Sunday, December 31, 2023

A look back at 2023


Stop the world, I want to get off!

Or maybe just slow the spinning a little bit. I mean, seriously. I've made it through sixty of these solar revolutions now, and I swear this was the shortest one yet.

Still, I have nothing to complain about. Theater is back and bigger than ever, and my playwriting career is thriving.

But how did I do with my goals for the year, which I proudly posted on this page exactly 364 days ago and have long since forgotten? Let's take a look...

 1) Publish four new plays

No. I ended up only publishing one, How to Enchant a Bookshop. And the only other play I finished writing this year (Bringing Down the House) was written on commission so I can't submit it to my publisher until after it premieres in March.

It's not that I haven't been writing. I have. In fact, I'm pretty sure I met my goal of writing 90 minutes every day. If there was a day when I knew I wouldn't be able to write (vacations, Christmas), I worked ahead to make sure I averaged 90 minutes per day.

And yes, sometimes that means writing in the back seat of the car while we're driving to our daughter's place in Tucson or a week at the beach in San Diego.

I just think I'm taking more time to write a play. I'm putting extra effort to develop my characters, and polish the dialogue, and make sure that everything flows in a natural way. I guess I like it that way.

In any case, I'm very close to finishing my latest play, a time travel comedy, so I'll soon have two plays in the publishing queue.

And then there's The Real Reason Dinosaurs Went Extinct. I finished that two years ago but it only got accepted for publication this year and won't actually be published until early 2024.

So I'm really excited for the new year. I may have fallen short in the number of new releases this year, but I've got a great head start on 2024.

2) Hit 10K Steps Every Day

Almost. I missed only 25 days over the year and 7 of those came in January when my smartwatch was new and I was still getting used to tracking my steps. By the time December rolled around, I managed to have a perfect month, hitting 10,000 steps every day. And I ended up with an average of 11,405 steps per day for the entire year. Not bad.

My informal goal of hitting 250 steps per hour (out of 10 hours per day) has been a lot harder to achieve. I only had four perfect weeks during the year, but I quickly discovered that this goal is wildly unrealistic and can actually put a damper on your personal relationship (nothing like getting up from a restaurant meal with your wife to squeeze in those extra 100 steps you need before the hour runs out).

 So while it's important to keep walking throughout the day, and has really helped me feel better and have more energy, I don't want to be obsessive about it either.

3) Work with an Online Italian Tutor

Not even close. I just got too busy. It was impossible to a weekly session with a tutor.

Or at least that's what I tell myself. The real reason is I chickened out. I know in my heart that the only way to become truly fluent in a foreign language is to speak it a lot, especially with someone who's native to the language. I just can't get myself over the hump of actually committing to a particular tutor and meeting time.

But I did continue to develop my reading and listening skills by following a boatload of Italian Instagram accounts.

4) Travel to Hawaii

Nope. It was a simple matter of money. I didn't have any.

But my plays are doing really well this year, and it looks like the royalty check I'll be getting in May will cover not only the usual debts I accrue over the previous twelve months and some desperately needed home improvements, but a week-long trip to the islands. (Thank you, Pioneer!)

We're now planning a trip to Oahu in September, when the weather is perfect and the tourists are largely gone. It's going to be kupanaha.

Wrapping up

So I went 0 for 4--not a great year for goal reaching. But it's not all bad. That's because I managed to achieve two goals that I'd failed to achieve in 2022 and which I'd left off my list for this year.

The first was leading a workshop at the Arizona Thespian Festival. I don't know what changed, but after submitting my Hero's Journey workshop for several years and not getting any response, they finally gave me a big thumbs this year. I've reported on my experience elsewhere, but let me just state for the record that it was well worth the wait.

The second was to see more plays. Similar to my experience with the Thespian Festival, I'd applied to be an adjudicator with the ariZoni Theater Awards last year with no response. Well, for whatever reason, I got accepted this yea. So far I've seen five productions, and while I'm not allowed to express my opinions on them here (the ariZonis are much stricter than Colorado's Henry Awards ever were), I can say that the experience has been a blast.

I finally feel like I'm getting plugged in to the local theater scene. And that's what makes this year feel like a huge success instead of a letdown.

Maybe I'm just bad at picking goals?

Saturday, December 2, 2023

Enter stage left

As I've mentioned before, it's rare when I get to see a production of one of my own plays. It's not that they're not being performed. Since I moved to the Phoenix area six years ago, there have been 21 productions of my plays here.

It's just that I don't want to insert myself in what is normally a private, educational experience. Most of my plays are performed by schools and, as I've been told many times by teachers, the presence of the playwright makes kids super nervous.

They don't need that kind of pressure, so I generally opt to skip those shows.

But it was different a couple months ago when I learned that Stage Left Productions in Surprise--a northwest suburb of Phoenix--would be performing An Enchanted Bookshop Christmas.

For one thing, it was being performed by the youth theater arm of a highly regarded professional theater. For another thing, it was being performed by a mixed cast, with Margie the bookshop owner, her sister Ellen, and billionaire Philip being played by adults with a ton o' stage experience.

Oh, and one more thing. I'd never seen the play performed before.

So I contacted artistic director Cody Dull and he set me up with a pair of tickets for today's afternoon performance (even better, I was able to attend with my wife Tammy, who sees even fewer shows of mine).

A weird thing happens when a playwright sees one of their plays for the first time, especially if it's been a few years since they'd written it. They forget they wrote it.

Or maybe that's just me. Either way, I saw the play with entirely new eyes. I'd forgotten the plot. I'd forgotten most of the dialogue. I'd even forgotten the ending. So it was a very eye-opening experience. In a way, I got to experience the play the same way a lot of the audience did (except for the one guy who said he'd been to performance to date).

And I really liked it. Sure, there were some implausible parts. And some of the jokes fell flat. But overall--in my humblest, most objective opinion--I found it quite funny and heart-warming.

