Write on Wednesday: Soul: the Stax Musical

Going to the theater is always a treat. For Laura Ambler and for me, it’s also educational. As playwrights we watch to see if there’s something to learn — and there always is.

Sunday afternoon we saw the World Premier of Soul: the Stax Musical by playwright Matthew Benjamin. It was a great show. The narrative arc was the origins and life of Stax Records in Memphis. Stax began as Satellite Records in 1957, founded by Jim Stewart — a banker by day and a country fiddler by night. Stewart had a dream, but no knowledge of the recording industry. With the help of his older sister, Estelle Axton (who mortgaged her house to buy recording equipment for the studio) they set up shop in an abandoned movie theater in Memphis, Tennessee.

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These two white people (who didn’t know that what they were doing was impossible)  launched the careers of of iconic artists—Otis Redding, The Staple Singers, Isaac Hayes, Booker T & The MG’s, Rufus & Carla Thomas, David Porter, Wilson Pickett, Johnny Taylor, and Eddie Floyd—artists who made American Soul Music mainstream. What a great story!

This show had a large cast — twenty people were on stage at the standing ovation curtain call. We were interested to see how that many people were handled as our two plays also have large casts. Many of the performers in this production had multiple stage, tv and film  credits but were having their debut at Center Stage Baltimore. These actors had to be outstanding singers as well as great dancers. The show featured exceptional choreography by Chase Brook. I predict it will be a hit on Broadway and then tour. The music will keep you clapping. See it if you get a chance.

The two plays Laura and I have written were Christmas shows written with Community Theatre in mind. Community Theatre works with limited budgets and local (often exceptional) talent. But these theaters have constraints. Christmas shows are frequently fund raisers so in the case of our first play, The Santa Diaries, anybody who wanted a part got one.  Large casts are great for ticket sales to grandparents, aunts and uncles and next door neighbors, but large casts create staging problems and parts that were written originally for one theater may not work for another.

The idea for our next play has been germinating for a while. It will have just four cast members. We’ll start work on that soon. In the meantime we see as much theater as we can. We have a lot to learn.

 

Write on Wednesday – April 11, 2018

A week ago today Laura Ambler and I met with Julianna Skluzacek, Artistic Director of the Merlin Players in Faribault, Minnesota.

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The Merlin Players produced The Santa Diaries in 2014 and reached out to us about writing another Christmas show for them. Laura came up with the brilliant idea of writing the original cast of characters but five years later.

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We wrote a spec arc in October 2017 and sent it to Julianna.  We began working in earnest on the arc of the play on November.  Julianna put the spec arc before their board and it was accepted as their 2018 Christmas show. Laura and I began writing two or three days a week (for a couple of hours) and by mid January we had a first act. We forwarded it to Julianna just to make sure we were on the same page. She loved it.

Julianna knew she was coming east in the spring and we set a date to meet. On March 5th we sent her the first draft.

When we met last week we read the play out loud. Juliana had a few notes, and some minor suggestions which were easy to fix. Everyone who played the original parts is coming back to reprise the characters. That helped with the writing because we knew the strengths of the actors. One of them hoped there would be another rap song. We had a song but hadn’t thought about making it a rap. Easily done and it made the play better. Julianna said the kid who had played the imaginary Marley dog who was Timmy’s companion hoped he would have a part in the new play. It was a discussion Laura and I had several times and just couldn’t make it work. Julianna had an idea about how to accomplish making sure this character from the first play made it into the second. And it made the play better.

When we were finished we took Julianna to lunch, had a bottle of wine and celebrated. We’ll be going to Minnesota in December to see the premier of A Christmas Wedding, The Santa Diaries 11.

The day after we met with Julianna, Laura and I worked for two hours and made the needed tweaks. The following day I printed out the play again and read it for any necessary typos, etc. Laura fixed those, formatted the script and it was sent off to Julianna.

