All posts by Kitty Felde

ADAPTING FOR THE EAR

by Kitty Felde

As a playwright, I’ve had a bit of experience adapting everything from court transcripts to Russian short stories into an evening of theatre. And after decades in public radio, I’ve written non-fiction radio scripts till my fingers fall off.

So you’d think it would be a breeze to adapt a novel to an episodic podcast. Not so.

That’s what I’ve been doing the past month or so, turning my first mystery “Welcome to Washington, Fina Mendoza” into a 6 or 8 episode dramatic podcast for kids. It’s been exciting, frustrating, and a real learning experience. Let me share some of the results from my school of hard knocks.

You might not even be aware that there’s a growing catalogue of episodic fiction podcasts for kids. They range from “The Unexplainable Disappearance of Mars Patel” and “The Alien Adventures of Finn Caspian” are some of the early shows. A new one “Timestorm” is also set in outer space. Mine is not. It’s a family story about recovering from loss woven around a mystery set on Capitol Hill. My job: minus robots or aliens, how do you keep your audience from falling asleep?


PLOT, PLOT, PLOT

All those wonderful, heartwarming scenes of family life, all those wry comments on how Congress works, all those classroom scenes: gone. There’s so little time for texture and backstory in this genre. Like Charles Dickens, you’ve got to hook the audience so that they’ll want to come back for the next episode.

WHAT THE HECK IS GOING ON?

I’ve got a lot of dog walking scenes in the book version. They don’t translate particularly well to the audio version: there’s just so many times you can jingle a collar and dog tags before a listener wants to tear her hair out.

Sometimes, the obvious helps, as in: “Hey, who’s walking who here?” Sometimes, an obvious sound effect such as answering a telephone or a teacher calling on a class can help the audience figure out where the scene takes place. The challenge is to remind yourself that the only cues the audience will get about your story comes from their ears.

DIALOGUE, CONFLICT, YOU GET THE IDEA

The easiest thing to adapt is dialogue from the book. Duh. If you’re a playwright, you’re already pretty good at writing dialogue. I discovered that you also need to write additional dialogue to bring the listener quickly into the scene.

And what kind of dialogue pops? Dialogue with conflict (the older sister letting her father know just how much he ignores his kids) or emotion (the sisters remember a trip to the cemetery to visit their mom’s grave for Dia de los Muertos) or excitement (when the Demon Cat pounces.)

Again, as a playwright, this should be obvious to all of us. Drama is drama whether on the stage or in your ear.

FIRST PERSON VS THIRD PERSON

Most audio podcasts rely on narration – at least in part. Now I know why. All those internal monologues I put in the book would be great if the podcast was in first person. But I want the audience to experience the action WITH my main character Fina. It’s a puzzlement.

Luckily, my main character talks to everyone and every thing – including the scary statue of Caesar Rodney in the U.S. Capitol and the all-knowing cat down the street. And in some cases, they talk back. We’ll see how it works.

KILLING YOUR DARLINGS

Even with six or eight episodes, there is SO MUCH you have to leave on the cutting room floor. This is not an audio book, I keep reminding myself, this is theatre for the ear. If the audience wants to know about the advice from the professional dog walker, they’ll just have to read the book.

The plan is to have a production-ready script by the end of the month, tape with actors over the summer, and edit and release the show in the fall, just in time for Halloween.

Got any suggestions of your own on adapting for audio? Please send them my way!

Kitty Felde’s first middle grade novel is “Welcome to Washington, Fina Mendoza” (Black Rose Writing, 2019)

Don’t Be A Girl

by Kitty Felde

When I was in 8th grade, transitioning to a Catholic high school, my teacher advised my mother to send me to a co-ed school. The reason: I didn’t know how to act around boys. The nun wasn’t worried about my body. She was worried about my mouth. I wasn’t afraid of speaking out – loud and often – behavior she suspected would make me an outcast for life. I didn’t defer to the boys.

My mother did send me to a co-ed high school where I continued to speak out – loud and often. And indeed I did find myself the outcast, but luckily I discovered theatre and the power of the written word.

And yet.

How often do we apologize for our writing, telling anyone who will listen that it’s “not quite finished” or “just a first draft” or whatever qualifier we attach to it. Have you ever heard a male playwright describe his work that way?

STOP BEING A GIRL!

That’s my mantra to remind myself to just finish the damn play and get it out there. How often do you hear a male writer apologize for his work? Uh – never? Helaine Becker put it a different way.