Of course, most of the credit for that went to the supremely talented cast. Every single one of them got a well-earned laugh from the audience, from Margie all the way down to the Little Match Girl. And the direction was top-notch, a particular challenge in a mixed cast like this. The pacing was perfection and the cast really played together like a team. I was especially impressed with how they managed so many characters on what I thought was a fairly small stage.

Interestingly, Cody announced before the beginning of the show that the play was being performed in repertory with Jones, Hope and Wooten's Dashing Through the Snow, since they could use the same set (the lobby of an inn in the JHW play, a bookshop in mine).

Anyway, I enjoyed the performance so much that when I ran into Cody after the show, I told him that I'd like to work with him in the future. He was surprised, since he'd assumed I'd already had a relationship with the East Valley Children's Theatre in Mesa.

I didn't tell him I'd submitted four different plays to their Aspiring Playwrights Contest over the years with not even an honorable mention to show for it. What I did tell him, in an email after our conversation, was that I had a new play that was almost done. Would be interested in looking at it?

Yes, he would be.

Oh, happy day. I would love to develop a relationship with a local theater. Of course, I'm currently working with Belmont Day School in Massachusetts on Bringing Down the House, but the development process is so much more effective when the playwright can sit in on rehearsals.

So I'm putting a final polish on that play now. If he decides to develop it, great. If not, I'm no worse off than if I'd never sent it.

I'm just glad I discovered am exciting new (for me) theater company.

Sunday, November 12, 2023

The teacher's journey

So yeah, I was a little nervous presenting my workshop on the Hero's Journey at the Arizona Thespian Festival on Saturday. As I mentioned in my last blog post, I hadn't presented it in seven years, and although I'd practiced it several times in the last couple weeks, I was worried something would go wrong. Either the projector wouldn't work, or the attendance would be next to nil, or the kids wouldn't be responsive.

It didn't help that the staff member who checked me in had me sign an agreement that said, in his words, I wouldn't hit any of the kids. (He added that if any of the kids acted up, I should report it to the staff--and they wouldn't hit them either.)

But like most things, the experience was not as bad as I had feared. Funny how life works out that way.

The first of my two sessions was fairly lightly attended, with only about 25 students and adults sitting toward the back (waaaay back) of a long, narrow room meant for 90. But then came the second session and it was completely different. The kids poured in and poured in and kept pouring in until nearly every seat was occupied and the latecomers had no choice but to sit at the front (mwah ha ha!).

The discussion was lively too, with both students and adults eagerly answering my questions, such as which event in Star Wars represents the catalyst?--and particularly fanatical Star Wars fans filling in details I'd forgotten, even though I just rewatched the movie last week. (I can never remember the name of the creatures that Luke Skywalker practiced his sharpshooting skills on.)

Womp rat

The Q&A session that followed was especially lively, with lots of questions fired out me from all sorts of directions. My favorite question came from one girl who asked whether the Hero's Journey can be applied to an entire series of films--the MCU, for example. Huh, I replied. I'd never thought about that before.

After a brief thunk, I went on to say that you can certainly apply individual stages of the Hero's Journey to a series of films, (Stakes Are Raised perhaps, or All Is Lost), but that it would be very difficult to fit all 15 stages into the entire series as well as each film and it's really in the individual films where you want to make sure you follow the Hero's Journey.

But maybe someone has already done it. I'll have to do more research (i.e. bingeing the tube).

If I had any doubts about coming back next year, they all vanished a few minutes after my talk was finished. That's when a shy young student from Mesa approached me to say that she'd played the Book Fairy in her school's production of The Enchanted Bookshop four years ago and that experience is what made her fall in love with theater in the first place.

She even asked to take a selfie with me--a first. (Ryan Reynolds eat your heart out.)

You can't buy moments like that.

All in all, it was a fantastic experience and I would highly recommend other playwrights and theater artists to get involved with this wonderful conference.

As for my plans? I believe Ahnold said it best...

Tuesday, November 7, 2023

Belmont diary: The finish line

So last week I received notes from director Christopher Parsons on my "final" revision of Bringing Down the House. I'm always a little nervous when I'm waiting for notes because I fear that the changes are going to be many and painful. You know, like juggling the order of events. Or changing the ending to something more uplifting. Or making the main character a goat instead of a duck.

Fortunately, that hasn't happened yet. And Chris's notes were especially benign, as he requested only 12 minor line edits. 

I won't list all of the edits here, but there were a couple that I'd like to discuss as they raise some interesting issues with respect to theater and playwriting. 

The first is that early in the play I had Sidney, the show-within-the-show's book writer complain about the theater they rented saying, "It looks like it hasn't seen a show since Macbeth. And by that, I mean the original production."

I thought that was a funny line. But beyond that, there's a lot of things that go wrong in the show-within-the-show, and my idea was that this violation of one of the theater world's most pervasive superstitions--the uttering of the word "Macbeth" onstage--was what set the bad luck in motion.

But Chris felt uncomfortable having the word said as part of the play, and it occurred to me that a lot of other directors might have the same objection. Besides, the line would be just as funny with the title of any other play that's known for being old. So I changed it to Romeo and Juliet.

No, I don't have a trigger now for all of the disasters that happen to our happy troupe, but I also won't have any directors passing on the play because of a single word.

And besides, I think the new line may be funnier.

The other note is that at a later point, I had Cameron, the temperamental director, address the cast with, "All right, listen up, guys." Now to me, "guys" is a gender neutral term. It refers to both males and females. But I grew up in the Midwest where that's common usage. And apparently it's heard in Southern California as well because Legally Blonde: The Musical has the song,  "Omigod You Guys," which is something Elle says to her very female sorority sisters.

But Belmont School is in Massachusetts and that sense of the word may not be standard there. So no worries. I changed the script.

Still, I'm thinking of changing this and a couple other lines back before submitting the script to my publisher.

