Tuesday, September 27, 2016

On naming plays

Writing plays is hard. Writing the outline is hard. Writing the first draft is hard. Writing the final draft and every draft between those two drafts is hard.

But the hardest words any writer has to write are the two (or three or four or five) words at the top of the script, i.e. the title.

After all, the title has a big job to do. It should be memorable. It should tell you what the play is about. And it should suggest what genre the play belongs to. (For comedies, I also like my titles to pass the smile test. If the title is funny enough to make you smile, it's a keeper.)

If the title does all that, and you find that it's never been used before, then you've hit the play-naming quadfecta.

I was thinking about this today because I've been wracking my brain for a title for the cat heiress comedy I'll be developing at Palmer Ridge High School. But then I usually torture myself over my titles.

Million Dollar Meatballs is one of my favorite titles. But I didn't come up with it until I was halfway through the first draft. Before that, I had gone through half a dozen titles, each one more forgettable than the last.

The problem was that the original version had the diamonds being hidden in a bottle of ketchup. And I didn't like any of the ketchup titles I came up with. So I put the script away for a year--yes, an entire year--until I could figure out how to get the diamonds from the ketchup bottle to a plate of meatballs just so I could call it Million Dollar Meatballs.

I'm glad I did. That play is now one of my most successful, and I think the title helps.

How I Met Your Mummy was originally titled Now Museum, Now You Don't. I liked the pun there (surprisingly, it had never been used as the title of a play), but it doesn't really tell you what the play's about. The museum isn't the important part of the story. The mummy is.

So I played around with "mummy" titles. Unfortunately, all the good ones were already taken: I Want My Mummy, Mummy Dearest. Then my friend Jeff Schmoyer suggested a pun on the title of the sitcom, How I Met Your Mother.

I loved it, but I had to check whether it had ever been used before. Luckily, it hadn't, although it had been used for an episode of an obscure animated series. I didn't think that would lead to much confusion, so I went with it. And it's worked out great ever since.

Could I come up with an equally good title for my cat heiress comedy? Well, not the way things have been going for me lately. I hate the title Where There's a Will, There's a Way. Again, it doesn't really tell you what the play is about and it definitely doesn't pass the smile test. And all the other titles I came up with were extremely lame.

Then today I stopped by Palmer Ridge. I wanted to see the stage where the play will be performed and to meet some of the students in the school's theatre program. It's always better to write a character with a specific actor in mind, even if the actor doesn't end up playing that part.

I took away a lot of ideas for characters. But the biggest takeaway came from an offhand comment by director Josh Belk. He said he'd been wracking his brain for titles and the only thing he could come up with was The Purrfect Murder. Then he immediately dismissed it, saying it was too cliched.

Wait a minute, I said. That's actually a great title. But there's no murder in the play, just a kidnapping. Why not change it to The Purrfect Crime?

I immediately Googled it. Sure, it popped up as an episode of an old detective show, but I couldn't find a single play with that title.

So it's official. The title of my next play will be The Purrfect Crime.

The lesson here? If you're ever stuck on the title for a play or novel or whatever, check the episode list of old TV shows.

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

The Stinky Feet Gang to be published

I love writing westerns. My second play, a one-act comedy titled Long Tall Lester, came out in 2012 and it's been doing very well, getting about 15 productions a year. In it, a mild-mannered encyclopedia salesman defeats an evil gunslinger using brains instead of brawn.

For a long time, I've wanted to follow that up with a full-length western, only this time I wanted to do one without guns. As any writer knows, a gun can make any dramatic situation more... well, dramatic. But it can also be a crutch, short-circuiting the tension that should arise from the characters themselves.

Plus, I wanted this play to be producible by everyone from grade school to high school. And in my opinion, prop guns just aren't appropriate for those younger folk.

I racked my brain for months, striving to come up with a weapon that would be deadly but also kid-friendly.

And then it hit me: smelly feet. They're funny, especially to kids. And if you spend any time at my house, you know they can be just as deadly as any chambered weapon.

The play came together pretty quickly after that. I created Malodorous Mel and the Stinky Feet Gang. I created Rose Peddles and the other flower-named shopkeepers of Garden City. Then I set them against each other, and pretty soon they were running away with the story, battling each other with lemon juice and clothespins and, in the end, a pretty nasty concoction (suggested only--don't worry, your theatre won't smell like a locker room!).

The play has, I think, some very funny scenes. But it's not just about the gags. Lately, I've also been trying to sneak a small lesson into each of my plays, and the lesson here is about teamwork and persistence (with some personal hygiene thrown in).

As Rose explains, everyone in Garden City wants to get rid of the shopkeepers. First it was the cowboys. Then it was the sheriff. Now it's the outlaws. But by working together and standing up for what they believe it, the seven feisty women (echoes of the Magnificent Seven!) prove their worth.

So I was thrilled when Pioneer Drama Service told me yesterday that they were going to publish it: my ninth play with them.

