Friday, June 14, 2024

George Washington Ate My Homework is now available!

For the first time in ten months, I have a new play out! George Washington Ate My Homework is my 23rd play to be published by Pioneer Drama Service and 25th play overall. For the full scoop, including a synopsis, script sample, and ordering info, please visit the play's web page.

I may have struggled when I first tackled the story, but I'm really happy with how it turned out. There's a lot of funny dialogue and as well as some high-energy action (particularly with the way Florence Nightingale dispatches two of the nastiest pirates ever to sail the seven seas).

But the play also teach students what makes historical figures like Cleopatra, Albert Einstein, and H.G. Wells so great. And have you ever heard of Dr. Grace Hopper? I hadn't when I started writing the play, but in doing my research, I discovered that much of our computer technology is due to this groundbreaking computer pioneer.

In this play, she gets her due.

Something else I learned about was how time travel theory has changed over the years (turns out Albert Einstein wasn't right about everything!) and how some scientists currently think it might work, if it ever does. 

I don't go into detail on this in the play, just enough to pique the interest of any budding scientists in the audience.

Anyway, take a look at it. I think you'll really like it.

You'll also learn a thing or two. I did.

Saturday, May 25, 2024

Belmont diary: Third time's a charm?


Just kidding with that blog title, of course. Because I feel like my first two at-bats with Belmont Day School went very well indeed.

Theater Director Christopher Parsons must feel that way too, because he just emailed me that the school has approved a third playwriting commission for me.

This one is different. Way different. Instead of a full-length for their seventh- and eight-graders, they're having me write a 20- to 25-minute one-act for their sixth graders. And while the first two plays required massive casts--like 38 to 40 actors--this one calls for a much more economical eight.

The set and plot requirements are particularly loose. The school had laid out very specific guidelines for what became It's a Madhouse! and Bringing Down the House, but for this one they're only asking that the set be minimal (no backdrops or complicated set pieces) and that the story be in the fairy tale or fantasy genre.

Ironically, though, that makes the writing tougher. The story requirements for the first two plays acted as writing prompts for me, and I only had to toss a few ideas around in my head (and at the dinner table) before I was able to break the story.

Not here. Fairy tales present an extremely large canvas. Do I write an original one or a parody? If it's a parody, do I base it on a well-known story, a more obscure one (hello, "Hans-My-Hedgehog"), or a mishmash of several of them? And which ones do I choose?

Another challenge is related to the reason Belmont Day School hired me in the first place. DEIB goals are a big deal for them, as they should be for everyone, and in the past, Chris had difficulty finding plays that met those goals.

So they're a big deal on this play as well. There can't be any gender, racial, or cultural stereotypes. But the classic fairy tales are built on stereotypes. You've got the brave prince. The helpless princess. The foolish peasant. And on and on.

Well, I've got to figure out a way to subvert all those. Or maybe not subvert them, because even playing with them can reinforce them in a way. No, what I have to do is bypass them entirely.  

Oh, there's one other difference with this commission that I should mention. The school won't be giving the play a full production. They'll only be using the script in class to practice their performance skills. This frees me up to submit the play to my publisher as soon as it's written (it should be completed by the end of August).

So that's good. But if I ever want the play to get a full production, I'll need to make it work for a broad spectrum of schools and theater companies, maybe even as a competition piece. 

Whew. This is going to be a toughie. But that's okay. I love a good toughie. 

If you'd like to hire me to write a play for your school or theater company, you can find all the deets on my Work With Me page.

I look forward to collaborating with you!

Tuesday, May 21, 2024

Kill the Critic! to be published

A couple of years ago, when I learned that my old-time radio comedy, The Last Radio Show, was going to be published, I mentioned in a post that it had been a long time coming. And it was. Five and a half years long, to be exact, from world premiere to publication offer.

Well, it turned out that was nothing. Heuer Publishing has just accepted my backstage farce Kill the Critic! for publication, one month short of eleven years from world premiere to that glorious, glorious publication offer.

A long and winding road

To tell you the truth, I'd given up on the play a long time ago. And that hurt. Because the original response to it was nothing short of phenomenal. 

I'd produced the world premiere at a small performing arts center in Palmer Lake, CO, with my friend Nancy Holaday directing. I was nervous at first because I didn't know what I had. But the audience loved it. The laughter was constant, the applause was enthusiastic, and the comments from the audience afterward were overwhelmingly positive.

I had a soft spot for that production for another reason as well. My daughter Brooke played the ditzy debutante Melanie Monzoni in that production (that's her on the left in the photo at the bottom of this post), and the feedback on her performance was just as positive as it was for the show itself. Some people even told me they thought she stole the show. As a proud papa, of course, I had to agree.

The play went on to get a staged reading that year at the McLaren Comedy Festival in Midland, TX, coming in a close second in their play competition. It also came in second in that year's Robert J. Pickering Award for Playwriting Excellence.


Do the hustle

With high hopes for success, I pushed it hard, submitting the script to as many theaters, contests, and publishers as I could find. In 2015, it got its second production with the Stage Presence Players in Austin, TX.

Tennessee Stage Company expressed an interest in producing it, but when they found out they would not get the world premiere, they quickly lost that interest.

The play reached its high water mark in 2016 with a staged reading at Theatre of Note in Hollywood, CA, which remains one of only two performances I've ever had by a professional theater company.