Oh, yes. There's another thing worth mentioning? The one line I thought for sure I'd have to change actually made it through the school's DEIB review.

It's when the show-within-a-show's lyricist Elliot informs Cameron that they're changing the show to a pirates vs. aliens thing. The new title? Invasion of the Booty Snatchers.

Anyway, I accepted all of Chris's change requests so my work is now largely finished. All that's left is to wait for the production in March, and to make one final, final revision based on Chris's last batch of notes from actually mounting the show and on my own viewing of the play (nothing like audience reaction to learn which gags work and which don't).

But it feels really good to reach this milestone, and to provide a script that Chris and crew are now eager to produce.

Wish them luck.

Oops. scratch that. Wish them broken legs.

I've got to brush up on those theater superstitions.

Friday, November 3, 2023

May the Force be with me

After two years of trying to get into the Arizona Thespian Festival, I'm pleased to announce that I finally got accepted this year. And I'll be presenting the same workshop that I did my last year at the Colorado Thespian Conference, all the way back in 2016.

It's titled Plot 101: Playwriting Lessons from Star Wars. In it, I talk about the Hero's Journey as first proposed by mythologist Joseph Campbell in 1949 and later expanded by Hollywood types Christopher Vogler and Blake Snyder.

My version is a little simpler. Instead of 12 or 14 or 15 steps, I slim it down to just seven. I don't want to overwhelm beginning writers. And I want them to absorb the seven steps so that it quickly becomes a part of their writing DNA. That's hard to do with 15 steps.

The workshop was a hit in Colorado. I had asked for an extra large room, but even that wasn't enough. Over 100 students showed up, and most of them had to find places on the the tables or floor.

The best part? The students were really involved. Like passionately, emotionally involved. They love Star Wars (and the other movie I discuss) and they really wanted to understand how the story was put together.

This year, I'll be presenting the workshop in the last two slots of the festival, 1:15pm and 2:45pm on Saturday, November 11. If you're attending the festival, stop by and say hi. Or better yet, come and join us. I guarantee you'll have an out-of-this-world time.

Even if I can't guarantee you a chair.

Update: If you attended one of my workshops (or even if you didn't) and would like to download a copy of my you can find the one for Star Wars here and the one for that other movie here.

Wednesday, October 4, 2023

Okie Mummy on the tube

A big shout-out to Spotlight Children's Theatre in Tulsa, Oklahoma for yesterday's interview on the local ABC affiliate. Three young actors from their upcoming production of How I Met Your Mummy participated in the interview and did a great job fielding the host's questions.

This same theater is performing An Enchanted Bookshop Christmas in December. Can't wait to see your next TV spot!

Friday, September 29, 2023

Belmont diary: Three little words

Oh, those words. The three little words that are the essence of beauty. The three little words that are the most magical in the world. The three little words that puts a catch to the breath, a flutter to the heart, and a flush to the cheeks.

I'm speaking, of course, about the words "END OF PLAY." (Why? What did you think I meant?) And I got to type those words today as I completed the script for Bringing Down the House, the large-cast comedy commissioned by Belmont Day School in Massachusetts.

Okay, so I actually typed those words a couple of months ago when I completed the first draft of the script. But today the play really is at an end because I just finished the final draft. All those months of hard work, all those months of staring at the screen and wracking my brain and typing and deleting and typing again, are done.

And boy, does it feel good.

The play is about a theatrical troupe that rents an abandoned theater so they can rehearse their brand new musical, only to learn that the building is going to be demolished the next day. In a flash, their rehearsal time is cut from six weeks to four hours, and craziness ensues as one interruption after another threatens to prevent them from mounting the one performance that could save the show.

And it's a monster. I'd say it was the biggest, most complex play I've ever written except for the fact that the last play the school commissioned from me was just as big and only slightly less complex (I guess they like them that way).

Like the last play, this one has a whopping 38 speaking parts. Unlike the last play, this one was required to include a dance number as well as a swordfight with real swords (I threw in an extra swordfight--this one with sledgehammers and protest signs--for good measure).

How do you get a handle on such a monster? Simple. You write an outline.

So that's what I did. And it helped. A lot. But well into the first draft, I still didn't know how to end the thing. I wanted a finale that was funny, of course, but it also had to be emotionally satisfying and--the toughest part of all--plausible.

I was stuck.

The characters, on the other hand, came easily. There's the upbeat composer who sees the world through rose-colored glasses. The gloomy book writer who only wears ash-colored glasses. The inept agent who talks a good game but never seems to deliver. The highly-strung director who's more concerned about his caramel macchiato than the suddenly truncated rehearsal schedule. And a whole slew of actors, from the coddled Hollywood star to the pretentious British veterans to the ever-hopeful chorus members.

I even included an annoying child star named Karlee who desperately wants a part in the show. I didn't plan to do much with her. I just thought she would be funny. So I threw her onstage, gave her a lively exchange with the director, then shuffled her off. Bing bang boom, she was gone.

Only she wouldn't stay gone. Karlee, as characters often do, took charge of her narrative and insisted on playing a bigger role in the play. 

I still wasn't sure what exactly. But that didn't matter. Karlee knew. As it turns out, what she really wanted to do was save the show. So I let her.

And just like that, I had my ending.

I can't say any more about that because I want to maintain the surprise for those of you who might want to read it. But I can share the scene in which she first appears along with the mother of all stage mothers, Sharon. Here it is:
KARLEE: Hey there, Mr. Davies!

CAMERON: Um, who are you?

KARLEE: Me? Why, I'm Karlee Keene and I'm here for my audition!

SHARON: Here are Karlee's headshot and resume. She's been in dozens of shows. Just dozens.

CAMERON: Sorry, kid--

SHARON: I'm not done. Here's a letter of recommendation from her voice teacher, a photo album with all her media clippings, a thumb drive with videos of her greatest dance performances, and her first baby tooth.


