Write on Wednesday – The Santa Diaries Goes to Indiana and Maine – July 18, 2018

Laura Ambler and I are over the moon.  Last week we got word that The Santa Diaries will be produced in Crawfordsville, Indiana this year by the Sugar Creek Players as their Christmas Show.

Screenshot (7)

And then two days later we were approached by the Chocolate Church Arts Center in Bath, Maine who also wanted to do the show. Of course, we said “YES.”

chocolate church interior best

Laura and I are honored that the original The Santa Diaries has chosen by the Sugar Creek Players and the Chocolate Church Arts Center for production this December.We are big fans of community theaters which play important roles in so many small towns. They build community and often become families for local actors, musicians and front and back of house volunteers.

Community theaters throughout the country have also saved countless buildings. Sugar Creek’s home is a former movie theater, as is the Avalon Theatre in Easton, Maryland where we live. Chocolate Church is one of two iconic Gothic Revival Churches from the 1840’s located in Bath. This church would have been demolished, but local citizens, recognizing its architectural significance and in the spirit of supporting the cultural arts, came together to create The Chocolate Church Arts Center. It received this name because of its unique chocolate brown color that covers the original caramel color it was before it had been painted white. Here’s a link for its interesting history.

The Sugar Creek Players, in Crawfordsville, Indiana, found a permanent home when W. Addington Vance and Myron Pattison deeded the Vanity Motion Picture Theater to them. Prior to that Sugar Creek had been producing shows at Wabash College, in local high schools, gyms and once in a Holiday Inn. In 1988, despite tar paper flooring, folding metal chair seating, and a lack of air conditioning, the opening show in the new theater was a success and the Players finally had a home.

Sugar creek

The cherry on the top of our Christmas pudding is that the sequel to The Santa Diaries will be produced in Faribault, MN by The Merlin Players who commissioned the play. Almost all the actors in the original prodcution of The Santa Diaries will play the same characters — five years later. Brandeee is pregnant but who is the father? The new show is titled: The Santa Diaries: A Christmas Wedding. We are beyond grateful that The Merlin Players reached out to us.

Screenshot (5)

Our plays will be in three states this December. Laura and I hope to be able to attend some of the shows. A road trip is being planned.

 

Write on Wednesday: Hiring a Script Consultant

When Laura Ambler and I finished our movie script for The Santa Diaries, we knew we wanted to hire Dara Marks to help us polish it. Laura had used her in the past on a couple of screen plays. We consulted our checkbooks, took a deep breath and called Dara. We booked an appointment and sent her a copy of the script which was ultimately called Santa, Flawed.

Santa Flawed

Laura and I have used writing consultants in the past. We hired two different editors to look at Big Skye Ranch. It was a better book because of the money we spent and went on to be a quarter finalist in the Amazon Breakthrough Novel contest. It won international awards at the London and Paris Book Festivals and an IPPY award.

A week ago we had our four hour telephone conference call with Dara. We were nervous. What would her reaction to the script be?  It was a somewhat fitful start because the email outline she sent us got hijacked by some virus scrubber on her computer which decided to scrub at precisely the moment she was emailing us. And her dogs went bananas when the UPS man came calling, but after a few minutes of sorting things out, we got to work.

By the end we were exhausted, but exhilarated. Dara told us our script was “highly marketable, it’s got everything, a really good piece, the writing is terrific, there is a strong structure in the script.”  She really said all those things. I took notes! …and then she told us the plot needed strengthening and we could be clearer about the theme. She said the first 25 pages needed to be totally rewritten. Well, that’s what we were paying her for – brutal honesty.

The theme thing is tricky. It’s the universal denominator and the theme drives the characters, the dialog, the setting. Theme should underscore everything in the script. It’s a little hard to wrap your head around because in the past our writing has been more character or plot driven. That’s not to say there wasn’t an underlying theme, but we didn’t spend time really trying to get that down to the bones.

In this telephone consultation we spent at least half an hour sorting out the theme. Turns out the theme is more elemental than Christmas, finding your inner Santa, nostalgia for small town life, or reconnecting with a lost love. The theme of The Santa Diaries script is “we’re all in this together.” We had not known that! Of course, the flip side of that theme is “we are alone” and that is Will’s fatal flaw. If he doesn’t change, he will be alone.

Will is isolated because he has sold out to Hollywood. He has lots of people around him, but they all want a piece of him. His business manager, Josh, whom Will calls his best friend, is a suck-up. Even his girlfriend has her own career agenda. If Will doesn’t find his authentic self (as opposed to his inner Santa) he will never be happy or fulfilled.

