Sunday, February 10, 2019

Rave review for Bay State Butler


Gateway Players of Southbridge, MA opened their 44th season this weekend with The Butler Did It! and I understand the cast did a fantastic job. At least that's the word from The Citizen Chronicle's theater critic Katie Alicea-Tilton in her enthusiastic review of the show.

The Butler Did It! was my first full-length play and my second mystery, so when I wrote it I was still feeling my way around this challenging genre. For inspiration, I turned to Agatha Christie, not just for the classic misdirection techniques she used in her novels but for the character of Edwina Corry, a world-famous mystery author who serves as the amateur detective in the story.

I soon realized there are two mistakes you can make in writing a mystery. One, you make it so easy that everybody figures it out. Two, you make it so hard that nobody figures it out.

Admittedly, the clues I planted were pretty hard--so hard that I worried I was veering too close to the second of those two mistakes. To make up for it, I added one line of dialogue that completely gives away who the culprit by showing that they know more than they're supposed to.

I know that some hardcore mystery fans have picked up on it right away. But apparently, the play still manages to fool most of the people who see it.

And yeah, I'm really glad that the critic and her mom were fooled.

Friday, February 1, 2019

Writing Tip #1: Raise the Stakes!


Stakes are important. They're what make us care about the story in the first place. Without stakes, there's no tension. Without stakes, there's no one to root for.

Every writer knows they need to give their hero a meaningful goal, but that's not what we're talking about here. Stakes go deeper. Stakes answer the question: what does the hero lose if they don't reach their goal?

This is a lesson I had to relearn when I was polishing the script of the pilot for The Enchanted Bookshop TV series.

In the teaser, Miss Margie is threatened with eviction because she's several months behind on her rent. Shortly after, the Lits have a brief exchange what they can do to help.

Pollyanna picks up the NOTE from the counter.


                      POLLYANNA
          What's this, Dorothy?

                      DOROTHY
          Didn't you hear? That's the past due 
          notice from Mr, Skinflint. If Miss 
          Margie doesn't come up with three
          thousand dollars by tomorrow, Mr. 
          Skinflint is going to close the shop.

                      POLLYANNA
          Oh, no! What's going to happen to 
          us?

                      DOROTHY
          Who cares what happen to us? It's 
          Miss Margie I'm worried about.

                      TOM
          Yeah. This shop is her life.

                      POLLYANNA
          Hey, I've got an idea! Why don't we 
          open a lemonade stand? I'll bet we 
          could raise the three thousand dollars 
          in no time!

                      DOROTHY
          You know we can't do that, Pollyanna.
          That would break the two rules the 
          Book Fairy gave us when she first 
          brought us to life.

                      TOM
          That's right! If we ever leave the 
          shop or are seen by any humans, we'll
          disappear into our books forever.

If you've seen the play, then you might remember that this is pretty close to what the Lits say soon after we meet them.

The scene does a lot. It introduces the two rules that the Lits have to follow. It describes what'll happen if Margie doesn't pay her rent. And it throws in a little humor by showing how the overly optimistic Pollyanna would address the problem.

Unfortunately, it failed do the one thing it needed to do: lay out the stakes for the Lits.

That's because I played it safe. In my mind, I knew that the Lits would disappear into their books forever if Margie lost the shop. But I didn't want the stakes to be about them. I didn't want the Lits to seem selfish.

So I made the stakes about Margie. And I thought if we saw how much the Lits care about her, then we'll be rooting for them.

The problem is that it doesn't make us root for Margie. As my manager pointed out, why do we care if Margie loses the shop?

And if I had any doubt about his wisdom (I didn't), I got almost the exact same criticism from a reader at a screenwriting competition.

John's suggestion was to add a scene showing Margie doing a reading to kids at a library. If Margie loses the shop, then the kids lose their stories.

It's a good suggestion, and I'm sure it would work. But one thing I've learned is that if you need to clarify something and your choice is between explaining it by providing additional dialogue or simplifying it by removing the source of confusion in the first place, the better choice is to simplify.

So this is what I came up with:

Pollyanna picks up the NOTE from the counter,

                      POLLYANNA
          What's this?

                      DOROTHY
          Didn't you hear? That's the past due 
          notice from Mr. Skinflint.

                      TOM
          If Miss Margie doesn't come up with 
          the money by tomorrow, that old miser
          will shut down the shop and we'll 
          disappear into our books forever!

Short. Punchy. And, I hope, effective.

Yes, it leaves out the two rules and it leaves out the fact that Margie could lose the shop. But I can always drop those into a later episode.

Right now, in the pilot, I have one job, and that's to lay out the stakes that will keep viewers coming back.

What are the stakes in your story? What does your hero stand to lose if they don't reach their goal?

Wednesday, January 23, 2019

Fifth Time's the Charm


If Saturday Night Live can have a five-timers club, then maybe I should start one too.

I'm kidding, of course, but the thought crossed my mind because I just got word that Johnston Heights Church in the Vancouver, BC suburb of Surrey has just booked one of my plays for the fifth time.