KARLEE: I've got to be in your show, Mr. Davies! I've just got to!

CAMERON: Sorry, kid, but the auditions are over. I've already cast it.

SHARON: Oh, but that's not fair! You haven't given Karlee a chance!

KARLEE: Who's playing the scrappy young orphan who brings joy to every heart with a smile and a song?

CAMERON: There is no scrappy young orphan.

KARLEE: Is there a scrappy old orphan?

SHARON: I'm telling you, Mr. Davies, you're missing the chance of a lifetime if you don't put Karlee in your show. She's going to be a star.

CAMERON: Look, lady, I'm sure you're kid's really talented, but there's no room for her in the cast. All the characters are adults.

SHARON: Oh, that's no problem. Karlee can play any age from three months...

KARLEE: (Acts like a baby.) Googoo gaga.

SHARON: To ninety-three.

KARLEE: (Hunches over and speaks in a croaky voice.) Now where did I put my reading glasses?

SHARON: A huge star, I'm telling you. Huge.

KARLEE: You've heard of a quadruple threat? Well, I'm a quintuple threat! I can sing, dance, act, and play two kazoos at the same time! (Pulls out the kazoos and plays them loudly and obnoxiously.)

CAMERON: Stop! Stop! Stop! (KARLEE does.) I'll tell you what. Give me your name and number and I'll call you the next time I do a kid's show.

KARLEE: Oh, but it's got to be this show, Mr. Davies. My childhood is slipping away as we speak!

SHARON: Why don't you song your audition song, Karlee? Show him what you can do.

KARLEE: All right. This is a little dittie called "Tomorrow" from Annie. (Poses and opens her mouth to sing.)

CAMERON: Nooooo!

KARLEE: What's the matter?

CAMERON: You've got the part! Just don't sing that song. Never never never ever.

KARLEE: Gee, thanks, Mr, Davies! 
Karlee ended up being my favorite character in the play, and she wasn't even in my original outline.

That's the thing about outlines. Sometimes they can be useful. If nothing else, they give your story a sense of forward momentum.

But you should never feel tied to them. Let the story grow. Let the characters take the wheel, if they want.

Sometimes it doesn't work out. If so, just delete that part.

But sometimes, the things you add late in the game end up being the best part of the play. Sometimes a new character will swoop in and take charge of the whole thing.

If they're any good, let them. The writing is easier when your characters do it for you.

Wednesday, August 16, 2023

How to Enchant a Bookshop is now available!

Just in time for the new school year, Pioneer Drama Service has released my 24th play, How to Enchant a Bookshop. Set in the same world as The Enchanted Bookshop and An Enchanted Bookshop Christmas (not to mention The Enchanted Bookshop Musical), it tells the story of how Margie's beloved bookshop became enchanted in the first place.

At 45 minutes, it's the shortest play of the three, making it perfect for classroom use, an evening of one-acts, or pairing with one of the other Enchanted Bookshop plays for a full evening of entertainment. It also requires a smaller cast (6M, 8F, 4 either) and is even easier to produce than those other plays (no need to destroy books here!).

Brain drizzling

I had a ton of fun writing this play. But coming up with the title was a real bear. In just a few words, I had to communicate to potential customers that:

1) The play is a part of the Enchanted Bookshop universe.

2) It represents the origin story of that universe.

3) It stands alone, with no need to have seen the other two plays.  

I brainstormed for weeks, but I kept coming up with the same few problematic titles. Here are some of them and the reasons why I rejected them.

Enchanting the Bookshop--Too close to the original.

The Enchanted Bookshop Begins--Sounds like you need to see the original.

The Fairy Who Enchanted a Bookshop--Wrong focus.

An Enchanted Grand Opening--No connection to the bookshop.

An Enchanted Bookshop Grand Opening--Too clunky.

An Enchanted Bookshop Opening--Too close to the original.

The Bookshop that Became Enchanted--Too clunky.

How Bookshops Become Enchanted--Too general.

Please Don't Enchant the Bookshop!--Sounds like some weird anti-play.

An Unlikely Story--Unclear connection to the original.

Nope. The only real option was the one I ended up with, How to Enchant a Bookshop. That title ties it to the other plays, makes it clear that it's a different play, and even though it doesn't spell out that it's the first play of the trilogy, I'm sure Pioneer customers are smart enough to figure that out.

Something old, something new

One of my goals with the Enchanted Bookshop plays was to keep a core of returning characters for continuity. So this play again includes audience favorites Dorothy Gale, Tom Sawyer, and Pollyanna, not to mention the beating heart of the bookshop, Margie herself (or would that be Bombalurina?).

But I also wanted to introduce a few new characters in each play in order to keep things fresh. For this play, that includes Cinderella, my all-time favorite fictional character Don Quixote, and the ravenous rodents from Beatrix Potter's The Tale of Two Bad Mice.

I'm surprised it took me this long to include characters from Potter's oeuvre. I never read her books as a young'un--I was more of a Dr. Seuss kid--but I discovered them when my daughters were young and quickly fell in love with them, particularly the muted beauty of the watercolors and the understated humor of the text.

As anyone who follow this blog knows, I often struggle with my writing, but those two mice were a piece of cake to write for (no pun intended)--and so much fun! Their elevated language flowed out of my fingers and I always knew what to have them talk about: food! I'm sure audiences will eat them up (pun fully intended).

An auspicious start

Will How to Enchant a Bookshop be as successful as the other plays? I sure hope so. It has certainly charged out of the starting gate, booking its first production the same day it was released (it normally takes two to three weeks for a new play to accomplish that).

Want to check it out yourself? Just head over to the play's web page where you can read a sample or order your own perusal copy.

Or take a leap and book the second production. You'll make two little mice very happy.

Wednesday, August 9, 2023

Belmont diary: The H word

I hate writing.

Well, maybe not at first. I always love starting a new play. I love thinking up characters. I love brainstorming action scenes and the broad strokes of the plot.

