Hurricane Sandy? The Show Must Go On…

With only 47 days until opening, almost everyone made it to rehearsal yesterday (Oct 28, 2012). Director Tim Weigand was late because he was at Talbot County’s Office of Emergency Services watching the track of Hurricane Sandy and making disaster preparedness videos for the local cable channel. I think the people who came had already completed their storm prep before arriving at the Avalon. We all hope the storm will pass our area without too much damage and Tuesday night’s rehearsal will happen as scheduled. There is still lots of work to do.

One of the longest scenes in the play is when Will (the male lead and LA star) holds auditions for the community play. Everybody in the cast is on stage and the majority of them are kids. Trying to keep everybody focused is a real challenge. I am amazed that nobody is yelling, but from the back of the audience I want to collar some of the older kids and tell them to listen up and help corral the youngest. Being present on stage is crucial and is being drummed into everybody, but it’s a hard thing to do.

Cecile Davis worked with Talley Wilford and choreographer Cavin Moore on a variety of blocking options for this complex scene. Moving people about and then expecting them to stand quietly while she gives instruction about how to do it better is difficult. Some people have to be at the front of the group at a given time and that requires shuffling of the cast. The stage at the Avalon is not large and if people are too far front they are not visible to those in the balcony. Lots of things to consider.

Portia Hughes plays the part of Marley, the imaginary come-to-life stuffed animal (dog) belonging to Tim Darling. This is a great role with lots of physical humor. Portia came prepared for her hands-on-knees role with kneepads. Good thinking, Portia.

We are beginning to hear some discussion about lighting issues. There are times when certain stage areas of a scene need to be spotlighted, and then another and another in quick sequence. People have to be in place when that scene begins and stand quietly until the spotlight is on them. I am beginning to understand why there is a technical week at the end of the rehearsal process. I might be biting my nails at that point.

After most of the kids were released around four in the afternoon, the rest of the cast went up to Stolz to continue rehearsing. They are all to be off book in a week or so and only some are there at this point. Tim Weigand talked about the importance of pauses in dialogue and not rushing ahead. Timing for laughs is something the actors may not really get a handle on until the play is being rehearsed on stage and there are people reacting in the audience.

The actors are getting more comfortable in their roles and Tim, Cece and Tally are encouraging them to try different “takes” on their characters until they find the one that really works. This has to feel risky, but feeling safe enough to try is crucial. There are no mistakes at this stage of the game.

Controlled Chaos and Collaboration

Mala writes:  Watching the table read of The Santa Diaries was amazing even with Director Tim Weigand telling the actors to just read at this point. He said there will be lots of readings before they start acting – that at this point the goal is becoming familiar with the script and other actors lines. He told them they needed to be “off book” by November 1. I think that means they need to know their lines by then.

Laura and I have been working on the script since the beginning of June. I know there will be tweaks, additions and subtractions almost to opening night. Now we are learning about the myriad details involved in getting the script on stage.

Someone had to go through the script and put the scenes on a spreadsheet with all the characters (even walk-ons) down the left side and then indicate which scenes (across the top of the spreadsheet) each character is in. I couldn’t figure out how to print it out, let alone do this herculean job – which had to be done before a rehearsal schedule could be compiled.

Not every actor has to be at every rehearsal which will be taking place in three different places in the Avalon Theatre: on stage, in the Stoltz Listening Room and on the third floor. Some actors will be running between these locations. Tuesday nights and Sunday afternoons are going to be chaotic. Then there are the changes. Tomorrow night the stage won’t be available because Capital Steps will be performing. Main leads only in Stoltz.

This is what controlled chaos looked like yesterday afteroon. I was amazed that the kids actually were getting the dance routine down. Remember, this was the third rehearsal!

I am coming to realize that controlled chaos is how you produce a play. The writing part was easy compared to the details that now have to be handled. Sets, costumes, directing, choreography, and a whole bunch of things that have to happen that I’m not aware of. Let’s not forget the important role of front of house – marketing, ticket sales, vacuuming the theater between performances. Truly, putting on a play is a collaborative effort. I’m beginning to think Laura and I did the easy part.

