Friday, January 28, 2011

Update: DC, Kindle, and QueryTracker Interview

So I've been on the run all week since getting back from DC on Sunday night, just keeping busy with a zillion different things (broken clothes dryer, teaching a worm composting class, lots of snow shoveling, and some writing).  Here's a few quick things:
  • The DC trip was great.  As usual, the folks at Madcap, led by Managing Director Shawn Helm, took good care of me and my work. (And so did my friends, Dawn and Chip, who let me crash at their house, and Frank, who drove me home after the Friday show).  On Saturday, we gathered with the cast (Annie Hunt, Kate Hundley, Mike Rodriguez, Jack Powers, and Carl Brandt Long) and director (Paul McLane) around 11am and worked through my new full-length play, Flight, scene by scene, in rehearsal.  It was just the right kind of process for where I am with the script right now--lots of discussion and questions.  Real focused time, to think about the script both in the detailed moments and overall.  At 3pm, we had the reading for a small crowd, followed by a brief discussion.  After going through the script one step at a time, it was useful to finally,read it straight through, and get a sense of flow.   I was left with lots to think about, and took pages and pages of notes, that afternoon, that night, the next day, in the airport.  This week, I've been making more and more changes to the script.
  • I had a great time at the Madcap Winter Carnival performances.  There's still one weekend left, if you're in town.  I was pleased with how Escape to Wonderland turned out, and all the plays were fun.  The Saturday show was particularly sharp, with a warm, sold-out house.  I was particularly fond of Paul Bunyan vs the Tree Conservation Coalition, a short musical by Shawn Northrip, who wrote Cautionary Tales for Adults and the Many Adventures of Trixie Tickles, which I saw at a Winter Carnival a few years ago and still think is one of the funnier plays I've ever seen.
  • My play Blinders is now available for the Kindle, here.  The publisher for Blinders, Original Works Publishers, is trying something new.  I'm very curious to see if people have an interest in buying and reading plays as e-books. 
  • There's an interview with me about how I found my new agent for my novels, up on the site.  Querytracker is an immensely useful tool for fiction writers, as they try to find agents and publishers.  They sometimes publish "success stories" about writers who use their site, so there I am. 

That's about all the excitement for me. I should probably start stretching, so I can get ready for more snow shoveling. I like to shovel snow (don't tell anyone), and since we live in Boston, we've been getting plenty of chances this winter.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Heading to DC for Madcap and Flight

This weekend, I'll be visiting Washington, DC, where the Madcap Players are producing my play Escape to Wonderland as part of their Winter Carnival Festival.  They're also putting together a reading of my play, Flight, this Saturday, at 3pm, at the H Street Playhouse (1365 H Street, NE). I'm still working feverishly on rewrite to the play, trying to make the most of the reading opportunity.  We've got a great cast and director--I expect to have fun and learn a lot about the play.  (It's about a young woman who lives in the airport, to escape the trials of life and loss.  Her problems follow her there, in some very dramatic ways.)

If you're around, I hope you'll come join us.

Friday, January 14, 2011

My List of Outrageous Demands (and it can be yours, too)

When I was starting out my fellowship with the Huntington Theatre last year, Todd London's Outrageous Fortune had just come out, and we were all giving it some thought.   I was curious about to the obvious disconnect mentioned between artistic staff and playwrights, and also the perceived (by artistic staff) gap between playwrights and audience.  At one of our meetings, I showed up with my list of "outrageous demands" of things that I thought the theatre could do for us playwrights, as part of our program. 

It's actually a list that could be used by any theater thinking more about how to work with playwrights and get them more intimately involved with their company, without breaking the bank.

