All posts by Kitty Felde

The Art of the Cover Letter

by Kitty Felde

There’s only one thing worse than trying to write a synopsis of your play: writing the cover letter that goes with it.

Many theatres and contests have moved to online submissions with no place to fill in the extras that don’t fit the categories in the form. That’s a shame. Standardized submission forms eliminate any opportunity for you to show more of yourself, making it more difficult to stand out from the crowd.

But if you’re given the opportunity to submit by email – or even help the U.S. Postal Service survive by sending a paper script – you need a great cover letter.

For years, I dashed off a couple of paragraphs in the “enclosed please find a copy of my play XZY for your reading pleasure.” Then my editor – the guy I married a million years ago – read me the riot act. I got a half hour lecture on the importance of cover letters. He should know. He spends days crafting the perfect submission letter to go with his book manuscripts. So I asked him to help me with my submission email for a new Fina Mendoza mystery novel. As a result, I got two kind, but personal rejections, but also a pair of “send me more”s.

Children’s books are not plays, but the cover letter format works for both. I’ve pasted my latest cover letter below and highlighted the elements that (I think) make it work.

Dear Mary Jane, – I think in this day and age, we can get away with first names.

I’m Kitty Felde, author of “Welcome to Washington, Fina Mendoza” and host of the Book Club for Kids and producer of The Fina Mendoza Mysteries podcast. – It never hurts to lead with your most recognizable credit. Since publishers are looking for writers with their own “brands” these days, this is what I chose to include at the top. For a play, I might instead list my most current production or the best-known theatre or director.

Now you get to brag for a paragraph or two:

These months of lockdown have at least been good for both my writing and my podcasting. Because Covid has changed everything, especially live theatre, do acknowledge the existence of the pandemic.

On my multiple award-winning Book Club for Kids podcast, a trio of young readers discuss a novel, interview the writer, and hear a passage from the book read by a celebrity. When the schools shut down this spring, both teachers and parents discovered the podcast. Our episode downloads exploded, jumping more than 200%. Then The New York Times profiled us, writing: “This virtual gathering space for young readers feels more vital than ever in the social distancing era.” And even before the pandemic, The Times of London named us one of the top ten kidcasts in the world. – Go ahead and include links to your reviews and website. Why not? They don’t have to click on it, but they might.

I also adapted “Welcome to Washington, Fina Mendoza” into an episodic podcast. This summer, I was invited to make a presentation at the high-profile Bay Area Book Festival – virtually – to talk about both the book and the process of turning it into a podcast. In addition, right before the entire city shut down, the Los Angeles Public Library hosted me at a live author event. And then after the shutdown, I was featured in a “LAPL Instagram Live Author Conversation.” – Don’t be a “girl,” too humble to talk about your accomplishments. Brag, brag, brag. Nobody else is going to toot your horn for you.

Now, in my old journalism days, this would be called “burying the lede.” You may want to put this paragraph at the top, but like any good playwright, I chose instead to set the scene, introducing the characters (me) and then launch into the story – or in this case, the reason for writing:

I have completed the second book in my Fina Mendoza mysteries series set on Capitol Hill. My contract with my current publisher just expired at the end of August. The rights to the first book in this series reverted to me at the end of the contract.

And here’s where I mention the specifics about why this particular publisher – or theatre – is perfect for my work.

I’d very much like to bring both books, and subsequent ones in the series, to a new publisher – one with a track record of getting books into libraries and classrooms.

I’m quite proud of my work on the first book in the series. I secured fine blurbs from the chief tour guide of the U.S. Capitol Historical Society, several members of Congress, NPR First Lady Susan Stamberg, and children’s writers Leah Henderson, Wendy Wan-Long Shang, and Gail Carson Levine. I did more than a dozen book talks at various venues in both Washington and Los Angeles. And I got a terrific review from Kirkus. – More bragging. It may be overkill, but if you’ve got it, flaunt it.

Here’s where you pitch the play or book itself. Note that I didn’t give a blow-by-blow of all the action in the story, just the highlights:

The second book is called State of the Union: A Fina Mendoza Mystery. In “Welcome to Washington, Fina Mendoza,” 10-year-old Fina, a recent transplant from Los Angeles to Washington, solves the mystery of the legendary Demon Cat of Capitol Hill. In “State of the Union,” our intrepid young detective must track down a mysterious bird who poops on the president’s head during the State of the Union address. It’s also the tale of tensions in the Mendoza family as Fina’s outspoken grandmother joins the family in Washington, combat in Congress as lawmakers struggle with immigration reform, and even rivalries between a pair of congressional dogs that Fina walks after school.