There were a couple of times when Dara pointed out that we were still thinking play, not movie. She was right. In the play we couldn’t have Sandy in the hospital with a broken leg. Heck, we couldn’t even get him staged in a bed in traction which is the way we wrote the original script. Sandy in a wheel chair with his leg propped up on a stool had to do. In the movie script he gets to be in a hospital.

Dara suggested that we start with a clean slate for the rewrite and we did. We are now 22 pages into the first 25 (Act 1 up to the First Turning Point). After that it will be more tweaking than a total rewrite as we make sure any changes in the beginning are reflected in rest of the script. All the characters are slightly different than they were in the original play and the script we sent Dara. We hope that gives them more depth.

Will Hawes is a little softer, more redeemable. His father, Sandy, is no longer the paragon of virtue. We’ve roughed up his edges a bit. Brandeee is smarter and shrewder. We haven’t decided if Brandeee and Will are engaged anymore. It always bothered me that Will broke up with Brandeee and moved on to Jessica so quickly.

The point is, do these changes drive the theme to its logical conclusion? We hope to have that figured out in the next month. Then the script will go back to Dara for notes. After that it should be ready to pitch. We think/hope the investment in using a script consultant will be well worth the cost.

Note: This blog was first published June 14, 2013. Gosh, almost five years ago. The script was eventually titled Santa, Flawed. No one bought it, but you can buy it on Amazon formatted for Kindle for $3.99. Using a script consultant was a great learning experience. In reading this post again, I am struck by the importance of theme. Whatever kind of fiction you are writing, figuring out your theme is paramount.

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.

IMG_5435 (2)

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.

A-Christmas-Wedding-Logo-fo

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.

 

 

 

 

 

A Nor’easter Blows Through

High winds early Friday morning woke me up several times. Was that a freight train coming at the house? Nope. A Nor’easter.

Laura Ambler, my writing partner, and I had worked on our play Thursday and she had warned me what was coming. Her day job is in aviation so she’s acutely aware of the weather. And the Nor’easter arrived just as predicted.

IMG_5231

We watched the old silver maples on our property give up some limbs. Nothing very big, but a pick-up-sticks job to be handled. Although we are near the water we didn’t have any flooding like other parts of the east coast. However the rotation of the storm pulled water out of the local rivers and there were some really low tides. We never lost power although we do have a generator back-up. The winds were still roaring Sunday night and another storm is predicted for Wednesday.

Dancing Santa

The weather didn’t keep Laura and me from writing. Our play, commissioned by The Merlin Players in Faribault, Minnesota, is almost finished. We will be able to send it to Artistic Director,  Julianna Skluzacek, by the end of next week. We sent our ideas to Julianna in early October 2017 and began work in earnest on January 6, 2018. We have worked two to four days a week since then. Sometimes with our cell phones on speaker when Laura was in Florida on business. Usually we worked for two hours or a little more before our brains went on strike. Much of the time at the beginning is asking questions. What is the play about? What would happen if this character did x, y or z? What conflict would that generate? Does a scene further the arc of the story?

Since the play is about the same characters in The Santa Diaries (five years later), we had the luxury of knowing who would be playing some of the parts as actors who had played characters several years ago wanted to have those parts again. That meant we could write to an actor’s strengths. I’m very visual. It helped to know what a character looked like.

In the Rest of My Life

We’ve had a worrisome two weeks as my beloved daughter-in-law was in the hospital with post-flu viral pneumonia. She spent a week on a ventilator. Most of the time I’m just fine with my kids living on the other side of the country, but when something like this happens I sure wish we were closer. Janet is now home and recuperating. I spent alot of time knitting to keep my anxiety under control.

The weather has kept me from the gardens but I went out yesterday while dinner was heating on the stove and took some photos. The Hellebores are blooming, but I haven’t had time to get the winter damaged leaves pulled out yet. And it’s still too wet and a little early to do an all in clean-up. I like leaving leaf mulch around the perennials until the evening temps moderate.

IMG_5243   IMG_5242

Columbines and tiny lamb’s ears are emerging through the leaf mulch.

IMG_5234     IMG_5240

My agenda for today, Sunday, March 4, 2018.

  1. Plant some seeds using the soil blocking method. My efforts to start some seeds inside in a bio-dome are not going so well.
  2. Read the 90 page play script to see what tweaks are needed. Laura and I are scheduled to work early tomorrow morning before she has to go to her office.
  3. Help my husband pick up sticks on the lawn.
  4. Poach a chicken so there will be protein in the fridge for the coming week.
  5. Make red onion refrigerator pickles.
  6. Do laundry. We are out of socks.

