Tuesday, February 18, 2020

Around the world in sixteen plays

Oakhill School, Knysna, South Africa

While we're on the subject, Valentine's Day was a great day for another reason as well. I learned that Oakhill School in Knysna, South Africa will produce Babka Without Borders in July. This represents my sixteenth country and my very first production on the continent of Africa.

I have just two more continents to reach: South America and Antarctica. Don't laugh. Turns out the scientists at McMurdo Station have an amateur theater group, although if you want them to perform your plays, it helps if you already work there.

If that wasn't enough, I found out yesterday that the Bangalore School of Speech and Drama would be performing The Enchanted Bookshop Musical that same month. That makes India my seventeenth country--roughly one country for each of my sixteen plays.

I love both of these plays, but I'm especially grateful that kids have taken to The Enchanted Bookshop Musical so quickly. I'm sure the main characters of Dorothy, Tom Sawyer and Pollyanna are grateful too. After all, they get to come to life again, not just within the confines of my fictional bookshop, but on the stages of schools and theater companies all over the world.

What could be better than that?

The gifted students of the Bangalore School of Speech and Drama

Saturday, February 15, 2020

Lights! Camera! Murder! to be published

It had a great Valentine's Day, and not just because I enjoyed a delicious filet mignon and Cotes du Rhone with the most wonderful wife in the world. I also--finally!--received a publication offer for Lights! Camera! Murder!

Followers of this blog know that many of my plays could serve as a testament to persistence. But Lights! Camera! Murder! is a real doozy.

I've always been obsessed with old movies. And so, when I started writing plays in 2006, this Hollywood-based murder mystery was one of the first I worked on.

I'd never written a mystery before, and I soon found myself way in over my head. Plotting a mystery is hard, and my original concept didn't make things any easier.

The concept was to have the play take place on the set of an Errol Flynn-like swashbuckler. The murder weapon was to be the villain's sword, and the murderer would accomplish the dirty deed by poisoning the tip of that sword. The victim--the womanizing leading man--would then be killed during the filming of the film's big fight scene.

From there the script went... well, nowhere. I had no idea what clues to plant or what alibis to put in the characters' mouths.

As a novice playwright, I never realized an even bigger challenge, at least from a marketing viewpoint. Few high schools--and no middle or elementary schools--would produce a play where the young actors have to handle swords.

I soon abandoned the script. But over the next few years, I would return to it again and again, tweaking the dialogue, swapping out characters, maybe adding a gag or two, but never getting one iota closer to breaking the story.

I finally cracked it in 2016--AKA The Year I Was Laid Off. Because I was out of work, I had a ton of time to write, so I tossed out the script and started fresh, refusing to even glance at the original version in case it contaminated my thinking.

Instead of a swashbuckler, I made the movie a hardboiled detective story, a la The Maltese Falcon or The Big Sleep. The murder weapon? A much easier-to-deal-with poisoned cup of coffee.

I finished the script in a couple months and quickly sent it to my publisher, Pioneer Drama Service. They almost as quickly rejected it, saying they didn't think it would thrive in their particular market. Although the play is a very lighthearted comedy, I suspect that the specifics of the murder and the fact that the victim dies on stage were a little too grim for their customers.

Shortly after it got rejected, I managed to snag one production of the play. Johnston Heights Church of Vancouver, British Columbia had been hitting me up for another play (they've now done five of mine), and when I told them about this homeless little waif, they were more than happy to give the play its world premiere (see photo above).

From the feedback on that, I gave the play one last polish and sent it off to other publishers.

The response was the same. Dramatic Publishing rejected it. Eldridge Publishing rejected it. YouthPLAYS rejected it.

I finally sent it to Heuer Publishing, a company I've long respected but which had rejected three of my previous submissions. And then I went on to write other stuff. Plays. Screenplays. Novels. After a year of waiting, I still hadn't heard anything from them and had completely written them off.

Then yesterday, thirteen months after I submitted Lights! Camera! Murder!, Heuer told me they wanted to publish it through their affiliate Brooklyn Publishers.

I was thrilled. Not only did it finally find a home after eleven years of writing and three years of submitting, but it will be my first play published by someone other than Pioneer.

I still love Pioneer and plan to submit to them again, but I'm looking forward to establishing a relationship with a new publisher. The play comes out in August.

So I guess the lesson is don't give up. I know it's a cliche, but it really is true. No matter how many rejections you get, no matter how many people ignore you, just keep sending your stuff out. Again and again and again.