When you submit a non-fiction proposal, you include an extensive marketing plan. Do you have a marketing plan for your work? Something that – besides the excellence of the writing – will help a theatre sell tickets? Or in this case, sell books?

I believe this series can be quite successful for three reasons. First, it fits solidly into the middle-grade mystery novel genre. Second, our protagonist is a smart, strong, brave young Latina who can serve as a role model at a time when many parents – Latinx and otherwise – are looking for such a heroine. Third, it’s just the thing for parents who want their children to learn a little something about the U.S. Constitution and national politics and the ways of Washington. There’s quite a dearth of books for young readers, both fiction and non-fiction, that tackle the workings of our government. That’s why the Library of Congress, the gift shop for the House office buildings, and at least three of D.C.’s independent bookstores carried the first book in the series.

Got a second play that a theatre might be interested in? Why not pitch it, too? You never know if they a project under contract that’s too similar to your first masterpiece that you pitched earlier in the letter:

I also wanted to let you know that in addition to my Fina Mendoza mysteries, I’ve been working on a second mystery series also set in Washington, DC. This one takes place at the turn of the last century. Our amateur detective is Quentin, the youngest child of President Theodore Roosevelt. He terrorized the White House with spit balls on the Andrew Jackson portrait, bringing a pony up to the second floor in the elevator to visit a sick sibling, and dropped snowballs on the heads of the Secret Service. I’ve finished the first few chapters of Murder on the Potomac: A Quentin Roosevelt Mystery.

Get personal. Don’t be afraid to show something about yourself. This paragraph includes a bit of bragging, a bit of marketing, and an admission that I’m new at this genre:

This mystery writing thing is a sort of second act for me. I had a long career as a public radio journalist, with NPR and KCRW and KPCC in Southern California, including stints as a field reporter, U.S. Capitol correspondent, and talk show host. Three times my journalist peers named me the “Los Angeles Radio Journalist of the Year.” And I’d like to think I’m still something of a public figure in Southern California – which, as you know, is both the largest book market in the country and home to millions of Latinx.

Remind them to look for the attachment:

I’m attaching an e-manuscript for the second Fina Mendoza mystery. I would also be happy to snail mail you a copy of “Welcome to Washington, Fina Mendoza.”

It’s always nice to end with a compliment:

Thanks so much for your consideration. I’ve so enjoyed diving into the mystery genre. And I would love to continue to build my writing career with the help of a wonderful agent like you at XYZ Representation.

Most sincerely,

Kitty Felde
Phone number

Don’t be afraid of length in your cover letter. What’s the worst that can happen? They’ll just skim to get to the bottom.

These are just my thoughts about what to put in a cover letter. I’d love to see what works for you!

The Future of Theatre in a Post-Covid World

by Kitty Felde

One of the last things I did before the world shut down was make a trip to NYC to see theatre. Three shows in five days! Now I wonder now whether I’ll ever step into a black box space again.

So what does that mean to us as playwrights?

In the immediate sense, productions, workshops, readings have all been postponed to 2021 or relegated to Zoom calls with imperfect internet connections and crappy audio.

But what about the long term?

Budgets have been slashed at institutional theatres as they try to survive. Grant money is disappearing or being refocused on organizations that feed and clothe and medically care for people. According to the Los Angeles Times, only a third of season ticket holders were willing to donate the cost of this season’s Center Theatre Group season tickets to help keep the Music Center alive. Just 15% of single ticket buyers willing to donate their ticket money.

When theatres open again, will audiences be willing to sit inside an enclosed space, shoulder to shoulder with strangers, likely wearing a mask for several hours? Will they even have the money to spend on it?

I think it’s time for us as theatre artists to quite literally think outside the box.

photo by Laura WInter

One of my favorite theatre experiences was a live reading of my play “Queen of the Water Lilies” in a Kenilworth Park and Aquatic Gardens, the actors and audience under the trees on the very site where the play takes place. It’s perhaps the least-known National Park, the site of a water lily farm and home to a woman who fought the Army Corps of Engineers to preserve what has become the last remaining tidal wetlands in Washington, D.C. Before the show, the audience could stroll around the water lily ponds, see the turtles sunning themselves and hear the frogs calling to each other. In the middle of the show, a snowy white egret flew overhead – perfect for the play where one character rages at an egret from an earlier generation. It was true theatre. With a healthy dose of sunscreen.