But then I start the script itself. And I almost always immediately get bogged down in the dialogue and the entrances and exits and the finer points of the plot.

You know, the actual writing.

This hating phase is the worst. Because it makes the whole process such a chore. You dread opening up your laptop. You dread looking at the words you wrote the previous day. You dread racking your brain to think up new words.

But eventually--hopefully--things turn. That can happen any time in the writing process but it most often seems to happen when you finally break the story. When you figure out where the story is going, how it needs to end, and what path it has to take to get there. When that happens, you just open your brain and let the words pour out onto the page.

And you learn to love writing again.

This is all a very roundabout way of saying that last night, after weeks of wrestling with the story and fighting with the characters and generally just hating my play Bringing Down the House, I finally figured out the ending. Within an hour, the last couple of scenes magically fell into place, and I wrote write the three sweetest words in the English language: END OF PLAY.

Oh, there's still a lot of work to be done. As I expected, I missed the school's target for lines per role, and even though it was only intended to be a guideline, I'm going to try hard to beef up the smaller roles.

I also have several scenes that are really just sketches at this point. Those will need to be nailed down and cleaned up.

And then I have to figure out what to do with that pesky dynamite.

But the story has a backbone now. And the work is a joy. Every evening, I can't wait to open up my laptop. I can't wait to read what I wrote the previous day. I can't wait to polish those words to a glimmering sheen.

And I love loving writing again.

Friday, August 4, 2023

The Real Reason Dinosaurs Went Extinct to be published

This summer has been brutal. Temperature records have been shattered all over the world. Here in Phoenix, we just ended a streak of 31 days above 110 degrees F (the previous record was 18!). And saguaros--those giant cactuses that evolved to thrive in the Arizona heat--are dying because it's too hot even for them.

Climate change is real, people. We need to do something about it. And we need to teach the next generation about it too.

Which is why I'm excited that after almost two years of seeking a publisher for my play The Real Reason Dinosaurs Went Extinct, I finally snagged one.

Brooklyn Publishers, which also publishes my Hollywood mystery Lights! Camera! Murder!, will release this large-cast comedy climate change allegory in 2024. And even though this is my 25th play to be published, I'm just as excited now as I was when I learned that my first play, The _urloined Letter, would be published. (Has it really been twelve years?)

When I finished writing the play in December 2021, I was worried that it was dead on arrival. Why? Because that was the exact same month that a little Netflix movie named Don't Look Up came out.

It had a lot of similarities. Both are about a massive space object headed toward earth (a comet in the film). Both center around a pair of scientists striving to warn the public about the imminent threat. And both are thinly veiled allegories for climate change.

But there are a lot of differences too. My play is less preachy. My play is also less dark, featuring a funny, light-hearted tone that's perfect for young audiences. And my play features the animals that kids love the most: dinosaurs!

Oh, yeah. And my play really happened (okay, not the talking dinosaur part, but definitely the deadly asteroid part).

Anyway, the hubbub around the movie (and it was extremely controversial) has died down, and Don't Look Up hasn't become one of those flicks that gets replayed endlessly on cable TV. So I feel that now is the perfect time to bring the play to life.

To give you a taste of it, let me share the scene when the scientists, Professor Broadbeak and Doctor Duckbill, and their young friend Snaggleclaw go to warn the citizens about the asteroid: 

PROFESSOR: Mayor Spiketail, I'm glad you're here! We have some very important news to share with the townsfolk.

MAYOR: Well, I'm sorry but we're all very busy right now. Can't you come back in, oh, three or four years?

PROFESSOR: I wish we could, Mayor, but we can't. We have to tell them now.

MAYOR: Oh, no, you don't. We've had enough of your ridiculous warnings and predictions. Unless this one means the end of life as we know it, we simply don't care.

SNAGGLECLAW: Ha ha. Funny you should mention that.

PROFESSOR: It does mean the end of life as we know it.

MAYOR: What?!

DOCTOR: We don't mean to alarm you, Mayor, but an asteroid is hurtling toward us at a very high rate of speed.

MAYOR: And what, pray tell, is an asteroid?

DOCTOR: It's basically a rock in space.

GRAYTOOTH: Get a load of the "scientists," everyone! They're afraid of a little rock.

(The PLANT EATERS laugh.)

DOCTOR: But it isn't a little rock. It's actually quite large, about five or six miles across.

JABBERJAW: Well, which is it, Doctor? It can't possible be both!

DOCTOR: Look, its precise size isn't important. What's important is that it's headed directly toward the earth!

LOFTYNOSE: Well, even if it does strike the earth, what are the chances it'll strike one of us?

DOCTOR: That's not the point. If the asteroid strikes the earth at all, it'll cause massive devastation.

PROFESSOR: Earthquakes! Tsunamis! Shock waves! Wildfires! Thermal radiation!

SHARPTONGUE: Oh, come on, now. You're sensationalizing things!

JABBERJAW: It couldn't possibly be that bad!

(The PLANT EATERS laugh.)

PROFESSOR: Fine. If you don't believe us, take a look for yourselves. Our telescope will show you.

GRAYTOOTH: Nothing doing. If I can't see it with my own two eyes, it doesn't exist.

As you might have guessed, the play is crammed full of scientific details about how dinosaurs of the late Cretaceous Period lived--and the impact that the asteroid had on the earth. For this reason, I hope to offer teachers a free study guide that reviews these facts and poses questions for classroom discussion. Brooklyn Publishers is considering that suggestion now. Stay tuned.

Climate change isn't going to be solved piecemeal. We, the citizens of the world, have to work together to make fundamental changes to our way of life.

That's why this play is the most important one I've ever written. No, it's not going to change the world. It may not even change any minds. But maybe, just maybe, it will some young person think about things in a different way.

At least now it will get that chance.

