Sunday, October 27, 2019

Going to the dogs

So Gemma, the director of that New Zealand production of Doggone Detectives, just sent me some photos of the cast. They're from rehearsal, not the performance itself, but they do a great job of showing the costumes in all their furry glory--as well as the passion and skill Gemma put into making them.

Doggone Detectives has 35 roles, plus an optional number of extras. This makes it my largest-cast play by far. The good thing about this is that it gives a lot of kids the opportunity to strut their stuff.

The challenging thing is that somebody's got to make all those costumes. And a lot of those costumes are breed-specific (though you're always free to change the breed or make them all generic).

A couple of Dalmatians named--what else?--Spot and Dot are the ones who get the whole ball rolling, calling the doggy detectives to investigate a missing bone.

The detectives turn to three poochy police officers--two German Shepherds and a coffee-loving pug. Unfortunately, they find them less than helpful.

An evil dog catcher captures German Shepherd detective Sam Spayed while her bloodhound partner Sherlock Bones watches helplessly.

Sherlock and their other partner, a terrier named Frisky, look for him at the pound but only find these forlorn prisoners (no breed is listed for them, but I like to think of them as mutts).

It turns out that the missing bones were part of a nefarious plot to turn the town's dogs into cats--masterminded by Miss Fluffypants and Alley Cat Gang.

In the end, Frisky overcomes her fear of telephones (and everything else) to defeat the evil cats and turn the dogs back to their intended species.

The licensing fee is $50 per performance (cheap), but if you'd like to read the script for possible production (or just to find out how our slobbering sleuths vanquish those bad old cats!), email me and I'll send you a free electronic copy. Bone appetit!

Monday, September 23, 2019

Set ideas for The Enchanted Bookshop

It looks like The Enchanted Bookshop is going to have another bang-up year. It's already booked 69 productions for the new school year, and there are several more months still to go.

Many of those productions are in their planning stages, so I thought this would be a good time to share some of the photos I've found from earlier productions. This time I'll focus on the set.

One of the best things about The Enchanted Bookshop is that it used a single set, and the requirements are really quite simple. In fact, the script lists only four must haves: a counter, a small bookcase, a cat bed and a shop sign. In this play, you won't be needing any doors, windows, or furniture.

But you can use doors if you want to:

Fort Stockton, TX

A comfy chair can be nice too:

South Saint Paul, MN

As for the sign, I like the old-timey look of this one:

West Pawlet, VT

Or you can paint one right on the counter:

Huntingdon Valley, PA

Some theaters are happy with just a bookcase or two:

Carroll, IA

While others go nuts:

Seaside, OR

Still others build a whole wall out of them:

Thornton, CO

Some even paint books on the flats:

Spokane, WA

Using book covers as posters is a great idea:

Medford, OR

You can also use oversized books as set pieces:

Aberdeen, WA

Or one really big book for the book characters to enter from:

Pearl, MS

The grandfather clock and fireplace here add a homey touch:

Kearney, NE

While this backdrop lends a more elegant air:

Eudora, KS

I really like this colorful, circus-like set:

Clarksville, IN

And the mimimalist, almost dreamlike quality of this set is quite striking.

Thunder Bay, ON

These are just a few of the sets I've found online. If you're proud of yours (and why wouldn't you be?), email it to me and I'll add it here.

By the way, The Enchanted Bookshop Musical has the exact same set as the play, so you can use the designs shown here for that show too.

Thursday, September 19, 2019

Tarheel Wicked passes the torch

So the Community Youth Players, the Andrews, NC youth theater that snagged that half hour radio interview the other day, has now made it into their local paper. It's a good writeup, with lots of quotes from the young actors preparing for their opening of Wicked Is As Wicked Does tomorrow night.

As the article makes clear, they've been hugely successful in attracting talent from all over the area. And why wouldn't they? Many of their current actors are the kids or grandkids of previous actors, going all the way back to the grouo's founding in the 1970's.

"We're just so blessed to have them coming to us," says director Lori Coffey.

I'm sure they feel just as blessed for this opportunity to strut their stuff--and to continue the legacy that the older generation has given them.

Again, the show runs September 20-22 and 27-29 at the Valleytown Cultural Arts Center in Andrews. If you live in the area, please give them your support.