Helaine is a very successful non-fiction writer for kids. Her latest work

“Counting on Katherine” profiles Katherine Johnson, the NASA math whiz from the film “Hidden Figures.” I was lucky enough to hear her speak to a group of children’s book writers in San Diego last month. Her talk covered the usual topics: putting together a non-fiction proposal, creating a target list of places to send your work, following the decision makers on Twitter, and all the nuts and bolts of the topic.

The room was full of women. Children’s book writers are almost always women, despite the fact that the industry itself overly celebrates male writers for kids. (For more on this sad topic, check out the essays and podcast Kidlitwomen.)

Helaine looked around the room, shook her head, and started to give a different lecture. She laid down the law for the ladies who wanted their work to see the light of day: send out your manuscript when it’s “good enough,” she said. Don’t wait for perfect. She insisted that “not open for submissions” was a mere gatekeeper to keep the timid out of the system. Sitting around waiting for someone to get back to you was unprofessional. “You have an obligation to followup.” After six weeks, write back, ask whether they’ve had a chance to look at your work yet, and ask when you might expect a response.

In other words, STOP BEING A GIRL.

My plays are not perfect. It’s unlikely any will ever make it to Broadway or Arena Stage or South Coast Rep. That doesn’t mean they aren’t worthy of productions and reviews and publication. (In fact, my adaptation of Nikolai Gogol’s “The Nose” was indeed just published by YouthPLAYS!) Instead of apologizing,I’m sending them out, trusting that I just haven’t found the right audience for them. Yet.

The same can be said for my first kids book. It will likely never win a Newbery Award, but it was “good enough” to get me an agent, to get great feedback from big-deal editors, but it was soundly rejected by the big five New York publishers.

That hurt. A lot.

STOP BEING A GIRL, KITTY!

I thought a lot about who was the audience of this book. I decided that “Welcome to Washington, Fina Mendoza” would resonate with folks inside the Beltway and with kids who are from California, Texas, and the west. So I shopped it to independent publishers thousands of miles away from New York and it found a home with

Black Rose Writing out of Texas.

Think about your work. Which audience can it particularly inspire? Out of towners visiting  Broadway? Students who stumble into a reading of your play at a neighborhood coffee house? Senior citizens who would adore a play about a famous woman from their lifetime? There is an audience for our work. Our “good enough” work. We just have to find it.

In the meantime, let’s stop apologizing for our work. The only way our voices can be heard is if we have the guts to put it out there…over and over again.

Be brave. Be persistent. Be a new kind of girl.

Kitty is on book tour with her first middle grade mystery “Welcome to Washington, Fina Mendoza” (Black Rose Writing, 2019) and will be reading from and signing books at: Politics & Prose, The Wharf, Washington, DC Monday March 18 at 7; Children’s Book World, West LA Saturday March 30 at 2:30; and Vroman’s Pasadena Monday April 1 at 6pm.

Outside the (Black) Box

by Kitty Felde

Lately, I’ve been thinking outside the box.

I love a black box space. It’s such a magic place where anything can happen. But I have family members who’ve never stepped inside a 99 seat theatre. They likely never will. Neither will dozens of “non-pro” friends who love me and support me but can’t imagine why they’d drive to a dicey part of town and sit in uncomfortable seats that are way too close to the actors.

My last few theatrical ventures have taken me far away from black boxes. One play – QUENTIN – was a commission to write a one-person show about the youngest son of Theodore Roosevelt that would be performed as a tour of the neighborhood around the White House. The premise is that a tour group is waiting for its guide to show up. Quentin, on his way to Walter Reed for a physical exam before he joins the flying corps in World War I, is hoping for a reunion with his childhood pals known as the White House Gang. The gang never shows up, but Quentin offers to take the tourists around and shares his life in the White House. QUENTIN is still running every weekend in Washington, DC.

Another commission, QUEEN OF THE WATER LILIES, began its life as a ten minute play with your usual staged readings inside a black box. It’s the story of a Helen Shaw Fowler who fought the Army Corps of Engineers to save her water lily farm and in the process, preserved the only remaining tidal wetlands in Washington, DC. As I continued to do research at Kenilworth National Park & Aquatic Gardens, the rangers became the biggest fans for the play and invited me to stage a reading on the very site where Helen’s house used to sit. Grants appeared from both coasts. DC’s Environment director offered to introduce the play and give an update on the health of the Anacostia River. On Earth Day last year, 99 people came to hear a play in the very setting where the story took place. It was the very definition of an “authentic” experience.

Theatre in non-traditional spaces is certainly nothing new. Theatricum Botanicum has been performing in its Topanga Canyon garden for 45 years. TAMARA took over the Hollywood American Legion Hall in 1981 for a sold-out run. Theatre 40 has invited audiences to experience THE MANOR in the historic Greystone Mansion for nearly two decades. This past fall, Rogue Artists Ensemble was in residence at Plummer Park for SENOR PLUMMER’S FINAL FIESTA. The audience for SENOR PLUMMER was young, hip, and thought it was beyond cool to see theatre in its unnatural habitat.