We've had a long, fruitful relationship going all the way back to 2014, when the church's drama group first produced The Butler Did It! They found it the old-fashioned way, by searching the Pioneer Drama Service website. Their production was such a hit that after it was over, Carol A., who oversees the play selection there, asked me to recommend another play.

At the time, I was trying to get a second production of Kill the Critic! so I sent her that, not really believing that a church would be interested in my naughty farce. They weren't, but Carol did think it was hilarious.

So a sent her a play that Pioneer had just published, Million Dollar Meatballs. That one was perfect for them and became play no. 2.

In 2017, Carol emailed me again, asking what else I could send her. I had directed a wildly successful world premiere of The Last Radio Show the year before, but was unable to get any publishers interested in it. Carol decided to take it on, and they gave it an equally successful second production. So successful, in fact, that she said the church was shaking from all of the laughter.


Last year, they went one step further. They presented the world premiere of my play Lights! Camera! Murder! (changing the name to Lights! Camera! Action! to that it wouldn't raise eyebrows when seen on the church's marquee).

Unfortunately, I wasn't able to make it out there for the show, but they sent me a video of it so I could gauge the response and use that to punch up the script.

And this year. Well, they took me up on my suggestion to do one my published plays and selected The Purrfect Crime.

More important than the plays, however, is the money that this vibrant, missions-oriented church has been able to raise through these productions. Every year, they choose one local charity to donate a large chuck of their proceed to. One year it was a homeless shelter. Another year, it was a group supporting Syrian refugees.

So yeah, I'm thrilled that they like my plays. But I'm even more thrilled to know that they're using my plays to help make life a little easier for so many people in need.

Keep up the great work, guys!


Wednesday, January 16, 2019

You can quote me on that

Photo by Lucky Penny

It must be performance season. Another article popped up in my alerts today, this one from the Williston (CA) Herald. Turns out that Lucky Penny Productions in Napa is about to open their first all-youth show, and I was thrilled to learn that they chose The Enchanted Bookshop for this honor.

The unnamed reporter who wrote the article got a great quote from director Taylor Bertolucci on why they decided to do a youth production in the first place. But I was surprised to find that the longest quote--in fact, the bulk of the article--came from my own blog.

I get it. When I was an arts reporter, I had to push myself to pick up the phone and get a quote (trust me, arts reporters don't have the killer instinct that reporters on the crime or city beats do). To be honest, it felt like an imposition. It was easier to just get on the Internet and pull a few words from a blog or Facebook page.

That's one big reason I maintain this blog. So please, reuse it as much as you want (though I do always appreciate a link back).

But consider this an open invitation. If you're writing about one of my plays, and you'd like to get a quote, please feel free to email me.

I promise, it won't be an imposition.

Tuesday, January 15, 2019

Hearing from the actors

Photo by Steve Hibbard

When I was producing my own plays, I always enjoyed talking about the shows on the radio. But I always made sure to bring along a couple actors.

After all, radio listeners don't want to hear some writer pontificate about their vision for the play or what inspired them to write it in the first place. They want to hear how much fun the actors are having.

With a youth play like The Enchanted Bookshop, that goes double.

So I'm really glad that in this latest article about that Arlington production (boy, do they know how to get great press!), reporter Steve Hibbard gave the young stars a chance to talk about how their roles.

"I wanted to get into my character as much as possible and embody that character," Emmie Vajda said. Dorothy is passionate and she's brave and clever, so I have to be all those traits when I'm acting as Dorothy."

The production runs through January 20 at the Gunston Arts Center in Arlington, VA. To order tickets, visit Encore Stage & Studio's website.

With passion like Emmie has, it's sure to be an awesome show!

Monday, January 14, 2019

Real Pirates Don't Wear Tiaras to be published


Well, this is a nice start to the New Year. Pioneer Drama Service just gave me the word that they're going to publish my latest play, Real Pirates Don't Wear Tiaras.

Like Million Dollar Meatballs and The Purrfect Crime, it's a farce. But this one has a twist. Instead of a pair of bad buys posing as good guys, Real Pirates Don't Wear Tiaras has a whole bunch of princesses (five, to be exact) posing as pirates.

The fun starts when the princesses' beaus sail off in pursuit of the dread pirate Blacktooth. Feeling a little jealous, the princesses decided to have some fun by dressing up like pirates themselves. They even try their hand at some piratey patois.

Well, who should show up but Blacktooth himself? Spying on the princesses, he concludes that they're really bloodthirsty buccaneers and forces them to join what's left of his crew.

That's when the princesses learn that life on the sea ain't all it's cracked up to be. The food stinks. The rats are rude. And Blacktooth--well, they quickly learn why he's so dread (it's his breath).

Of course, everything will be fine once their princes rescue them. But when Blacktooth captures the princes instead, the princesses come to a sobering realization. If they want to be rescued, they're going to have to do it themselves.

The play should come out this fall, just in time for the new school year. Until then, here's an excerpt from when the princesses first pretend to be pirates:

AMBER (Adopts a piratey stance.): Avast ye mateys! Hoist the mainsail and scuttle the jib! There be treasure afoot!

OPAL: What did she say?

EMERALD: I think she said something about our feet.

