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.

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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.

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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.


Tomatoes and Tunes

The Roma tomatoes at my raised bed in the St. Michaels Community Garden are going to town. That bed gets more sun than my raised beds at home, so I planted eight seedlings. I’m beginning to think that was a couple too many.  IMG_0264

This is the fourth time I’ve had a sinkful of tomatoes that needed to get cooked down into sauce and put through the hot water bath canner. I now have twenty-five pints of thick tomato sauce seasoned with Fish peppers, basil, thyme, and oregano (all from my garden) and there’s only two of us. I think tomatoes are going to start going to the food pantry. Plan B would be to keep canning tomato sauce and not plant any tomatoes next year.

Saturday night we took advantage of a free concert in Easton – Amy Black and Sarah Borges singing the music of Muscle Shoals. It was hot, but the Eastern Shore humidity was down and the sun was behind the buildings on the west side of Harrison Street.

IMG_0278It was a rockin’ concert that had people up and dancing in the street, including some wee ones who already had amazing moves. If I’d been closer I would have caught a video on my phone. Laura was slammed with logistics for the new DOD contract or she would have been there with her husband.

We are lucky to live in an area where the arts are so encouraged and appreciated. The concert was sponsored by The Avalon Foundation and the Tidewater Hotel. Harrison Street was full from Dover to Goldsborough.

This next week work begins the task of pulling together information for the speakers at for the Bay to Ocean Writers Conference website. And Eastern Shore Writers Association  member renewals are coming in. I put together the information that goes into the member directory and update the database. August and September are going to be busy. The tomatoes should be finished soon. Thank goodness!

Another Santa Diaries Production Ends

Goodbye to Liberty Showcase Theatre

Below is the cast and crew of The LIberty Showcase Theatre’s production of The Santa Diaries. It was a wonderful show. Laura and I hope they were as happy with the production as we were.



In this production there were a number of hiccups. One was replacing the person who was to play Josh two weeks before the show opened. Although this is a male role, the person who already knew most of the lines was the female music director who heroically stepped in to fill Josh’s size twelves. Josh became JoJo and there was some hurried rewriting of the final scene in which Will calls Brandeee in the middle of the night and Josh answers. Did we want JoJo to be in Brandeee’s bedroom in the middle of the night? This was a family show, after all. Even having Josh in her bedroom was a bit of a stretch, but lines were finessed and everything worked out just fine.

The snow/sleet/rain hiccup on the show’s last weekend was more problematic. The Liberty Theatre website home page was amended with the announcement: 12/14/2013 – It may be snowing outside, but the show must go on!! The Santa diaries will still be performed tonight at Glyndon United Methodist Church! Come out and get in the holiday spirit!!

People got the message and the cast performed to a full house. Last year at the Avalon Theatre the last show was on December 23. That was a burden on the cast and crew as it was so close to Christmas. The Liberty Showcase Theatre’s production ended on December 15 which gave people a little time to breathe before the last reindeer dash to the 25th. Laura was in the audience with her husband for the last performance. I was under the weather and couldn’t make it.

Liberty Showcase Thanks Us

At the last show Lori Chapman, the Assistant Director, gave Laura two wrapped packages. She brought them to me a few days later and we opened them together. They were framed photos of the cast and crew of the this production. We were thrilled. On the first Sunday performance Laura and I were given one of the posters signed by everyone. Mine will go on my Santa Diaries wall! We have felt very thanked and appreciated by Liberty Showcase Theatre. The are such a professional group. We’d love to work with them again.

Post Production

We need to know how the play could be tweaked to make it better. What could be done to make it easier to stage? Liberty had a cast of about 25 as opposed to the Avalon’s cast of 65+. Most of those additional people were children which is its own special challenge, but when writing for community theatre it’s good if the cast number has some flexibility. You want to be able to showcase especially talented people and need to plan for that. Laura and I will have a post production meeting with the Director, the Assistant Director and the Producer after the holidays so that we can make useful changes to the script and notes that would help with direction and staging.

