All posts by Kitty Felde

Returning to Normal?

by Kitty Felde

As I write this, I’m flying back to Los Angeles from Washington, D.C., my first airplane trip since February of 2020. I attended my first (and second) Major League Baseball game, ate out in a restaurant, toured a museum, even spent time in five classrooms. It was great, but it certainly didn’t feel normal. The mass transit system in D.C. was nearly empty. Downtown and Chinatown were ghost towns. Capitol Hill was bereft of 8th graders on school field trips. When will we truly get back to normal?

And what IS normal?

I talked to a lot of old friends this trip. One thing I noticed was how many people were re-evaluating where they are in this post-pandemic life. I had coffee with SO people who told me they were contemplating their next act: writing a memoir, quitting their soul-sucking job, finding a way to make a difference in the world. Perhaps the one thing the pandemic taught us was how short life can be, how none of us are guaranteed fourscore and ten, how it’s time to start tackling the items on our bucket list.

Another thing struck me as I spoke face-to-face with human beings again: when I asked how their pandemic year was, every one of them began by talking about how fortunate they were. They recounted their blessings. Even those who lost family members or jobs began the conversation by talking about the good things that came of Covid. And every one talked about a lesson from the pandemic or a routine they plan to keep once they return to “normal” – whether it’s online yoga classes or saying “no” to social occasions they really didn’t have to attend or carving out time with the people they truly love.

So what does the future hold for theatre? When will we feel comfortable to sit inside, in the dark, with strangers whose vaccination status is unknown?

Some theatres, like the Fountain, invested in outdoor furniture, built a stage next door to their brick and mortar building, embracing a new way to create theatre. Others are scheduling full indoor seasons beginning this fall. And then there’s zoom performances…

A good friend in Virginia runs a terrific theatre in Alexandria: MetroStage. Unfortunately, after decades of performing in an old lumber warehouse near the Potomac River, her theatrical home was about to disappear. A multi-story, high-end condo would replace the cabaret musicals and exciting new plays that had graced MetroStage.

Fortunately, the city mothers and fathers were trying to brand that end of Alexandria as an arts district. Part of the deal was that MetroStage would remain in the neighborhood, courtesy of a black box theatre they would build for her in the basement of one of the new buildings.

The downside was that she had to raise a lot of money to finish the raw space. And the theatre would have to shut down for more than a year.
Enter the pandemic when every theatre in the world shut down. Her timing was exquisite.

Artistic Director Carolyn Griffin can hardly wait for the opening of her new theatre space. And yet, she keeps thinking about the theatre from around the world that she saw online during the pandemic. Some of it awful, some of it magical. (I still smile when I think about a zoom production of The Railway Children from the York Theatre Royal that was absolutely magical. If not for the pandemic, I never would have seen it.)

Carolyn believes that our pandemic year has taught us that audiences outside of our immediate neighborhoods are hungry for theatre. The homebound elderly need theatrical inspiration. So do kids in schools too poor to afford a school bus to bring them to a performance. Despite that spanking new performance space, Carolyn says her pandemic lesson is that 21st century theatre must embrace 21st century technology, making theatre accessible to more than just in-person season subscribers. Theatre can truly be for everyone.

If Carolyn is correct, that presents a challenge for us as playwrights: we must create pieces that actually work better on the small screen. Not just talking heads in a zoom call, but theatrical pieces that jump off the screen. Twyla Tharp commissioned Misty Copeland and some of Twyla’s dance company to create unique work specifically for the small screen. It was amazing. Dancers in their tiny New York apartments or Inglewood garage bouncing off the walls, avoiding bookcases, seemingly flying on and offstage. It was like watching Fred Astaire dancing on the ceiling in Royal Wedding. We have to think outside the box to create this kind of work for the theatre.

And even if we only want to create work to be performed live, onstage, we have to write cheap. In other words, even the “no more than six actors” rule that has reigned supreme over the past few decades is too big. Theatres have held on by their fingernails. Budgets are amazingly thin. Plays featuring two characters – or even one – are more likely to be produced in the next few years. And unfortunately for living playwrights, much of that work will be tried and true titles designed to lure back an audience. We’ll be competing with the famous dead white guys.

Our last challenge is to ask ourselves what an audience wants to see onstage in a post-pandemic world. If the 1920’s are a model, it’s likely to be comedies and lighter fare. I doubt there will be much interest in a pandemic play, but I could be wrong. Look at Angels in America and the AIDS crisis.

But I’m an optimist. I’m going to view these challenges as pandemic blessings for us as writers. They allow us to reassess our own work, our own goals, our own “next act” as we sit down at the keyboard and start writing something new.

I can hardly wait!

Kitty’s second book in The Fina Mendoza Mysteries series State of the Union will be published by Chesapeake Press August 13, 2021. A mysterious bird poops on the president’s head during the State of the Union address. Can our young detective find that bird before the Secret Service, the Capitol Police, and the rest of Washington and hear its secret message?

I cheer for both the Dodgers and the Nationals

The future MetroStage

Crash Landing on Plot

by Kitty Felde

I’ve been thinking a lot about plot.

A writer friend recently had a zoom performance of her play, a lovely piece about the power of grief and recovery. The last scene is a reprise of the top of the play, flashed back in time, full of the ugly and raw emotion of loss. Several “critics” urged her to expunge the scene. “It isn’t needed,” said one. “Anticlimactic,” said another. What they were saying was that the script didn’t follow the classic Greek model of rising action, climax, and denouement. Or, the penis model, as I like to call it.

