Friday, January 27, 2012

farming? (why and how)

I spend a lot of my time writing books and plays and am involved with a dozen different theatre and film projects.  But I've also been a pretty serious gardener for a while.  I used to coordinate two different community gardens in Roxbury.  I started the 200 Foot Garden public garden in Brookline three years ago.  Last summer, we grew in three different gardens.

Now I'm taking the next step.  This year, I'll be in a farm training program, the New Entry Sustainable Farming Project, and farming a quarter acre incubator plot in Dracut, MA.  The incubator plots come with irrigation, a shared hoophouse and tractor, tools, lots of technical support, and the ability to sell to the World PEAS cooperative CSA.  We'll also be selling our produce at two farmer's markets over the summer and fall, under the name of Puddingstone Farm.

This means I'm going to writing less from April through October, which is not a small thing for me.  When the kids were little, I was always scrambling to find more time to write and do theatre.  Now they're a lot bigger, and I'm committing to a huge project that's going to eat writing time like never before.


For the most part, it's for the positive things that appeal to me about farming:
  • I like to work with my hands.
  • I like to be outdoors, growing things.
  • I believe that growing healthy food is important, not just for my family, but also for my community as a whole.  Bringing backs sustainable small farms is important for the health of the environment.
  • I like developing the ability to feed myself.
  • I look forward to meeting and interacting with new people at the farmer's markets.  At our stand, we plan to have a small lending library of our favorite cookbooks and books about farming and food.  Mostly to serve as a jumping off point for interesting conversations.
  • I enjoy getting to know other farmers.  I know a lot of theatre and book folk, but it's good to widen my circle.  The people I see at the NOFA conference talk about different things from people at theatre conferences.  That's a good thing for me as a writer, and as a person.
  • It's hard.  I like to do hard things.  (Hence writing plays and novels.)  The mental part is just as challenging as the physical.
  • There's a certain concreteness to it.  I plant a seed and it germinates.  I take proper care of the seedling and it turns into a plant that I can harvest.  There's a simple, natural logic to it.
  • People know that they need to pay for food.  They may not understand that they should pay what it really costs.  (Which might make it similar to working in theatre or writing books.)  It's very hard to make a living as a farmer, and I'm not even planning to attempt to make that much money.  But I will be one of the few people entering farming who will see it as a pay increase over what I've been doing.
  • The New Entry program really fits into my style of learning.  I like to be independent and am not afraid to make mistakes and fail.  
There are also a few things about writing that have been dragging me down, which makes it palatable for me to trade in some writing time for farming time.
  • The book business makes less and less sense to me.  I don't intend to stop writing books (I'm deep in revisions for a novel right now), but I'm not sure publishers have a good plan for the future.  And I'm not sure where the kind of work I write fits into the system.  There used to be a place for mid-list writers.  I'm not sure where that is anymore.  Self-publishing ebooks is okay, but the amount of promo time required is onerous, and even then, there's a fair bit of luck involved to sell many copies (especially if you're not writing genre fiction). 
  • I'm finding it increasingly difficult to find productions of full-length plays in the current theatre climate.  Part of the reason is that there are more playwrights (there's been an explosion of graduate writing programs over the past 20 years) and fewer slots for full-length productions.  I've had a lot of readings over the past few years, some great development opportunities, and my short work gets performed a lot.  But I'm still trying to get my head around the state of modern theatre and new plays and where I fit in.  I'm going to keep writing new full-length plays (I can't help myself), but if they don't end up on stage, professionally produced, I'm going to keep bumping into limits as to how much I can grow as a writer.  
  • Money in theatre and fiction writing feels like it's drying up.  I'm not in it for the money, but I also wouldn't mind making a little more than I spend.  My writing just barely does that, in a good year.  Farming isn't likely to be much better, I realize, but I can at least make some good guesses in a spreadsheet and find a scenario that has a positive return.  As Kira enters college (in a year and a half), we'll see how any long I can keep up any of these endeavors.

I'm fully aware that I'm in my mid-forties and am reaching that age when people have their mid-life crises and dream about big changes.  About life on the farm.  Hell, lots of people dream about life as a writer.  I'm not giving up the writing life, but I am branching out and learning some new skills and mixing things up a bit.

Because of the commuting required to the incubator site, this particular farming project is likely to only last a year.  But if it goes well, I will look to farm elsewhere next season (closer to home).

Writing and farming both appeal to me for some basic reasons:  I like to create things, and I like interacting with people.  What mix of growing food and writing stories ends up meeting those needs remains to be seen.  I'm tempted to change the name of this blog to The Writing and Farming Life (x3), because whatever happens, it's going to remain a mix.

I'm excited to see how this ends up affecting what I write about.  This will be year with a lot of new experiences.  I'm sure I'll find the seeds for a few new plays and books in there, somewhere.