Until then we send thanks and excellent Holiday Wishes to all the cast and crew.

What’s Next?

For now Laura and I are doing research on made-for-TV Christmas movies. We’ve watched eight so far and have twelve more in the line-up. We wanted to do this before we made the final tweaks on The Santa Diaries movie script. Is this a great job, or what?

The Santa Diaries Lives On

Dancing Santa

Last year at this time Laura and I were attending every rehearsal of our play, The Santa Diaries, scheduled for seven performances right before Christmas 2012. Our anxiety was out of control. I had resorted to outdated Zoloft found behind some anti-wrinkle cream I ordered late one night on HSN. Laura was adopting cats. The play was a shambles. Some people were still on book.There had never been a complete run through.

We took a vow, “We will never do this again!” At the very last dress rehearsal Laura couldn’t stand it and left. I stayed on because I wanted to see them get through to the end. But they didn’t. Our play would open the next day and it wasn’t ready.

But somehow in the next 24 hours it was. The show opened. There were a few hiccups with the lighting, some missed cues, but nothing the audience would really notice. How did that happen? The play was magic. People laughed and cried and our 84 year old Santa did not really fall off the 20 foot ladder he was on during the opening scene.

Recently I read Alan Jay Lerner’s book, On The Street Where I Live, in which he recounts getting My Fair Lady to its out of town opening. Apparently our reality with The Santa Diaries was normal. Everything that can go wrong, will go wrong. Would we have written a play if we’d known? And would we ever want to go through this again?

Apparently, yes. The Liberty Showcase Theatre is producing it’s version of The Santa Diaries this December. Performances dates are as follows: Friday, December 6th and 13th at 8PM; Saturday, December 7th at 2PM and 8PM; Saturday, December 14th at 8PM and Sunday, December 15th at 2PM. The venue is Glyndon United Methodist Church, 4713 Butler Road, Glyndon, MD 21071. For tickets visit the Liberty Showcase Theatre website at http://www.libertyshowcasetheatre.org/.

Laura and I will attend a rehearsal next Saturday and it will be two weeks before the show opens. This time we are ready for the chaos and the anxiety. No drugs and no cats this year; we are seasoned playwrights and thrilled that The Santa Diaries lives on.

Writing and Recognition

I’ve been thinking a lot about writing and recognition, and in the process have been reading a lot about author platforms and blogging. Some experts say you need to start blogging at least three years before you publish your book. Boy, did Laura and I get that one backwards. One consistent comment is that you need to make sure you know for whom you are writing the blog. Sounds simple. However, we write a lot of different kinds of things, YA novels, screenplays for movies and TV, and last year our first play which got produced. Who the heck is our audience?

poster with Laura Ambler and Mala Burt

Laura and I chose the name for this blog because we get so neurotic at times about what we’re doing. Since I (Mala) write the blog, I am always looking for things to write about and get confused about what the focus of the blog should be.

Do I blogg only about the Santa Diaries project? The play is over and we have another theater interested for this coming December.  Who knows what will happen with that. If I think about it too much, will that jinx it? If I send positive energy to the theatre, will that accelerate the process? Could I just shut down my brain?

In the meantime we are polishing the movie script we wrote from the play and have our second round consultation coming up mid-August with Dara Marks. And while we are waiting for that, we just finished the spec script we’re doing for Khris Baxter. Interestingly that script is the behind the scenes story of how a famous Broadway show got produced. Researching that was a revelation. I thought our experience with the Avalon Theatre was stressful, but apparently that’s par for the course.

Are we nuts to write scripts on spec? Part of me thinks, why not, I’m learning and becoming a better writer with each project…and the truth is nobody is calling us and offering us money. But another part of me thinks I could be writing that third Caribbean novel that’s been on the shelf for seven years, or Laura and I could go back to the draft of the second novel in the Big Skye Ranch series that we wrote three years ago.