Wednesday, September 18, 2019

On Sharpay, Grandpa Joe and lotteries

So here's a fun story. It seems that Emily Cacnio, a student at the American Musical and Dramatic Academy in New York City, put together a slide presentation for her English class arguing that Sharpay Evans was not the antagonist of High School Musical but the hero.

Seems crazy, doesn't it? But she makes some good points.

Sharpay and her brother Ryan were the real professionals in the situation, not Troy and Gabrielle. They're the ones who showed up on time for the audition. They're the ones who put together an elaborate routine with original music.

And let's face it. She deserved to be lead. She was clearly more talented.

But Cacnio overlooks a few things.

Sharpay's shallowness and self-absorption make her completely unsympathetic. And in contemporary movies, that's often all it takes to move a character from the hero to the villain category.

She totally tried to steal Troy from Gabrielle. And being willing to do anything to achieve her goals is not the positive trait Cacnio thinks it is.

Be focused, sure. But don't be a jerk.

Plus, I've always felt that at the high school level, teachers have no business casting solely on talent. Their job is education, not entertainment, and you achieve that by giving students at all skill levels as many different roles as possible during those formative four years.

That pretty blonde with the killer pipes and the personality that just leaps off the stage? Think how much better an actor she'll be after stage managing a show or running the sound board.

So yeah, I still view Sharpay as the villain. But I do find it interesting that the writers of High School Musical decided to make the villain someone with a ton of theatrical experience while the heroes were mere dilettantes.

And there can be only one explanation for that. Our country's lottery culture. Why work hard for something if you can win it through luck?

Exhibit A. The candy bar opening scene in the original Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory:
Charlie: I've got the same chance as anyone else, haven't I? 
Grandpa Joe: You've got more, Charlie, because you want it more.
You used to see it on American Idol. You see it now on America's Got Talent and a gazillion other reality shows.

The producers on these shows don't promote the contestants who've struggled at their art for years. They promote the ones who recently discovered some innate talent and poopoo professional training because it might spoil their "authenticity".

Well, I've got news for them. Talent is overrated. What leads to success is work. Hard, knuckle-bleeding work. And lots of it.

So while Sharpay may be the villain, there's one small part of me that wants her to win, if only to show that hard work wins over "wanting it more".

Tuesday, September 17, 2019

Bookshop musical goes north -- really north!

My plays have been performed in some exotic locations: Panama, The Philippines, Abu Dhabi. But even I was surprised to see where the first group to book The Enchanted Bookshop Musical was located: Iqaluit in Nunavut, Canada.

The mostly Inuit community has a population of 7700 and serves as the capital of the territory. Situated on the west coast of Baffin Island, it's locked in by ice for much of the year but features a modern airport that keeps it connected to the rest of the country all year long.

The musical is going be performed in May by Nakasuk Elementary School, shown in the photo below.

Break legs, everybody! I hope you have a ton of fun with it.


Thursday, September 12, 2019

Tarheel Wicked hits the airwaves

Check this out. Two talented young actors in beautiful Andrews, NC were interviewed by their local radio station about their upcoming production of Wicked Is As Wicked Does. And wow, was the radio station generous with their time! About 30 minutes generous, in fact (I'm more used to 5 minute interviews).

Sure, the hosts riff on a number of only loosely related topics during the interview, but a lot of it was about the play and the kids (Jordan and Kencade) did a great pitching it to their community.

Andrews is located in the Great Smoky Mountains so it's not a heavily populated area, but if any of you lovely readers live there, I urge you to see the show. And bring everyone you know with you.

You can find all the deets in the graphic below:

Wednesday, September 4, 2019

Doggy detectives find a home

I've been tough on the New Play Exchange in the past. When it first launched four years ago, I complained that they were putting way too much emphasis on signing up playwrights to list their plays and not enough on recruiting theater companies to search for and produce those plays.

Well, things are getting better. Over the last year, I've heard from numerous playwrights who've gotten discovered through the site. Not by publishers (at least not yet), but it seems plenty of theater companies--both big and small--are filling the odd slots in their seasons with plays they find on the site.

I'd never gotten contacted by one, but I'd chalked that up to the fact that I primarily write plays for youth. The teachers who select plays for young actors still tend to rely on publisher's catalogs and word of mouth.

