For the past two years I've been working on a children's book entitled The Mighty Carrot. Because of this project playwrighting has often taken a back seat and I often feel like I'm starting all over again as I tackle this very different form. As a playwright I know dialogue. This story has none (at least not as such). And tackling narration has been a challenge (what, you mean people want to know what everything looks like???).
A little while back I finished the fourth major draft of the story, put it aside, and then over the past few weeks picked it up to tinker with it again. And I'm starting to feel the light at the end of the tunnel.
I don't know how to explain how I know when a piece is nearing its end. There's just something deep down that says, "Aha! This is what this story should look like!" The sense that you're finally seeing in the words what you knew the story was supposed to be all along but couldn't quite put your finger on. There are tweaks and polishes left to come, but I'm starting to see in the shape what the story was always meant to be.
It's been a struggle learning how to write all over again, how to tackle a story in book form where I can't rely on the designers to set the scene, the actors to infuse the characters with life. But when I'm stuck on an awkward sentence, on a moment I can see in my head but can't quite find the words for, I pick up The Tale of Despereaux. I find a random page and just read the words and I am struck by how beautiful the writing is, and how simple.
Simplicity is not, in my view, a negative. When I'm struggling with a moment, it's usually complexity that trips me up. I try to pack too much in, to say far more than needs to be said. Writing, I continue to learn, is as much about what's between the words as in them. When I can find the one thing the moment needs to be about and let go of the rest, that's everything starts to take shape.
There is still a lot of work to be done to make each and every moment shine, to remove the clutter. It's a struggle, and so I pick up Despereaux when I need to remember what that looks like. And bit by bit, word by word, it's getting there.
I mentioned a little while back that I've been attending a writing workshop led by Jane Resh Thomas and it's hard to believe that I've been going for nearly a year now. Being a part of this group (Jane runs several workshops - I attend the Muskrats group) has reminded me of the importance of community as a writer. Jane read a little last night from An Ill Nature by Joy Williams who writes about how we can never quite achieve the full potential of a story. As in Plato's cave we at best set down a shadow of the Idea. I feel this all the time in my own writing and it is so, so easy to forget I'm not the only one to struggle with this.
Over the past year I have come to know the members of my group better, both who they are and in their writing. I am nearing completion of the fourth draft of Carrot and while there is still much work to be done when I look back I see how far this story has already come. And it would not be where it is without the feedback, the challenges, and the encouragement this group has provided. I learn as much listening as I do reading. Such beautiful stories are in the works and I always look forward to hearing more from them.
Jane also shared last night an entry she had written for the Storyteller's Inkpot blog. I was struck immediately by the title - "We are all afraid" - and reminded again that I'm not the only writer to still feel this way after years of writing. How important it is to have such a safe place to share our writing, to be encouraged, and to know we're not alone. I'm so grateful for the opportunity - for all I have learned, for all I continue to learn.
One of the wonderful things about being a playwright is seeing your work fly to the far corners of the country and the globe and find life where you never could have imagined. One of the downsides of being a playwright is that airfare is expensive and you don't usually have the good fortune of flying with it.
Last night, however, my adaptation of The Wind in the Willows landed a little closer to home: just across the river in Plymouth, Minnesota performed by the Plymouth Homeschool Story Stagers. And so armed with the knowledge of when and where I showed up at Pilgrim United Methodist Church at about 6:45, took a program, quietly found myself a seat, and sat back to enjoy the show, with no one in the cast or crew any the wiser.
And the performance was delightful. The scenery was simple yet charming. The tall, lanky Toad knew how to work the audience with a physicality that entertained even when he wasn't speaking. The gruff Badger commanded the stage, and the whole crew of Weasels and Ferrets took great delight in their malevolent antics. I'd heard my version read, but had never seen it performed live, and it was extremely gratifying to see how both the actors and audience connected with it. Most of the cast were in their teens, with a few younger, and many of them have performed together in this group for years. Being a more character-driven piece I think it lends itself more to teen actors than those younger, and after the show the cast and director (who works with my father-in-law at North Central University, small world!) spoke of the challenges these characters provided. It speaks highly of the group that they were willing to take on that challenge, and I hope that doing so will serve them well as they continue to grow as performers.