Instead of moving forward with that, we got caught up in a spec script project for another producer. It went through multiple rewrites and when the producer thought it was good enough, she actually shopped it. After two years she reported that nobody seemed to be buying anything. In between we got side-tracked with some Amazon Studio projects. Last May, when the Avalon called about the Christmas play idea, we looked at each other and said, “why not?”

Maybe it’s time to be smarter about how we use our writing time – be more focused and planful. Would that be nearly as much fun? That is the real dilemma. Neither of us has to earn money doing this, so having a good time with our writing is a huge incentive. I’m not saying it wouldn’t be fantastic if we made money, but we write to satisfy other creative urges. Okay, that’s a rationalization. Would we turn down a hit movie, a best seller on Kindle, a bidding war by major publishers? Of course not!

Money is one thing. Recognition is another. I suppose one of the reasons The Santa Diaries was so satisfying was the recognition we got for doing it. We live in a small town and most people knew about the play. In fact, just about everybody in town was in it.

This all leaves me wondering…is there is a way to build in recognition for writing, even if the money remains elusive? Maybe it goes back to knowing who you write for. Frankly, I don’t think we’re going to figure that out any time soon.

David Foster, We Already Miss You

The Easton, Maryland theatre community lost one of its own on Friday, June 14, 2013 when David Foster, age 86, died. David was our Sandy Hawes in The Santa Diaries. His nuanced performance and rich voice made the role memorable. The opening montage with David’s voice over still makes me tear up.

Not that he didn’t almost give us a heart attack every night of the show. In the first scene he was up on Martha’s roof stringing Christmas lights in a snow storm. I suppose if this had been a Broadway production there would have been a lift for David, but this was community theater so at each performance he climbed a 20 foot ladder behind the rear projection screen and waved the lights around. Laura and I sat in the back of the theater clenching our fists until he was safely on the ground. Then we could breathe again.


David never complained that he couldn’t do it. As far as I knew, he never asked the director to find another way. That would have been the sensible thing to do, but David knew the illusion was important. Al Bond held the ladder steady at the bottom, but when the run was over we were all glad that David had not fallen and really broken his leg as he did in the play.

David Foster loved helping other actors and that will be his true legacy in the theater community he embraced in retirement. It will be hard to remember he’s gone; we were blessed to have him with us.

A Santa Diaries’ Kid Goes to Carnegie Hall

One of the things Laura and I loved about watching The Santa Diaries play unfold was seeing the talented kids who were part of the show. One of them was Hannah Zerai who blew us away when she auditioned. Only fourteen, Hannah had an incredible voice. Two days ago, when I opened our local paper, there was a photo and article about Hannah.

hannah Star Dem

Hannah had auditioned with more than 6000 students from the United States, Canada and other countries for the American High School Honors Performance Series at Carnegie Hall. She was on of 265 students selected to perform in the choir at Carnegie Hall in New York. Wow!

Two years ago Hannah began taking voice lessons with mezzo-soprano Suzanne Chadwick at Easton’s Academy of Art Museum. Chadwick said that Hannah came to her with a “small, soft voice, having never sung before.”  Hannah said she wanted to take voice lessons after being a part of the Avalon Theatre’s Summer Fame Theatre Camp at age eleven.

The newspaper article went on to mention that Hannah had sung in our play,The Santa Diaries, when a special part was written to include her voice. Nice to get that recognition for Hannah and for our play which raised over $31K for the Avalon Foundation. Those funds go to support many Avalon Theatre projects including the kid’s summer theater camps.

We are so proud of what The Santa Diaries did to support the arts in our local community and we are proud that Hannah Zerai was part of that team effort. This summer Hannah has been accepted to the Peabody Institute’s Classical Singers Workshop and Summer Vocal Academy. We’ll all be watching you, Hannah, wherever your talents take you.