I started to think I would never get contacted. Maybe the New Play Exchange wasn't meant for my me.

And then, in the last two weeks, I received not one but two inquiries from theater companies. And that's exactly two more than I've ever received from this website.

The first was a nonprofit in Maryland that tours plays in schools. They wanted to know how much I would charge for performances of Rumpelstiltskin, Private Eye.

Since that play is published by Pioneer Drama Service, I quoted them Pioneer's rate and then directed them to the play's website. I haven't seen the group pop up on my account yet so I'm thinking they went in a different direction.

The second was a children's theater group in Wellington, New Zealand, of all places. Gemma, the director, had already ordered Real Pirates Don't Wear Tiaras (as a matter of fact, she's going to give the play its world premiere next month), and she liked it so much that she went to the New Play Exchange to see what else I'd written.

As it turned out, she loved Doggone Detectives. And therein lies another whole tale (tail?).

When I first wrote the play, I thought I had a winner. The play featured three adorable leads--a German Shepherd who'd been drummed off the police force for eating the evidence in a sausage-stealing case, a bloodhound with a nose for crime (and a mouth for snacks), and a yippy little terrier who desperately wanted to be a detective. There was only one small problem. She was afraid of everything.

Other  was also easy to produce and crammed full of poochy puns. It even won the Beverly Hills Theatre Guild Play Competition for Youth Theatre. But I couldn't get it published to save my life.

Pioneer was the first to reject it. They thought the costumes would be too challenging because they  would have to be specific to the breed.

Heuer and TheatreFolk thought the play was too young. YouthPlays failed to get enthused. And Eldridge wasn't talking.

Oh, one other thing. It wasn't called Doggone Detectives then. When I first submitted it to Pioneer, it was called Big Trouble in Dogtown. But I quickly soured on that title. It sounded too close to my play Trouble in Paradise Junction. More importantly, it didn't communicate the idea that the play was a detective story.

Its next title was Bow Wow Detectives. And that's the title under which it won the Beverly Hills contest.

Then earlier this year, I received a cease and desist letter from a self-published author who'd trademarked that exact same title for her series of books about dogs that aren't detectives and detectives that aren't dogs. I politely pointed out that her own trademark registration did not include plays as a category, but she refused to back off. And by that time, I started to think that the title might be a little too young.

So I gave the play its third (and hopefully final) title: Doggone Detectives. And that's the title under which it'll receive its world premiere next month in beautiful Wellington, New Zealand.

Anyway, if you're a playwright and you're looking for a way to promote your plays, I highly recommend you include the New Play Exchange as one part of a broader marketing strategy. It only costs $10 a year, and even if you get only one production every three or four years, it'll still pay for itself.

Those slobbering sleuths have paid for mine.

Monday, August 19, 2019

Real Pirates Don't Wear Tiaras is now available!

I remember seeing the 1985 Jeff Goldblum/Michelle Pfeiffer thriller Into The Night when it first came out in theaters. I don't remember a lot about the movie, but there was one scene that has stuck in my mind all those years.

It was the statis = death scene, the early scene that's meant to show how boring and meaningless the hero's life is. This always happens just before the inciting incident and helps provide a contrast with the conflict and tension that comes later.

In the scene, a team of electrical engineers are meeting in a conference room. A complex circuit diagram is being shown on an overhead, and one of the engineers drones on and on, explaining in excruciating detail how the microscopic defect he found had caused the chip to fail. Sitting in the back of the room, it's all Jeff Goldblum can do to stay awake.

Clearly, the screenwriters wanted to show the dullest, most mind-numbingly boring job imaginable. But as I sat there and looked up at that screen, only one thought came into my head: That's exactly what I do for a living.

I guess this is my way of saying that sometimes we all need a little more excitement in our lives. We all long for thrills and adventure.

That's the theme of Real Pirates Don't Wear Tiaras, which was just released by Pioneer Drama Service. It's my 15th play to be published by them and, I think, one of my funniest.

As the play begins, four princess sisters--Pearl, Ruby, Emerald and Opal--bid their beaus a fond farewell. The princes are setting sail to capture Blacktooth, the most vile pirate on the seven seas, leaving the princesses to their boring, humdrum lives in the castle.

