Saturday, February 3, 2024

A gem of a school

I've been to Idaho three times in my life.

The first time was around 1975 when I would have been 12 years old. Back then, the highlight of my year was the two-week camping trip I would take with my family. Each spring, my dad would spread out one of those humongo gas station road maps on a card table in our living room and pick the state that would be our destination that summer.

Sometimes we headed north or east from our home in Wisconsin (a couple times we even went to Canada), but usually, like Horace Greeley's young man, we headed west. And that year our destination was the Gem State.

Most of that trip is a blur now, but I do remember two things. The first is that we stayed at Craters of the Moon National Monument, and I have to say, to my twelve-year-old eyes, the rugged rock formations really did make it look like we were visiting the moon.

The second thing I remember was the Idaho Spud candy bar that we picked up at the local grocery store. At the time I thought it was really made out of potatoes. It wasn't until I became an adult and somebody invented Google that I was able to figure out that it only looks like a potato. It's actually made out of marshmallow, chocolate, and coconut flakes.

The next time I visited the Gem State was in 1991, after I was fired from the Company Which Must Not Be Named and I was looking for a new job. Micron Technology brought me up from Austin, where we were living at the time, and to this day, it was the only interview trip in which the company paid for my wife Tammy to go as well.

The plant was in Boise, and although we liked the combination of small city atmosphere and easy access to mountains, by the end of my interview I knew the company wasn't for me. The company seemed to know it as well because they rejected me before I even left the building--the first, and last, time that's ever happened to me.

The third visit was this week, and I'm happy to say it was more memorable than the first trip and much more successful than the second. That's because I was there on special invitation of Adrian McCracken, the drama teacher at Hillcrest High School in Ammon, a suburb of Idaho Falls.

Adrian's students were performing my play The Last Radio Show and he wanted me to offer notes on their dress rehearsals. 

I couldn't wait. I'd directed the world premiere in 2016, but I hadn't seen it since so I was excited to see what another producing group would do with it.

There was just one problem. The trip was on February, and although I'd grown up in Wisconsin and spent over twenty years in Colorado, since moving to Phoenix seven years ago, I've gotten really wimpy weatherwise.

Maybe wimpy isn't the right word. I mean, I can handle 110 degrees days as well as anyone. It's the cold I don't like. A mid-winter blizzard was the last thing I wanted to deal with. 

I needn't have worried. When I arrived in Idaho Falls on Wednesday, the temperature was a balmy (for them) 42 degrees and stayed that warm for the rest of my visit. I commended Adrian on his masterful management of the weather, but he turned it around, crediting me with bringing the warm weather up from Arizona.

Either way, I'll take it.

I got in around 1pm, with the first rehearsal starting promptly at 5pm, so I had a few hours to check out the town and grab dinner. With a population of 67,000, Idaho Falls lacks a lot of the cultural things bigger cities have. But there are two things it has that Phoenix doesn't. A gorgeous river running right through the middle of it (the mighty Snake). And this cold white stuff that covers the ground in clumpy patches.

Weird.

When I finally stepped into the school's auditorium, I was blown away. It was huge, with a capacity of around 1800 and, as I was later to learn, top-notch lighting and sound systems. The set they'd come up was gorgeous, both lovingly detailed and period-appropriate. It was also much more spacious than the cramped set I'd designed for the world premiere. Excited, I took a seat about six rows back to watch the first dress rehearsal.

A strange thing happens when you see one of your own plays for the first time in eight years. You forget plot points. You forget scenes. You forget whole pages of dialogue. And you end up experiencing the play as though someone else had written it.

Which is both a blessing and a curse. A blessing because I got to enjoy the gags as if they were fresh and new. A curse because the weaknesses of the play were all too painfully obvious to me (none of which I will elaborate on here). But overall it was a useful experience because I could see how to improve my writing in the future. 

But that's not why I was there. I was there to help improve this production. So after I gave a disclaimed--that the director, not the playwright, is the boss--I offered my thoughts. 

Across the board, the kids were well-rehearsed and extremely talented. And several of them had a real sense of comedic timing or came up with hilarious bits of physical humor. The big thing they had to work on was their delivery. Too many of them rushed their dialogue or didn't enunciate or project enough, which made it difficult to understand what they were saying. But then that's a common problem for young actors.

The next day was a full one. It started with three hour-long workshops in the library. Attendance was heavy, with about 100 students and maybe a dozen teachers and administrators at each one.

My first workshop was Five Ways to Punch Up Your Writing, a workshop that I originally developed for the Colorado Thespian Conference in 2013. At that time, it focused on playwriting, but for this visit I expanded it to address all forms of fictional writing.

The second talk was The Hero's Journey, Or Why Star Wars and Legally Blonde Are Really the Same Movie. It's been my most popular talk at both the Colorado Thespian Conference and Arizona Thespian Festival, and it was no different here, with students eagerly participating in the discussion of the George Lucas blockbuster.

The energy of the audience dropped off dramatically, however, when we got to the Reese Witherspoon vehicle, and I got to the sense that most of the students never seen it or didn't remember much about it. Which is why I'm going to replace that film with one that's more contemporary and way more popular: Barbie.