Friday, July 7, 2023

Belmont diary: The story takes shape

The biggest challenge in fulfilling a play commission is balancing the needs of the school with the needs of the story. Anyone who's ever written a play, a book, a screenplay--anything fictional, really--is familiar with that point when the characters come to life on the page and start hijacking the story for their own purposes.

That's when the writing is fun, when the characters take on a life of their own and tell you where they want the story to go. But that's not always where the school or other commissioning body wants it to go.

What's Opera, Doc?

I'm at that point with my latest commission, the backstage comedy I'm writing for Belmont Day School. As I explained in my previous post about the play, one of the requirements was that the play-within-a-play needed to have a magical/fantasy theme. But they also wanted it to include a swordfight. What would it be about?

Well, my first thought was a medieval-type fairy tale. There's a lot you can do with them. The problem is that they're overdone. And there's nothing inherently funny about them So I racked my brain a little more. Who has swords, believes in magic, and are inherently funny?

That's when the idea came to me. Vikings! They used massive broadswords, but they're still swords. I could easily include some sorcery or a dragon. And come on. Those horned hats? Hilarious! And, other than that Wagner opera that Bugs Bunny made fun of, there really hasn't been any stage musicals set in that long ago era.

So I ran my idea past Chris, the theater director who commissioned the play. And he ran it past the school's DEI director. And she responded that they would prefer that I not go in that direction as it could be interpreted as mocking Nordic people.

Which is true, and shows how carefully we have to tread to not single out any particular ethnic group for mockery. Although I thought in this case it might be acceptable because all those Andersens and Hansens and Larsens are often the first to make fun of their Viking forebears. (And I should know. I'm almost a quarter Nordic myself.)

A new idea

Chris responded with a suggestion of his own: aliens. Which I liked, except that aliens don't typically use swords. But someone they fought against might. And that led to my next brainstorm: Pirates vs. Aliens. Kind of like that 2012 movie Cowboys and Aliens.

The difference is that the movie, despite being based on an exceedingly silly premise, was presented in a serious, straightforward manner, whereas my Caribbean-set version will be very silly indeed.

Besides, pirates don't make fun of any particular ethnic group, do they?

I even came up with a fantastic title for that play within a play. But that'll have to wait for another blog post....

Stanislavsky who?

Another challenge with this commission is that the school is very specific about the number of lines per part. That's because they've already lined up their cast and asked each of the kids how many lines they want to have.

As it turns out, they asked for 11 large roles (50 lines or more), 17 medium roles (20 to 50 lines) and 7 small roles (fewer than 20 lines). But there has to be a total of 38-39 roles, so I need to add 4-5 roles to those categories.

The problem is that a well-written story can't have 11 heroes. You really need to center the story around a single protagonist who drives the narrative. Otherwise the audience will lose track of the goal and you'll lose any sense of forward momentum.

At least, that's what they tell you in screenwriting. In theater, however, you can cheat a little. Because, let's face it, theater audiences don't expect as tight a story as movie audiences do. By splitting the role among a trio of characters who created the musical (a composer, a lyricist, and a book writer), I can sort of have three protagonists. The director of the musical also has a major role, and by having him quit halfway through the story, I can justify bringing in a second director.

But the story can't be a mess either. Five protagonists is as far as I can stretch things. And those five will get the bulk of the lines, leaving fewer for the rest of the roles.

So what do I do? Simple. Build up those other roles so even if they're not big, they're entertaining to the audience and a whole lot of fun to play.

Well, maybe that's no simple. But that's part of the job. And one I look forward to tackling.

Saturday, June 24, 2023

Production news roundup

Summer's usually the dry season for me--both weatherwise here in the Blast Furnace of America and playwise around the country. With schools taking a two- to three-month break, the number of productions drops off dramatically.

But it can also be an exciting time. For summer is the season when community theaters often do their annual all-youth show, or give special outdoor performances in parks and other interesting places.

That's especially the case this year, as I'm getting a healthy number of productions in this sunniest of seasons and at least three of them got big write-ups in the local media.

Kiwi kraziness

The first is for a production of Madhouse! by Stratford High School in Stratford, New Zealand, where it's not summer but winter and schools are fully in session. 

Instead of a preview article, the Stratford Press gave the show a full-blown review and it was an all-thumbs-up rave. Writer Ilona Hanne sends a nice compliment my way by describing the script as "a great read on its own," but saves her greatest praise (as she should) for the cast.

"With characters mainly aged over 18," she writes, "and a cast mainly under that, it's particularly impressive just how well the actors portray their characters, but in some cases actually draw their characters out to be much more than the lines alone allow for."

Which warms this old playwright's heart greatly, for I've always felt that theater is the most collaborative of the arts, and I count on the director, actors, and designers to put their own twist on the show and really make it their own. (The article also taught me a new Maori word.)

Iowa improv

Players Workshop Theater of Burlington, IA got an equally positive review from The Hawk Eye ("Iowa's Oldest Newspaper") for their production of The Enchanted Bookshop, which has become something of a staple for summer theaters.

Margie is of course the lead in that show, and the literary characters who come to life also play key roles in the story, but in this production it was none other than Margie's sassy cat Bombalurina who stole the show, "uttering only sighs, meows and so on", as writer Bob Saar puts it. In fact, Saar goes on to write that the best line in the play was Bombalurina's "perfect catlike response" to a request from Margie: "Nowww?"--a line that I didn't even write!

Saar offers one more note, a spoiler alert as he puts it. "You who are faint of heart may want to cover your eyes during the scene where the burglars tear pages out of real books. Ouch!"

I've read many, many reviews of The Enchanted Bookshop over the years, and it seems that nearly all theaters opt for a tamer take on the scene. Either the actors merely throw the books on the ground or they pull pre-torn sheets of paper out of the books.

I get it. As a book lover, it hurts me to see books damaged in this way (almost as much as it hurt to write this scene!). But for maximum emotional impact--and for hammering home just how precious books are--I urge producing groups to actually destroy the books. You can always buy already damaged books from thrift shops or library clearance sales.