How do the princesses respond? The only way they know how: by crying their eyes out.

That's when Amber, the fifth princess arrives. She's not like her sisters. She loves adventure, she loves excitement--and she doesn't need a man around to muck up her life.

Disgusted by her sisters' emotional display, she suggests that the best way to get their mind off their sorrows is to have some good old-fashioned fun. So she hauls out their old costume trunk and joins her sisters in acting out their own pirate adventure.

Well, who should be spying on them but Blacktooth himself? Believing them to be bloodthirsty pirates, he forces them to serve as his crew, since his previous crew mysteriously disappeared (he pushed them overboard).

Amber couldn't be more excited. Here at last is her chance to lead a life of adventure.

But she soon discovers that the pirate life isn't all it's cracked up to be. The food is frightful, the rats are repugnant, and Blacktooth has the most vile breath on the seven seas.

That's where the funny comes in, and lots of it. But the play runs deeper than that.

As princesses, the sisters never had to do anything for themselves. It's not until they're on the ship, posing as pirates, that they get their first real taste of independence. And when it becomes clear that nobody's going to rescue them, they finally find the courage to take charge of their lives and do what it takes to rescue themselves.

Back in 1985, I finally found a way to add some excitement in my life. I took up writing, and the stories I've created since then have provided me with all the adventure I need.

Do the five princesses of Real Pirates Don't Wear Tiaras learn to savor the adventure they find themselves in? Well, to learn the answer to that, you're going to have to read the script.

Tuesday, July 23, 2019

The Enchanted Bookshop Musical is now available!

After a year of development, the musical version of my hit play The Enchanted Bookshop is now available for purchase! It's got all the characters, action and gags of the original play but adds another whole dimension with Stephen Murray's score.

I have to admit I was a little nervous when Pioneer first approached me about musicalizing the play. I've never worked with a collaborator before and I wasn't sure Stephen would do my baby justice.

But I can honestly say that Stephen banged it out of the park. All of his songs are catchy and clever, from the energetic opener "A Novel Idea" through the comedic duet ""The Crook's Life" to the tear-jerking ensemble number "Goodbye".

Want to check it out for yourself? Clips from the songs and a sample script can be found right here.

Thursday, July 18, 2019

More fun with Okie Rumpelstiltskin

Linda Provost/The Duncan Banner

Well, that summer camp production of Rumpelstiltskin, Private Eye keeps getting great press in its hometown of Duncan, OK. Today the Duncan Banner talks to several of the students in the camp.

And they all agree. It's been a fantastic learning experience.

"It doesn't matter if you haven't done it before because you come here and you learn a lot," says Tegan Watson, who plays Virginia Wolf in the shoew. "It cam seem scary because you are going someplace new with a bunch of people who have already been doing it--everyone is really supportive so it never hurts to try it out."

To find out what else these talented kids learned, be sure to check out the entire article.

Tuesday, July 16, 2019

Okie Rumpelstiltskin makes the news

I've never been interviewed on TV, but I still remember the first time I was interviewed on the radio. I think I was 13 years old. It was in my hometown of Beaver Dam, and the local radio station (WBEV--Your Hometown Station!) invited me and two other DeMolays to chat up the car wash we were doing.

We were all pretty nervous at first, but the interviewer made us feel at home, and before long, we forgot all about the microphones sticking in our faces and just started talking.

Of course, listening to a recording of the interview later, I realized I wasn't as professional-sounding as I'd felt. But it was a good time and the three of us learned a lot.

Well, I'm glad to say that the kids from Duncan Little Theatre's summer drama camp already sound like pros. This Oklahoma group is doing a production of  Rumpelstiltskin, Private Eye on July 27 and their local TV station interviewed them about their experience.

The three-week camp is a wonderful opportunity for this sparsely populated region of the Sooner State, as it draws students from several small towns. And it sounds like the kids are in it for all their right reasons.

"It always cool to be able to do something throughout the summer. ," said Emily Trostle, who plays Smart Pig and ugly stepsister Minerva. "Instead of just sitting around being bored, you can learn more. Every year I've learned something new."

The show is free for kids and just $5 for adults, so if you're in southwest Oklahoma, I urge you to check it out.

I guarantee you'll see some real pros.