Our last minute cast member for “Queen of the Water Lilies” – photo by Laura Winter

It was immersive theatre in the best sense of the word. We could do it again today, just spacing the audience and actors six feet apart.

We can also create an intensely intimate kind of theatre, the kind that can play out inside your head.

Audio is incredibly powerful. As someone who spent way too many decades in public radio, our bread and butter was creating audio stories that would create “driveway moments” where our audience would sit in their cars until the story was over. We can do this with fiction as well, creating stories that don’t need that black box, just a good pair of headphones.

It was an exciting challenge last summer, creating THE FINA MENDOZA MYSTERIES, an audio drama that takes the audience into the bowels of the U.S. Capitol where dead Founding Fathers come to life, out to a Long Beach cemetery for a Dia de los Muertos picnic, and even to the National Zoo to see the baby tigers. In truth, we barely left my front yard.

Trailer for The Fina Mendoza Mysteries

We even found a way to tape a new episode in the middle of coronavirus with actors recording themselves on smartphones and emailing me the voice memos.

You can hear more about the project in this video we taped for the Bay Area Book Festival.

I’m not the only one thinking outside the box.

Playwright Ellen Struve has turned her front window into a stage for an extravagant shadow puppet play. She wrote the script, created the characters out of bits of paper and old Fresnel gels, and enlisted her children and husband as musicians and puppet wranglers. Lucky audiences in Omaha can stop by her front yard for a free performance.

A few years ago, Moving Arts created a series of short play performed inside cars. In a post-coronavirus era, it’s more likely that we’d drive our own cars to an outdoor space where theatre would be performed. Perhaps we would download a particular app to listen to the dialogue.

We are creative people. Perhaps this new normal will force us to truly think outside the box.

What will you create?

Writing in the Time of Coronavirus

by Kitty Felde

I have to keep asking my husband which day of the week it is. When was the last time I went to a movie or a restaurant? February? We seem to measure time now by how fast our hair is growing with no hope of getting it cut properly. It’s a time we’ve been calling “the hiatus.” As opposed to “the busy time” that is our usual lives.

The husband is a writer, too and has been pounding away at his laptop, trying to finish the book proposal. I wish I was that productive.

I know I’m not the only one.

My writing group met online last week. More than an hour was spent “checking in” and most of the writers needed that human contact more than they needed their plays critiqued. Some reported real-life concerns: pre-existing health conditions, lost jobs, school-age children they suddenly were being asked to home school. Others struggled with anxiety, loneliness, and a writerly pressure to produce “something important” during this hiatus.

Intellectually, as writers we realize that this is a rare moment in history that should be captured, turned into art, preserved for future generations. But does anyone think an audience will want to go see a coronavirus play next year? (The answer is maybe, if it’s a really good one.)

Me? I know I don’t have the next “Love in the Time of Cholera” in me.

So what do we do? I have a few suggestions.

Find a way to be helpful to others.
o Shop for an elderly neighbor.
o Call or text that friend who lives alone.
o Send an advance to the cleaning lady, hair stylist, or anyone else you know who could use the cash.

OR:

Use your writing gifts. Be creative.

o Write a short play for a friend’s child.
o Invite actor friends to a Zoom reading of one of your plays – or a play by your favorite writer.
o All the world’s a stage: is there one in your living room? My writing pal Ellen Struve is writing and producing puppet plays from her front window for the neighborhood kids.
o Perform Instagram or Facebook live reading of your best monologue.

OR:

Feed your creative soul.

o Think of the haitus as the solo “play date” that Julia Cameron prescribes in “The Artist’s Way.” Do something fun that’s NOT writing. Bake, paint, garden, work on a jigsaw puzzle. Play. Love to sing? Check out the Facebook Group “Quarantine Sing-a-long.” Every day they take a vote on the song everyone will be singing.
o Binge that TV show you’ve always wanted to write for. Take notes if you want. (I can’t get enough of “Crash Landing on You,” a Korean romcom with the best plotting I’ve seen in a series.)

o Interview the people in your house. Story Corps has a free app you can download or just use the voice memo app on your smartphone. I interviewed my grandmother decades ago, but not my mother who died early. I will always regret that.
o Write letters. If your handwriting is semi-legible, handwrite them. A friend from grammar school has been writing to me from Washington state every week. It’s so much better than a phone call.
o Count your blessings. A friend in the mid-west has been posting her “Gratitude List” on Facebook every day, listing everything from pictures of spring flowers to discovering a jar of Trader Joe’s Thai Curry Simmer Sauce in the back of her pantry. We truly are blessed in ways that are easy to ignore during the “busy time.”