And then it just kind of... died. No other theaters wanted to produce it. The play didn't place in any other contests. And every publisher I submitted it to rejected it.

I understand why my regular publisher, Pioneer Drama Service, gave it a thumbs-down. The play is much too risque and dark for their catalog. But I don't understand why publishers like Playscripts and Dramatic Publishing weren't interested.

So I shoved the script in a drawer (or, to be more precise, a folder on my laptop) and forgot about it.


Back to life

But the play kept tugging at the back of my mind. It was, after all, The One That Got Away.

I have three other full-length plays that have never been published, but they don't bother me because they hadn't had such an auspicious start. And Kill the Critic! is funny. Like really funny. It's my one true farce, with mistaken identity and sexual innuendo and lots of doors slamming and opening and slamming shut again.

In fact, now that I think about it, it may be my funniest play. The Last Radio Show has, I think, the wittiest dialogue. It's a Madhouse! features the most over-the-top characters. But only Kill the Critic! has the constant, outrageous physical comedy that audiences love.

So I returned to it late last year, racking my brain once more to figure out where else I could send it. And in checking my submission log, I realized that for some reason (undoubtedly a stupid oversight on my part), I'd never submitted it to Heuer Publishing.

Which is weird. They already publish The Last Radio Show, and their sister company Brooklyn Publishers publishes my Hollywood mystery Lights! Camera! Murder! (they're releasing my kid's climate change comedy The Real Reason Dinosaurs Went Extinct later this year). And both publishers go a little darker than Pioneer. It was a perfect fit.

So I sent off it off to Heuer in September. And today, I got the word that they're going to publish it

Sweet, sweet success.

I guess if there's a lesson in all of this, it's to never give up. If you really believe your work is good, and it has received a lot of positive feedback, keep pushing it. If it's meant to find a home, it will.

But it might be a long wait.


Curtain up

And so, for the first time ever on this blog, I now share a scene from Kill the Critic! It's the opening scene, and I like it because it gets right into the action, setting up the premise and showing us the contrasting personalities of the two leads. 

ACT ONE

Lights up. BERTRAM enters, his hands tied behind his back, a wastebasket over his head. TREVOR enters behind him holding a knife.

TREVOR: Don't move. (Locks the dressing room door.) Now where can I put him? I know. The bathroom. (Peers into the bathroom.) No. I might need to use this. (Closes the door.) How about the broom closet? (Looks inside, picks up a dead rat off the floor.) Yeesh! I wouldn't put a dead man in there. (Tosses the rat back in and shuts the door.) Aha! The wardrobe! (Throws open the wardrobe. It's crammed with old costumes. He tries to grab them up in one armful, but the knife gets in the way. He switches the knife to the other hand and tries again. Big surprise. The knife is still in the way. Finally, TREVOR has a brainstorm. He places the knife between his teeth—and immediately cuts his lip.) Ouch! (Touches at his mouth, sees blood.) Damn it! And on the night of my Broadway debut!

(TREVOR goes to the mirror to look at his wound. Tired of waiting, BERTRAM shakes his head until the wastebasket falls off.)

BERTRAM: Stanton. I should have known it was you.

TREVOR: Put that back on!

BERTRAM: You can't even play a kidnapper convincingly.

TREVOR: I said put that back on!

BERTRAM: I'll bet that's a stage knife too. 

TREVOR: What, this? No, I just cut myself with it.

BERTRAM: Well, you bleed like a real actor.

TREVOR: Thanks— (Pause) Now cut that out! That's exactly why I'm doing this! 

BERTRAM: You don't appreciate my wit?

TREVOR: Yes. I mean no. I mean, that's not wit. That's just the same venom you write your reviews with.

BERTRAM: Good actors don't read reviews.

TREVOR: They read you.

BERTRAM: Yes. Well, that's one of the advantages of being the most powerful theatre critic in New York. So how are you going to do me in?

TREVOR: What?

BERTRAM: The method. The means of execution, man. Strangulation, perhaps? A quick blow to the head? Wait. I know. You're going to subject me to a soliloquy. 

Want more? Then be sure to visit the New Play Exchange for the full synopsis, cast list, and a 20-page sample. 

Tuesday, May 14, 2024

Belmont diary: Bringing Down the House to be published

Great news! I just received a contract from Pioneer Drama Service for my backstage comedy, Bringing Down the House. You know what that means. It's going to be published! For those keeping score at home, this is my 24th play with Pioneer and 27th play overall.

I've said so much about the development of this play already that I don't know what else to say except I couldn't be happier. This far into my playwriting career, I'm still extremely grateful for every single publication.

Especially this one. Sure, it had a couple of advantages going for it. First, it was written on commission, so I knew that it met at least one school's needs. And second, it has been through the grind of a rehearsal and production cycle, allowing me to work out the bugs before submitting the script to Pioneer.

But still, it's a bit of an oddball. It's my first play with a swordfight, except that it actually has two, one with actual swords, one with protest signs and sledgehammers (plastic, of course). It's also my first play with a dance number, although I leave the music and choreography entirely up to you.

So yeah, I took some big swings with this one, but I think it paid off. This is one of my funniest plays by far. And every one of the 38--count 'em 38!--actors in the show will not only get a laugh but a meaty role to bite into.

