Write on Wednesday – Maine Welcomes The Santa Diaries – December 18, 2018

Maine wasn’t as cold as we expected, but it does get dark early. It was a short flight from Baltimore and by the time Laura Ambler and I landed at the Portland airport and were in the rental car (complete with ice scraper) it was getting dark. It was an hour drive to Bath. We checked into our hotel, found a place to eat dinner and walked to the theater to see the opening night show at the Chocolate Church Center for the Arts.

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Thom Watson, the producter, told us before the show that the light board had gone out that afternoon and they were using dimmers and spots. The show must go on and it did to a full house. We were entranced.

Chocolate Church Center for the Arts is a wonderful theater space. The bones of the original church are still there, and it has great acoustics. We were told that on Friday afternoon two hundred school children kids had attended a performance of The Santa Diaries, many of them seeing their first live stage performance. The photo below was taken before Saturday’s matinee. The light board was back up.

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The director of the show was Dennis St. Pierre, an Actors Equity  and Screen Actors Guild member with 20 years of professional work in the theater, tv and music industry as an actor, singer, director and producer.  He is currently the interim Executive Director for the Chocolate Church Performing Arts Center and recently created an Arts Education program that allows for collaboration with local school programs. It was that program that brought all those school kids to see The Santa Diaries. What a wonderful gift to the students.

In the opening scene of the show, cute elves deliver packages to Sandy Hawes who believes he has a calling… to be Santa.

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The large cast exemplifies a line in the play…”It’s community theater. Anyone who wants a part, gets a part.” The photo below doesn’t show all the adorable elves who occasionally escaped their wranglers backstage and made an early entrance!

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Chocolate Church did something clever to facilitate scene changes. They created three wheeled set pieces: a left and right window and a center piece that was the fireplace in Sandy’s living room (not seen in photo above). Each of these set pieces could be turned around to show something different on the other side. And for the finale (the community theater renovated after a fire) Christmas lights were turned on to show decorations in the actual theater. The audience went, “Awwww.” It was beautiful.

Before the show on Friday night we walked around the quaint main street of Bath. There was  a snowman with a fire in his belly and kids were roasting marshmallows. With lots of adult supervision, of course. The only thing missing was lightly falling snow.

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If we had stayed longer we would have attended the free community carol sing at Chocolate Church, a tradition on the last Monday evening before Christmas. And we would have spent more time at the Maritime Museum where the Christmas tree was made out of lobster pots.

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At home, on the Chesapeake Bay, we have crab pot Christmas trees .

After three traveling weekends it was lovely to be home and put away my suitcase. Requests for perusal scripts have been coming in from theaters around the country, so it will be interesting to see where The Santa Diaries finds community theater homes in 2019. We already know one production will be in Tennessee.

 

 

Write on Wednesday – The Sugar Creek Players Do Us Proud – December 5, 2018

You know you are in Indiana when your rental car comes with an ice scraper, but the weather Gods smiled on Laura Ambler and me the first weekend in December 2018. We never needed the scraper, but I was glad I’d packed an umbrella.

We flew into Indianapolis and drove to Crawfordsville. An hour on the interstate led us right to the Vanity Theater.

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It’s a thrill to see our play in marquis lights.

On opening night the house was full and we were escorted to our seats by two of the cast members who play volunteer firemen in the show.

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After welcoming remarks by Director Keith Strain, the firemen escorted us to the stage where Crawfordsville Mayor, Todd Barton,  presented us with a proclamation announcing this week as The Santa Diaries week.

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The stage at the Vanity Theater is tight…just 22 feet wide. It’s deep however, and the director made use of several levels including a scrim (you can see it on the photo above with a photo projected on it) and a small raised area which served as Timmy’s bedroom.

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Sandy, Will, Martha, Brandeee and Josh. Then the Casserole Ladies begin to arrive.

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When most of the cast is on stage, it’s crowded, but risers in the back help.

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Adorable elves help Sandy read letters to Santa.

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Marley Dog, Timmy and Will.

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There was an after party on Friday night where all the cast and crew gathered.

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On Saturday Director Keith Strain and his wife, Betsy, took us to lunch. And in the afternoon a local cooperative art gallery hosted a reception for us. Laura and I supported the local ecomomy and bought jewelry and met people from this vibrant community.

On Saturday night we saw the show again. The staging of every production is unique and every actor interprets his/her character differently. It’s why we travel to see productions. Sometimes there’s a bit of business that we want to keep. This time it was a reprise of At Christmas I Believe (an original song in the show written by Laura Ambler) sung by Will’s mother’s ghost. It was a nice touch. It would give a director an option for the character of Alice.