And so I close by being grateful for this writing community. Thank you.

2020 Resolutions to Keep … or Break

Kitty interviewed Marie Kondo for LA Talks Live on Spectrum Cable.
Do half-written plays spark joy?

by Kitty Felde.

There’s something about a new year. It’s a new start, a “do-over,” a chance to be a better version of ourselves. As playwrights, it’s a good time to set a few goals.

Or not.

May I offer my own Top Ten List for 2020.

1. Stop being so hard on myself.

Last year, there was too much chaos in my life to even think about writing a new play, let alone revising an old draft or sending out scripts. And the fact that there wasn’t enough bandwidth in my brain to think about theatre in 2019 doesn’t mean I’m a bad person or a lousy playwright. Life happens. I vow to do better this year. But if life throws a curveball, I will be forgiving and kind and encouraging: the same way I am to every other writer but myself.

2. Write 500 words a day, five days a week.

I think I can commit to this goal. Five hundred words may not sound like much, but those words add up. They don’t even have to be any good. But as Jodi Picoult famously says, “you can always edit a bad page. You can’t edit a blank page.”

3. Submit.

The same way you can’t edit a blank page, you can’t get a play produced if you don’t show it to someone. Send it out. Set a goal of 20 rejections in 2020! Or 100 rejections!

4. Look at ALL of my unfinished, bad drafts, ideas. Decide which are worth my time.

This is a great way to cheat. I may not have a new play dying to be written, but I know I have a decent first act in some computer file somewhere. If I can find it, and find a way to finish it, half my work is done. Or I can look at it and decide to trash it and move on. Either way, it feels very Marie Kondo of me to pick up a piece of old writing and ask myself whether it still “gives me joy.”

5. Go see more theatre.

We are blessed with dozens of terrific theatres in Los Angeles. How many have I visited? Not enough.

I know traffic is horrible and most theatres seem to be on the other side of the hill. But last year, I started making the rounds, seeing some terrific shows in 3 new-to-me theatre spaces. I will continue to make my way around town in 2020.

6. Read other people’s plays.

This is not only polite, it’s also a great way to see how other writers construct an evening of theatre.

It’s also a way of creating community. Writing is lonesome work. Knowing that someone else is laboring to create good work is a small comfort. There’s even a Facebook group that reads plays and makes recommendations. So far, I’ve been a lurker in the NPX Challenge Group. This year, I’ll start reading and recommending.

7. Celebrate the small victories.

I need to count all of my blessings, large and small. It may not be a Tony Award, but my day got a whole lot better when my cleaning lady showed me the book report her granddaughter wrote about MY book. I felt like a New York Times bestselling author. Yay.

8. Have coffee with people.

I used to tell my summer interns back in Washington that D.C. was a coffee kind of place. I’ve sat in Starbucks and Caribou Coffee and Coffee Bean stores all over DC, overhearing job interviews, congressional staff meetings, even lobbyist meet and greets. If you want to do business there, you start with “a coffee.”

To re-establish myself here in Los Angeles, I need to follow my own advice and start setting up coffee dates.

9. Think outside the box.

I’ve never really been interested in pop culture. I was the odd kid who organized the “Save Star Trek” campaign in elementary school, got busted in high school for wearing skirts that were too LONG, and became a groupie for “Bonanza” star Pernell Roberts because “every balding middle aged actor should have one diehard fan.”

So why did it surprise me to look at everything I’ve written over the years and discovered that none of it was “top ten list” material. It’s all quirky, quiet, and important to me.
So why am I kicking myself that none of my work is being picked up by Signature Theatre in New York or South Coast Rep in Costa Mesa or any of the other well-established theatres across the country?

I realize that my longest running play isn’t being performed in a theatre at all. It’s a commission I got to write a one-man show about Theodore Roosevelt’s youngest son Quentin and it’s been running every weekend for years, playing on the sidewalks around the White House. I’ve directed plays performed in people’s living rooms, written a play performed in a D.C. National Park that celebrates water lilies, and this past summer, penned an audio play (THE FINA MENDOZA MYSTERIES) that was taped in a library, the L.A. Zoo, and in the middle of a jazz concert in a park.