(The 200 Foot Garden from last year)

Saturday, January 7, 2012

Collected Obsessions and other New Releases from Brooklyn Publishers

I've been fortunate to have my work published by Brooklyn Publishers for quite a few years now.  They specialize in plays for use by high school students, for use in class, production and in competition.  For me, they've provided additional life to many of my ten-minute plays which I originally wrote to be performed by adults (and have been) and now are used as duets in competition by hundreds of students every year.  If I've learned one thing from my Brooklyn experience, it's that you don't have to dumb down your work for it to appeal to students.  As actors, they want challenges.

The new catalog just came in the mail a little while ago.  I get a surge of positive energy from thought of this catalog arriving in the mailboxes of tens of thousands of high schools across the country, and directors and students paging through in hopes of finding a script that will excite them.

This year's catalog has a few new entries from me that I hope students will find (In the online catalog, they can read excerpts from the play.)  (The short plays have been mentioned on this blog before, but they've only just been added to the printed catalog.  Collected Obsessions is only newly available.)

Collected Obsessions.  Full-length collection.  3-16 women, 1-3 men (4-20 total).  This is a collection of eight of my most popular plays, all of which feature characters dealing with a variety of obsessions.  This is a great ensemble piece, giving an audience an evening of comedy and drama.  (The plays include Insomnia, Crowded Heart, The Sky is Falling, Quiet, Den of Iniquity, The Invisible Husband, Confirmed Sighting, and Measuring Matthew.)

Confirmed Sighting.  Ten-minute duet.  2 women.  Fiona and Kelly have spotted an ivory-billed woodpecker, once thought extinct, in the swamps of Arkansas. Fiona is an ornithologist and this sighting will make her career, but Kelly owns the photographic evidence that Fiona desperately needs.  This comedy has been extremely popular with audiences in theatres in New York, Boston, and Baltimore.

Recognition.  Ten-minute duet.  2 women.  Drama.  A chance encounter between an adoptive mother, Allison, and the birth mother of her child reopens old wounds. How far will Allison push Tanya for information? This is another of my "adoption" plays, and in some ways is a companion piece to Stop, Rain.  I developed this play with Mill 6, as part of their T Plays festival, of plays set and written on Boston's subways.
(Kalie Quinones from the 2010 production of Recognition by Little Fish in California.  Photo by Mickey Elliot)

Stick Up for Mars: Fiona and Kelly are halfway to Mars, but after a year in space their personalities are wearing on each other. One little Post-It note might be the last straw. A zero-gravity comedy. (Originally produced in 10x10 in North Carolina. Think "Odd Couple" in space.)

Schedule-Meisters: Schedule-Meisters promises to help ease any mother’s busy schedule, but Mary might be their most challenging customer yet. (This was my first play produced in Australia.) (It's a hoot. A dark comedy that harried parents will appreciate.)

Here's a photo from Schedule-Meisters in Minnesota:

(photo by Joan Elwell of Anissa Lubbers and Jan Arford)

If you're a student or teacher and have production photos from any of these plays, please send it to me. I'd love to feature it on my web site and blog, and put it on the Brooklyn site.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

2011 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 2011:

Books read:  39 

Last year I read 31 books.  I read quite a few that I liked a lot, but my favorites were:

Glow: A Novel by Jessica Maria Tuccelli (it'll be out this spring--I got to read a galley)

The Killer Angels: A Novel of the Civil War by Michael Shaara

Revolution by Jennifer Donnelly

The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine by Michael Lewis

Alice Bliss: A Novel by Laura Harrington


Plays read:  20

A tiny number.   I had a goal of reading one a week, but failed miserably.  I read some that I liked, especially plays by some folks in my writing groups.  I know I need to do better.

Plays and readings watched:  47

This is a few more than I saw last year, and about all that my schedule and budget can accommodate. In 2012, I'll be busy with Puddingstone Farm, so I won't have nearly as much time to attend plays for a big chunk of the year.  (I'll have to try to read more.)

Some of my favorites were Comedy of Errors by the Propeller Theatre Company at the Huntington--amazing energy from those guys, a reading of The Fakus by Joe Byers, and Red in the Brown Water by Tarell Alvin McCraney (produced by Company One), and Candide at the Huntington.

Movies watched:  61

Most these were via Netflix, but we get out to the movie theatre every once in awhile.  Watched a couple more in 2011 than in 2010  My favorites this year included:  the last two seasons of Friday Night Lights, all of The Wire seasons,  Zombieland, and Black Swan.  I loved The Wire and Friday Night Lights, but wasn't blown away by most films or television this year.  I hope 2012 will bring some better films.