My goal for 2019: to find more non-traditional homes for my work. Now that I’m back in Los Angeles, I get to be a tourist again and rediscover places that might lend themselves to an afternoon or evening of theatre. That includes the place between your ears: audio drama.

My first book WELCOME TO WASHINGTON, FINA MENDOZA comes out in late February. It’s a mystery for kids set on Capitol Hill. After the book tour, I want to turn the story into a mini-series podcast. No black box required. I’ll keep you posted.

I Don’t Know How to Write (Prose) or Grammar Hell

by Kitty Felde

When it comes to playwriting, I’m pretty confident. I’m pretty good at character and dialogue, though my plotting could use a lot of work. And I know the basics about how to format a draft that is acceptable for submission.

But I’ve learned a hard lesson of late: I don’t remember a thing from 5th grade grammar class.

Apparently it didn’t matter in my career as playwright and radio journalist. Nobody really cares where you put your commas. There are no quotation marks. You never have to worry about tense in radio reporting: live spots are always in present tense; radio features are told in past tense. Plays on the other hand always take place in the “now” – even when we’re having onstage flashbacks to past events.

Why this trip down grammatical worry lane? I have my first “prose” book coming out in late February and correcting the galleys has made me realize that as a writer, I really don’t know what the heck I’m doing.

The book is a middle grade novel, “Welcome to Washington, Fina Mendoza.” It’s the tale of the ten year old daughter of a congressman who solves the mystery of the Demon Cat of Capitol Hill to save her family from “cat”astrophe.

The publisher, Black Rose Writing, is a small indie house out of Texas that pretty much requires you to be your own editor. That means it’s my job to identify all the grammar mistakes. And there are many.

I never realized what a messy writer I am – throwing dashes and commas into the same sentences and (what do you call these things that I usually use as smiley faces in texts?) I had to look up whether to capitalize the first word in a quote and whether the period goes before or after the quotation mark. I’m pretty good with apostrophes, but what about phrases like “kids book?”

I slip back and forth through tenses without considering the poor reader. Even re-reading this blog post is sending shudders through my heart.
I have half a dozen writing manuals on my desk. And I use a “bible” – a text by a writer that I admire. I flip through the pages to see how she solved a particular grammar issue.

I’m lucky to be married to a guy who has even more writing books on his shelves than I have on mine. (I was going to write “than I do” but was unsure of the grammatical correctness…) I can walk down the hall to query him about various rules. But even he was stumped from time to time.

It’s enough to make you want to give up writing.

On the other hand, how many times are we given the opportunity to learn something new? Something hard. Something useful.

I like the idea of switching back and forth between writing for the stage and writing books for kids. I want to feel as confident about the latter as I do (sometimes) about the former. I want to be a writer!

But I am still looking for the perfect grammatical writing book. Any suggestions?

Consider the Audience by Kitty Felde

It was quite the weekend of theatre for me as an audience member

The Well-Heeled Audience at the Kennedy Center for “Hamilton”

I finally saw “Hamilton” at the Kennedy Center. Yes, it was a road show, where the singers cheated on the high notes and the very pretty fellow who played the title role kept blending into the scenery. Oh, but the actor who played Aaron Burr made me believe the show was named after him! A fine production viewed from a fine seat on the first balcony.

The night before, I was at a different theatre, seeing an old favorite: “The Pirates of Penzance.” It, too, was a touring production from a pair of Chicago theatre companies – The Hypocrites and The House Theatre.

It was fabulous. To quote from the aforementioned show, “Pirates” “blew us all away.”

The reason: the decision to put the audience at the heart of the action.
The experience began the minute you walked through the theatre door. Every cast member was onstage, singing not Gilbert & Sullivan, but beachy standards like “Sloop John B” and “Margaritaville.” A tiki bar was located on one side of the stage and remained open for business throughout the entire show. A batch of beachballs were flying overhead – audience members batting them at actors, musicians, and each other. I thought I was at a Dodger game.

The audience – an equal mix of senior citizens, 20-somethings, and parents with dozens of very small children – was invited to take a seat onstage.

Oh, sure, some of us fuddy duddies sat on chairs safely away from the action, but most of the audience was happy to plop down on painted wooden benches and ice chests and kiddie wading pools that filled the stage. They were instructed that whenever the action moved to the exact space where they were seated, they’d be politely tapped on the shoulder. This was their invitation to get out of the way. Fast. At times, it looked like a giant game of musical chairs as grownups and kids scrambled to find another seat.