I shared a scene a few months ago when I finished the final draft. That scene, however, was from the middle of the play, so let me now entice you with the opening scene.

ACT ONE

AT RISE: The Edgar Street Theatre, morning. JERRY, DALE, MERLE, and HARLEY ENTER LEFT carrying four crates to add to the four already onstage. JERRY and DALE set their crates down.

JERRY: All right. I think that's the last of the dynamite.

DALE: Wow. Eight crates. Are you sure we need this much?

JERRY: Of course, we need it. We're not doing a fireworks show here. We're bringing down this building!

DALE: Fireworks show! Ha ha! Oh, Jerry! You kill me! You really kill me!

MERLE (Sets his crate down gently.): Slowly... slowly... (HARLEY sets his crate down with a crash.)

JERRY: Harley! Be careful with that!

HARLEY: But it's heavy!

JERRY: I don't care if it's heavy. Don't you remember your training?

MERLE: How could he remember it? He slept through it.

HARLEY (Remembers fondly.): Best nap I ever had.

JERRY: Yeah, well, you need to start using that brain of yours. Dynamite is dangerous. The slightest movement can set it off.

HARLEY: Oh, right, right. Now I remember.

JERRY: Good. Now let's go get our tools so we can start drilling the holes for the dynamite in these columns.

MERLE: Wait. You mean we're just going to leave the dynamite here?

JERRY: What's the big deal? We're coming right back.

MERLE: I know, but what if someone comes in here and jostles the crates around?

JERRY: Who's going to do that? Nobody's used this building for years.

MERLE: Well, I still think it's dangerous.

JERRY: Oh, yeah? Well, you think too much.

DALE: Hey, Harley! Did you hear that? Jerry says Merle thinks too much and you don't think enough. Maybe if you put your brains together, you'd think the right amount!

JERRY: And you talk too much.

DALE: Aw, come on, Jerry. I was just appreciatin' your humor.

JERRY: Yeah? Well, don't. (JERRY, DALE, MERLE, and HARLEY EXIT LEFT.)

If you want to see more, including the synopsis, cast breakdown, and a 20-page sample, you can visit the play's page on the New Play Exchange.

I guarantee you'll get a real "bang" out of it.

Monday, May 13, 2024

My 13th year sales


When I set out to write this post, I was going to use the word "gangbusters" to describe how this theater season went for me. But then I went back to look at what I wrote last year and realized I'd used that same word then.

So what word is stronger than gangbusters? Stellar? Dynamite? Fantabulous? Nifty?

Okay, so maybe my favorite thesaurus app throws in a few clunkers. The point is you can pick any one of those words and they wouldn't do justice to how successful this year was for me. Here are just three of the highlights.

I had a total of 420 productions, 16% more than my previous record of 362, set all the way back in that pre-COVID year of 2019. 

My royalties were an impressive 44% higher than my previous record, which was set just last year and which I'm definitely not getting to share here (sorry!).

I also added three new amazing countries to my life list, making a grand total of 24 (still no South America though!).

The top five

The Enchanted Bookshop was my best-selling play for the seventh year in a row, with a whopping 109 productions. That's the most it's had since 2020 (actually, the 2019-2020 season, with the tail end of that season being clipped due to COVID-related theater closures). While most of my plays drop 50% or more within three years, this play has shown incredible staying power. In fact, its production count has dropped only 30% in five years and had held pretty steady the last two years. Besides that, the play got me my 22nd and 23rd countries this year with productions in Abuja, Nigeria and Jakarta, Indonesia. And did I mentioned it already has 43 productions booked for next year? Wowzuh!

It Happened on Route 66 was my second best-selling play with 57 productions, this being its first full year of relief. And that's a whole story in itself. For years after writing The Enchanted Bookshop, I've been trying to replicate its success, but my subsequent eight plays received only a small fraction of that play's productions. Then along came this love letter to the Mother Road, proving that a completely different story--if it's the right story--can get halfway there.

If the success of It Happened on Route 66 was a pleasant surprise, the numbers for It's a Madhouse! were an even bigger surprise. This crazy treasure hunt farce got an impressive 41 productions this year (again its first full year), making it my third-place play. But if you combine that number with the 33 productions received by Madhouse!--its one-act version and my fourth-place play--you get a total of 74 productions--almost Enchanted Bookshop levels. And the royalties for this one-two punch were 82% of the those that my top-earning play received.

Two new hit plays in one year? I'll take it.

With 24 productions, fifth place goes to my coffee shop comedy, Whole Latte Love. This was the play's first full-year as well, but it was down a bit from the 28 productions it got the year before, mostly because that year was practically a full year. It's too early to know for sure, but I expect that this love-filled play will continue to pull healthy numbers over the next few years.

But wait, there's more

Further down the list, I have to give a shout-out to my restaurant farce Million Dollar Meatballs, which has been going strong for nine years now. And by strong, I mean it has gotten 20 or more productions every year except for the two COVID-affected years. As Adam Sandler would say, not too shabby.

I was kind of blown away by this one, but An Enchanted Bookshop Christmas is defying the play-aging odds. This was its fourth year of publication and it somehow managed to earn more royalties this year than it did in any of its previous three years. Like 50% more. This has never happened to me before. A little elfin magic? I have to wonder...

