Monday, February 13, 2017

By the time I get to Phoenix

So I had a crazy busy day today. A crazy busy theatre day. And those are always the best.

This afternoon, I sat in on a blocking rehearsal for The Purrfect Crime at Palmer Ridge High School. Before I headed home, I messaged back and forth with a community theatre director in Kansas to make sure she could open the script for The Last Radio Show I sent her. And then, in the evening, I brought the first scene of my newest play to my playwriting group, The Drama Lab.

Did I mention it would be my last day in Colorado?

Yes, as I've been hinting in some of my posts lately, I'll be moving tomorrow to start a new job. I've been laid off from my day job for ten months (I'm an electrical engineer) and the writing isn't enough to cover my living expenses, so I'm excited to start this new chapter of my life with a great job and a great company.

Better yet, the job is in Phoenix, a city I've always loved. My wife and I lived there previously--from 1991 to 1993--and while we've also loved 23 years we've spent in Colorado Springs (especially the vibrant, supportive theatre community!), a part of me always missed the desert climate and palm trees in the Valley of the Sun.

Plus, my older daughter loves in Tucson now, so it'll be nice to see her more often, though it also means seeing my younger daughter, who's a college student in Denver, less.

Eventually, I plan to get involved with the theatre community in Phoenix, and more specifically Chandler, the suburb where we'll be living. But not yet. I've got four plays in various stages of development, and I need to clear those off my plate before I take on any new projects.

Yes, the job means I'll spend less time writing. There's no way I can maintain the 4 1/2 hours a day I was putting in when I had nothing else on my agenda but watch Kathie Lee and Hoda. But I hope to get in at least 2 hours a day, which should enable to complete about four plays a year.

I'm going to miss sitting in on rehearsals for The Purrfect Crime as the students have really started to make it their own (they're toying with the idea of replacing the cantankerous matriarch's walker with an electric wheelchair, which would provide tons of comic potential). But I got most of what I needed for tweaking the script from the table read last week. And besides, if anything comes up or any questions arise, director Josh Belk and I will be just an email link away.

It's the Drama Lab writing group that I'm going to miss the most. I started the group five years ago and I've made a lot of fantastic friends through it. But I left it in good--no, better--hands and I have every confidence in the world it will continue to thrive and grow in the future.

My baby is all grown up. And yes, my eyes are always shiny like that.

Sunday, February 12, 2017

The Enchanted Bookshop to be published

People often ask me where I get my ideas. The answer is complicated. Ideas come from all sorts of places.

Sometimes they come from dreams (Wicked Is As Wicked Does). Sometimes they come from brainstorming (Rumpelstiltskin, Private Eye). And sometimes they come from old Warner Brothers cartoons.

That last one was the case with The Enchanted Bookshop, a large-cast comedy which Pioneer Drama Service just accepted for publication.

I've always loved those old cartoons that featured book characters who come to life. The relentless onslaught of literary puns is a big part of the fun.

But there was one flaw with these cartoons. They always devolved into a big chase scene.

Call me weird (and you wouldn't be the first), but I didn't want a boring old chase. I wanted to learn more about the characters. I wanted to hear their backstories. I wanted to see them struggle and yearn and grow.

So I came up with a story about six famous characters--Dorothy, Robin Hood, Heidi, Tom Sawyer, Pollyanna and Sherlock Holmes--who team up to defeat a band of jewel smugglers.

There's just one problem. By fighting the smugglers, they risk their very existence. One glimpse from a human and--poof!--they're gone.

Like my more recent plays, this one has a message too. Reading is vital. The reason these book characters were granted life was because no one was reading their books anymore. So their struggle is less about smugglers and more about staying relevant in a culture addicted to TV and video games.