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.


Laura Posts “It’s Really Happening!”

This article says that the Avalon Foundation is casting roles for its Christmas production. A new original play written by Laura Ambler and Mala Burt. Yikes! That’s US! There in black and white for everyone to see. Yes, I know Mala’s been posting about our Santa Diaries meetings with the Avalon, even documenting them with photos, but that doubting, insecure, neurotic writer part of me was absolutely certain that the Avalon folks just didn’t want to hurt our feelings. That they were being gracious and humoring us, but would eventually say, “We’re sorry, but it’s not for us.” The delicate way of saying it stinks.

But seeing the notice in Friday’s Star Democrat’s weekend section that auditions for The Santa Diaries are starting THIS MONDAY – September 24th  – from 5:30 to 8:30 at the Avalon, was truly a Sally Field Oscar moment. And no, not that they loved us, but that we’d created something that they believed would showcase local talent and resonate with the community. We will SO be there! What writer could resist seeing something they wrote actually being performed!

Writing is such a solitary pursuit. When you write fiction you never get to sit next to the reader and see how they react to what you wrote – unless you’re REALLY obnoxious – and yes, I admit, I’ve forced people to read something I wrote while I watched them – namely my husband –   and pounced on their (his) every physiological reaction – “You sighed! Were you moved???!” The usual reaction… “No, I was just breathing.” Sad. Me. Not them (him).

Even writing movie screenplays, in which I’ve optioned and sold a few and even had one produced is similar. The studio or production company tells you what you wrote was FABULOUS! Then when you see the actual film or rewrite find they’ve added unicorns or ogres and flaming fireballs to your heartfelt family film. Or changed it from a man against nature drama to a murder car chase flick. Seriously.

Writing with Mala is such a joy. We’ve worked on novels and screenplays and teleplays. We’ve made each other laugh to the point of tears. And tortured her poor husband, Roger – our resident expert on everything from political to psychological – with innumerable questions – and yes – he always has the answer, not to mention the raised eyebrow at our sanity. But this is the first time our writing will be a supreme collaborative venture. A romantic comedy Christmas musical.

Inspried by….

 – but more on that later.

The Avalon folks, Tim Weigand, Jessica Bellis Rogers, Cece Davis and Liza Ledford not only READ our play. They liked it!  Along the way they have had fabulous ideas about how to make it better! We loved the feedback.

To actually seeing them acting out some of the parts was like (I imagine) heroin! Or fudge. Or cheese! Pick your poison. I want more!

And based on seeing this notice in the Star Democrat, I am salivating. I will get my cheese on Monday. There will be actors and dancers and musicians wanting to bring The Santa Diaries to life. Adding their own vision, passion, and experiences.  Amazing. It’s really happening.

Do What the John Wants!

Notes sessions are where the people you are writing a script for tell you what they want fixed. A script writer friend told us once, “You do what the John wants.” It cracked us up because it was so spot on, and has become part of our vocabulary.

Yesterday Laura and I met at the Avalon at 3pm with Jessica Bellis Rogers, Tim Weigand, Cece Davis and  Liza Ledford for another notes session. Jessica, Tim and Cece  told us they had spent about five hours over the weekend (with helpful input from Liza) going over the latest version of the script. They had some excellent suggestions — tweaks mostly that can be made with slight changes to already existing lines of dialogue. It was suggested we move one scene. Easy with cut and paste.

Then Tim mentioned, sotto voce, that they wanted the changes made by Monday morning because they are going to start auditions Monday evening. Excuse me, what did you just say? Laura and I are both jammed up today (Thursday) with other commitments, but that leaves Friday, Saturday and Sunday. Piece of cake. The Avalon folks were a little apologetic, but we know this is how the process works. At some point it starts to get intense.