Several members of the audience were recruited to actively participate in the play by holding up the Union Jack or the skull and crossbones of a pirates’ flag. Each was printed on giant beach towels. Parasols were handed out to young ladies who dutifully twirled them this way and that, trying to keep up with the cast member.

The smallest of kids congregated atop the lifeguard station at stage center. It was a magnet for them. Rather than making them scoot, the actors acknowledged their presence. The Pirate King and Frederic would declare that they were entirely alone – and then roll their eyes at the 3 year olds who surrounded them. The rest of the audience was delighted – when they weren’t scared half out of their wits that one of those toddlers would fall off the platform.

The evening was amazing. The energy bounced off the walls.
What a pity when those youngest of audience members discover that all theatre isn’t like this.

Which makes me ask: why not?

Playwriting can feel like such a selfish act. Yes, we have “important stories” that we believe must be shared with the world. But they are our stories. We hope they will resonate with the world in some way, and sometimes they do. (A young man told me that seeing my war crimes play “A Patch of Earth” was the reason he became an attorney specializing in international law.) But usually, it’s a bunch of people sitting in the dark watching a bunch of actors pretending to be imaginary people we made up.

I’ve been thinking hard the past week about the role of the audience in theatre and what I can do as a playwright to make the theatrical experience more about US and less about ME.

I have no immediate solutions, but just asking the question is a start. So I’ll also ask it of you: is it our responsibility as playwrights to also consider the audience? How can we bring them into the theatrical experience? Do we want to? Does the audience want to? How does that change the work?

The mission statement of The Hypocrites is to “re-introduce communal connection into contemporary theater by embracing the desire of all people to bond with each other, especially while experiencing the same event.” The House Theatre wants to “explore connections between Community and Storytelling through a unique theatrical experience.” What’s my mission statement as a playwright?

Which brings me back to “Hamilton.”

Most of the Kennedy Center audience was as familiar with the lyrics of Lin-Manuel Miranda as the actors onstage. Here and there, you could hear someone two seats over whisper, “teach ‘em how to say goodbye, say goodbye” or “never gonna be satisfied.” We all wanted to sing along. It was a show that did speak to us personally and we wanted to be part of it.

But we were at the Kennedy Center, not a black box theatre in rural Maryland. We knew that if we broke into song, a gray-haired, red-coated usher would find us and take us away.

Now that I’ve seen this production of “Pirates,” I’m never going to be satisfied to sit quietly in the dark.

 

Playwright Kitty Felde is also host of the award-winning Book Club for Kids podcast. Her play about the LA Riots “Western & 96th” will be workshopped this September at DC’s Spooky Action Theater and its New Works in Action series.

Adieu to DC’s Theatre Scene

I’ve escaped to the bedroom while a quartet of hardworking young men pack my lamps and my pictures and drag more than a dozen bins of fabric out into the hallway of my high rise. It’s moving day here in Washington. After nearly a decade, living within walking distance of the U.S. Capitol, my husband and I are finally returning to Los Angeles.

It seemed like a good time to look back at my D.C. years as a playwright.

No, Arena Stage did not invite me to participate in their Playwrights Arena playwriting group or commission me for one of their Power Plays. No, Studio Theatre didn’t fall in love with my work. Nor did Olney or Signature or Synetic. In many ways, I felt like I’d arrived in DC about ten years too late. Like the rest of D.C., the theatre scene is very much a relationship game. And those relationships had been formed long before I got here.

But I did find other opportunities. And so could you.

Several D.C. theatres give a nod to local playwrights by selecting new ten minute plays that thematically relate to their mainstage production. My short L.A. riots play got an airing at the Jewish themed Theater J. A development group The Inkwell offers rehearsal space at Wooley Mammoth, actors, a dramaturg, and a director to work on 20 minutes of a full length play. I met my favorite D.C. director Linda Lombardi through this experience. (She was directing one of the other plays.) Another group Theater Alliance hosts what it calls the Hothouse New Play Development Series. It offers a commission, a week of rehearsal, and terrific actors for a one-night staged reading of new full-length work. My full-length L.A. Riots play WESTERN & 96th got an airing there.

That same theatre teamed up with California’s National Center for New Plays at Stanford and Planet Earth Arts to commission playwrights for an evening of ten minute work about the Anacostia River watershed. The plays got a second performance on the Millennium Stage at the Kennedy Center. My new ten minute play KENILWORTH – the story of a woman who fought the government to preserve her water lily farm – was read at that festival. And then the story grew and grew into a full length.