Finally, I have to mention my collection of driver's ed skits, You're Driving Me Crazy!, which, like Million Dollar Meatballs, continues to receive 20 or more productions a year in this, its ninth year. Even more amazing, this year the play got me my 24th country, with a production in Rzeszow, Poland. 

The big question

I've been racking my head lately, trying to figure out why my last four plays have done so well. In last year's wrap-up, I suggested that it may be because I've been concentrating more on single-set, contemporary plays. I'm sure that's helped, but it doesn't explain why my cat inheritance comedy, The Purrfect Crime, has never done super well.

Then I realized that all four plays came after my two-year hiatus from writing plays to try to break into novels and screenplays. How did that go? Not well.

But maybe I learned something in those two years. I spent so much of that time studying the Hero's Journey and learning to apply those lessons to my novels and screenplays that my plays may have benefited as well. I feel like they're stronger now. Tighter. More character-driven.

I know they have a lot more heart.

Anyway, I want to thank all of the schools and theater companies who performed my plays this year. I love you all!

And if you enjoyed my current plays, just wait. There's more great stuff right around the corner. Stay tuned!

Saturday, May 11, 2024

Finding Winona

Setting has always been of the utmost important to me. Often, the germ of an idea for a new play comes not from the plot or a character, but from the setting, whether that setting is a creepy mansion, a failing French restaurant, or a bookshop.

So I suppose it's ironic that the setting of my plays rarely includes a specific city.

Location, Location, Location

It Happened on Route 66 is the big exception. From the get-go, that play has been about capturing a specific time and place, so when I first sat down to write it, it was important to me to set it in a real town along the Mother Road and to bring that town to life through the specificity of the dialogue and the richness of the characters.

During my initial brainstorming, I considered several small towns along that fabled highway. Tulsa. Amarillo. Flagstaff.

But when I remembered that famous line from the song "Get Your Kicks on Route 66," I knew that Winona, Arizona had to be it.

Route 66 Trivia: Being east of Flagstaff, Winona is the only town that's out of order going east to west in that song.

It didn't hurt that I've lived in Arizona for the last seven years so I already knew what small Arizona towns are like. However, I've never been to Winona itself.

Until today.

My wife and I were in Flagstaff to cheer on our daughter in her first 38-mile ultra-marathon, and the day after the race, as we headed back to Phoenix, I managed to talk them into buzzing through the tiny town. After all, it's only 13 miles east of Flagstaff--a quick jaunt, no?

I wanted to see how close modern-day Winona was to the quaint roadside town of my imagination. I especially wanted to see if there was actually a diner there. And could it possibly be named Ookie's?

Gettin' My Kicks


I've always loved Route 66 towns. Tulsa makes a big deal about being the birthplace of the highway, apparently because the guy who first pushed for it came from there, and I remember taking a picture of a big Route 66 sign on one of the bridges over the road downtown.

Not the largest Route 66 sign in the country.

Flagstaff is pretty much built along the old highway, with many Route 66-themed burger joints and other restaurants stretched along its length.

But my favorite Route 66 town has to be Williams, Arizona. We spent a weekend there a couple of years ago and absolutely loved it. That town, by the way, calls itself the Gateway to the Grand Canyon, even though it's 54 miles away from that big hole in the ground. But there's no bigger town closer to the canyon, so I guess they can get away with it.
Route 66 Trivia: Williams was the last town on Route 66 to be bypassed by Interstate 40.
What I love about Williams is that even though it's pretty small, it really crackles with life. And that's due its ties to the Main Street of America.

The main drag is lined with neon signs that hark back to the time when Route 66 was in its heyday. And it seems that every other shop in town sells some kind of Route 66 memorabilia. But the town also has some great restaurants and brewpubs, and a killer view of an extinct volcano named Bill Williams Mountain to the south.

Prices are cheap in Williams.

So I had high hopes for Winona. The town had lived and died by its connected to that legendary highway so I figured there would still be a lot of remnants from its glorious past.

My pre-trip research held promise. It revealed that a gas station named the Winona Trading Post had been built along Route 66 in the late 1940's. It was the main business in town back then, and--miracle of miracles--it's still in operation today in the same sand-colored, cinder block building. What's more, a photo of an old postcard I found online showed that the sign on the store boasted a cafe.

I had my diner!

What once was.


An inconvenient truth


I'm not embarrassed to tell you that my heart was racing a little as we pulled off I-40 onto the frontage road that led to the gas station.

That's when it saw it. The cafe sign was gone. There was no diner anymore. The building had been turned into a convenience store.

Let me correct that. An extremely tacky convenience store.

Smiling on the outside. Crying on the inside.

Of course, they had some cheap little Route 66 trinkets for sale. There was even a little exhibit of historical items from the road on display. But sadly, no sign of the cafe itself.

Still, I stood in that store for a few minutes and tried to imagine the millions of travelers who'd passed through the cafe over the years. Who were they? What were their stories? And did they ever order the all-you-can-eat special?

I went outside and looked around. I smiled to see that there was a garage next to the store. I later learned it had been built in the late 1940's or early 1950's so my play wasn't completely accurate when it said that the nearest garage was in Flagstaff. But I thought it funny that there was a tow truck out front, just like the one from Ed's Towing that Sally told Lovey was getting repaired.

Looks fine to me.


As for the rest of the town, it mostly consists of a few dozen houses scattered over the foothills to the north (Winona has never been incorporated so I have no idea what the population is). But I instantly recognized one sight that loomed over the town like a dark cloud on the horizon.