Tuesday, June 18, 2019

Five-Star Butler

Well, that Missouri director who based his production of The Butler Did It! on Carol Burnett's old show must be doing something right because it just got a five-star review in KC Applauds.

Critic Bob Evans had some nice things to say about the script, but what makes me even happier is hearing how the cast really threw themselves into their roles.

"But all of the cast were strong in their performances. They knew their characters and delivered the punch lines were flair," Evans writes. "The play does not demand a lot of physical comedy so the line delivery, facial expressions, and tonal inflections are paramount to the comedy's effectiveness."

If you live near Kansas City, you have three more chances to see the show this weekend. If you don't, check out my Productions page to see what other shows may be playing in your area.

Tuesday, June 11, 2019

Show me the funny

Summit Theatre Group of Lee's Summit in the Show Me State of Missouri is closing out their 2018-2019 season with The Butler Did It!, and that got them this nice writeup on their local news site.

Director Mark Hamilton first read the script five years ago and was drawn to the fast-paced humor and the oh-so-proper English setting.

"Think Downton Abbey, if Downton Abbey was a comedy," he says. "1930's English manor house, quirky characters, a dark and stormy night, murder in the kitchen with a paring knife, what's not to like?"

I can tell Mark and I have similar tastes in humor because he based his direction on the wacky parodies from the old Carol Burnett show--one of my great comedy influences growing up (you had to love that mid-1970's Saturday Night lineup on CBS).

If you're in the area, I strongly encourage to check it out. Performances are June 14-15 and 21-23 at the MCC Longview Cultural Arts Center in Lee's Summit.

Tickets? A mere $15 ($12 for students and seniors).

Tuesday, May 14, 2019

My 8th year sales

It's May, that magical month when Pioneer Drama Service mails annual royalty checks to its playwrights. It's also the month when I take stock of the year just past and compare it to the previous year.

The good news? In terms of productions, it was my best year yet. I had 347, an 11% increase over the 312 productions I had the previous year.

The bad news? The amount of my check actually went down. Sure, it was just a small drop (0.5%), but this was the first time I've ever seen a decrease.

That's largely due to the vagaries of school theater. Some schools pay when they book the show, some up to a month after it's been produced. If I get too many of the latter in April (the biggest month of the year for school plays), it can push my royalties into the following year.

Another problem was that I only had one new play come out -- Babka Without Borders -- and it had the slowest start of any of my plays to date. I can't say I'm too surprised -- it's an odd little play with an unusual setting -- but I love that play and think it's one my best so I'm glad Pioneer has stood by it.

One positive development this year was that 32 or almost 10% of my productions for the year were from schools and community theaters that had previously done my plays. I hope to see that percentage continue to grow.

Oh, and I was excited to see my plays make it to three new countries this year.

Without further ado then, here is the breakdown:

My #1 play was The Enchanted Bookshop, with an amazing 142 productions. Not only does that put it at the top of the list for Pioneer's plays, but that makes it one of the best-selling plays in the country. Normally, plays drop off after their first full year, but Bookshop has already booked 38 productions for next year--more than most of my plays get in an entire year--so I'm hoping it may see another uptick next year. This year, it was also my first play to be done in Ireland, making it my 12th country.

You're Driving Me Crazy! continues to do well in the #2 slot this year with 39 productions. This driver's ed-themed collection of shorts has been popular with high schools and middle schools. around the world, and this year it even got a production in Panama, my 13th country.

At #3, Million Dollar Meatballs pulled off the impossible this year. My plays have always done their best in their first full year, but with 37 productions, this restaurant-set farce actually set a new record in this, its third full year of publication.

After struggling last year, Rumpelstiltskin, Private Eye rallied hard this year with a respectable 31 productions (a 63% increase over the 19 of the previous year). That puts it at #4.

My reality TV parody Trouble in Paradise Junction dropped a precipitous 70% from last year, its first full year of production. But it still ended up with 21 productions, which was good enough to make it #5.

This was also the first full year of publication for The Purrfect Crime (#6) and Wicked Is As Wicked Does (#7). Unfortunately, with just 17 and 16 productions respectively, they came in a little weaker than I'd been hoping. Maybe these will pull off a Meatballs miracle and show a big boost next year.

