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.

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.

 

Christmas Parade Memories

“Happy, happy Christmas, that can win us back to the delusions of our childish days; that can recall to the old man the pleasures of his youth; that can transport the sailor and the traveller, thousands of miles away, back to his own fire-side and his quiet home!”

–Charles Dickens, The Pickwick Papers

The Christmas’s I really remember are those from my childhood in South Bend, Indiana.  We moved there from Bryan, Texas when I was five. My father had left his teaching post at Texas A & M for a teaching position at Notre Dame. South Bend gave me my first experience of snow and all Christmas seasons ever after have needed snow. Even just the couple of inches we got last night transport me into the spirit of the season.

Young people today don’t realize that the Christmas season didn’t use to start until after Thanksgiving. And on Thanksgiving, in South Bend, it usually snowed. By the time we were finished with turkey and dressing, we were bundled up and took our sleds to the slopes of a nearby area the neighborhood kids called The Trails. It was where we played ball and hide and seek in the summer and built pirate forts year round. When it snowed, several small hills were perfect for our Radio Flyers. At least that’s the way I remember it. I can’t imagine it always snowed on Thanksgiving, but in my childhood recollections, it did. And that’s when the countdown to Christmas began.

It might not be correct that on Thanksgiving weekend there was a Christmas parade in downtown South Bend, but that’s the way I remember it.  Overnight Christmas displays appeared in store windows, and at our Swedish Lutheran church the children’s choir began practicing songs for the Christmas Eve service.  It was an eternal month of anticipation. Would Christmas never come?

Living in a small town brings back those memories. On Saturday we went to St. Michaels main street to watch the annual Christmas parade. Three small children next to us were bundled into blankets as they waited for the parade to begin. It was snowing and I remembered the wonder of being that age.

IMG_4841

What I don’t remember about past Christmas’s in the snow is my hands and feet turning to ice. On Saturday I was trying to take photos for my blog. My gloves got wet and by the time we left, my hands were so cold I couldn’t feel them.  I wasn’t feeling joyful, I was freezing.  That’s me with my own Santa.

IMG_4888

The parade had everything. Marching bands, dogs,  floats, fire trucks and llamas. And because we live on the Eastern Shore of Maryland, there were quite a few boats.

IMG_4849

IMG_4868

IMG_4954

IMG_4977

IMG_4900

IMG_4938

IMG_4959

IMG_4968

We waited for Tom Campi, St. Michaels perennial Santa Claus, who had a special bay built into his garage for his sleigh. Tom is the inspiration for the Christmas play Laura Ambler and I wrote. The year it premiered at the Avalon Theatre, Laura and I walked in the St. Michaels Christmas Parade with some of the cast. It wasn’t as cold given how people are dressed and it wasn’t snowing.

Cassells and Wagners

Apparently Tom’s Santa Claus was the last float in Saturday’s parade but we were standing much further down the parade route and thought the parade had ended. Everyone left. Someone later told me there was a big gap in the parade before Santa’s float. I was worried that something had happened to Tom, but he was okay and spent the rest of the day with kids whispering Christmas wishes in his ear.

This is a photo from a previous year’s parade. This Santa is the real deal!

2014-Header-Santa

After the parade, my husband and I went home to our own fire-side and thawed out.

IMG_4711.JPG

 

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.

 

 

 

‘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.

IMG_0762

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.

IMG_0763

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.

IMG_0765

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.

mala-with-kransekakke

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Cranberries and Community

Monday morning I went to the St. Michaels Community Center where I was picking up a projector to use in a presentation Laura Ambler and I are giving to the St. Michaels Woman’s Club. We’ve been asked to speak about how our Christmas memory Book, The Santa Diaries: Memories of a Small-town Christmas became a play.

Santa Diaries Cover JPEG

Director Trish Payne was kind enough to spend time showing me how to work the projector and get it synced with my laptop. I wrote everything down and will practice at home before we take it on the road.

The Community Center was a busy place that morning. Trish and her helpers were getting ready for the annual Thanksgiving dinner they organize. It’s held at one of the local churches. Trish mentioned that she had to get to the store to buy cranberry sauce. My hand shot up. “I have ten bags of cranberries in my fridge,” I said. “I’ll make a big pot of cranberry sauce for the dinner.” I was going to make cranberry sauce and can it, but I can always get more cranberries.

cranberries

Tuesday morning I delivered the cranberry sauce to the Community Center. The large, covered pot had cooled overnight on my deck, the lid weighted with a brick. I didn’t want any curious neighborhood cat getting into it. On Wednesday it won’t be enough to serve the 125 -150 people who will come to the dinner, but it will be a contribution. I was glad I’d been in the right place at the right time.

During this season of gratitude, I’m thankful that St. Michaels has a Community Center with programs for our youth and seniors. The center is one of the important threads that, woven together, makes up the fabric of our little town.And  I’m grateful that indefatigable Trish Payne keeps it all running.