It was the Darling Cinder Pit Mine, which Sally referred to as the largest cinder pit mine in the country. When I got back home, I went online to reconfirm this fact. Turns out it's actually just the largest cinder pit mine in the state--and might not have even held that title in 1955, when the play was set.

Clearly, Sally got some bad info.

Not the largest cinder pit mine in the country.

After taking a few pictures, I climbed back into our car and we headed home.

Final thoughts


Was I sad that I didn't get to see the cafe where It Happened on Route 66 might have happened? Sure. But then so much of that once-vital highway has been lost to time, I shouldn't have been surprised. And I wasn't.

Still, I'm happy I went, if only to get a sense of what might have been. I'm even happier to see how popular the play has been with schools and community theaters. The sets I've seen photos of do a fantastic job of bringing to life the diner I'd hoped I'd see. And in this way, on stages all across the country, Ookie's Diner remains open for business.

May it never close.

Wednesday, April 17, 2024

Crazy in the Great White North

One of the things I like best about being a playwright for the amateur market--mostly schools and community theaters--is the amazing places where you get to be produced.

If I wrote for professional markets, I'd get produced in New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, maybe a few of the regional theater hubs like Minneapolis and Seattle. And that would be it.

Well, I've been produced in all of those cities. But I've also been produced in quaint little hamlets with fantastic names.

Like Farmers Branch, TX.

Soap Lake, WA.

Knysna, South Africa.

Angels Camp, CA.

Punxsatawney, PA (of groundhog fame).

Locust Grove, OK.

Soddy-Daisy, TN.

Marceline, MO (boyhood home of my childhood hero Walt Disney).

Sadly, I've never had a production in my own fantastically named hometown of Beaver Dam, WI. But if I ever do, you can bet you'll hear about it here.

Anyway, now I can add one more amazing place to the list. The school district in faraway Inuvik, Northwest Territories will be performing You're Driving Me Crazy! at the end of this month.

I find this fascinating for several reasons.

It's my first production in the Northwest Territories, leaving the Yukon as the only Canadian province-slash-territory where I haven't been produced.

It's my first production in the Arctic Circle.

It's also my furthest north production. Four years ago, I had posted about a production of The Enchanted Bookshop Musical at an elementary school in Iqaluit, Nunavut. That was pretty far north, but not as north. 

Inuvik is so far north, it enjoys 56 days of 24-hour sunlight in the summer and 30 days of 24-hour darkness in the winter. The coldest temperature ever recorded there is -70 degrees F, although the average daily high is -9 degrees F in January and a balmy 67 degrees F in July.

The town has a population of 3137, predominantly Inuit. And it offers plenty of watery recreation as it's located on the enormous delta where the Mackenzie River empties in the Arctic Sea.

Unfortunately, I can't find any information about my particular production. That often happens when a school district rather than a particular school licenses the play. But I feel honored that they've selected You're Driving Me Crazy! and I wish the cast and crew broken legs all around.

Oh, and just for fun, I did a quick check to see where my other compass extremes have been. Here are those:

Southernmost Production: Eight--count 'em, eight!--different shows at my friend Gemma's wonderful performing arts school Standouts in Wellington, New Zealand.

Easternmost Production: How I Met Your Mummy at Te Puke High School in Te Puke, New Zealand--just 314 miles north and east of Wellington.

Westernmost Production: You're Virtually Driving Me Crazy! by Hana Arts in Hana, Hawaii (on the island of Maui).

Can you tell I'm a geography nerd?

Wednesday, April 10, 2024

Pioneer's photo contest is back

Got some great production photos you'd love to share? Want a chance to win up to $250 in Pioneer Drama Service materials and royalties? Well, now you can combine both by entering Pioneer's annual photo contest.

The rules are simple. Email up to five photos to PhotoContest@PioneerDrama.com with the name of the play or musical, name and location of the producing group, and name of the director.

And yeah, the photo above is the kind of thing they're looking for: great set, colorful costumes, lively action, and fun facial expressions. 

Of course, the show has to be from Pioneer and must have been performed in 2023 or 2024. The deadline for entries is May 10, with the winner and two runners-up (each winning $100 in Pioneer stuff) being announced on May 21.

The really cool part? The winning photo will be featured in Pioneer's next catalog! You know your actors are going to love that. 

But don't take my word for it. Get all the deets by reading Pioneer's latest newsletter . And start sifting through those awesome production photos today!

Friday, March 29, 2024

Belmont Diary: To Life!

Four hours to rehearse and mount a brand new musical? No problem!

So I received the final feedback from Christopher Parsons, who directed the world premiere of Bringing Down the House (for a synopsis, cast info, and 20-page sample, click here), and I was glad to see that his recommendations for improving the play were fairly minor. In fact, he had just four: two about adding more one-liners for certain characters, one about shortening a serious scene, and one about the handling of the dynamite crates.

I also went through the script a few more times myself--the first time I'd looked at it since I sent it to Chris back in October. This time away was immensely helpful, as it allowed me to look at the play with brand new eyes. And made it painfully clear what needed to be fixed.

I was relentless in my edits. I beefed up the humor. I trimmed the fat. And I was surprised to find one embarrassing error in which one of the characters couldn't be where I said she was because she'd previously exited from the opposite side of the stage. That forced me to rethink her whole movement and I ended up adding a brief little scene with her that's not only funny but should really boost the tension as we head into the third act.