Buckeye boldness

Finally, there's Thompson Square Community Theater of Thompson, OH, whose production of The Enchanted Bookshop got a nice preview article in the News-Herald.

Reporter Steve Couch took a different and very fun tack here, asking many of the cast members what they thought of their roles. My favorite quote came from Seri Buckner. “I enjoy playing Dorothy because she is pretty bossy and sassy in this show!” says the young actor. “My favorite scene is one where I get to yell at Robin Hood. I get to tell off a lot of people in the show.”

But it sounds like all of the kids in this show had a great time. As Breanna Toth, who plays Heidi, says, "I really hope the audience can see how hard we worked on this play but also see how much fun we had at the same time. This was such a fun play to work on and I really hope it shows to the audience."

It's not the sunny weather or the break from school or even the summer productions themselves that make this season so special. It's the attitude of kids like these, who give up their coveted time off to take to the stage and make magic happen.

A great big kudos to all you summertime (and in the southern hemisphere, wintertime) actors!

Tuesday, June 13, 2023

Belmont diary: We begin again

Loyal followers of this blog (all three of you) know that a couple of years ago, Belmont Day School in Belmont, MA commissioned me to write a play. Why commission a play at all? Well, it turned out they couldn't find any plays that met their DEI standards. They wanted the play to avoid gender-specific roles as much as possible and not include any gender, cultural, or racial stereotypes. 

Equally important was that the play had to be set in a creepy mansion feature meaningful roles for 40 students. Not big roles, necessarily, but meaty ones that really allowed the students to sink their teeth in.

What I came up with was It's a Madhouse!, a full/length comedy/mystery revolving around a race to find the hidden inheritance of a best-selling mystery author. It was published by Pioneer Drama Service last year and was a hit from the start, garnering 19 productions in just a few months. That success convinced Pioneer to publish a one-act adaptation so I cut the script's length from 80 to 60 minutes and the cast from that whopping 40 to 28. The much more succinctly titled Madhouse! has also been doing well, getting 7 productions.

So last week I was thrilled to hear from Christopher Parsons, the head of the school's theater department, with another commission offer. They again wanted a large cast play--38 to 39 parts--but this time they'd come up with a unique concept.

Essentially the play is to be a musical without songs. The idea is that the story needs to center around the performance of an original musical, either in Hollywood or on Broadway, but every time the performers open their mouths to sing, they get interrupted.

Now you may think that such strict requirements might squash creativity, but the opposite is usually the case. "Art consists in limitation." Or so G. K. Chesterton said.

This case was no different. My mind immediately stared buzzing with ideas. To me, the play had to be set during the rehearsal for a Broadway workshop performance. And I started brainstorming ideas as to what could cause the interruptions. One of my favorite ideas was having a construction team come in and interrupt the performance with their noisy and very annoying work.

It was a good idea. But not good enough. That's when my primary collaborator--also known as my wife Tammy--saved the day.

I mentioned the idea to her over dinner and she immediately came up with a tweak that made all the difference. Change the construction team to a demolition team that's preparing to dynamite the building the next day. Being a connoisseur of fine puns, Tammy also came up with the perfect title: Bringing Down the House.

I put a detailed synopsis together--including the efforts of an historical preservationist and several protesters to save the building--and sent it to Chris, who loved it. So I'm off and running. I've got until October 1 to complete the 80- to 90-page script, but I have no doubt I'll make it. If I ever get stuck, I can always pull in my collaborator.

AI, eat your heart out.

Wednesday, June 7, 2023

Why I quit Duolingo

After 1001 consecutive days--almost three years of studying--I quit Duolingo.

Okay, so it wasn't quite consecutive. Anyone who's used Duolingo long enough knows that after a certain number of lessons, they allow you to buy streak freezes. Break your streak for just a day or two and they'll keep it going the day after that.

Still, over the last three years, I think I've only used streak freezes three times. So yeah, that's a lot of studying.

I started with Spanish, but quickly switched over to my true lingua amata, Italian. It took me two years to complete all the lessons, which at the time was arranged in the shape of a tree (you could choose lessons from several units in the next level, but you had to complete a minimum number of lessons in any one level before moving on to the next). And then I went through the entire tree again to earn the Legendary trophy for each unit.

Meanwhile, I also played around with other languages, either because of earlier interest, as with German (I passed my fourth-year German class in college--just barely--and now remember almost none of it), or because of newly gained passions (Greek, French, Norwegian).

Dissing Duo

Duolingo gets slammed a lot. Some critics say its instructional format leads to poor retention of the language you're learning. That may be true, but then that's true of all language tools if you don't use them.

Others complain that the sentences are useless in practical situations. Who can forget Non so se lei abbia usato un coltello o una bottiglia. or, in English, I don't know whether she used a knife or a bottle (compared to the other languages, the Italian unit has a disturbingly large number of sentences like this). 

This is also true. But the point of learning a language isn't to memorize a list of common phrases that you think you'll use again and again. It's to learn how the language works and to be able to form sentences--any sentences--that you might need.

In praise of the owl

On the other hand, Duolingo doesn't get nearly enough credit for the things it does well. First of all, it's completely free. Yes, they hit you up for a paid membership, but its benefits are minimal and you can access every one of their languages and lessons without it and without any annoying advertising.

And let's admit it. Duolingo is a lot of fun. The short lessons, the gamified format, and yes, those goofy sentences, all lead to a truly enjoyable learning experience, one I looked forward to every day.

Finally, Duolingo is effective. After completing the Italian course, I found I was able to understand 30% of the written language (at least the simplified Italian of websites and blogs) and maybe 10% of the spoken language. Nowhere near fluent, but it was a start.