AMBER: Oh, that's just how pirates talk. You string a bunch of piratey words together like "matey" and "jib", then finish them off with a rousing "arrr"!

(BLACKTOOTH sneaks IN. He watches from behind the trellis.)

BLACKTOOTH (To himself.): Well, blow me down! I've never seen such a fearsome band of pirates!

EMERALD: Ooo! Ooo! Let me try! (Steps forward.) Scuttle the mainsail! Ye have a fine jib, matey!

AMBER: Don't stop now. Keep going!

EMERALD (Struggles to think.): Um, um, I used to have a fine mainsail, but one of me mateys jibbed me out of it.

AMBER: You forgot to say "arrr"!

EMERALD: Arrr!

AMBER: Good. Who else wants to try?

OPAL: I do. (Steps forward.) Matey jib jib matey! Matey matey jib jib!

BLACKTOOTH (To himself.): Well, shiver me timbers! They may look like pirates, but they sound like fools! (Steps out from behind the trellis.) Avast, ye mateys!

OPAL: Hey, look. He can do it too.

AMBER (Stage whisper.): Of course he can do it, Opal. He's a real pirate!

OPAL: Oh...

Saturday, January 12, 2019

Rave review for Arlington Bookshop


That Arlington production of The Enchanted Bookshop just got a big thumbs-up from DC Metro Theater Arts. Reviewer Betsy Lizotte had nothing but great things to say about the young performers, and she wrapped up her enthusiastic review by calling the production "a crowd-pleaser that mixes expert staging, dialogue, delivery and humor into a captivating show."

I've noticed that a lot of the productions add characters so that they can involve more kids. I think that's great (and no, you don't have to write me for permission, though I do love to hear from theaters doing my shows).

Normally they add other well-known book characters (Amelia Bedelia and Alice of Wonderland fame are popular choices). But here, director Sarah Conrad decided to split a couple of characters that already exist in the play. Fingers became Fingers and Toes, and Bombalurina became--what else?--Bomba and Lurina.

Hey, if it works, go for it!

Best part of the review? I learned that Robin Hood hat.

Wednesday, January 9, 2019

Arlington youth theater thrives


It's not easy running a children's theater company these days. From public funding cuts to competition from school sports and a gazillion other entertainment options, it might seem impossible to keep a theater program alive.

But Encore Stage & Studio in Arlington, VA has found a way--not just to survive, but to thrive. And they've been doing it for thirty years.

Executive Director Sara Duke and Artistic Director Susan Keady were recently interviewed by radio station WERA about their upcoming production of The Enchanted Bookshop, and they were given a very generous half hour to elaborate on how they've managed to be so successful for so long.

One key is that they try to recruit by on a "third-third-third" basis. That is, in any production, one-third of the students are returning students, one-third have theater experience outside of Encore and one-third are brand new to performing.

As Duke puts it, "That third-third-third is really a winning combination and puts on the best show but also has the best opportunities for peer-to-peer mentorship between cast members because we do really ask the kids, particularly the older ones, to really step up and show the younger ones the ropes and create friendships across grade levels."

What's more, they don't just look for artsy kids. Instead, they reach out to physics and engineering students and get them involved by having them solve technical problems with the sets or lighting.

Sounds pretty genius to me. To learn more, check out the entire interview on Mixcloud.

Tuesday, January 1, 2019

A look ahead to 2019

We're having an incredibly cold winter here in Arizona. For the first time since I moved here two years ago, we have snow.

Okay, the snow is 30 miles east and about 4000 feet up in the Superstition Mountains, but I can see it.

And that's as close as I want to get to it.

Anyway, it's New Year's Day. I've already taken stock of my goals from last year, so now it's time to lay out some goals for the bright, shiny new year ahead of us.

I'm going to go out on a limb this time. Most years, I post a list of five to eight goals, but this year I'm keeping it simple. I'm only going to set one goal.

It's such a longshot that I've got to focus all of my energies on making it happen to give it a chance of happening at all.

If it does happens, it changes everything. If it doesn't--well, the rest will take care of itself. Pioneer is bringing out the musical version of The Enchanted Bookshop later this year. I'm waiting to hear their decision on my pirate play. I've got a couple of plays with other publishers. And the original version if The Enchanted Bookshop continues to do well, booking about four productions a week.

What is that goal? Just this:

1) Sell The Enchanted Bookshop as a TV series

As I mentioned in my 2018 wrap-up, I wrote a pilot for a TV version of The Enchanted Bookshop. My manager really likes it, and after a couple more polish drafts, he's going to take it out on the town.

While the US film market is mostly closed to spec scripts right now, the TV market is wide open. This is mostly due to Netflix, which is flush with cash and snapping up everything--and everyone-- they can find. But other networks and streaming services are looking too.

If the pilot does get any interest, they're going to want to see a detailed pitch. So that's what I'm working on now. It includes a description of the characters, a detailed synopsis of the pilot, a brief synopsis of the first six to eight episodes and, most importantly, my vision for the show.

At that point, the decision will be made whether to greenlight the show or not.

So I'm excited. Whether the show happens or not, it's going to be an adventure.