Unlike Los Angeles, where big corporations moved out years ago and took their arts money with them, the D.C. government sets aside a huge amount per capita for arts grants. A grant from the D.C. Arts & Humanities Commission and Planet Earth Arts made it possible to produce a staged reading of what is now called QUEEN OF THE WATER LILIES on Earth Day this spring. The cool part is that it was done in a National Park on the footprint of the house where the heroine lived most of her life, surrounded by the water lily ponds she loved.

The D.C. Arts & Humanities Commission also has an annual award for playwriting. I’ve come in second two times for D.C.’s Larry Neal Award. (First place comes with a nice check. Second place comes with a glass of wine and some cheese at the reception.)

Another commission came my way courtesy of the artistic director of one of the very fine children’s theatres here in D.C. The commission wasn’t for Adventure Theatre.  It was to create a one-person show for an organization called Pickle Pea Walks to be performed every weekend on the grounds around the White House for all those tourists who didn’t get their security clearance. My play QUENTIN is about the youngest son of Theodore Roosevelt on the night before he reports for duty in World War I. He’s hoping to reunite with his pals from the years when he lived in the White House. They don’t show up, so instead he takes tourists down memory lane to help him say goodbye to D.C. This year marks the 100th anniversary of Quentin Roosevelt’s death (his plane shot down by German fliers in World War I) and rangers from Sagamore Hill (the Roosevelt home) are coming to D.C. to see the production this July.

D.C. is also home to the fabulous summer Capital Fringe Festival. As an audience member, I’ve seen an opera based on the War of 1812, a 45 minute version of “Moby Dick,” and more political plays than even Washington could imagine. My own entry was a production of ALICE: an evening with the tart-tongued daughter of Theodore Roosevelt. Alice was famous for her bon mots (“If you haven’t got anything good to say about anyone, come and sit by me.”) and lived most of her life here in Washington. The show played to sold-out houses and was named critic’s pick by The Washington Post.

There are also odd opportunities for playwrights in this town. I was once asked to write a play in 40 minutes based on an audience suggestion. The wonderful artistic director at MetroStage – the first person in D.C. to fall in love with anything I’ve written – invited me to take over her theatre on a Monday night for a public reading of my controversial play with a character in blackface THE LUCKIEST GIRL. I was challenged to write a one minute play for a festival at Roundhouse Theatre – one of dozens being performed for one night only. I knew I wanted mine to stand out, so I wrote a naked play METAL DETECTOR. It was great fun to see the sign warning of “brief nudity” in the box office window.

I also served four years as a judge for Washington’s version of the Tony’s – the Helen Hayes Awards. This meant free tickets to some of the best – and some of the worst – evenings of theatre in America. (I’ve learned to ask: “will blood be spilled on the audience?”)

Finding community has been the most difficult part of living in D.C. Everyone is busy, busy, busy. I was lucky enough to find a writing group – Playwrights Gymnasium – and a terrific crew of writers. Unfortunately, the group has been on haitus the past several years. We’re all too busy. And frankly, all that business has left me lonesome here in D.C.

So I’m coming home.

I’m nervous about rejoining the L.A. theatre community. It’s likely that many of the literary managers reading scripts today were still in high school when I was last living in Los Angeles. Most of the artistic directors I know have retired. Or died. It will be like starting all over again. Just like it was ten years ago when I moved to Washington. But Southern California is home for me. I’m looking forward to re-introducing myself.

Playwright School: Report from the Colorado New Play Summit 2018

It’s worth a plane ticket to Denver once a year to see what other playwrights are writing and thinking. This was my third (or is it fourth?) year I’ve attended the Colorado New Play Summit – a chance to see seven new plays in three days. For invited playwrights it’s an opportunity for them to workshop their pieces for a week with professional actors, directors and dramaturgs, plus get feedback from a live audience. For the uninvited, it’s a chance to talk to other playwrights, to have lunch with literary managers, and to experience COLD weather without strapping on the skis. I particularly enjoy attending because the Colorado New Play Summit makes the uninvited playwrights feel as welcome as those whose works are being put onstage. It’s also like a crash course in playwriting. I always come away with half a dozen new writing tips.

Here’s my overview of what I saw and what I heard:

It was a good year at the New Play Summit. Every one of the new plays was full of promise. Every one of them was unfinished and flawed in some way. Every one of them was exciting and stimulating.

And every one of them taught me something about playwriting.

Here’s what I learned:

  • Decide what to leave out

“Christa McAuliffe’s Eyes Were Blue” by Kemp Powers is a tough piece about how racism in America affects a pair of biracial twins (one light skinned, the other dark.) The inciting incident of the play takes place the day that the space shuttle Challenger exploded. The question for a playwright is: how much of the gruesome details do you include onstage? Is the audience old enough to have experienced it for themselves? Powers withholds specifics until almost the last scene. And then he lays them on with graphic delight.