Life After Santa Diaries

I wrote this post two months ago, but had problems with WordPress. Then life intervened and somehow the post got lost in the shuffle. Anyway, here goes…

Life went on after The Santa Diaries. On the way home from the last performance on December 23rd a deer ran into the side of my car. I didn’t hit it; it hit me! Lots of damage to the driver side, but I was able to drive home where I had to crawl out the passenger side. Of course the next day was Christmas Eve so although I could contact my insurance company, the repair shop was closed. We took the car in on December 26th but the appraiser wasn’t in and then it was the weekend and then New Year’s Eve. You get the picture. Mullikins Body Shop said it would be ready January 14th. Yesterday (the 14th) they told me maybe on January 16th. I’m hoping.

I had not anticipated the let down of the play being over. Bang! It was gone! I should have thought about that and made some plans. Christmas helped. My husband and I had Christmas dinner with Laura and her family.Laura’s dinner was fabulous with lots of her family’s traditional dishes. I made the desserts — an apple pie and a Key Lime pie. The apple was not my best ever, but the Key Lime (Laura’s request) was amazing. In retrospect it was good to have some down time to recharge our batteries. We’d been working on adrenaline for awhile.

Now that life is settling back to normal, Laura and I are putting the play back the way we want it. The ending was changed by the Avalon at the very last gasp and we didn’t like the way the time line was altered or the dialog pulled from the movie Scrooged. Henley Moore took photos for us, but  we’re still waiting for those. Henley, where are you??? When we get them Laura will put together a trailer of the show using stills. We wanted to do some taping, but weren’t allowed by the Avalon. Not sure why.

Once the sales package is put together we will decide how we want to approach other community theaters about the play. I met Joy Staniforth at a recent networking gathering hosted by Mindie Burgoyne. Joy, who owns the Joie de Vivre Gallery in Cambridge is on the board of the Dorchester Center for the Arts and may have some contacts for us. Interestingly enough, Salisbury, Maryland has one of the oldest community theaters in the United States.

We will plan how we want to market the play and work on that. In between we will begin writing the Santa Diaries movie script which was always part of the plan. Writing the play got the story arc in place, but we can push the envelope in a movie script.

So, yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus and there is life after The Santa Diaries.

Santa Diaries Poster Unveiled

We have been waiting for this. Finally the poster that Laura designed was approved by the Avalon higher-ups and has gone to the printer. The Dancing Santa is eye-catching. I am assured that posters will be available Monday, Nov 5. Avalon staff will scurry about town like Christmas elves so the poster will be in every window for next weekend’s Waterfowl Festival.

Laura and I ordered a large weatherproof version of the poster that will be hung at the Avalon (hopefully outside where it will be most visible) for Waterfowl when the streets are thronged with people. My husband was in Albrights Gun Shop last week. It is right next door to the Avalon Theatre and the guys at the gun shop told him that 20K people come to Waterfowl and “they all come in our store”. I hope the big poster is up outside the Avalon where everybody who goes to Albrights (for hand warmers?) can see it.

We want the play to be a huge success. All the money raised goes to the wonderful projects of The Avalon Foundation. We will do our best to get posters (11×17) into “off the main street” spots. If you know of any places that would post one, let us know.

Yes, Maryland, there is a Santa Claus…

Laura writes:

His name is David Foster! Last night was the first (mostly) complete cast read through of The Santa Diaries at The Avalon Theatre. David Foster is playing Sandy Hawes, a small town Santa Claus, descended from a long line of Santas.

Tim called David’s understated and completely mesmerizing read, “Gorgeous!” And gorgeous it was! When you closed your eyes, it conjured visions of Wilfred Brimley and Garrison Keeler – a velvety voice that captured the spirit of a warm, compassionate, yet savvy Santa. You could almost see the twinkle in his eye and hear that he knows exactly who’s naughty and who is nice. It is a brilliant piece of casting by the Avalon!

The adult lead actors rehearsed in the Stoltz Listening Room (2nd floor), while the younger actors worker under the direction of Choreographer Cavin Moore  in the main Avalon Theatre on the first floor. Avalon Director Tim Wiegland, Assistant Director Cece Davis and  Producer Liza Ledford, were up and down the Avalon stairs all night! I don’t envy them.