Going down the list, we find The Stinky Feet Gang (14 productions), The Butler Did It! (12 productions), Long Tall Lester (8 productions), How I Met Your Mummy (7 productions), and The _urloined Letter (3 productions). Although Mummy is down big-time from the 30 productions it got just two years ago, one of this year's productions was in Switzerland, which gave me my 14th country (only 181 to go!).

My new baby, Babka Without Borders (unlucky #13), did manage to book 4 productions during the year. But all of those occur this month, which puts them outside of the 2018-2019 season. The upshot? A big goose egg for the year just past.

So all in all, the year was a bit of a disappointment. But I've got hope! This coming year will see the birth of what could be two monster plays: The Enchanted Bookshop Musical, and my first pirate comedy, Real Pirates Don't Wear Tiaras.

Keep checking back here, folks. You can bet this proud papa will let you know as soon as they're born.

Friday, May 10, 2019

Oman Bookshop photo named finalist

So you remember that photo contest I was telling you about? Well, it turns out that a production of The Enchanted Bookshop at the American International School in Muscat, Oman (yes, Oman!) made the list of five finalists selected by Pioneer.

And I can see why. Their costumes look awesome. And I love the expression on Margie's face (Margie is the one seated on the sofa).

Now comes the fun part, as Pioneer is taking votes from the public to decide the winner. To participate, all you have to do is visit Pioneer's account on Facebook, Instagram or Twitter (or better yet, all three) and click Like under the photo or photos you think are best.

Here are the links:




Of course, I'm not about to tell you how to vote. That's up to you.

But I know which one I'll be voting for.

Monday, May 6, 2019

Babka on a shoestring

Babka Without Borders had its world premiere this last weekend with TheatreWorks, a homeschool group in Bloomington, IN, and I was thrilled to hear from Dianna, the nimble-fingered mom who'd made all the costumes.

Dianna got me in touch with Tara, the photographer, and Tara sent me an invite to the group's Shutterfly account, where she'd archived a whopping 275 stills from the show.

I wish I could share them all, especially since they show just how creative you can be on a shoestring budget. these penny-pinching moms and dads were.

Dianna told me that their stage was very small, so they only got rid of two tables on each side of the border that runs through the middle of the set. (The set diagram in the script shows four table on each side, but that is only a suggestion.)

Costumes were also a challenge, especially for a play set in 1910 Europe like this one is. But Dianna was able to get everything she needed at the local Goodwill, and she added embellishments as needed to make them period-correct.

It's resourceful volunteers like these that make youth theater such a positive experience for actors, stage crew and audiences alike.

As they say in Primwick and Bunkelburg, vielen dank!

Monday, April 29, 2019

A Purrfect case of gender bending

I'm always happy to have directors creatively cast my plays. After all, it comes with the territory.

Schools and community theaters don't always get the right mix of actors -- or even a sufficient number of actors -- at auditions, so they're often forced to combine roles or change the gender of the roles they're casting.

And sometimes they do it just for the fun of it.

That's the case with the Sheeptown Players Drama Society (love that name!) of Fort Saskatchewan, Alberta. They're performing The Purrfect Crime May 10 and 11 and, as this article in the Fort Saskatchewan Record makes clear, they're having a ball.

"We have a gentleman playing a female cat. We have a guy who is playing a female lawyer. We have a woman playing a male butler," executive director Stuart McGowan says. "This isn't the first time our group has bent the gender bar, but we are getting into it as much as possibly can."

Make you wonder what they'd do with Five Women Wearing the Same Dress.

Break legs, everybody. I'm glad you're having fun.

Tuesday, April 23, 2019

Badger Bookshop makes a trailer

Loyal followers of this blog know that I'm currently trying to sell The Enchanted Bookshop as a movie or TV series. Right now, it still looks like a longshot. I'm currently knee-deep in a page one rewrite of the movie based on feedback from a studio exec (turns out it's still not big enough).

But if the movie ever does happen, I couldn't make a better trailer than this colorful, action-packed one from Luther Preparatory School in Watertown, Wisconsin -- which just happens to be 20 miles from where I grew up.

Nice job, guys! I hope you sell out every show.

Tuesday, April 16, 2019

Pioneer photo contest returns

Lakeside Lutheran High School of Lake Mills, WI won last year's contest
with this colorful action shot from their production of The Nifty Fifties.  