Whoa! That makes the play sound pretty heavy. Trust me, it's not. The characters have a lot of fun too, especially when they argue about their back stories:
HEIDI: Was ist los? 
ROBIN HOOD: Was ist los? This is los! I mean this is the matter! That fetid feline stole my hat! 
DOROTHY: Wait a minute. Don't you steal from the rich? 
ROBIN HOOD: What? Oh, uh, sure. But that's different. I give everything I steal to the poor. 
DOROTHY: So it's okay to steal as long as you don't keep the stuff yourself? 
ROBIN HOOD: Yes! Well, not exactly. I mean it's complicated. 
DOROTHY: Not as complicated as you make it out to be. 
TOM SAWYER: I wouldn't talk, Dorothy. Didn't you swipe the Wicked Witch's shoes? 
DOROTHY: What? No! The Good Witch gave them to me! 
TOM SAWYER: Oh. So it's okay to keep somethin' that was swiped as long as somebody else did the swipin'? 
DOROTHY: If the person is dead, it's not swiping!
The play may get a title change before it's published. It's targeted for high schools and middle schools, but Pioneer's editorial staff believes that the word "enchanted" makes it sound younger.

They have a good point, but so far we've been unable to come up with a better title. Suggestions are always welcome!

Saturday, February 11, 2017

Radio days

Warren Epstein is the guy who gave me my first big break in writing. Nine years ago, he plucked me from a handful of other applicants to be the theatre critic for the Colorado Springs Gazette. I only held that gig for a couple years, but it was a fantastic experience and it helped me get my foot in the door of the local theatre community.

Since then we've gone our separate ways. He went into PR. I went into playwriting. But we've kept in touch, and even worked together on organizing a staged reading for several local writers last year.

So it was an honor when he invited me to appear on his arts radio show today to let me say a fond farewell to the Colorado Springs theatre community (yes, I'm moving). It was the fourth time I've appeared on his show but by far the most meaningful and I had a great time discussing all things theatrical with one of the funniest, warmest guys in the Pikes Peak region.

If you'd like to listen in, click here and jump ahead to the 28:06 mark.

Friday, February 10, 2017

A purrfect reading

A table read is one of the most exciting, nerve-wracking, agonizing times in a playwright's life, second only (and a very close second at that) to the world premiere. The table read is usually the first time the author hears the play spoken out loud. Even scarier, it's often the first time they get a live reaction from an audience.

So it was with a little trepidation that I approached today's table read of my new comedy, The Purrfect Crime.

I knew the students would do a great job. I sat in on a rehearsal for their fall show and they proved themselves to be not only talented but hard-working and dedicated.

No, it was my jokes I was worried about. I have a tendency to fall back on wisecracks and snappy
comebacks. I mean, I was brought up on old Marx Brothers movies and Bugs Bunny cartoons, so that kind of thing is in my DNA.

But people (and especially young people) find these increasingly unfunny.

What do they find funny? Three things.

1) Physical humor

I always like to add farce-like scenes to a play, even if the play itself isn't a farce. I've got a couple of these in The Purrfect Crime. One happens during a psychic reading and the other during a ransom drop.

But director Josh Belk thought of a new piece of business that's funnier than anything I came up with. The script says that the cantankerous Mama hobbles around with a walker, but Josh is going to try to find an electric wheelchair that she can cruise around in and bang into things.

Another reminder that playwriting is less about mapping out every detail of the story and more about giving your cast and crew something to play with.

2) Cheesy Accents

These always seem like a cheap way to get laughs. But you know what? They always work.

And this play has a lot of them. The Little family at the center of the story lives in West Texas--oil country--so they have a broad, easy drawl.

The butler Digby isn't necessarily British (at least he's not described that way in the script), but the young man playing him fell into a very posh English accent during the reading. He's not sure he's going to keep it, but it did add a lot of humor to his dialogue, especially when he fired off lines in a contemporary American patois like: "Oh, yes. You are totally rocking that, girlfriend."

The thieves who plot to steal the cat's fortune have a New York City accent, which is completely cliched--and completely funny.  But when they pose as pet psychics, the script describes their accents as "exotic". The young women playing them did a French accent that was hilarious. In fact, it was so hilarious that they may have a hard time keeping a straight face.

3) Weird, oddly specific lines of dialogue

I've written about this before, but one type of gag that always gets a laugh isn't a gag at all. It's just an oddly specific way to say something. Monty Python is the inspiration for me here, as their old skits were full of these.