Protesters battle the demolition crew for control of the stage.

I'm really, really happy with the script now, which is why I submitted it to Pioneer yesterday. But what made me even happier than finishing the script was receiving over 100 photos from the show (111 to be exact) and seeing the fantastic set Chris and his team came up with.

I wrote the play so that only the barest of sets is necessary, making it easier for cash-strapped schools and community theaters to produce. Since the entire play revolves around the rehearsal for a musical, all you really need is a stage, a table, a chair, and a couple of building columns that the demolition crew prepare to drill into for the dynamite (no holes are actually drilled).

Narcissistic movie star Yvonne stops the show (quite literally).

I got the idea from a production of Gypsy I'd seen years ago at the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center. They used tables and chairs as needed for some of the scenes, but there was no backdrop. The whole show was performed on a bare stage so that the cinder block wall at the back of the theater--which I'd never seen before--served as the backdrop. It was one of the coolest sets I'd ever seen, and it really punched up the theatrical feel of the show. We weren't just watching a musical. We were IN a musical. 

You can easily do the same kind of thing with Bringing Down the House.

Assistant director Robin learns that "the Twizzlers are everything."

Of course, if you're feeling creative, you can build a theatrically-inspired set, adding whatever random  stage detritus you can throw together for authenticity. And that's exactly what the Belmont folks did, building a faux brick back drop to make the set really look like an old, abandoned theater in lower Manhattan, which you can see in these colorful photos.

Anyway, it's a beautiful set. And I'm thrilled that the play has finally been brought to life and that it was received so well.

A great big kudos to everyone at Belmont Day School and especially co-directors Christopher Parsons and Susan Dempsey for a job fantastically done.

Let's make this a regular thing, shall we?

Every good musical needs a kick line.

Wednesday, March 27, 2024

Chi-town Bookshop sends a message

J Shuman Photography

It's not often one of my plays gets mentioned in a major newspaper like the Chicago Tribune.

Okay, it had never happened before. But it has now.

The Kirk Players of Mundelein, IL, who I posted about three weeks ago, are back in the news with their upcoming performance of The Enchanted Bookshop (April 5-7 at Mundelein High School). Although it's billed as their annual children's show, it features a mixed cast, with 15 roles played by kids and 8 by adults. But first-time director Nat Brautigam is quick to point out that the show isn't just for kids.

"There are new things that I find every night in rehearsal that get a laugh out of me and make me really invested," he said. "It's the actors, it's the story, it's the kids. It's so beautiful."

As for the message of the play, it couldn't be simpler. "Read a book," says Brautigam. "Find your next adventure there and bring the characters to life in your home."

I couldn't have said it better myself. To read the whole article, click here. Better yet, if you're in the Chicago area, check out what is sure to be a magical production.

In all its beauty.

Sunday, March 10, 2024

Chi-town Bookshop makes reading fun

 

When I lead workshops at schools or theater conferences, one of the most common questions I get is: Which of your plays is your favorite? I'm not the first writer to say that choosing a favorite play or novel or story is like choosing a favorite child. You just can't do it.

And that's what I tell them.

But they never let me off the hook, so I usually turn the answer around to something like: This is what I like about some of my plays.

I truly believe The Last Radio Show is my funniest play, especially with the way the skits-within-the-play capture the rapid-fire cadence of those old-time radio shows.

Million Dollar Meatballs is a perennial favorite of producing groups, remaining as popular today as it was when it was first published nine years ago, and has the best physical humor of any of my plays.

I'm really happy with how my latest play, It Happened on Route 66, turned out. While it has a similar humor to my other plays, this 1950's-set comedy adds layers of romance and nostalgia that seems to hit a sweet spot with audiences.

And of course I have a special fondness for The Enchanted Bookshop. Not just because it's my best-selling play, but because schools and community theaters have found a ton of creative ways to use their production to encourage kids to read.

Some theaters give a free book to each child in the audience. Others encourage kids to attend the play dressed as their favorite book character. Still others have characters from the plays read books to the kids, either before the show or in on online promo.

The Kirk Players of Mundelein, IL have found yet another way to make reading fun.

This long-running community theater (58 years and counting!) is performing the show April 5-7, and to encourage kids in their community to read, they're holding a drawing for two free tickets to the show. To enter the drawing, kids need to read one of the books referred to in The Enchanted Bookshop and comment on the theater company's Facebook page as to what they liked about the book.

That's a lot of books to choose from. For those keeping score at home, these are the books on that list:

The Merry Adventures of Robin Hood

The Adventures of Tom Sawyer

The Wonderful Wizard of Oz

Heidi

Pollyanna

Oliver Twist

Treasure Island

Doctor Doolittle

Alice's Adventures in Wonderland

Frankenstein

Hopalong Cassidy

White Fang

Moby Dick

Robinson Crusoe

Little Women

The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes

Crime Never Pays

20,000 Years in Sing Sing

Mary Poppins

Don Quixote

Gone with the Wind

Not all of these books have characters in the play, of course. Some, like Moby Dick and Don Quixote, are only mentioned in passing (although the Don Quixote character does play a major role in my lighthearted prequel, How to Enchant a Bookshop).