When I look back on the writing arc of this project I see that steady chunks of time got us to the finish line. Laura and I usually wrote three days a week for about two hours. We quit when our brains weren’t firing on all cylinders. But if we had let this project drift until we were two weeks away from the deadline, we wouldn’t have written the same play. The small changes to dialogue or bits of business for an actor that expanded their character would be missing — those serendipitous ideas that waken you in the middle of the night or while you’re driving.

We are so proud of what we’ve accomplished and can’t wait for December to see it on its feet.

 

 

 

 

 

Six on Saturday – March 10, 2018

It’s a never ending miracle that things in the garden that should, by all rights, be dead, come to life in the Spring.

Usually the forsythia blooms before anything else in mid February. This year it is popping at the same time as the daffodils.

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Below is fennel that I grew last year from seed. When mature it has beautiful bronze foliage. In the fall it finally succumbed (I thought) to killing frosts and then weeks of bitter cold. But it is coming back. It creates something of a problem in terms of my being able to dig that raised bed.  The nearby trees send roots into the beds and if I don’t dig them every spring they become rootbound. The fennel will get set aside while I dig and then replanted.

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I have no idea how this hyacinth got into this particular bed near the hellebores. But it is blooming. You can see chrysanthemums sprouting below the flower.

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A bed of irises. These are a dark blue variety that a friend gave me. I mow my iris beds in the fall with the lawn mower and they don’t seem to mind at all. I do the same thing in the spring with lariope. I occasionally see signs of borers in my iris, but I only keep the ones that don’t seem too bothered. I am a lazy gardener.

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The pink metal birds below mark one edge of two septic tanks that I found when I was putting in garden beds. You can see the little pieces of rebar next to the bird stakes. I used those at first but kept tripping on them. Then I put acid green tennis balls on them. I kind of liked them, but they eventually faded in the sun. Having a stake in the middle of a path is something of a problem. Eventually I’ll get around to moving the stones. I need to know where the septic tank is because there’s not much soil on top of it which is how I found it in the first place when I tried to plant that flowering cherry tree.

Now that I see this photo I realize I need to move the start of the path between the birds. Duh! The sedums are easy to move.

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Another spring miracle. I was repotting agapanthas last fall and had leftovers. A friend had told me that hers were planted outside and usually made it through the winter, so I stuck some in the ground. And they are putting out new growth. The pot I brought inside didn’t bloom this winter. If these bloom this summer, all the agapanthas will get moved outside.

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That’s my six this week. We had more rain so the back garden is still flooded and I can’t work there yet. But this week the rest of the roses in the front of the house were cut back. I’m making progress.

On the Writing Front

The first draft of the play was emailed to the director.  Now I have to get back to my novel which was put on hold for a little while. I couldn’t manage to keep two sets of characters separate. Characters have a way of popping up where you least expect them.  A Hot Dish lady from a Christmas themed play doesn’t belong in a novel set in the Caribbean. Sort of like that pink hyacinth, except it is much more welcome.

 

Minnesota Calling or Why You Should Read Messages to the Bottom

Three years ago Laura and I went to Faribault, Minnesota to see the Merlin Player’s production of our play, The Santa Dairies. We’ve kept in touch with the director and some of the performers.

That’s characters Sandy Hawes, who has the ‘Santa calling’ and Martha, one of the Hot Dish ladies.

At the beginning of September I received a text from Julianna Skluzacek who directed The Santa Diaries in Faribault. She asked if Laura and I had a new Christmas play. We didn’t have a new play and knew we couldn’t do something in a month. I replied, “Sadly, no.”

Then a week or so later I reread the text more carefully and sent an email:

Julianna, I just reread your message and realized you said 2018. What do you need? Laura and I would love to collaborate on something. Mala Burt

Julianna replied:

I’m looking for something that is like “Santa Diaries” in that it has a great love story, funny, some kids maybe but not necessary. I would need a title by October as that’s a deadline for a Paradise publication for 2018. Do you have something you could turn into a holiday show?

Laura and I talked. We had a funny holiday movie script called #Santa. We thought we could turn it into a play, so I sent an email to Julianna attaching the script, synopsis and cast list.

