Write on Wednesday – Short Attention Span Theatre – July 11, 2018

Last Sunday I attended (with Laura Ambler and my husband) the Short Attention Span Theatre in Chestertown, Maryland. Performed in the Garfield Center for the Arts,  on Chestertown’s main street, the space used to be a movie theater. Laura spent summers with her grandmother who lived in Chestertown and remembered seeing movies here — sometimes with bats flying in the high ceiling. I saw no bats on Sunday.

Brent - short attention span theatre 7-8-18

A group of playwrights meets monthly at the Garfield to read each others works and critique them. Here’s a link to more information in case you’re interested in the group. Once a year nine or ten ten-minute plays are selected for production. This is the 14th year for these Short Attention Span Theatre productions. Why did we never get to one before?

During the intermission we smelled popcorn. Laura loves popcorn and went to the concession stand to get some. You could get a beer or a glass of wine but they didn’t have any popcorn. She came back disappointed. We wondered if we were having a folie à deux, the psychiatric term for a shared delusion.  The first ten-minute play after the  intermission had a bowl of popcorn as a prop. Turns out we aren’t as crazy as sometimes we think we are.

We love theater because we always get ideas, and these ten minute plays must be a challenge to write. No time for multiple plot lines. The story is set up right away and moves quickly to the denoument when the threads of the plot are pulled together. Several of the plays relied heavily on physical comedy which also gave us some ideas as what Laura and I write often turns comedic.

We really went to see the show because our writer friend, Brent Lewis, was on the bill. (It was piece of Brent’s writing that I shared on last week’s Wednesday blog post.) His play,  All Over But The Shouting, has only two characters, cranky elderly brothers in a nursing home who think an incoming missile is going to obliterate them in ten minutes. This gives them just a little time to try to resolve every damn argument and misunderstanding before they are blown to bits.

Below are Brent, me, my husband Roger and Laura. Laura’s husband would have been with us but he was flying.

Brent, Mala, Roger, Laura - 7-8-18

But I’m really glad we went. Brent’s play was awesome and I know from experience how important it is to have people you know see your work — and like it. Somehow Chestertown, Maryland seems further than going to Baltimore, but it’s not. We need to try harder to see local theater and support all the playwrights, even the ones we don’t know.

Write on Wednesday – July 4, 2018 – Finding a Voice

If you write fiction, finding your voice can be an ongoing search. My talented writing friend, Brent Lewis, has a unique voice that comes from growing up and hanging out with Eastern Shore folk. He eloquently writes about the Eastern Shore on his blog EasternShoreBrent.com and graciously gave me permission to repost Summer Marsh. It seemed appropriate for these hot summer days and the Fourth of July. Thank you, Brent.

Brent eastern shore landscape

 

SUMMER MARSH

by easternshorebrent

Muggy drops of humidity hang suspended midair and almost visible.

The pungency of the marsh is pervasive, strong. It sticks to the skin. Rich with the cycles of life and death, the marsh is a sensory reminder of the changes wrought by time’s tides.

A blue heron flies low and with grace across a dish-calm creek.

Something else drifts by on the slow, saturated breeze. Something wistful. Something that smells like bulkhead creosote, tastes like warm beer from 10 oz. cans, and looks like cutoff denim shorts and bright cotton tank tops that provide free advertising to bars, beverages, and billionaire rock bands.

Feels like a dock splinter, like nostalgia.

Sounds like a summer squall. Electricity cracks the sky. The downriver horizon darkens with much more threat than warning. Regret storms in through unbattened hatches. A few minutes of intense natural fury and the tempest blows north, up the Chesapeake Bay.

Local tomatoes: heirloom red and sweetheart firm. Pale yellow sweet corn, cooked in the husk, swathed in butter. Blue crabs caught on trotlines, steamed and spiced to perfection, giving the best of themselves only to those who know their secrets.

Soft crabs fried. Served on white bread or Saltines as God intended.

Watermelon.

Carnivals, county fairs, and the ghost-march of long extinguished firemen’s parades.

Lightning bugs announce the dusk.

Grand explosions of red, and white, and blue, and gold, and silver thunder in the night sky while the marsh lies silent below the blasts of rockets, solid looking in the dark distance and surrounded by shallow, murky waterways and paved-over wetlands.

From the intended solemnity of Memorial Day, through the patriotic celebration of the Fourth of July, to Labor Day, when we honor those who work to make this country work, there’s nothing like summer to remind an Eastern Shoreman how the marsh permeates his soul.

Follow Brent at https://easternshorebrent.com/author/easternshorebrent/

Brent’s first novel, Bloody Point, is a page turner with a quirky cast of characters involved in  a mystery set on the the Eastern Shore in 1976. Available on Amazon.