One example? It comes from the first scene, right after the family learns that the fortune was left to the cat, and the cantankerous mother leaves in a huff:

MAMA: Oh, well. I guess I'll go back to watching my soaps.

CECILIA: You really should find a new interest, Mama. Those soap operas will rot your brain.

MAMA: What soap operas? I'm talking about my collection of rare and exotic cleansing bars!

When I originally wrote that, I thought the last line was a bit forced. But at the reading it got a big laugh. Not because of the pun, I think, but because it's just such a weird thing to say

I came away from the reading feeling much better than I did going in. Sure, there are a lot of gags that didn't get any laughs, and other lines that are just plain awkward, but those can be fixed pretty easily.

And after all, that's what a reading is for.

Thursday, February 2, 2017

O Pioneer!

The place where it happens.
You know how people never see the sights in their own hometown? New Yorkers never go to the top of the Empire State Building, Seattleites never visit the Space Needle?

Well, I'm just as guilty as they are. Pioneer Drama Service has been publishing my plays for over 5 years, and even though they're only 50 miles from where I live, I've never stopped by.

Until today, that is. Why did I wait so long? Well, the answer to that will have to wait for a future post. Suffice it to say that the drive won't be 50 miles for me much longer.

The company occupies half of a building in a pleasant industrial park just off I-25 in south Denver (actually, Centennial). When I showed up, I was greeted by Editor-in-Chief Deb Fendrich, who quickly introduced me to a few of the employees, including Submissions Editor Lori Conary, who I'd communicated with many, many times but had never had the pleasure of meeting. I had met my editor Brian Taylor once before, at the world premiere of Kill the Critic!, but that was six years ago so it was nice to see him again. Unfortunately, CEO Steven Fendrich was unable to make it as he was volunteering at a local school.

Deb then gave me a quick tour of the facility. The place isn't large, but Deb was proud to point out that unlike most publishers, both larger and smaller, they do everything in one location. Editing, printing, shipping--it's all done right there.

And did I mention they do all this with just 15 employees?

I especially enjoyed seeing the printing room. Pioneer had recently decommissioned their last printing press and now do all their printing on a pair of massive high-tech copy machines. Nearby, in the same room, is the "warehouse"--shelves upon shelves of the over 800 scripts they sell throughout the United States and around the world.

After the tour Deb, Brian and I went out for a lunch at a nearby Mexican restaurant. Over fat, chile-smothered burritos, we had a wide-ranging conversation about what kinds of plays they're looking for, editing suggestions for my next play and how to make my plays more marketable.

Okay, maybe it wasn't that wide-ranging. But it was a blast.

And I learned a ton. If it wasn't clear to me before, it is now: producibility is key. The bulk of Pioneer's customers are cash-strapped schools and community theaters, and they really need plays that won't break the bank. Yes, this means simple props and costumes. But even more importantly, this means a single set. Pioneer will publish plays with multiple sets, but if a submission only needs one, then it gets a big exclamation point in the PRO column during their acquisition meeting.

Of course, it's also important to give each play more female than male roles. You can never go wrong adding more female roles. And if you're trying to write a large cast play, don't make the parts too small. Deb likes to see each character get at least ten lines, though you should never force the lines if they don't fit. As always, story comes first.

Finally, Deb said that Pioneer would really like to see more submissions like Jonathan Rand's Check, Please. This one-act comedy is a series of short, two-person interactions in a restaurant, lending itself to flexible casting and easy staging (which may be why it's one of the most produced plays in the country). Pioneer's recent offering Complaint Department and Lemonade follows this format, but they're always looking for more.

It was a great visit. I came away understanding better why they rejected some of my plays in the past and how I can make my plays more appealing in the future.

I also came away with a new respect for the work they do. Each play they publish features the name of the playwright on the cover, but there's a whole team of smart, creative, hard-working folks behind that name.

Editor-in-Chief Deb Fendrich and Editor Brian
Taylor looking good despite my poor selfie skills.