This year, I vow to continue to look for unusual spaces where I can put my work before an audience. Got any suggestions?

10. Be Persistent. And if the door keeps getting slammed in your face, try another door. Or keep knocking.

For most of 2019, I’ve been trying to get the LA Public Library to carry my book “Welcome to Washington, Fina Mendoza.” It’s carried by lots of other library systems (L.A. County and the DCPL to name but two) but I’ve been hitting my head against the way trying to get LAPL to put the book on their shelves. Today I sent yet another email to their acquisitions person, fully expecting to get yet another rejection. But I asked myself: what did I have to lose? It’s a definite “no” if I don’t follow up. Maybe this time will be different. Maybe.

Five minutes ago, I got a response: “Done!” The book will be on LA Public Library shelves by the end of the month! Maybe 2020 won’t be so bad after all.

Do you have resolutions for 2020 that you’re willing to share?

Sounds Like Theatre to Me

by Kitty Felde

I spent my entire summer doing theatre. None of it was in a black box. It was a summer of theatre for the ears, running around with a microphone, taping the sound of footsteps and cell phones and veterinarian offices. We spent a 102 degree day at the zoo, snuck into the only public library open on a Sunday to record a scene, and lingered for many hours in a spooky clubhouse that echoed like the U.S. Capitol Crypt. It was a summer of making a theatrical podcast come to life.

But it all started with the script.

Back in May, I wrote a blog post about the art of adapting a book for children into an episodic podcast for girls … and political junkies. The book was “Welcome to Washington, Fina Mendoza.” After the first blush of publication, I kept asking myself what else I could do to spend more time with these characters. I have a few skills. After years in public radio, I can write for the ear. I also know my way around a flash recorder and editing software. So I decided to try transforming the book into a radio drama. It became The Fina Mendoza Mysteries.

The experience was an absolute joy – the most fun I’ve had doing theatre since the old 99 seat “let’s put on a show” days. I reached out to actors from college, looked up a guy I knew from improv class, and dragged radio colleagues out of retirement. I saw a terrific college production of “In the Heights” and found my lead actress. I even convinced a few kids from the neighborhood to play a few roles.

Perhaps you’ve considered adapting one of your plays to radio drama format. I thought it might be helpful to hear from other podcast story producers about their best tips on writing for the ear.

Paul Cheall produces the World War II British podcast Fighting Through. Even though it’s more memoir than fiction, Paul still has to adapt prose to audio. He says he starts with language: avoiding passive expressions in favor of active ones, “so the listener doesn’t get distracted by unnecessary verbiage.”

Graz Richards from the Audio Drama Hub on Facebook says sound effects are the key. He remembers an “old” Superman audio drama that had “far too much exposition.” Something like, “Hmm, I think I’ll just…have a shave and…hmm, it’s not easy, the bristles are…oh, I’ve broken the shaver!” Graz says we all knew Superman, so all you really needed was the sound of running water in a sink, the buzz of a shaver, the sound of snagging, and …”Oh, okay, not that then.” Graz says, “We get the same visual scene without everything being signposted.”

But Angela Ferrari, creator of the Story Spectacular podcast, says her younger audience needs more context. Contrary to what you’d think, Angela says she needs to include more exposition rather than less. Dialogue must also be extra descriptive. Angela says she also uses sound effects and songs to help “illustrate” her stories.

If you’re writing a script, but not producing it yourself, sound designer Gilly Moon says more the more detail the better. “I love when writers or visual artists provide a ton of details, and not necessarily sound ones,” she says. “If I know what kind of shoes someone is wearing and what floor they are walking on, I can make a sound for that particular character’s footsteps.”

On the other hand, not every detail is helpful. Russell Gold, who produces web comics, says writers will often include comments about what characters are doing or seeing. “It might help performances a bit,” he says, “but mostly it leads the writer to forget that the audience won’t see those notes.”

My own advice: listen to as many shows or recordings as possible. LA Theatre Works has over 500 recordings of more traditional plays. And there are hundreds of dramatic podcasts out there as well – everything from Young Ben Franklin to Welcome to Night Vale.

And if you’re a girl or a political junkie or both, please subscribe to The Fina Mendoza Mysteries on your favorite podcast player.

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.