My final workshop was A Playwright's Journey, Or 48 Years to Overnight Success. I originally developed it for my visit to Kansas's Wichita County High School back in 2016, but I've expanded it considerably for this visit, adding a ton of quotes, cartoons, and interactive slides.

After lunch with Adrian at Red Robin, it was back to the school for a couple of question and answer sessions. The first was with the technical theater students, the second was with the cast and crew of The Last Radio Show. Both were extremely lively, with the kids firing an endless barrage of questions at me and me doing my best to keep up. I even got to quiz them about some thoughts I had on my next play.

Dinner was a delicious chicken alfredo provided by one of the theater students, and then it was back to the stage for the second dress rehearsal.

The cast had made significant strides from the previous night, and I was pleased to see that they had taken at least some of my notes to heart. Some of the actors still needed to slow down a bit, but with one more week of rehearsals ahead of them, I had every confidence in the world that they would get there.

We finished at 8:30pm--exactly twelve hours after the start of my first workshop in the library. I said my goodbyes to Adrian and the kids, then headed back to my hotel room where I immediately collapsed on the bed.

It was a long day, and an exhausting one. But it was also one of the greatest, most satisfying, and most meaningful days of my life. And now I can't wait for my next school visit.

If you'd like to have me visit your school, I'm happy to provide a free, no-obligation quote. I charge $950 for a full day of workshops. Travel and accommodations are, of course, extra. 

If that's too pricey for you, I can also do Zoom sessions for $100 per hour.

Complete details can be found on my Work With Me page. Or email me at todd.wallinger@gmail.com.

I'm easy to work with. Even easier if candy is provided.

Monday, January 1, 2024

A look ahead to 2024


I've got to tell you, it's getting tougher and tougher to pick my goals for the new year. The problem (and I know it sounds like a first world one) is that I'm actually pretty happy with my life right now.

I eat healthy (not as much fish as I'd like--my wife hates the stuff and so refuses to make it--but I squeeze it in when I can). I meditate regularly, which has greatly reduced my stress levels. I'm getting my writing in every day. And, miracle of miracles, even my doctor is satisfied how much exercise I do.

But a big reason I got to this point is because I set goals for myself in the past. And so, if I want to continue to improve my career, my health, my quality of life, I've got to continue to challenge myself in all of those ways. So here we go:

1) Finish three plays

Of course, I've got to start with a writing goal. And this one is the most important one to keep my career on track (and my royalties growing!).

I'm almost my done with my latest play, a time travel comedy, which I'll tell you more about soon (don't touch that bat dial!). That gives me almost twelve months to finish two more plays.

Normally, it takes me about four months to write a play. Once I get going, that is. But I often struggle with the concept, beat myself up for a month or two while I try to make it work, then abandon it in a fit of boredom before moving on to another play. And that can waste a month or two in itself.

So I think finishing three plays is doable. I leave the next one for my stretch goal.

2) Publish three plays

Of course, the next step after writing a play is getting it published. And as I mentioned yesterday, I've got a head start on this goal because my climate change allegory The Real Reason Dinosaurs Went Extinct should be coming out any day now.

There's also Bringing Down the House, my commissioned play which I finished in October. I can't submit it to my publisher yet, but I will after I see the premiere in March and give it one final polish.

And then there's that time travel comedy, which I'll submit for publication as soon as I finish it. If these last two get accepted for publication, then I'll reach the goal even without counting the new plays I'll be writing. I could be aggressive and set the goal at four, but nah. I'll be very, very happy if these three (or any three) get published.

After all, it'll represent a 300% increase from last year.

3) Travel to Hawaii

I know, I know. I made this a goal last year and failed. But it's going to happen this year, ho'ohiki wau.

We've set the dates. We've lined up a sitter for Honey the Wonder Dog (our ever helpful daughter Brooke). And we'll be booking the hotel soon. All we have to do is a little more noi'i.

Of course, we do have other travel plans for the year. Tammy and I will be traveling with our daughter Ashley to support her at her ultra-marathons in Flagstaff and some rodent-inspired town in southern Utah. And we always try to visit SoCal at least once a year, either San Diego or Palm Springs/

But of course, Hawaii is the one we're most excited for (I'm even starting to learn Hawaiian, can you tell?). We can't let this trip slip away again.

4) Be more present

This is a big one. My mind is usually buzzing with so many things that I often fail to focus on what's right in front of me, whether that's a conversation with my family, a movie, or a particularly tasty dinner.

But if there's one thing I've learned from my meditation app over the last few years, it's this: The present moment is precious. It's sacred. And really, it's the only thing any of us really have. So I really need to work on this.

There's just one problem. When December 31 rolls around, how will I know if I've met this goal? There's no app to count how many minutes I've spent being present. No bathroom scale to measure my focus.

So all I can do, when I come to my year-end wrap-up, is be honest myself whether I truly made an effort to be present and whether I saw any improvements in my life as a result.

And now that I look back, I see that I'd made this a goal for myself just two years ago. I guess I would have remembered that if only I had, you know, focused.