Anyway, I love the idea of this drawing. I'm sure it'll motivate a lot of kids to read, although there's at least book on this list that I hope no kid picks up.

It could really be a slog.

Saturday, March 9, 2024

Belmont diary: Another Op'nin', Another Show


What could possibly beat the excitement of an opening night?

How about the excitement of an opening night for a brand new play?

That was the case for me yesterday as Belmont Day School in Belmont, MA premiered the play that they commissioned from me, Bringing Down the House. I wasn't able to attend, but director Christopher Parsons filled me on the deets. 

"The performance went off with a hitch," Chris said in his email, "and I'm thrilled to report that everyone thoroughly enjoyed the show. The cast delivered outstanding performances, and the audience response was overwhelmingly positive."

With a report like that, I couldn't be happier.

Of course, the play isn't perfect. No play is right out of the gate. But Chris will be sending me his recommendations for improving the play over the next few days--based on his rehearsing it and performing it and basically living with it for the last five months--and that'll allow me to give the script one final polish before submitting it to Pioneer.

By the way, that "an explosive comedy" in the poster isn't mine, but I kind of love it. Going to have to work that into the blurb.

Friday, February 23, 2024

Sign of support

I think every playwright dreams of seeing their name in lights. Maybe that's silly. Few theaters outside of Broadway even have lighted marquees, and those that do usually just display the title of the play.

And that's fine. I mean, seriously, how many of us amateur-theater playwrights are famous enough that our names can sell tickets?

Pretty much none, I'd say.

But still we can dream, can't we?

Well, that dream became a kind of reality for me this week when I came across this photo in my Facebook feed. Greenwood Little Theatre of Greenwood, MS is producing The Enchanted Bookshop next month, and to promote it, they took out an entire billboard.

Sure, my name is pretty small. In fact, you may not even be able to read it in the picture. But still, it's up there, hanging high above the tree-lined streets of Greenwood.

And besides, it's not about the playwright or even the play. It's about the people putting on the play. And that is one serious sign of support for a community theater that has survived and thrived for 68 years (second longest-running theater in the state!).

Well done, guys. I hope you sell a ton of tickets,

Friday, February 9, 2024

George Washington Ate My Homework to be published

I have a file in my playwriting folder titled "Story Ideas." It's where I dump all the plots I've come up but haven't been able to break just yet.

Whenever I finish a play, I go through the file again to see if any of those old ideas click.

Filed away

Whole Latte Love spent a couple of years in that file. It started out as a You've Got Mail wannabe, with a large unnamed coffee chain trying to put a smaller shop out of business. I played around with that concept for a long time, but I still couldn't break the story.

Then I thought maybe it would serve a magical coffee. That didn't help either, because I couldn't decide which magical spell to use.

It wasn't until I got the idea of having the shop serve six magical coffees which get mixed up by a newbie barista that the story took off.

It Happened on Route 66 also spent a lot of time in that file, back when I thought of it as a 1950's version of Waiting for Godot. The idea was that the denizens of a greasy diner were waiting for a rock star, but he never shows up so one of the soda jerks is drafted to pose as him.

The problem was that it was too close to the previously published Pioneer play The Nifty Fifties. The solution was to flip the conflict, making it revolve around a celebrity (now a movie star) who arrives by accident (he car breaks down(, doesn't want to be recognized, and is forced to pose as a waitress in order to escape the press.

Time passages

But no idea spent as much time in that file as my time travel comedy. The concept was to make a historical Enchanted Bookshop, with several famous figures from history making their appearance and much of the humor coming from the anachronistic interaction among them.

There's one thing that all time travel stories have in common. They take place over several locations and several eras as our heroes travel through time fighting evil, righting wrongs, or just trying to get history back to the way it was before they screwed things up. And that was my approach too--at first.

But I soon realized such a play would be difficult to produce, requiring often cash-strapped schools to create dozens of sets and possibly dozens upon dozens of costumes (after all, those historical scenes would have to include at least a few background characters for authenticity). So I rejected it.

Besides, I prefer writing single-set plays. The format poses a fun challenge, and I love seeing the incredible detail theaters put into their sets when they only have to build one of them instead of dozens. 

Of course, the fact that my single-set plays sell a lot better was also a huge plus.

But how can you make a time travel play single-set? I racked my brain. I scribbled ideas. I deleted those ideas. I scribbled some more.

Nothing worked.

Stormy weather

Then one day I had a brainstorm. What if the entire play took place in a mad scientist's lab? What if the time machine he invented broke? And what if, as a result of that, our heroes timeport more and more historical figures into the present so that they have to figure out how to get them back?

Everything clicked. Except for one problem. How would our heroes know they changed history if they're stuck in the lab?

That's when I had my second brainstorm. What if there's a hamburger restaurant upstairs and our heroes realize something's wrong when a couple of employees come downstairs to complain about the noise and it turns out the restaurant has become a very British fish-and-chip shop?

I loved it. There was plenty of conflict. The situation was a gold mine for humor. And it would be a piece of cake to produce, with a single-set centered around a simple, boxy time machine and period costumes required for just nine historical figures.

A non-working title?

But what would I call it? Well, my working title was Hysterical Figures, but I knew that was corny as heck and didn't really communicate the fact that it's a time travel story.