In 2012, farming is going to take away a lot of movie and play watching time, but I imagine I'll still get some chances to sneak in some viewing time.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

2011 Output

 (Anissa Lubbers in Curse the Darkness produced by the Lakeshore Players)

At the end of every year, I add up my inputs/outputs.  It's been a busy year.  Here's how 2011 worked out, output-wise:

  • I completed a first draft of my new historical novel, which runs about 125,000 words (420 pages)
  • Did a rewrite of my novel, Moving (A Life in Boxes), based on comments from my agent.
  • Wrote two short audio plays for the Emerging America Festival (one of which was recorded--Another Brick in the Walk.)
  • Wrote a new ten-minute romantic comedy, Newton's Call.
  • Wrote a new ten-minute comedy, Organic Seed.
  •  Wrote a new six-minute drama, Second Look.
  • Wrote four one-minute plays for the One-Minute Play Festival (two will be produced this weekend).
  • Revised my full-length drama, Flight, based on feedback from readings and workshops in DC, Idaho, and Boston.
  • Wrote a bunch of blog posts on my three different blogs.
  • I did a minor proof and edit of my novel, Tornado Siren, and published it as an ebook.
  • I wrote screen adaptations for two of my ten-minute plays, Christmas Breaks and Measuring MatthewMeasuring Matthew was filmed this fall and is currently being edited, for spring submission to film festivals.  I also adapted Christmas Breaks for radio, for a possible production sometime this year.
  •  Started a new full-length play, Distant Neighbors.  (I have about 35 pages so far.)
  • I did a minor revision of my full-length play, Fire on Earth, about the creation of the English Bible.
This feels like a pretty good list, a nice mix of playwriting, novel writing, and even screen and radio plays, as well as first draft writing and rewriting.  I certainly never had a chance to get bored.

Production-wise, 2011 wasn't bad.  The year saw dozens of productions by schools, through the various publishers that handle my work.   I still am finding it extremely difficult to land productions of full-length plays (none of my full-length plays were produced this year).

Productions/readings/publications of my work included:

  • My full-length play, Flight, was read by the Madcap Players in DC.  It was scheduled for development at the Seven Devils Conference in Idaho, and also had a reading in Boston.
  • Escape to Wonderland was produced in the the Madcap Players Winter Carnival in DC, in the Boston Theatre Marathon, and in New York's Estrogenius (I got to see all three productions!)
  • Curse the Darkness won a couple competitions and was produced by the Lakeshore Players in Minnesota, by Black Box Theatre in Cranston, and got a reading from Chameleon Theatre Circle, also in Minnesota.
  • Ship of Fools was in the Best of Ten by Ten in North Carolina.  (Which gave me an excuse for a visit.)
  • My newest collection of short plays, Collected Obsessions (Eight Short Plays of Captivating Lunacy) was published by Brooklyn Publishers and Heuer.
  • I sold a couple hundred ebooks of Tornado Siren for Kindle, Nook, and on SmashWords.  It wasn't a runaway hit, but a lot more people read it in 2011 than in the previous few years.  This made me happy.
Overall, I estimate that a minimum of 8,300 people heard, read, or saw my work this year, and I had more than 122 performances of my plays, which is not bad at all.
(Allison Vanouse and Meredith Stypinki, in the Escape to Wonderland at the Boston Theatre Marathon, directed by Jeff Mosser for Fort Point Theatre Channel)

In 2011, I also kept track of how I spent my time.  For me, tracking my writing time really helps provide a sense of accountability and encourages me to sit down at the computer and actually work.  This year, my goal was to spend 600 hours writing, though I also counted Rhombus meetings and readings/rehearsal of my work, since for that's sort of writing time, too.  I managed to log 602 hours this year.  (Next year, I'm tracking rehearsals and meetings separately.)

I also kept tabs on how many hours I spent marketing my work--216 hours (submissions and networking).

I spent about 200 hours in my gardens, and managed to grow 200 pounds of vegetables in each of the two private gardens (the amount grown in the 200 Foot Garden is a mystery).  I also spent more than 100 hours in volunteer time helping a couple different non-profit groups, as co-chair and board member.

All in all, 2011 was a busy and productive year.  2012 should be interesting, as I try to keep writing and marketing while also taking part in a farm training program and starting a small farm venture (Puddingstone Farm--more about this soon). 

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Boston One-Minute Play Festival, January 7-9

This weekend, I'll have two plays in the Boston One-Minute Play Festival, produced by Dominic D'Andrea at the Boston Playwrights Theatre (949 Commonwealth Avenue, Boston).  Yep, that's right, one-minute plays.  Little blurbs of storytelling, sparks of ideas.  There will be 70 such sparks written by 35 different Boston playwrights.  It should be an energetic evening, and one that offers a concentrated sampling of whatever has been in the creative air around here lately.

The project (this festival has been staged (with different plays) in ten different cities so far) has a very fun blog, that features interviews with many of the writers who are involved.  I'm going Saturday night and very much look forward to seeing the entire collection of work (sort of a taste of the buzzing hivemind of Boston playwriting perhaps?).

You can find out more details and buy tickets here (they're $20).

(They actually just posted some of my thoughts on their blog--you can read them here.)

Also, check out a great interview  with Dominic at the Playwrights Perspective blog, especially part II, where he talks about what's unique about the Boston/New England voice and version of the festival.  Staging this festival in so many different cities has given Dominic an unusual overview of the theatrical atmosphere in a variety of communities.