Julianna, we have a Christmas movie script that we could turn into a play. It’s called #Santa. It’s the story of a celebrity PR “reputation manager” who is arrested and sentenced to community service answering childrens’ Letters to Santa.

And we would work with you to make any changes you’d need for your geographic area. Cast list is based on the movie script and would be pared down. This would be fun!

Then we waited impatiently. After a week or so I forwarded the email above with this message.

Julianna, I just wanted to confirm you got our email. (the one with the script, etc.)

She replied she wanted to talk, so we set up a phone call for September 28. Julianna told us that she loved the script, but had some concerns. Our script was for a racially diverse cast and the Minnesota community wasn’t very diverse. She also thought there might be some expensive production challenges.

Toward the end of the converstion Laura wondered out loud what it would be like to do a play with the Santa Diaries characters but five years later. Light bulbs ignited in our brains. Who is Timmy’s father, anyway? It turned out the October deadline was really in November so we suggested sending her a one page synopsis of the arc of a new play.

Laura and I met, brainstormed, pulled together a synopsis and sent it off to Julianna. Then we waited.

And waited. (We aren’t very patient.) I knew Julianna was in a two week production and figured she was too busy to focus on our proposal. Waiting was hard. Laura and I really wanted this to happen.

Yesterday, early in the morning, I sent an email to Julianna. I knew her show had closed over the weekend and wanted to congratulate her on that, but I really wanted to know if she had any response to the synopsis. After all, this was not just her decision. It had to be presented to the theater board for approval.

She said she’d met with the board and they’d approved moving forward with the project. Then said she’d had a dream about the play and outlined an addition she thought might work. Actually it was brilliant if we can pull it off. (It invovles some cast diversity.)

Laura and I are over the moon! Of course we will go to Faribault, MN next December to see the premier production of our play – name to be determined. We would have missed this opportunity if I hadn’t gone back and reread that original text. Read to the bottom, folks.

 

 

 

On the Writing Front

Lest you think Laura and I aren’t writing any more, we sort of aren’t. But that doesn’t mean we’re not working.

One of our scripts made the quarter finalist list on Scriptapalooza’s Screenplay Contest. We didn’t get to semi-finalist, but we keep trying. Sometime in December we are supposed to get some feedback about the script from the people who read it. That will be very helpful.

We also entered the same script in Final Draft’s Big Break contest and made the quarter finalist list. We didn’t get to semi-finalist in that contest either, but someone who was one of the judges for another category asked to see the whole script based on the log line. We sent it off that Friday afternoon (people read scripts over the weekend) but haven’t heard anything since.

We had been asked to write that movie script by a producer we know. It was on spec (we didn’t get paid to write it) and we liked it so much we registered it with the Screen Writers Guild of which Laura is a member. That means we own that script. We had another idea about how the script might be tweaked for TV and pitched it to the producer. He liked the idea and pitched it to some other producers. That project has generated some interest and now we have more research to do.

I can’t tell you any more about the project at this point, but if something begins to happen, I’ll let you know. It’s exciting, but we’ve been excited before so I haven’t bought that expensive bottle of celebration wine – yet.

Note: We thought our play, The Santa Diaries, was going to be produced by The St. Michaels Community Center this year, but despite a lot of hard work, they weren’t able to cast the male lead. Everyone else was in place.

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They’ve got a year to find someone to play Will for 2017. They really want to do the show and we really want it to be back home in the community that inspired the original idea.

‘Tis the Season

I grew up with a Norwegian mother (second generation in the US) and a German father (the Schippers had been here longer). Because immigrants back then were intent on assimilating, neither my mother nor my father grew up speaking Norwegian or German. A lost opportunity. I don’t recall any specific ethnic traditions in our household. But that didn’t mean I couldn’t create my own.

One Christmas season my brother, Ross, made a kransekake – a Norwegian wreath cake which consists of eighteen sequentially smaller rings stacked one upon the other. I was impressed so I got the recipe and tried it. Trying to figure out the sizes of those rings was interesting and I don’t have a photo of that first attempt. It was a very wonky tower, but the rings were quite tasty.