For a while I went with Time Warped, which gets across the time travel idea but doesn't let potential customers know that it involves historical figures. (It was also the title of a short-lived Trey Parker show in the 90's, but I'm pretty sure nobody remembers it so that wasn't a concern.)

Then I remembered a middle-grade novel I'd written in the early 2000's titled George Washington Ate My Homework. The book only had one historical figure travel through time--the titular President--but it never got published so I figured I was free to reuse it.

The title was perfect for the play. It tells you it's a time travel tale. It tells you that at least George Washington travels through time. And it passes the smile test

And so, with the manuscript completed and a title selected, I sent it off to Pioneer and they accepted it 17 days later (second only to the 7 days it took It's a Madhouse! to get accepted).

Science stuff

There are so many good scenes, it's hard to decide which one to share with you. So let me give you an excerpt which shows how the three students who form the comical heart of the play find the time machine in the first place:

NAOMI: So what does Dr. Bizwang have you doing? Cleaning up and stuff?

JUNIE: No, of course not! I have a lot of responsibilities around here. I'm--I'm his research assistant. 

NAOM: His research assistant? What does that mean?

JUNIE: Well, um, it means I assist with his research. And stuff.

NAOMI: Stuff?

JUNIE: You know, like science stuff.

WARNER: So you understand what all these gadgets do?

JUNIE: Oh, yeah. Most definitely.

WARNER: All right. What does this thing do? (Picks up a random gadget.)

JUNIE: That? Uh, it's very technical. You wouldn't understand.

WARNER: Well, what does this thing do? (Picks up another gadget.)

JUNIE: Um, that's pretty technical too. You wouldn't understand.

WARNER: Is there anything I would understand?

JUNIE: Yes. Whatever you do, don't push the red button.

WARNER: What red button?

JUNIE: The one under the "Do Not Push the Red Button" sign.

WARNER: (Turns to the time machine.) Okay, you've got to know what this thing is!

JUNIE: I sure do. This happens to be a time machine.

WARNER: Whoa! You mean it can send us back in time?

JUNIE: Well, yeah. But I wouldn't recommend it.

WARNER: Oh, come on! We could skip surfing the web altogether! Do all our researching in person!

JUNIE: Listen to me, Warner. Last week, Dr. Bizwang tested the time machine by sending a mouse back to 1492 and it never returned. Do you know what that means?

WARNER: It found the world's biggest hunk of cheese?

JUNIE: No! The mouse is stuck in a time warp! Do you want to be stuck in a time warp, Warner?

WARNER: That depends. What's the cheese situation like?

The play should be released in time for the new school year in the fall, if not sooner. In the meantime, you can read the synopsis and cast list by visiting the play's web page on the New Play Exchange.

And if, while you're there, you check out some of my other plays, I'm not going to complain.

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 on the moon.

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

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 feeling seems to have been mutual because the company rejected me before I even left the building--the first and last time that's ever happened to me.

Third time's a charm

Visit number three 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 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 in February, and although I grew up in Wisconsin and spent over twenty years in Colorado, I've spent enough time in Phoenix now that I've gotten really wimpy weatherwise.

Maybe wimpy isn't the right word. I mean, I can handle 115 degrees days as well as anyone. It's the cold I can't stand. 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 close to that for the rest of my visit. I commended Adrian on his masterful management of the weather, but he turned the compliment 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 may not offer as many cultural and recreational activities as big cities do. But there are three things it has that Phoenix doesn't. Crystal clean air. A big 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.


First time all over again

When I finally stepped into the school's auditorium, I was blown away. The space was huge, with seating for 1800 and, as I was later to learn, top-notch lighting and sound systems. Apparently, it was only a few years old. Idaho Falls, like most places in America, has long put sports first. But the principal at Hillcrest fought for and got the funding for a state-of-the-art performing arts center.

If only more high school principals were so forward-thinking...

I was just as impressed with the set, which was 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 lines. Heck, 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.

I also offered some tips on delivering their lines to make sure they get the maximum laughs. And I shared a couple things I'd learned in blocking my show that I felt would make their actions clearer.

A packed day

The next day was scheduled to the minute. 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 adapted it to address all forms of fictional writing.

In it, I explained how things like defining a dominant personality for each character and adding hidden agendas subtext can make your story come alive. The workshop also includes several scenes from actual plays, allowing the students to flex their acting muscles.

The second workshop 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 asking questions and offering their own thoughts on the George Lucas blockbuster.

The energy of the audience dropped off dramatically, however, when we got to the Rese Witherspoon comedy, and it became clear that most of the students had never seen it or didn't remember much about it. Which is why in future versions of this workshop, 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 this one for my visit to Kansas's Wichita County High School back in 2016, but I expanded it considerably for this visit. This talk is my personal one as I include cartoons, quotes, and trivia questions to share the lessons I learned during my decades-long struggle to get published.

After a relaxing 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 but very insightful barrage of questions at me and me doing my best to keep up. I also asked for their thoughts to help me solve a problem with my next play.

During the break that followed, I signed 26 posters for the cast and crew. Dinner was a delicious chicken alfredo provided by one of the theater parents. 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'd taken at least some of my notes to heart. A few of the actors still needed to slow down a bit, but with one more week of rehearsals ahead of them, I have every confidence in the world that they'll get there.

Wrapping up

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 meaningful days of my life. I met some great people. I learned a ton. The passion of the kids inspired and reenergized me.

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.