It only takes one yes to change everything.

Thursday, February 6, 2020

How do you love your books?

I came across an article the other day that really got me thinking. Written by Anne Fadiman, it was published 25 years ago in Civilization magazine, but it was reprinted by Slate this week in response to a tweet that raised the hackles of book lovers everywhere.

In the tweet, the tweeter (twitterer?) posted a picture of a book he cut in half in order to make it easier to lug on trips.

Here is that photo, and if you're an avid book lover, you may want to sit down for this (graphic image follows):

Horrifying, I know. But Fadiman had something to say about it. In her article, titled "Never Do That to a Book", she proposed there are two ways to love your books.

First, there's the courtly way, in which the reader takes pristine care of their texts, refusing to tear them, write on them or even dogear a single page.

The other way is the carnal way. Disciples of this school (and that includes Fadiman herself) don't just read books, they consume them--and in the most literal sense possible. They scribble in the margins, throw away pages as they finish them, even--horror of horrors!--set them down spine side up.

A sign of disrespect? Not at all. Says Fadiman:
"To us, a book's words were holy, but the paper, cloth, cardboard, glue, thread, and ink that contained them were a mere vessel, and it was no sacrilege to treat them as wantonly as desire and pragmatism dictated. Hard use was a sign not of disrespect but of intimacy."
I have to admit, I've abused my share of books..When I was a kid, my dad had a collection of elegantly embossed hardcovers called the Twenty Greatest Works of Literature or something like that. He kept them out of reach on a high shelf in our rec room, but when I saw that one of them had the intoxicating title of--wait for it!--Treasure Island--I knew I had to read it.

I climbed up on a chair, grabbed the book off the shelf and, for the rest of that summer, took it everywhere I went. Church. Summer school. Camping. Fishing.

I loved that book, and when I finally returned it to its shelf a couple months later, it stood out from the rest of the books in its sheer usedness. The cover was faded. The corners were bumped. The edges were threadbare. And I think it got some fairly significant water damage from that fishing trip.

Sure, it was ugly. But it was the only book from that collection that ever got read.

Anyone who has seen or performed in my play The Enchanted Bookshop knows that Miss Margie, the owner of the ship, belongs firmly in the courtly camp. She scolds the bad guys, Eddie and Fingers, when they toss her books on the floor. And so, when it comes time for them to punish her, they know how to make it hurt:

EDDIE: This ain't the necklace we was looking for. What happened to the real necklace?

MARGIE: I don't know! I never had it!

EDDIE: Tryin' to pull a fast one, are ya? Well, we'll see about that. Fingers?

FINGERS: What books should I start with?

EDDIE: I don't care. Just pick one.

FINGERS: (Grabs a real book from the shelf.) How about Mary Poppins?

EDDIE: Whatever. (FINGERS tears pages out of the book.)

MARGIE: No! Stop!

EDDIE: Are you gonna tell us where the real necklace is?

MARGIE: I already told you! I don't know where it is!

EDDIE: All right, Fingers. Pick another book.

FINGERS: (Grabs another book.) This one's got a funny name. Don Quicksoddy. (Tears pages out of the book.)

MARGIE: Stop! I'll give you all my money! Just please don't hurt my books!

You know, it's funny. I've seen dozens of productions of this play--both live and on video--and not a single one had the bad guys actually tear the pages from the book. They usually just mime the tearing, or toss the books gently on the floor without tearing them all.

I get it. My plays are primarily directed by teachers and I suspect that most teachers are lifelong members of Team Courtly. I mean, they have to be. The books in their rooms get handled by dozens of hands a year, and if they didn't enforce some level of care, within a couple years, there wouldn't be any books left.

In my play, however, I think it's really important to damage the books. It has to be visceral. The audience should feel the tearing of the pages like a gut punch, and in that way, they'll realize how precious books are.

But what if you really, really don't want to damage any books? Well, there is one way around it. Stick some loose pages inside the books ahead of time, then when it comes times to destroy them, pull out those pages and toss them on the floor. The audience will never know it was faked.

Or maybe you can talk your local library into donating some damaged books that are otherwise headed for the recycler.

These days, I take better care of my books. Maybe it's a result of getting older, but my current view is that we never really own our books. We just borrow them. The best of our books will last much longer than we do, and we owe it to those who follow to leave at least a few of the literary treasures we loved so much.

But those trashy little paperbacks? Do what you want with them.

I won't tell Margie.