Is it more powerful this way? I know that I’m a writer who could stand to go a bit more for the jugular. But I also wonder whether the graphic details about the Challenger disaster overshadowed the larger questions Powers wants to address.

  • Bad exposition

Several plays used the phrase, “did you know…?” or “do you remember…?” It seemed like a lazy way to take care of exposition. I’m going to scour my plays for this lazy playwright way of sharing information with the audience.

  • Take theatrical chances

In the play “Mama Metallica,” playwright Sigrid Gilmer puts herself front and center, working out her grief at losing her mother to Parkinsons. Sounds dreary, right?

It’s hysterical. Our main character is a playwright and both Tennessee Williams and Eugene O’Neill drop by to chat. The band Metallica also makes an appearance and plays a few numbers. The play is weird and wonderful and funny and touching. It’s truly theatrical. I only wish I’d thought of it. At least now, I’ll ask myself: have I missed an opportunity to make magic onstage?

  • Let your protagonist be the star

Two years ago, I saw a reading of José Cruz González’ “American Mariachi.” The reading was more of an ensemble piece. It sported a very large cast of women – something every high school drama teacher in Los Angeles would snap up in a heartbeat.

The full production in Denver focused on a single mother/daughter and father/daughter relationship. The story was easier to follow with a single protagonist and one main conflict. It was as though you could commit to the play because you only had to give your heart to one person onstage.

In the play “Celia, A Slave,” playwright Barbara Seyda took the trial transcript of a young woman hanged for killing her master and turned it into a poetic series of monologues. The language was beautiful, though we heard little from Celia herself. Instead, a cast of thousands told her story. Does a large cast make a play more powerful? Would an audience be more willing to give its heart to Celia if we had more of an opportunity to hear from her?

  • The power of music

Sigrid Gilmer had Metallica onstage. José Cruz González had an entire mariachi band! The music was both powerful and exciting. Plus, the musicians became our guide as the play weaved in and out of time and space. And how can an audience not be satisfied when they get a play and a mariachi band for one ticket?

Of course, music can work against you, too. Matthew Lopez’ play “Zoey’s Perfect Wedding” is one of those wedding-gone-wrong stories set in a crummy hotel with an awful DJ playing all the worst hits you can imagine. The groans from the audience were audible. And very funny.

  • Do you have to like everybody onstage?

One of my own favorite plays features a main character everybody loves to hate. It’s my orphan play that’s had lots of readings and no premiere. Most of the criticism for “Western & 96th” is directed at the ex-cop-turned-politico Mike Marcott. Me? I love the guy. I can’t understand why my audience doesn’t love him as much as I do. Is that the reason nobody wants to produce the play?

I thought about that watching David Jacobi’s “The Couches” – a piece inspired by the “affluenza” trial. It’s a wonderfully written play, but it’s not pleasant spending 90 minutes with the two main characters. They were horrible human beings. Horrible. I’ll be happy if I never have to spend another moment in their presence. (But I’ll bet Netflix snaps it up as their next series!)

Contrast that with Lauren Yee’s “The Great Leap” – a tale about basketball and Tiananmen Square. I dare you not to fall in love with every one of the characters in her play. I saw a reading of it at last year’s New Play Summit. The minute her characters came onstage, it was like seeing old friends. You actually missed them!

I don’t think it’s necessary to fall in love with all the characters in a play. But it’s sure a lot more fun when you do!

Hope you’ll consider joining me next February in Denver for the next Colorado New Play Summit!

Getting Organized

by Kitty Felde

      It all started when I missed an appointment.

These days, I produce a podcast called the Book Club for Kids. A trio of middle graders discuss a novel, there’s an interview with the author and a reading from the book by a “celebrity.”

Last month, I blew it. I was a no-show at a scheduled taping. More than a dozen young readers were waiting for me that Sunday afternoon and I stood them up.

I could use the excuse that I was jet lagged, arriving after midnight the night before from a cross-country flight. Or I could plead that Sundays I take a tech Sabbath, not looking at my phone – and its calendar – at all. But excuses didn’t make any difference to the dozen or so disappointed young readers awaiting their chance at podcast stardom…and their angry parents who’d driven for miles to get their kids to the bookstore for the taping.

It was then that it became very clear that I needed to get organized.

I’m not the only one – particularly at this time of year. You can’t even go in to the Home Depot without stumbling over a display of 2018 calendars for sale. At Fed Ex, pickings were slim among the display of pretty, fat calendar books with floral motifs. Even my husband gets into the act every December, watching the mailbox for the one thing on which he spends an absurd amount of money: the new filler for his portable paper calendar book.