The play should come out around December. Until then, I'll give you a taste (or should I say whiff?) of my favorite scene, in which Malodorous Mel explains to his underlings why they're the most feared gang in the territory:
MALODOROUS MEL: Now the Bad Breath Gang, they didn't have commitment. Sure, they refused to brush their teeth. But when push came to shove, they weren't above having an occasional breath mint. 
NOXIOUS NICK: Shameful! 
MALODOROUS MEL: And the Awful Armpit Gang. They didn't have commitment either. Not only did they take a bath every month, but I once caught them using deodorant! 
RANCID RON: Horrors! 
MALODOROUS MEL: And that's why we never take our boots off. Taking our boots off would let our feet breathe, and we don't want them to breathe. We want them to molder and fester and rot until they make everyone in the immediate vicinity sick!
I can't wait to see the cover art for this one!

Friday, September 9, 2016

Trouble in Paradise Junction to be published

So Pioneer Drama Service just informed me that they're going to be publishing my large-cast comedy, Trouble in Paradise Junction. I'm excited because this one really means a lot to me. Okay, they all mean a lot to me, but this one really really does. For a couple of reasons.

First, it's the play I've struggled with the most. I started it three years ago and I think I abandoned it and picked it up again four or five times. I didn't know where to go with the story. I sweated over the dialogue. I couldn't figure out how to make one of the special effects work. There were times when I thought the play would never see the light of day.

And then, earlier this year, everything fell together and I knocked out the second act in two months. It felt good. No, it felt great.

But there's another, more important reason the play means a lot to me. It's more serious, more heartfelt than anything I've ever written. Don't worry. It's still a comedy, and I think one of my funniest ones. But I layered the laughs with romance and drama and even a bit of poetry in the language.

It's basically my love letter to small town life. I know, it's the cool thing to dump on small towns, to make fun of the small-mindedness and provincialism of the people who live there. But I've always loved small towns. I grew up in a small town. And the people I knew there were some of the kindest, most sincere, most real people I've ever met.

I wanted to write a play presenting that other, rarely seen side. So I created the world's most perfect town, Paradise Junction. It's located in the Ozarks, but really, it could be anywhere.

What's the worst thing that could happen to a town like this? In my mind, just one thing: reality TV, and the temptations that come with it. Oh, the good townsfolk think they'll be able to resist those temptations, and for a while they do. But soon the cracks appear. Secrets are revealed, old feuds are rekindled and the town's annual pie-baking contest turns into a massive food fight.

I think I struggled with it so long because I really wanted it to be like a Frank Capra movie. You know, the Golden Age director who made inspirational, heartwarming films about homespun heroes like Jefferson Smith in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington or George Bailey in It's a Wonderful Life.

No, I don't pretend to be anywhere as good as Mr. Capra. But I find a lot to emulate in the poetry of his dialogue and the quiet strength of his characters. And Joe Goode, the 14-time pie baking champion at the center of Trouble in Paradise Junction, is one of those characters.

Look for the play to be published around December. And sign up for my newsletter at right if you want to be among the first to find out when it's released (no pressure).

Until then, I'll leave you with Joe's opening monologue:
Welcome to Paradise Junction, the best little town in the world. We've got a saying around here. If things seem too good to be true, then you must be in Paradise Junction. Oh, it's not perfect. Not by any means. It just seems that things work out a little bit better here. It's the kind of place where the weather is always fine. It's the kind of place where every thumb is green. It's the kind of place where everybody's willing to lend a hand, even if they each got their own way of doing it...

Saturday, September 3, 2016

Picking a winner

So I finally got around to writing the outlines for the three plays that Josh Belk and the students at Palmer Ridge High School liked, and there was a clear winner: the cat heiress comedy Where There's a Will, There's a Way.

Pirates of the Caribbean Grill had a couple of challenges. First, it's really hard to make a pirate story heavily female, and I couldn't figure out a way to do it with this one. Plus, the premise requires that the play be episodic, with scenes taking place at a restaurant, a boat shop, a toy shop and so on, as the wannabe pirates follow a "treasure map" they found scribbled on a napkin. And this, I realized, would make it hard to produce.

Zombie High had its own set of problems. To make it work, it has to be more than just a story about an entire student body turning into zombies. It has to show how this messes with an important ritual at the school. And, as everyone knows, the two most important high school rituals are: 1) football, and 2) the spring musical.

Football is, again, too male. And the musical would require that the play be, well, a musical. Unfortunately, I just don't have the resources (i.e. a composer) to take that on right now. But I still love the idea and hope to come back to it some day.

Where There's a Will, There's a Way, on the other hand, just fell into place. I knew it would center around a dysfunctional Texas ranch family. I knew that the first act break would come when a pair of pet psychics arrive to communicate the cat's wishes. I knew that the turning point would come when the family discovers that the psychics are thieves intent on stealing the cat's new-found fortune. And I knew that the dark moment would come when the cat was kidnapped. Throw in a couple reversals and the plot almost writes itself.

There's just one problem. I hate the title.

I know, I know. It sounds like one of those cliched titles that have been used a dozen times before. But actually, that's not the problem.

The problem is that the title doesn't capture what's unique about the play. After all, there are a lot of plays that are set into motion by the reading of a will. What makes this play unique is that the will gives everything to a cat.

So it's back to the old drawing board. Let's see. Fat CatMillion Dollar CatWhat the Cat Dragged In...

I think this is going to take a while.