This is Brent and me at his book launch signing party. Where else but at a crab house on Kent Island.

Brent Lewis book signing

The fantastic cover of Brent’s book was designed by my multi-talented writing partner, Laura Ambler. Brent is also a long-time member of our Working Writers Forum which meets monthy.

 

 

 

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.

STAX marquee__Soul_v4

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: #Santa

Originally posted on September 22, 2014
#Santa tableread

Yesterday afternoon writers from our critique group, local actors, and friends joined us at Laura’s house for a table read of our #Santa screenplay. Laura’s terrace was decorated with a crab pot Christmas tree, and a small tree graced the table. The weather was perfect with a light breeze off the Miles River.

Our Working Writers Forum members had read some of the screenplay over the last few months, but for others at the table, it was their first exposure. It was wonderful to see the expressions on their faces as the story unfolded. We were interested in which lines got laughs, and which got sighs. After the reading was finished, we had more critiques about the pacing, the characters, and the unexpected ending for a Christmas movie.

I was particularly pleased by the comments of Mike, a local actor (one of the fabulous leads in the recent Easton production of Kiss of the Spider Woman), who thought the lead character in our script, Scarlett Cross, was strong, independent and feisty. Would Laura and I write any other kind?

After the reading, we feasted on burgers and dogs on the grill, drank some wine and had good conversation. Then we cut the cake!

#Santa cake

If you are interested in a quick laugh-out-loud read, you can get the #Santa: The Naughty List script on Amazon, formatted for easy reading on your Kindle. If you like it, we’d appreciate a great revue.

#Santa- The Naughty List

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: Damn Those Adverbs

“Substitute ‘damn’ every time you’re inclined to write ‘very;’ your editor will delete it and the writing will be just as it should be.”

― Mark Twain

marktwain-for-web

I suspect Twain was talking about adverbs – those pesky words that usually often end in ‘ly’.  It’s not that you can’t ever use adverbs, but it can be a mark of a lazy writer. Adverbs, which describe verbs, adjectives or other adverbs are easier to use than showing our readers what we want them to see.

I have been using an editing program called SmartEdit. I saw it reviewed on a writing blog and bought a single user license for around $70. I purchased it last year when I was reviewing my first two novels before sending them for proofing in anticipation of republishing. That project is still in the works, but on track.

SmartEdit was worth the investment. It ranked the adverbs in my writing by the number of times I used them. It allowed me to make corrections/changes on the spot. The program has eleven functions including repetitions, how many times a word or phrase is used, points out cliches and how often a sentence is started the same way. It helped me tighten my writing.

 

This came in today’s mail.

IMG_5924 (2)

I opened the envelope and let out a whoop. My new Dramatist Guild member card had arrived. It used to be flimsy cardboard but is now substantial black plastic. The photo makes it look brown, but it’s matt black.  Sophisticated, elegant, understated, almost a clone of a Visa Black Card.

Guild membership is a very big deal. You can only apply to become a member if you have had a play produced for a paying audience. I am exceedingly proud of my membership.

Sorry, Mark, sometimes you just have to use adverbs!

 

 

Write on Wednesday – How My Blog Began

This was my first blog post from April 25, 2012. Hard to believe I have been posting for six years. I’ve gotten more focused recently with a gardening focused post on Saturday and a writing post on Wednesday. Next up — Food on Friday. That may or may not happen. This is the season when writing and gardening vie for attention.

Laura Ambler & Mala Burt 9-19-12

April 25, 2012

Laura Ambler, my writing partner, and I were sitting in a Blogging workshop given by Mindie Burgoyne. Mindie said setting up a blog was super easy. Laura leaned over and whispered, “We should start a blog about our writing insecurities.”

“Oh, you mean like how I see life through a distorted body image lens?” I whispered back. (I used to be a clinical social worker so sometimes I talk like that.)

“You’re just neurotic about your body,” Laura said. “It has nothing to do with your writing.”

“It has everything to do with my writing. What if we sell one of our scripts and it gets made into a movie and we have to attend the Hollywood premier? I’d have to lose forty pounds before I could even look for a gown, ” I said.

“You’re just nuts,” Laura said. “But I bet there are other writers out there who are just as insecure as we are. Let’s start a blog called Does This Font Make Me Look Fat? It would be hilarious!”

Actually creating the blog has not been so hilarious. Mindie lied about the easy part. I spent an hour trying to figure out how to change the tag line. I’m still looking for a new headline font. Something puffy and fat. This font is way too skinny.

So, let’s hear from the neurotic, but talented writing community. Your fears, foibles and how you deal.