produced by Discovery Canyon Campus in Colorado Springs, CO.

As described earlier on this blog, the cast was phenomenal. They improvised readily, and a lot of their bits ended up in the final, published version of the script.

One prominent example can be seen in this clip. Starting around the 1:00 mark is a scene between Cecil Blueblood, the arrogant restaurant critic (played by Josh Owen), and Humphrey, the snarky maitre d' (played by Grant Lattanzi).

As you'll see, Grant drew out much of the scene, giving the character a languid air that was not at all what I had in mind when I wrote the scene (I usually prefer more rapid-fire dialogue) but works really well here.

Humphrey tries to get Mr. Blueblood's name, which the critic wants to keep a secret.

HUMPHREY: And what is your name, sir?

CECIL: Uh, just put me down as Mr. X,

HUMPHREY: Very good, sir. And how do you spell that?

CECIL: M-i-s--

HUMPHREY: No, no. I mean the X part.

CECIL: Just draw two lines that cross in the middle.

In my original script, the gag ends there. Humphrey writes an X in his reservation book and the scene continues.

But Grant and Josh came up with a really clever bit. Humphrey draws a huge plus sign on his ledger and holds it up for Cecil--and the audience--to see. Cecil then tips the ledger in Humphrey's hand, turning the scribble from a plus sign to an X.

Man, why didn't I think of that?

A contrary example is shown later in the clip, starting around the 10:00 mark. Frazzled restaurant owner Sue DeJour (Ashley Miller) is looking for smart alecky dishwasher Olive Pitt (Tayler Scriber) and when she asks Humphrey, "Where's Olive?", he responds with a wry, "I imagine she's in a martini."

It's a funny line, and during the show, it usually got a good laugh. But I didn't include it in the final script.

Why? Because of pacing. The momentum in this scene comes from Sue's search for the elusive Olive, not the dialogue, and I thought it was more important to maintain that momentum than to squeeze in one more laugh.

How does that saying go? If you're going to steal, steal from the best? Well, these students were some of the best I'd ever worked with, so I had no qualms using their ideas in the script.

After all, in the theatre at least, there's another word for "stealing". It's "collaborating".

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Sorkin on writing

Say what you want about Oscar-winning screenwriter Aaron Sorkin, but you've got to admit the guy knows how to spin a good yarn--in real life as well as on the big screen.

I saw him a few weeks ago on Conan when he showed up to promote his new film Steve Jobs (and let's take a moment to appreciate the fact that he's probably the only screenwriter working today who gets invited to appear on late night talk shows).

Conan asked Sorkin about his writing habits, and Sorkin described how he likes to act out his scenes while he writes them. One time, when he was working on a fight scene, he forgot where he was and smashed his face into a bathroom mirror, breaking his nose. But the injury wasn't the worst of it. No, the worst of it was when people asked him how he broke his nose and Sorkin was forced to answer "writing".

I think that's a great model for us writers. If we're not viscerally involved in our writing, if we're not living our characters' lives and fighting our characters' battles, then we're not pushing ourselves hard enough.

Writing... it's not for sissies.