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.


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

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

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