Wow. That’s a long list. I’m thinking some of these items may get pushed to tomorrow afternoon. But the play work will get done…and the laundry. We need those socks.

 

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.

Dancing Santa

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.

I’m Glad I Went

Last Night

Last night it was cool and my husband had built a cozy fire. But I’d raised my hand to substitute for someone on the Eastern Shore Writers Association Education Fund board at the Talbot Arts Council presentation of grants. Why had I done that? I’m old enough to know I need to sit on my hands when they want to rise of their own volition.

I’d been told the event started at five, but when I got there that meant wine and cheese with things actually starting at 5:30. For introverts like me standing around a milling group of strangers is on par with a root canal, but I saw some people I knew.

mala-and-Marylann-at-TAC

Marianne Stallsmith (in green) was there with her husband, Stan. They were there because their art gallery in St. Michaels, Local Port of Art, had gotten a grant. It’s next to their store, The Candleberry Shoppe. I also ran into a woman I went to graduate school with. Jo Merrill was there to get a grant for the St. Michaels Art League. She didn’t have anyone else to talk to either, so we sat together.

Promptly at 6:30 the program began. The auditorium at the Academy Art Museum in Easton was full. The program listed all the grant recipients – all fifty-six of them. I was in for a long night and thought longingly of the cozy fire and the glass of red wine I’d passed on.

The first to be honored were three teenage girls who’d gotten grants to attend arts or music programs last summer. To my surprise, there was Hannah Zerai. I’ve sponsored Hannah at the Bay to Ocean Writers Conference the last two years and will again next March. I met Hannah when she auditioned for the play Laura Ambler and I wrote, The Santa Diaries. When we heard her sing we knew she needed to be featured with a solo. She has an amazing voice and last summer a grant enabled her to study musical theatre at the Broadway Artists Alliance in New York City. The next young woman was Summer Snead, a junior at Easton High School. Summer was also in the cast of The Santa Diaries, and I’ve watched her musical career bloom on FaceBook. Last summer Summer went to New York and studied at the American Musical and Dramatic Academy. She said that’s where she’ll attend college. Suddenly I was really glad I’d come to this event.

Talbot Arts Council did an amazing job of awarding the checks. Groups of people were called to the front, envelopes handed to us as we approached, a photographer from the Star Democrat, our local paper, took group pictures and we went back to our seats where I put my envelope in my purse. The whole thing was over in 45 minutes and I was back at home by 8pm, really glad I’d been asked to sub. I knew about the Talbot Arts Council, but I had no idea of all the things they’ve helped happen in Talbot County. Much of their support goes to schools so kids are exposed to art and music at a time when many of those programs aren’t as robust as they were in the past.

This morning I pulled out the envelope out of my purse and opened it. The letter inside was addressed to The Chesapeake Film Festival. I pulled the envelope out of the trash and it also said Chesapeake Film Festival.  I called the Talbot Arts Council office this morning to get it straightened out. I expect the Film Festival people got the letter and check for the Eastern Shore Writers Association. It will get mailed to the proper ESWA person.

Today

Today I’m working on the Eastern Shore Writing Association Member Directory. In the past it’s been a printed document. This year it’s going to be in a digital format to save printing costs. It will also allow us to reissue it quarterly with new member updates. I was working in the new Microsoft Word that’s part of Office 350. A bit of a learning curve, but I’m figuring it out. My friend, and fellow ESWA board member, Jo Ebling came on Tuesday night to show me how to do it. That was enormously helpful.

I’ve been tasked by the ESWA board with buying a copy of Microsoft Office 350 for ESWA. They have a great deal for nonprofits. But getting it isn’t so easy. It’s sold through “partners” who have to call you. Twice now I’ve asked to be called and nothing has happened. When you call the number on the Office 350 sales page you can get a helpful person. Then…nothing happens. So that’s on the docket for this afternoon. The next board meeting is the first week in December and I’d like to report that I’d accomplished my assignment. I bought a copy for my personal use so I’d be familiar working with it, but need the “official” copy for ESWA.

How is my writing a novel in a month going? Don’t ask. Eastern Shore Writers Association is taking all of my time right now.

Tonight I’m having dinner with Laura and another friend. It’s our monthly book club meeting. We go to dinner, have a glass of wine, and share the new books we’ve read. This is going to be fun.