Here's a slightly modified version of my list (which was actually handwritten on the back of my invoice for my copy of Outragegous Fortune):

  1. I want our meetings to be in the theatre spaces.  Artistic directors often complain that writers don't write for their spaces, especially companies with really big spaces.  Being in an empty theatre inspires me, whether it's standing on someone else's set or (even better) on the blank stage.  It is hard to write for the big stage in an 800-seat house, if I've never had the chance to stroll around on it.
  2. Quick feedback.  One of the most frustrating parts about being a playwright is waiting forever to hear back from theatres about scripts.  If a theatre has an in-house group of writers, trying to respond to new drafts/submissions within a few weeks is a big boon that the artistic staff can provide. 
  3. Ability to see shows for free.  More than once.  The Huntington already gives free opening night tickets to all the HPF fellows, which I think is amazing.  Most theatres paper the house for press openings anyway, so giving tickets to their core writers doesn't change that balance.  And it's a huge bonus for the writers--I can't afford to see nearly as much theatre as I'd like.  Getting to attend multiple times (I'm happy to stand in the back), is an important addition.  The first time I watch a show, I'm busy taking it all in, focusing on my own experience.  The second or third time, I'm able to be more critical, and I get to watch the audience.  In Outrageous Fortune, some artistic directors complained that playwrights don't know the theatre's audience.  I am very interested in audiences, and I want to watch them watching plays.  (To be honest, my schedule this year has been overly full, so I haven't gotten to do this yet, but the Huntington has been more than willing to let me come back to see shows for multiple viewings.)
  4. Meet the artistic director and managing director, for more than just a handshake and a ten-second chat at a show.  One thing theatres can provide for playwrights is real, honest access to the people who run the place.  I'm not talking about weekly pow-wows, but even just an hour, once a year, of a one-on-one meeting, or even a meeting with the writers' group as a whole.  For large institutions, this is tougher than it sounds, but it's an important meeting to make happen.
  5. Let me sit in on some rehearsals.  Ideally some very early in the process, and some late in the process.  I don't want to get in the way, and I don't want to interrupt the most intimate discussions between directors and actors/designers/playwrights.  But, to be honest, I mostly operate at the very tiny theatre scale.  I know how those meetings and rehearsals work, but I don't have experience at the big budget venues.  Large and mid-size theatres have an opportunity to educate playwrights (like me) about how the process works on a larger scale.  I'm very good at sitting in the background and keeping my mouth shut when I need to.  (Honest.)  I'm extremely curious about how other artists collaborate--I want to learn from what they do to improve my own process and collaboration.
  6. Let me meet some directors brought in to direct shows.  (Sort of like #4 above.)  Various directors come in from out of town to work on shows at large and medium regional theatres.  Try to set aside just an hour for a quick beer between the director and the playwrights' group.  The director is already in town, so it doesn't cost anything extra.  I'll even buy the beer.  Yeah, yeah, I know the woman is scheduled every second.  Half an hour.  These kinds of connections/meetings can be extremely valuable, and are a way of leveraging work that theatre has already undertaken in order to have a greater impact, beyond just the show at hand.  (I promise not to come with a theatre in my backpack.)
  7. Let me attend talkback sessions after the show, even if I'm not there to see the performance that night.  (This is super easy to do at the Huntington.)  Again, like seeing the show multiple times, this is a way for writers to get to know the audience.  I want to hear their voices and comments.

That's about it.  Notice that I didn't say: produce more work by emerging playwrights, or more work by me.   I didn't even ask for more readings of my plays.  (Not that I don't want those things.) 

Any theatre, small, medium, or large, could put together a playwrights' unit and provide them with the things on this list for an extremely low cost, and doing so would help their local writers build important relationships and enable them to be more likely to write plays suitable for the theatre in question (theoretically).

As I said in a previous post--it never hurts to ask.  Let's start issuing this list of outrageous demands to as many theatres as we dare.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Just Ask (how to get a new play reading)

Next weekend, on Saturday the 22nd, I have a reading of my newest full-length play, FlightMadcap Players in Washington, DC,  is putting the reading together, actor/director Paul McClane will direct.  I'm going to be down there to see Madcap's Winter Carnival festival, where they're producing my short play, Escape to Wonderland.  The reason I'm getting this reading:  I asked.