I introduced myself to the director, Wayne Matthews, during intermission and he revealed my presence to the cast afterwards. But it was wonderful to enjoy the performance as an audience member, to see what they did with the characters and the technical challenges (my favorite was when several of the cast came out as trees to portray the Wild Wood... then turned around to reveal themselves as the Weasels and Ferrets, a truly theatrical moment). So congrats to the cast and crew of the Homeschool Story Stagers on a job well done, and best of luck to them at tonight's and tomorrow's performances!
Over the past several months I've been speaking with Lynda Burgess, founder of the Acton Cooperative Theater in Acton, MA, about my new children's play Why Penguins Can't Fly, and Other Tales of Antarctica. She's been very interested in the piece and wanted to do a performance of it at this summer's festival of the Consortium of Boston Area Children's Theatres (CBACT). Registration for the kids has been open for a little while now, and I just spoke with Lynda today who confirmed that the show is a go! While I won't be able to make it out myself for the July 15th performance (really, what ever happen to reasonably priced airfare?), they will be videotaping the performance and I'll be excited to see what they do with the piece (which I can then tweak for this December's production at Hawkeye Community Theatre in Fort Dodge, Iowa). In speaking with Lynda, the passion that she and the rest of her team have for this show is both inspiring and humbling; I know they'll do a fantastic job with it. I'm also excited by the idea of the show being performed in front of representatives of children's theaters across the Boston area!
It's been a long road to get here, but after years of writing, rewriting, finding productions, and then rewriting some more (a lot more), The Princess and the Moon is now available through Eldridge Plays. The play's a great fit for their market and so I'm very excited to see it reach a much wider audience through them. And so it seemed like a great time to break out this image from the archives:
Yes, I know how long it's been since I last posted. And yes, I do have a good excuse for it. Two, actually. 1) I have a toddler and 2) I've been writing. Not the blog sort of writing (obviously), but I have been hard at work on The Mighty Carrot, my children's book about a rabbit who finds a red handkerchief and becomes a superhero, and a mystery play.
Since I last posted I've also joined a couple of writer's groups: one for the children's book and one for playwrighting. It's been awhile since I've last been part of such a group (Critical Mass - see this page on my website) and I can't tell you how good it feels to be part of a writing community once again. It brings to mind the first writer's group I ever attended: The Alnwick Writer's Group which met in an upper room of the Plough. I stumbled across the group not long after beginning a study abroad program in Alnwick, England run by Saint Cloud State University out of Alnwick Castle (did I ever mention I once lived in a castle?). For one meeting, prompted by a challenge from John, an older gentleman who had a very deliberate way of speaking that made you hang on every word, I wrote a short epic tale. That tale, of Sir Sherlacar and the Second Ring of Shalamanar, grew and grew until it became my first novel, Edelsha. Funny sometimes how things begin.
I've never forgotten my time in that group and how they welcomed a young American student into their midst. As a writer it is easy to neglect the importance of community with all the time we spend hunched over pen and paper or a computer. But we all need to break away from that from time to time and surround ourselves with others who will offer guidance and encouragement and remind us that we're not the only ones on this journey.
After finishing a rough draft of my children's chapter book The Mighty Carrot! back in February, I began the long process of rewriting. It took six months, but recently I finally finished the second draft! I'm sure there are still many more to go, but it felt great to reach that milestone. Being used to writing plays, I'm finding that the rewriting process on this book goes much more slowly than I'm used to. To celebrate I posted on Facebook that I was now looking for readers to give their opinions, especially those willing to read it to their children. The response was overwhelming! A dozen people at least (mostly with young kids) quickly volunteered. It was humbling, to tell you the truth, but also encouraging as I'm finally able to start the process of sharing this story with others. And already I have a few thoughts on how to improve it...