Cece is going to help with the social media piece and we are really grateful. Jessica commented that at the Avalon they struggle with how much time to devote to social media. It can suck you right up, so having someone on board who doesn’t have to learn it from scratch will be huge.

After two intense hours the meeting started to break up, but we didn’t leave the theater until ten of six. Jessica wanted some photos of Laura and me for PR purposes. (Note to self: always assume when you go to a meeting that photos might be taken and wear mascara!) As we left the Avalon we looked at each other and laughed. “Do what the John wants,” we said simultaneously.

I’ve just downloaded the pictures (which were taken on my camera) and we are to come up with some author quotes about the process thus far and send it all to the person who is going to write the first press release. The Avalon folks offered us that opportunity, but we passed.

Monday is rushing at us.

Rewrites Can Be Fun – Really!

Last week we had another “notes” meeting at the Avalon Theatre. This time with Tim Weigand, who will direct our play, and Jessica Rogers, the General Manager. This was the first time Jessica had read the play and she had some fantastic suggestions including adding a couple of characters which meant a huge rewrite. She was almost apologetic, because she knew how much work would be involved, but her suggestion was terrific and something we wouldn’t have thought of. She also said we needed to add another 20 to 30 pages of script. (Remember there is lots of white space in plays and scripts so this didn’t make us pass out.)

We were thrilled with what happened when we put the two new characters in the play. It was like they were supposed to be there and the pages just piled up. In another week we’ll have that draft finished. It will go back to Tim, Jessica and Cece one more time for notes, but we know changes will be ongoing. Once the show is being blocked and we can hear actors on stage we’ll find out if there are pieces of dialog that just don’t work or parts that need to be clarified or expanded.

The next step will be a table read so we’ll get a sense of how long the play will be. Tim told us they’re already thinking about actors to fill the various roles, some of which are fairly demanding. Others characters have just a few lines and some are walk-ons. In community theater, when you’re doing a show as a fund raiser, you want as many people as possible on the stage. They all have parents, siblings and friends who will buy tickets and come to see them.

Oh, by the way, we still have the actor in a dog costume, but the pirate eye patch which seemed so hilarious one morning has now been eliminated. Arrrgh.

The Tim and Cece Show at the Avalon Theatre

Laura and I had our second “notes” meeting last Friday with Tim Weigand and Cecile (Cece) Davis from the Avalon Theatre. They had more perceptive suggestions about layering depth into the dialogue and suggesting physical actions that show the audience something about the character. When you write a screenplay you give an occasional suggestion about how a character reacts, but anything that smacks of telling the director what to do is a big No, No. You only put notes in when it is absolutely imperative that the director keep that piece of business. In writing this play, we are being encouraged to state the way we see action unfolding. I think they want to keep our vision. We’re not prima donnas. We’re happy to have Tim, as director, add his own vision to the production, but we’d love to sit in on the casting sessions.

At one point Tim and Cece jumped out of their chairs and started acting out one of the scenes, adding chunks of improv dialogue. What a treat. We couldn’t write their ad libbed lines down fast enough. They weren’t just doing a table read, they were in character. This made the script come alive. Laura commented later that although we have gotten excellent reviews for our novel (soon to be reissued as Last Chance Ranch), hearing someone say the lines in our play was a new, thrilling experience. It actually gave me goosebumps.

On Saturday we worked on revisions for five hours. Laura must have had a lot of coffee because we were in some sort of weird humor zone and ended up laughing until we were wiping our eyes. I reread that part this morning. Not sure if it works or not. Dog with an eyepatch – you’ll have to see the show! But we’ll probably leave it in and see what Tim and Cece think. It’s incredible to work with such talented people.

This is so much fun, but the icing on the cake is that we realized once the play is produced we can add “Produced Playwright” to our resumes. That’s pretty cool! Laura is already a “Produced Screenwriter” but neither one of us has done a play before. This afternoon we’ll make a few more tweaks and then email it off to Tim and Cece at the Avalon Theater. I’m sure they’ll have more terrific suggestions. The script gets better with each pass.