I'm not saying that as playwrights we always get what we ask for (if only that were true).  But sometimes, we need to remember that it's all right to ask for what we need.  Especially if we already have a relationship with a theatre (Madcap staged my full-length play, Constant State of Panic, last January)--we can't be shy.  In this case, I asked for something that hopefully won't be too complicated--they already have a bunch of actors around, they already have a space that's rented and available.  And even more importantly for getting a Yes, we can hopefully use it as a way to increase publicity for the Winter Carnival--my hope is that some people who come to the 3pm reading will stick around for dinner nearby and come back and see the show at 8pm.  It certainly gives us an excuse to send out a few more e-mails.

For me, I'll get to hear my whole play read in front of a small audience, by very talented DC actors.  And, of course, I'll be able to show Madcap what I'm up to with this new play (and I already know they like my work).

There are a lot of one-act festivals out there, and I'd love to see more playwrights work with theatres to do readings like this, where the cost and logistics can piggyback on existing projects, and everyone wins.  It can be a bit of extra expense and organization, but it's much easier and cheaper than putting together a whole staged readings festival.  And it allows the relationship between the theatre and playwrights to deepen, beyond just the production of the ten-minute play.

I'm a big fan of playwrights putting together their own staged readings--it's a way to get what you need, when you need it, instead of waiting around for someone to do it for you.  But working cooperatively with a theatre is even more effective, because it builds and strengthens vital relationships.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

2009-2010 ETA New Play Survey

Every year, the Educational Theatre Association takes a look at which plays are playing on high school stages all across America.

For playwrights, it's an interesting list--it lets us see how much modern work is filtering its way down into the mainstream educational world. In terms of full-length plays, the answer is not much.  The sole exception is Almost, Maine, by John Cariani, published by Dramatists Play Service.  The play has an interesting history, which was detailed by the NY Times a few weeks ago.  Though it would be nice for playwrights to take some hope,  knowing that a play that flopped in NYC has a big life afterwards, the discouraging part is that it still took a commercial NY run to grab enough attention for it to play in a lot of other venues.  Most of our plays won't ever get an Off Broadway run, successful or otherwise.  It's not a surprise that the play is episodic and can be done with a large cast--a requirement to succeed in the high school market.

The top ten short plays performed by high schools (most are large-cast, half-hour comedies) is where you'll see work by various contemporary writers.  Notice that Playscripts publishes seven of the plays on this top ten list, with Jonathan Rand having written half of them.  (Christopher Durang is probably the only well-known playwright in the top ten.)   Last year, some of the smaller publishers had plays on the list, but this year, we only have Playscripts, Dramatists Play Service, Dramatic Publishing, and Samuel French.  I'd sure love to see YouthPlays or some of the other smaller publishers crack this list again (I'm sure they would, too). 

If you're writing for this market, it's a great idea to buy and read these scripts and see what's selling these days.  This is certainly a list where I'd like to see some of my one-acts someday.  I wrote two new half-hour, large cast high school comedies last year (Reassembling Sasha from YouthPlays and The Next Big Thing from Brooklyn), butit'll take a while for them to get some traction.  If I can find the time, I hope to write at least one more for this year.

I'll paste in the top ten short plays list here:

1. Check Please, by Jonathan Rand (Playscripts, Inc.)
2. Check Please: Take 3, by Jonathan  Rand (Playscripts, Inc.)
3. (tie) The Actor's Nightmare, by Christopher Durang (Dramatists Play Service)
3. (tie) 13 Ways to Screw Up Your College Interview, by Ian McWethy (Playscripts, Inc.)
5. Check Please: Take 2, by Jonathan Rand (Playscripts, Inc.)
6. (tie) The Brothers Grimm Spectaculathon, by Don Zolidis (Playscripts, Inc.)
6. (tie) Hard Candy, by Jonathan Rand (Playscripts, Inc.)
8. (tie) Competition Piece, by John S. Wells (Samuel French)
8. (tie) How to Succeed in High School Without Really Trying, by Jonathan Rand (Playscripts, Inc.)
10. This Is a Test, by Stephen Gregg (Dramatic Publishing Co.)

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Pile of Tornado Sirens (help me)

Okay, so I've got a pile of copies of my novel, Tornado Siren, sitting on the shelf in my office, where they're not doing anyone any good.  So if you haven't already read it (I know many of you have), now might be a good time.  They're available on the Tornado Siren site for $7, which includes shipping.  Your copy will even be signed by yours truly.   (Such a deal!)