It's that time of year again. From today through May 3, Pioneer Drama Service is accepting entries for their annual photo contest. The winner gets a $200 gift certificate for goodies they can choose from the entire Pioneer catalog. To see the complete rules, click here.

So give it a shot. I know there's a ton of great photos out there. I've seen 'em.

Saturday, March 30, 2019

Writing Tip #2: Make Your Heroes Likable

One of the most common critiques I get about my writing is that my characters are often unlikable. My first impulse is to cry out, that can't be. That character was based on me!

I'm kidding, of course. My characters aren't based on anyone, living or dead.

But they are unlikable. And I think that's because I push their personalities so far toward an extreme that they stop being human. And that's a problem. If your characters are unlikable, then your audience doesn't have anyone to root for. You audience won't care what happens to them.

My soon-to-be-published play Real Pirates Don't Wear Tiaras is a good example. The story revolves around five pampered princesses who are forced to pose as pirates in order to save their skins. The princesses were likable enough, but I gave them princely beaus--and those guys were complete jerks: self-centered, lazy and, well, kind of dumb.

When I submitted the script to my publisher, they accepted it, but they also asked for changes. They thought the princes were fun, but they had no redeeming values. If the princes were so awful, why were the princesses even with them?

My publisher had a point. So I went back to the old drawing board.

There's a scene toward the end of the play where Blacktooth, the pirate who shanghaied the princesses in the first place, throws everyone--princes and princesses alike--into the brig. In the original draft, the princesses come up with the plan to rescue themselves:

          Oh, Norbert! I'd always hoped we'd be 
          together till the end of our days. I 
          just never dreamed the end would come 
          so soon!

          Don't be afraid, Emerald. I'm sure
          someone will save us.

          Who's going to save us? Everyone we 
          know is knocked in this cell.

          Well then, maybe we should get to 
          know more people.

          Sure, Opal. We'll get right on that.

CRUSTY ENTERS. She goes to grab the key.

          Wait. Maybe that's not such a bad 


          What idea?

          Getting to know more people. In fact,
          I see someone we should get to know 
          right now.

          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.

After I got the note from my publisher, I tried a version where the princes helped the princesses make their escape. But it didn't work very well. The play is about female empowerment, and there was no way to have them help without taking away from the princesses' independence.

So instead, I added some dialogue to have Donahue--the laziest, most cowardly prince of all--explain why he was the way he was. And the reason why was something that, I hope, we can all identify with:

          Oh, Norbert! I'd always hoped we'd be 
          together till the end of our days. 
          just never thought the end would come 
          so soon!

          I'm sorry, Emerald. I guess I've 
          failed you.

          We all did.

          That's right. We should have gone
          after Blacktooth like we said we 

          Yeah. Now that you mention it, why
          didn't you?

          Don't blame them. It was all my fault. 
          I'm the one who talked them out of it.

          But why, Donahue? Why did you do that?

          I don't know. I guess I was scared.
          Everyone expects prices to fight
          bloodthirsty pirates and evil knights 
          and hideous monsters with bad teeth. 
          But I don't know how to fight.

                 (to the others)
          That's true. He's not much of a 
          fighter. But he does make me laugh.

DONAHUE makes a funny face. All the PRINCESSES laugh.

          That's all right, Donahue. I guess we
          all feel trapped by the roles we play.

CRUSTY ENTERS. AMBER watches her as she goes to grab the key.

          And I know somebody else who must feel 
          the way.

Following AMBER's gaze, NORBERT and WILLOUGHBY rise to their feet.

          Do you want us to knock her out for you?

                (pats himself all around)
          I might have a bottle of sunscreen on me.

          No. Just stay back. I'll handle this.

And that's where I left it. The princes offer to help. The princesses decide to do it themselves. And even the least likable character reveals a touch of humanity.

That's what I call a win-win-win.

Tuesday, March 19, 2019

Talking Babka

I am just old enough that the Internet will never not seem like a miracle. Skype is one example. We actually had videophones in the 1970's, with Pittsburgh being one of the first places they were tested, but the technology never caught on. Besides being expensive, it turned out that people really didn't like being seen.

Well, Skype changed all that. Not only did they make it free (a miracle in itself), but they managed to get people to stop caring about that intrusive camera.