A few Christmases later my brother and his wife, Linda, gave me a set of kransekake pans. Now the rings would be exactly the right size. However the ground almond, confectioners sugar and egg white mixture that is the recipe needed tweaking. I was grinding my almonds in my food processor and the dough puffed up too much. However, by that time I had involved my Montana granddaughters in baking a kransekake when we did a Montana Christmas. Those girls are all grown up now, but have requested baking a kransekake when we visit at Christmas this year. It’s become a tradition.

Ross told me he ground his blanched almonds in a coffee grinder. I went on line to YouTube for more instructions, then ordered a coffee grinder on Amazon. I had it (free shipping) in two days. I love Amazon Prime.

Yesterday I was ready. One of my yogi friends, Diane French, came to help. We discovered we needed to start the grinding process in the food processor to make the almonds into smaller pieces. Almonds are bigger than coffee beans! Duh. Then we decided to put the ground almonds through a sieve to make sure all the leftover almond bits were taken out and put through the grinder again. We made the dough and let it rest according to the recipe.

We rolled the dough into ropes the size of a pinkie finger and began filling the rings in the pans.

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The rings are baked at 396 degrees for 12 minutes. We learned that they needed to be cooled completely before we took them out of the non-stick pans.

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Next came the job of stacking the rings. They are quite close in size so there is probably a method, but we eyeballed it. White frosting is put on each ring and the next smaller size is laid on top. The frosting acts as a glue.

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We used white frosting in one of those spray cans. Here is the completed cake. It is a little wonky from one angle, but this is it’s best side. A turntable would have helped. I’ll get cans of red and  green frosting and decorate the cake with holly. It will be even more festive when that is done. Traditionally it might have had Norwegian flags on it or Christmas crackers. This cake is also served at Norwegian weddings.

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I have to say that grinding the almonds in the coffee grinder made a difference. This is the best and prettiest kranskake I’ve made. However, those first couple done with the grand-girls are the ones I’ll really remember and the fact that there is now a Norwegian tradition in our family. For those who are wondering, the kake is served from the bottom ring up. Several bottom rings are removed and each ring is cut into pieces. In this way, the rest of the kake remains in the shape of a Christmas tree.

This holiday treat is going to the Woman’s Club on St. Michaels on Wednesday. Laura Ambler and I are the program for the December meeting. We’ll be talking about how we turned our Christmas memory book, The Santa Diaries, into a produced Christmas play of the same name. ‘Tis the season of memories and making traditions.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

At Christmas We Believe

I have a Santa decoration that lives in my kitchen year round.

At Christmas I Believe

The wine cork ornament was a gift from the mother of the little boy who played Timmy in The Santa Diaries premier in Easton, Maryland in 2012. For Christmas last year Laura gave me the Believe ornament which I immediately hung on Santa’s hand. We believed that our movie script would get bought in 2014. Didn’t happen, but we continue to believe that it will happen at some point. Einstein told us time is fluid… in Hollywood.

When we went to Faribault, MN to see the third production of The Santa Diaries I came home with several additions to hang on my Santa.

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The red ball was a handmade ornament by Stephanie Weiss who played Martha in the Merlin Players production. The Santa riding a reindeer hanging below the red ball was a gift from the local thrift shop. Laura and I were perusing their wares and the gal at the counter was so thrilled to meet us she asked us each to choose an ornament to take home as a remembrance. The big Santa hanging on the right was in the large basket of Minnesota goodies that the Merlin Players Board of Directors had put in our room at The Loft.

The only problem now is that it is getting difficult to open the cupboard to the right of the Santa. It’s where the plates and bowls are stored so I am in it several times a day.

Any inconvenience is worth it, however, as I see these reminders every day and remember the joy of each production of our play. It’s a way of celebrating every day of the year.

As Josh Shankman says in our play, “Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukah, Feliz Navidad, Happy Kwanza or whatever politically correct holiday you people celebrate. It’s all good!”

Laura and I send our wishes for joy, peace and love in this very special season of the year. Re: selling a movie script…there’s always next year. At Christmas we believe.