Community theaters across America provide a cultural venue for their communities. Sometimes they serve as the focal point for the revitalization of a small town. And for some, they are a place where people come together — regardless of politics, religion, gender or sexual orientation — to put on a show. And that’s just what the Sugar Creek Players did at the Vanity Theater last weekend. They put on a great show and did us proud.

 

 

Six on Saturday – Shirley’s Magic Wreath Machine – December 1, 2018

This is a repost of a blog from last year. Nothing happening in the garden except waiting for it to dry out enough that leaves can be gathered and mulched. We had our first killing frost last week. This weekend I will be in Indiana for that state’s premier of The Santa Diaries, a Christmas play Laura Ambler and I wrote for the Avalon Theatre in Easton in 2012. We are excited to see the interpretation of the Sugar Creek Players.

From December 2017: As my blog readers know, I’ve been involved in planning meetings for the St. Michaels Woman’s Club garden group, Green Thumb. This year my task was to coordinate an annual wreath making event. Shirley Windsor of Seasonal Flowers comes to the St. Michaels Woman’s Club clubhouse with her magic wreath making machine and all participants go home with a beautiful wreath.

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Each year Laura Ambler, my writing partner,  allows me to cut greens from her property.  And each year she gets a wreath I make. I took this one to her office and she hung it on the front door. It would be way to big for my front door. Some years I make a big one and a smaller one for myself.

These wreaths take a lot of material and we all bring our own bags of greens. And we share. Each large wreath needs 18 bundles of greens (each with 10-12 stems). A small wreath takes 14. The ends of the bundles are wrapped with a rubber band. Each bundle is inserted between two prongs on the wreath frame and when Shirley presses on the foot lever, the two prongs are pushed flat over the end of the bundle. You can see the lever on the bottom of this photo. It’s really quite amazing. I found this company online with what looks like the guts of Shirley’s machine.

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The workshop is messy and we had put down tarps the day before. I had to be in Annapolis so my friend Carol and her husband Jim got all the tarps down and taped and the tables set up. I was so grateful for their help.

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Making bundles takes time, but everyone goes home with a wreath they can be proud of and every single one is different and beautiful.

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This was Leslye’s first wreath. Spectacular!

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Jennifer’s first wreath. She told me she was going to highlight the magnolia leaves with some gold paint. She was one of the last ones to get her bundles put on a frame and the rest of us were sweeping up and removing tarps around her. The clubhouse had to be left spotless as a crew setting up for the Christmas in St. Michaels’ Gingerbread House Contest was coming in early the follwing day. The preview party was Saturday night. There is lots to do in St. Michaels this time of year.

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Christmas in St. Michaels is in its 36th year and raises money for charities in the Bay Hundred area. It’s a spectacular event and the result in a year-long planning effort. It starts next Saturday with the best small-town Christmas parade in America.

 

 

 

Write on Wednesday – Countdown – October 31, 2018

A FaceBook post from a cast member in the new play, A Christmas Wedding, that blocking for the play was complete got me thinking about how playwrights turn their babies over to directors, cast and crew.  It’s an open adoption of Laura’s and my work. We’ll get to see how the baby is raised but someone else is now doing the heavy lifting. Getting the show on its feet and ready for the curtain to go up. It’s a thousand details and, I expect, some sleepless nights for the director.

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When I think about those details a wave of anxiety (okay a small tsunami) washes over me before I remind myself that every single one of the people involved in the new show and the original want each performance to be the best it can be.

We, the playwrights, have a vision and the words we’ve written must stay the same. That’s in the contract.  But that’s where any control we might have ends. Each director has a vision, an interpretation of our words and how they instruct the actors to say them. The blocking can make a difference and put a slightly different spin on the characters. The set and costumes are part of that spin. Every production is different and that makes each unique.

Of course my writing partner, Laura Ambler, and I are going to see the shows. We have a busy December planned. On Friday, November 30 we fly to Indiana. That night we’ll see the opening performance of The Santa Diaries in Crawfordsville, Indiana produced by the Sugar Creek Players and performed in the Vanity Theater. Directed by Keith Strain  and produced by Kym Bushong.

On Friday, December 7 we fly to Faribault, Minnesota and that night will see the premier of A Christmas Wedding: Santa Diaries Two performed by the Merlin Players at the Paradise Center for the Arts. Julianna Skluzacek is the director.

And on Friday, December 14 we fly to Bath, Maine to see Chocolate Church Arts Center’s opening performance of The Santa Diaries, directed by Dennis St. Pierre.

At each venue we’ll see two performances. It will be exciting to see our babies all grown up. Laura and I are filled with gratitude to all the people involved in producing our plays, and humbled by the dedication of time and talent that goes into each production.

To paraphrase Tiny Tim, “God bless you, every one. You are awesome!”

 

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.”

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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.

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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.

 

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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

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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.