And that's great, because yesterday it allowed me to talk to the cast of a production of Babka Without Borders.

The school was Belmont Day School in Belmont, MA. Director and drama teacher Christopher Parsons was as excited to have his students meet me as I was to meet them, and other than one brief technical issue (mostly involving my forgetting to click my camera icon), the call went off without a hitch.

Chris was unable to set up his laptop to allow me to see everyone, so after each student ran up to the camera to introduce themselves, they returned to the bleachers so they could watch their intrepid instructor ask me the questions they'd submitted ahead of time.

Here are a few of them:

Q. How long did it take you to write the play?

A. Writing an hour and a half a day, I can usually finish a play in four months. But I struggled a bit with this one because it was difficult to get the tone right, and it ended taking me about six months.

Q. What was your inspiration for the play?

A. I once read about a town that straddles the border between Belgium and the Netherlands, and I was fascinated by a picture that showed the border wrapping around the outdoor patio of a cafe.

Well, that got me thinking. What would happen if the border didn't wrap around the cafe but cut right through it? And what if the two countries that divided the cafe weren't allies but enemies that went to war? It just seemed like a premise with tons of potential for conflict and humor.

Q. Why did you write the play as a single-set?

A. I love single-set plays because they're so theatrical. When you have one set to build, you can make it a lot more detailed and realistic. That was especially important for this play because I wanted the painted line that represents the border take a prominent role.

Of course, the main challenge with writing a single-set play is that you can't rely on scene changes to keep things fresh. So the way around that is to constantly shuffle the characters who are onstage.

Q. Are any of the characters based on real people?

A. No. My characters are always inventions. If they weren't, my family would have disowned me by now.

Q. Which character is most like me?

A. I don't know if Peter is like me, but he's the character I would most like to be. Between his idealism, his joie de vivre, and his gift of gab, he was a lot of fun to write, and I just love his whole approach to life.

Q. Which character was the hardest to write?

A. Luisa, for sure. She also had to play the sensible yin to Peter's romantic yang. But, as one of the leads, she also had to be likable. That's not an easy combination to make work. But I think as audience members, we also like characters who are earnest and well-meaning, so I tried to bring out those aspects of her personality as well.

Q. Why did you set the play in early 1900's Europe?

A. They're mostly forgotten today, but when I was a kid, I loved reading Leonard Wibberley's Mouse books: The Mouse on the Moon, The Mouse That Roared. They were funny books about a tiny European country ruled by a silly, pompous royal, but behind the funny was a very effective satirical take on modern politics. Bunkelburg and Primwick are very much patterned on that country.

Q. What do I want the audience to get out of the play?

A. I've always been struck by something John Glenn observed when he first orbited the earth. Looking down on that beautiful blue marble, he could see the continents as clear as day. But he couldn't see any borders.

Let's be honest. Borders are inherently arbitrary, and their main purpose is to separate people. As human beings, our goal should be bringing people together, not building a wall between them.

Q. Why did you choose babka?

A. I needed a pastry that was Eastern European, but "Kolaches Without Borders" didn't sound right and blintzes would be difficult to throw with the required precision (besides which, I've always been a big fan of Seinfeld).

Q. What kind of babka is your favorite?

A. Chocolate, definitely chocolate. Everything else is lesser babka.

I'm always available for Skype calls, so if you'd like to pick my brain about the play you're performing, send me an email by clicking here.

Thursday, March 7, 2019

The show must go on

Nobody shows more resourcefulness than community theaters. And they have to. From shoestring budgets to time-strapped volunteers, these scrappy little performance groups face no end of challenges.

In the case of the Driftwood Children's Theatre, that meant the director quitting just days before opening night. But, as they say, the show must go on. And so stage manager Valerie Parker--who hadn't directed a show in decades--stepped up to the plate.

Not only that, but they had just four days to build the set. But they were all ready for their first of several special performances for area third-graders earlier this week.

If you're in the area this weekend, be sure to check out the show. And if you're not, you might want to check out this local newspaper article that tells the whole inspiring story.

And yeah, the set looks fantastic.

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.

          What's this, 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.

          Oh, no! What's going to happen to 

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

          Yeah. This shop is her life.

          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!

          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.

          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,

          What's this?

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

          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, more 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?