It's a fun read (a paranormal love story about a meteorologist and a guy with an odd connection to tornadoes).  There's lots more info about the book (including many positive reader comments), at    I hope you'll give it a shot.

Or you can order one right now, just by clicking on this button:

Monday, January 3, 2011

How to Break into Screenwriting If You're Not in LA

Chad Gervich has a great Primetime column on How to Break In If You're Not in LA, over at Script Magazine this month.  I've gone back and forth my my screenwriting ambitions over the years, but I have one screenplay that I've written that keeps nagging at me.   And then a few other ideas start to percolate.

Chad's column is more than just about how to get someone to read a single script, but really about how to make some attempt at a career even if you're not in L.A.  (I've finally accepted that if you're serious about a career writing for film, you really do need to move out there.  And I don't see that happening in my future.)  He's got some great advice, and some of it is readily achievable here in Boston, and has actually been on my to-do list for some time, including volunteering at a film festival.  There are several here that I'm sure would welcome volunteers (maybe next year, when I have more time).

I like that he counsels writers to be active, too.  "Make something," he says.  I bought a camera and some editing software a year or two ago, but haven't had the time to do anything with them.  But I'll have some time this fall (really, don't scoff), and I'd like to make a few shorts.  I've even been thinking about adapting one of my more episodic stage plays for a web-based video series.  It's hard not to be intrigued by the low cost of access, with cheap cameras and easy posting to YouTube.  Way back in college, I had a blast making short films, and I'd definitely like to try again.  Back then, there wasn't any chance at finding an audience outside of friends, family, and a few parties.  Now a video can go viral and be seen by a million people (I'm lucky if 7,000 people see my theatre work in a given year.)

Definitely something to think about.  I have friends and family members who are makings films here in Boston and in Denver.  Have any of you made any headway?  Let me know what you think of Chad's column.  (I'm surprised that in the comments section, people rail against the reality that it's an L.A.-centered business.  Why blame Chad for the reality on the ground?  And what's the point in being pissed about it, unless it leads you take concrete action.)

Saturday, January 1, 2011

2010 Inputs (and favorites)

I'm a numbers guy, so I keep track of how many books and plays and movies I take in each year.

Here are my totals for 2010:

Books read:  31 

Paper TownsLast year I read 51 books.  My wife, Tracy, reads about twice as many as I do.  This year was super busy for me, so my reading time was greatly curtailed.  I read quite a few that I liked a lot, but my favorites were:

Paper Towns by John Green 

Water for Elephants by Sarah Gruen

City of Thieves: A NovelCity of Thieves by David Benioff

Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel

The Worst Hard Time: The Untold Story of Those Who Survived the Great American Dust Bowl by Timothy Egan


Plays read:  23

Favorites included:  A Live Dress by Martha Kaufman, Shelter by Miranda Craigwell, and The Private Lives of Eskimos by Ken Urban.

This is a very small number, I know, but more than I read last year.  I'm a slacker.  I hope to read one a week this year.

Plays and readings watched:  43

This is more than I saw last year, and about all that my schedule and budget can accommodate.  (I spent more than $400 on theatre tickets this year.  I was lucky to get quite a few free tickets and that I have a StageSource membership.) 

My favorites were Gatz by the Elevator Repair Service at the ART, Lydia Diamond's Stick Fly at the Huntington, and The Aliens by Annie Baker from Company One, and Mauritius by Theresa Rebeck at the Gamm Theatre.

Movies watched:  56

Most these were via Netflix, but we get out to the movie theatre more now than when the kids were little.  My favorites this year included:  Winter's Bone, I Am Love, Dr. Horrible's Sing Along Blog (not really a movie), and The Messenger.  Probably my favorite film/video of the year was Season 1 of Friday Night Lights, which totally captured my attention (we're on season 3 now).  For the past few years, I've really felt that long-form dramatic television has reached new heights and offers some of the best dramatic writing appearing in any form right now. 

I'm looking forward to reading and seeing a lot more new work in 2011.