Even when the rewriting is done, another challenge awaits: publishing it. After many years in the playwrighting world, the book publishing world is strange and unfamiliar territory. In some ways it feels like starting over with a whole new vocabulary and set of rules to learn. But writing plays has taught me that what seems like an insurmountable goal (i.e. getting published) isn't so impossible after all if you chip at it a little each day. An old friend of mine, August McLaughlin, writes here about how she recently landed an agent for her book. Hearing of her success has inspired me to keep plugging. After all, as August points out "Not completing your book is the one sure way to not get agented or published." Here, here, my friend. And I'll be one of the first in line to buy a copy.
Ever since Walking Shadow's 2006 Fringe hit 1926 Pleasant I've been hoping that another such puzzle show would be in the works. So you can imagine my excitement when I heard about Saboteur, a new "theatrical game with puzzles" as it's described. The show opened July 9th and runs through August 3rd (the day before this year's Minnesota Fringe Festival opens). I caught the show last Monday night and together with my fellow 11 audience members had to unravel a series of puzzles and with them an espionage-themed mystery.
The City Pages and TC Daily Planet's Matthew Everett have both done a fine job of summarizing the experience without giving too much away. As the audience you arrive at the headquarters of Universal Hydro Solutions for a guided tour, although it soon becomes clear that we are there for an entirely different purpose. The audience travels from room to room (guided by coordinator Jennifer Probst) where everyone must work together to solve various puzzles in order to advance the plot.
Puzzle creator David Pisa is no novice when it comes to devising unique and creative challenges (the details of which I won't give away) and Saboteur certainly does not disappoint. Pisa knows how to keep the goal of a puzzle straightforward while still providing some challenge in arriving at the solution. And cooperation amongst the audience is key (in fact, one puzzle would be absolutely impossible to complete without it). As other reviews have noted, don't be afraid to jump in with an idea and try things out. The dynamics of each group will be a little different, but there's room for both those who jump in immediately and those who want to hang back a little more and observe. Though if I may say so, my group was particularly top-notch: we finished the show in a record 68 minutes.
One criticism I do have of Saboteur is that I didn't find the characters and storyline as engaging as 1926 Pleasant. Here the story felt more like it existed in order to provide a rationale for the puzzles rather than the puzzles pulling me deeper into the story as in Pleasant. To be fair, there isn't a lot of room in a production like this to advance the story with how much time must be devoted to the solving of the puzzles, but I was hoping for a little more. Aayush Chandan and Emma Gochberg as the cast give solid if not stand-out performances.
But that being said, Saboteur is fun ride throughout and I love the active challenge it provides. If you missed 1926 Pleasant, then be sure not to miss this one as well. Tickets are limited (only 15 per show) so get them now! 4 out of 5 stars for a unique theatrical experience.
At long last my fantasy novel Edelsha, and the Tale of the Third Ring is now available on the Amazon Kindle. The Kindle price is just $2.99 and even if you don't have a Kindle, there are Kindle apps for Mac, Windows, iPhone, Android, etc. (You can also still buy a physical version or a PDF version on Lulu.com.)
The cover and description for Edelsha are below. So (insert shameless plug here) support your local independent author and buy a copy. It's a fun read, I promise.
Edelsha, and the Tale of the Third Ring
Swept suddenly into the fantastical world of Edelsha, Geoff enters a land plagued by civil war within and growing threats without. The hopes of the battered kingdom, and the young princess who rules it, all rest upon Geoff's fulfillment of an ancient prophecy. And so the quest for the third ring of Shalamanar thrusts the young hero unprepared into a world filled with dragons, goblins, and evils without name. With only the panther Sylran, the gryphon Wehrya, and the dryad Amyla to aid him, Geoff must battle against the sinister designs of a centuries-old enemy who desires all of Edelsha for his own. Stories within stories help weave together this tale of adventure, friendship, and sacrifice.
I'm reposting this link from Minnesota Playlist (a great site if you haven't checked it out) with a piece written by my friend and director Kevin T. Houle:
I've often had similar thoughts myself. As a writer it's hard for me to sit back and just enjoy a play when the script isn't top notch. I'm constantly pulled out of the play thinking about how the playwright chose to structure the piece, the awkwardness of that last line, and so on. Bad acting pulls me out as well, and so after reading Kevin's piece I'm glad I'm not a director! I've yet to be distracted by the doorknobs.
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