Then I stumbled across Bullet Journals. There’s an enormous cult following for “BuJo” as the aficionados call them. Invented by a digital designer named Ryder Carroll, Bullet Journals seem to have captured the imagination.

The basic idea is simple: a blankish book and a variety of colored pens and perhaps a ruler are all it takes. I say blankish because “BuJos” prefer blank pages with dots that they can use as grid makers to create weekly or monthly pages full of “things to do” lists and food diaries and weather reports and words of the day.

Things get more extravagant after that.

Some “BuJos” fight on social media about page thickness and the bleed level of pens. They proudly show off their collection of highlighter pens. (Who knew there was a gray highlighter pen?) There’s a debate about whether stickers are appropriate. I counted eight different groups on Facebook devoted to Bullet Journals, including the Minimalist Bullet Journal group that still seems overly complicated to me. Pinterest, as you can imagine, has hundreds of pictures of Bullet Journals.

Buzz Feed has an article to tell you what your style of Bullet Journaling says about you. I realized my style says I am not a Bullet Journaling kind of girl. I can’t draw. I never scrapbooked in my life. And why would I spend hours drawing in the dates of a 2018 calendar when I can get a perfectly good one at any store in America?

I think the BuJo serves the same purpose for visual people as my Morning Pages do for a word person like me. Julia Cameron’s classic “Artist’s Way” assignment has always helped me untangle my disorganized brain. Sitting down first thing in the morning to scribble away for three pages in a cheap composition book – part diary, part writing ideas, mostly things to do lists – grounds me and helps me sort out what’s important in my life and what to let go. Obviously it wasn’t enough to keep me from missing an important appointment.

So I bought a nice, light paper calendar that fits in my handbag. I’ve started marking it up with travel plans and podcast tapings. More important, I vowed to look at it every day. Even on my tech Sabbath.

What about you? How do you keep organized? Please share your secret!

Jump Start Creativity

By Kitty Felde

Sometimes facing a blank page on your laptop can be the most depressing sight on planet earth.

Nobody said playwriting was going to be easy. But the email rejections, the harsh feedback from your writing group, the statistics on the tiny number of new plays that get produced every year (and the even smaller number by female playwrights not named Lauren Gunderson) can just shut you down. Or, as I put it, take the heart out of the writing.

How do you get your mojo back?

 

I had the pleasure of interviewing writer Laurel Snyder whose middle grade novel “Orphan Island” is a very odd book – orphan kids on a desert island who come as toddlers and depart as teenagers to parts unknown. Needless to say, it’s not like anything else Laurel has previously written.

She says the book started as her own prescription for writers block. She was stuck in the “business” of writing and forgot about the joy. So she bought herself some toys – markers and paint and notebooks and her favorite mechanical pencil. She vowed to write the entire project in longhand and take the time to illustrate the characters. She drew islands and maps. She drew animals that didn’t exist that didn’t make it into the book. She had fun – the same fun she felt when she started writing when she was eight years old.

She promised herself that she wouldn’t show the project to anyone until it was done and if it didn’t get published, that would be okay, too. She would write a book just for herself.

Laurel got back in touch with the reason she started writing in the first place. She was writing out – putting on paper something inside of her that needed to get out in the world. In the process, she rediscovered the joy.

And of course, the book she created was so unique, it made the longlist for the National Book Award.

We’re not guaranteed such a reward of public recognition, but we can at least make the journey more enjoyable. Slow down. Buy a fabulous red gel pen with sparkles for the editing process. Find some fun stickers and reward yourself when you put down 500 words. Take yourself out for an outrageously fattening Toasted White Chocolate Mocha at Starbucks when you’ve written every day for a week. Give yourself permission to watch hours of Hallmark Christmas movies. Find a way to make the writing fun again.

And share YOUR secrets with us.

You can hear the whole interview with Laurel Snyder here. You can even hear kids dissect the book on this episode.

Report from the Colorado New Play Summit

By Kitty Felde

The delicious set for THE BOOK OF WILL by Lauren Gunderson. Set design by Sandra Goldmark.

This is the third year I’ve flown to Denver for the annual festival of new play readings. In the past, I’ve attended Humana, CATF and the National New Play Festival, but the Colorado New Play Summit at the Denver Center for the Performing Arts is my favorite. Seven new plays in three days! It’s like a combination of cramming for midterms, eating everything in sight at a buffet table, and using all your season subscription tickets in a single weekend.

As a playwright, I find it extremely helpful to see that much new work all at once. It allows you to see trends and fall in love with new playwrights and come away with 101 ideas for your own plays.