The competition

In comparison, Babbel is boring and repetitive, making you prove you've learned a single word or phrase through a seemingly endless array of exercises before moving onto new words or phrases (never to return again). Pimsleur only seems to care about how the pronounce the words. Rosetta Stone doesn't even offer a free trial.

Of all the competitors, the little-known Busuu is the closest to Duolingo in providing a fun, effective way to learn a language. The lessons are short, offer an interesting array of topics, and get you into real-life conversations quickly. And you can access 100% of their material for free--as long as you're willing to watch one brief video ad per unit.

The one drawback to the app is that it's fairly buggy. I guess sometimes you do get what you pay for. 

Test driving these other tools opened my eyes to one important and widely overlooked fact. Duolingo is the only major language tool that has you translate new, complete sentences into your target language. There are hundreds of them and they are repeated at random and infrequent intervals so that you can't rely on your short-term memory to recall them. You have to understand how the language works.

It's also the only tool that fully explains the grammar rules behind the sentences. And it's the only tool that provides forums where language learners can ask questions about vocabulary, grammar, and pronunciation and have hem answered by other learners as well as native speakers.

Scratch that...

Duolingo was the only tool that offered those last two benefits. But earlier in this year, they decided to drop their original lesson structure--in which you could choose which aspect of the language you wanted to study (e.g pronouns, adverbs, the past perfect tense)--to a single path from which you could not deviate and which scattered those specific aspects around in a seemingly haphazard fashion. They also grossly slimmed down most of their tutorials.

That's why I quit.

I don't know why they made those changes. I think they wanted to copy their competitors, but in doing so, they got rid of the things that made them better, and it made me mad. It made a lot of Duolingo loyalists mad. Some of them even started a petition in an attempt to force them to return to the previous format.

And a lot of of them, like me, quit.

Besides which, Duolingo is all about becoming minimally conversant in a large number of languages. It really doesn't provide the tools or the motivation to improve your competency in a particular language once you've completed its track. 

Well before I quit Duolingo, I'd spread out to other tools, and hose have enabled me to boost my reading and listening comprehension rates to 90% and 50%. Here are the best:

1) Coffee Break Languages Podcasts

There are a ton of language learning podcasts out there, but Coffee Break Languages is head and shoulders above the rest. What sets it apart is that it avoids the didactic approach of other podcasts, in which a single teacher recites phrases which you're expected to repeat and memorize.

Instead each 30-minute episode of this Scotland-based podcast is a conversation among three people: a language learner (Katy in the first season of the Italian podcast, Isla in the second), a teacher (native speaker Francesca), and a facilitator (Mark, the founder of Coffee Break Languages), who keeps things loose and very, very lively. They start from zero, with the learner knowing nothing about Italian, but soon has her--and you--participating in simple conversations.

Later seasons dump the learner and focus on Francesca and Mark, which allows them to cover more advanced topics (e.g. the dreaded subjunctive!).

Currently, Coffee Break offers just eight languages (the major European languages plus Mandarin and Gaelic), but their coverage of those languages is surprisingly deep. If you want, you can buy a full subscription to the website, which gives you access to a wealth of additional learning materials such as lesson notes and videos.

But if you're cheap like me and you opt out, you'll still learn a lot.

2) Instagram

One of the best things about social media is the huge number of native speakers in any language (and I do mean any language) who've been able to carve out a full-time gig for themselves teaching their language to others.

Some speak slowly so that beginning learners can practice their listening comprehension skills. Others speak faster to provide a challenge for more advanced learners. And almost all of them provide subtitles, although whether you want them in English or just your target language will depend on where you are in your own journey.

In Italian, my current favorites are Peratoons, a series of short, jokey animated cartoons, and BRAVO! Italian with Paola, in which the oh-so-charming host offers a humorous approach to some of the quirks of the Italian language.

Try a bunch of them. Like everything on Instagram, it's as easy to unfollow as it is to follow. And the more you do follow, the more will be recommended to you.

Many of the accounts also offer private online lessons for a moderate fee ($30 to $50 a month).

Of all the tools, these have helped me boost my listening comprehension the most.

3) Other podcasts

Now that I've caught up to the hundred and somethingth episode of Coffee Break Italian, I've branched out into other podcasts which are presented 100% in la bella lingua. Like the Instagram accounts, they cover a variety of topics of interest to language learners, but with their episodes running twenty to thirty minutes, they can cover a lot more ground and in a lot more detail.

Lately, I've been listening to Italian Con Amore on my drive to work because I find Eleonora, the host, extremely engaging as she covers a wide variety of topics, everything from coffee shop etiquette to Italian cinema, gardening in Italy to the country's constitution. My one complaint? She talks super fast!

(Hint: If you have problems understanding your favorite language learning podcast, just decrease the playback speed in your podcast app.)

4) Quizlet

At some point, you're going to understand all of the basic grammar rules of your target language, and the only way to become fully fluent is to learn new words. A lot of them. Like four or five thousand.

How can you do this quickly and (relatively) painlessly? With this flash card app. It's free, but it does bombard you with a lot of useless notifications.

I haven't signed up for the paid version, but this is one that may be worth it as it's relatively cheap ($3 a month) and gives you access to different games that promise to make learning even more fun.

Wrapping it up

So there you have it. Four ways to help you learn your favorite new language. And you don't even need to spend any money. All you really need is time and a strong enough passion for your target language so that you won't give up when the going gets tough. Because you know it will.

Stupid subjunctive.

UPDATE: On August 31, Duolingo updated many of the courses, adding new sentences throughout the path but in turn removing much of the progress students have made. In Italian, that had the effect of kicking me back to the end of 34 units out of 43. That could be frustrating, but it does mean I can start again from where it kicked me back, making the rest of the path seem fresh and new again. I'm excited!

I mean, sure a lot of the sentences are the same. But it never hurts to review a language you're learning (especially since I still get one or two sentences per unit wrong). And seeing the progress I make each day--in my knowledge of the language as well as in the little colored steps on the path--is a nice motivator.