Here’s a few trends spotted at this year’s Summit:

STRONG WORK

It was a particularly good year for new plays in Denver. Strong writing, big thoughts.

MOST LIKELY TO BE PRODUCED A LOT:

THE BOOK OF WILL by Lauren Gunderson is a love letter for every Shakespeare theatre in America. The late Will’s friends race against time and lawsuits to publish as many of his scripts as possible. It’s a big cast show, a perfect complement to a season of TEMPESTs and HENRY IVs. Round House Theatre in Maryland has already announced it will be part of its 2017-2018 season.

TWO WORD TITLES:

Don’t ask me why, but I’m fascinated with titles. Maybe because I’m so bad at writing them myself. This year, the trend seemed to be plays with two word titles. HUMAN ERROR and BLIND DATE were two of the new plays featured in readings. THE CHRISTIANS and TWO DEGREES were onstage for full performances.

POLITICAL PLAYS

I predicted that we’d get a flood of anti-Trump plays NEXT year, but they were already popping out of printers by the time I got to Denver. Political plays were everywhere.

The cleverest of the bunch was Rogelio Martinez’ play about Ronald Reagan, Mikhail Gorbachev, and the battle to come up with a nuclear treaty in BLIND DATE. Call it ALL THE WAY for the Reagan years. Very well researched, very funny. Martinez carries off an interesting balancing act, portraying a much more savvy and sympathetic Reagan than you’d expect, perhaps looking back at him with different eyes now that there’s a very different sort of president in the White House. Bravo. (I’d vote for a better title, but that’s my only complaint.)

The politics of Nazi Germany were the focus of a play by the man who wrote ALL THE WAY. Robert Schenkkan’s piece HANUSSEN is the tale of a mesmerist who dabbles in Nazi party politics. It has a highly theatrical beginning, and ends with a pretty blatant rant against Donald Trump.

Schenkkan pulled off a very difficult trick: bringing Adolph Hitler onstage and allowing him to come off as a rather likeable character. Perhaps it’s because he followed the Hollywood solution to making villains less unlikeable by giving them a dog. Hitler’s relationship with his annoying dog was quite delightful. (One wag of a fellow playwright at the conference observed that our new standard for unlikeable characters is now to ask: is he/she more or less likeable than Hitler?)

TWO DEGREES by Tira Palmquist is a climate change play. It received a fully staged production this year, after its debut as a staged reading at last year’s festival. It featured a set with panes of ice that actually melted as the play progressed.

There was also a nod to the protestors in pink hats (I actually spotted one or two of those in Denver) with Lauren Yee’s play MANFORD AT THE LINE OR THE GREAT LEAP. It’s a lovely piece about a young man’s search for an absent lost father, basketball, and Tiannamen Square. How can someone that young write that well? MANFORD is terrific and should get productions everywhere.

WHERE ARE THE LADIES?

Two of the five new play readings were by female playwrights, as were two of the three fully staged productions. (Thanks to Artistic Director Kent Thompson who established a Women’s Voices Fund in 2005 to commission, develop, and produce new plays by women.)

Yet, despite the healthy representation of female playwrights, there was a decided lack of roles for the ladies. Of the 34 named characters, fewer than a third were female. And with the exception of the terrific family drama LAST NIGHT AND THE NIGHT BEFORE by Donnetta Lavinia Grays, few plays featured roles of any substance for actresses. Nearly every one flunked the Bechdel test. The sole female in one particular play will likely be best remembered for her oral sex scene. Sigh.

PLAYING WITH TIME AND PLACE

I always come away from new plays with new ideas about what I want to steal for myself. In this case, the overlapping of scenes in different times and places happening at the same time on stage. Lauren Gunderson’s BOOK OF WILL very cleverly juxtaposed two scenes on the same set piece at the same time and it moved like lightening. Look something similar in the play I’m working on.

CHANGE IN THE AIR

The man who made the New Play Summit possible – Kent Thompson – is leaving. Kent’s gift – besides putting together a rocking new play festival – was making playwrights like me – those of us not invited to bring a new play to his stage – feel welcome. At the opening luncheon, all playwrights – not just the Lauren Yees and Robert Schenkkans – are invited to stand and be recognized by the theatrical community with applause from the attendees. That may sound like a small gesture, but it’s symbolic of the open and kind community Kent created. He made every one of us who pound away at our keyboards feel that we are indeed a vital part of the new play community. Thank you, Kent.

PS

In the interest of full disclosure, I will share that I had my agent send my LA Riots play WESTERN & 96th to the New Play Summit this year. It was not selected. I never received an acknowledgment that it was even received or read. But the non-rejection does not diminish my affection and admiration for the Colorado New Play Summit.