Instead, the writer used a circular structure for the play. Which, some argue, is a more organic way of writing for the female storyteller. Yes, you start at point A and return there, but the protagonist hasn’t necessarily “learned something” or “changed,” which are requirements for the official “circular” plot. The writer just finished the story. Period.

The writer rejected the criticism, by the way.

Sticking to the Aristotelian structure has become even more formulaic in recent decades, something I call the “Save the Cat” effect. The popular book by Blake Snyder has become a template for most movies and far too many plays. It’s gotten to a point that I can pretty much predict exactly what will happen next – something I do, by the way, that drives my husband crazy.

Until I watched Crash Landing on You.

Crash Landing on You



It’s a South Korean episodic drama about a poor little rich girl out paragliding and gets blown across the DMZ to North Korea. It’s wonderful – funny, not too scary, full of social and political commentary, but mostly a love story. It’s also incredibly well written by veteran screenwriter Park Ji-Eun.

The show is a worldwide hit. Viewers in India are reportedly learning Korean. A fan in the Phillipines has written a song about the show. Even Chicago Cubs Manager David Ross is a fan.

And here’s the thing: I could never predict what happens next. I was continuously surprised and delighted. As a writer, I kept asking myself, “how did she do that?”

It’s not just me. A playwriting pal had exactly the same reaction. Neither of us can figure out the structure of the story, yet we couldn’t stop watching. What magic is Park Ji-Eun using? And more importantly: can we steal it?

My playwright pal and I have decided to make a formal study of the series, each of us taking one episode and dissecting it, then comparing notes. We’ll likely be applying whatever structure secrets Ji-Eun uses in our next plays.

And here’s the good news: there’s rumors of a second season!

Are you a circular writer? Have you rejected Aristotle’s triangle of plot structure? Have you gotten pushback? Is there a better way to tell a story?

And can you figure out the structure in “Crash Landing on You” on Netflix?

Kitty Felde is a playwright, podcaster, and children’s mystery writer. Her second book in The Fina Mendoza Mysteries series State of the Union comes out this summer.


Adventures in Self-Publishing

by Kitty Felde

Two of my plays have been published. My one act adaptation of Nikolai Gogol’s short story “The Nose” is available from YouthPLAYS, and my Bosnian war crimes play “A Patch of Earth” is included in a pricey collection from the University of Wisconsin Press with the sexy title “Theatre of Genocide.”

Over the years, Im always happy to send pdfs of various other titles. But now, I’ve taken the plunge and started self-publishing my work.

It started when an old public radio pal Cash Peters asked me why everything I did was ephemeral. Radio stories went out over the air and disappeared into the ether. Plays came alive before an audience for a limited number of nights and then the lights went out. Where was tangible evidence of my creativity?

He wasn’t the only one who thought that way. The general public seems to take “authors” more seriously. When my first children’s mystery “Welcome to Washington Fina Mendoza” was published two years ago, friends and family suddenly took me more seriously. I was a BOOK author. I had tangible evidence of my creative output, something they could hold in their hand and put on a bookshelf and wrap up in pretty paper to give to a favorite child.

Of course, given the state of the publishing industry, getting our plays and books published is a gigantic crapshoot. The “Big Five” publishers in New York have again consolidated to become the “Big Four.” Covid has shut down not just Broadway, but Lort houses, community theatres, even high school drama programs across the country, dealing a severe blow to publishers of plays. I felt fortunate that any of my plays came out in print.

But that was then. This is now. I hate waiting for somebody else to say “yes” to my work. I’ve self- produced several of my plays. Why not self-publish?

Last week, my acting edition of “A Patch of Earth” went live on Amazon, published by Chesapeake Press, a publishing house named after my warrior cat who lost her life to a coyote.

Also live, a Teacher’s Guide to my first Fina Mendoza mystery. This wonderful publisher (me) then decided that the first Fina book deserved a second edition with a better cover and a more user-friendly size. It also deserved a hardback version from a distributor that could get it into libraries – something my first publisher was unable to do.

Are you tired of waiting around for someone else to believe in your work? Are you ready to join the legions of writers who are publishing their own stories? Here’s my step-by-step guide to publishing your own plays. I will warn you: the software requirements are a pain in the neck.

There are two main players in the self-publishing game: Amazon and Ingram. The latter is not just a printer, but also the distributor that most libraries use to purchase books. (It also costs $25-$50 to use while Amazon is free.) If you have a play that you want to see on library shelves, you’ll need to use Ingram. I use both.

  1. Since you’re your own copy editor, carefully look through your script for errors. And look again. I promise you: there will be mistakes.
  2. Sign up for KDP on Amazon and/or Ingram Spark’s self publishing platform. There are many, many pages of information you’ll have to supply, including an ISBN number. (NOTE: Amazon will give you a free one, but then they end up as the publisher of record. I purchase my own ISBNs at a website called Bowker. They also sell the barcodes that go on the back cover.) There are also categories to choose to optimize searches, keywords, etc. (This is more important for books than plays, but there’s a wonderful software program that will help you identify these keywords and categories.)
  3. Download Amazon’s free interior book templates.
  4. Pick the 6” by 9” version for Word.
  5. Cut and paste your script into the template, using standard script formatting. (I use the old fashioned version with character names in caps at the left margin.)
  6. Print out a copy and look for errors – a missed word, bad formatting, etc.
  7. Sign up for Adobe Acrobat Pro DC’s free trial period and change your play from Word to a PDF. (NOTE: just printing as a pdf from word doesn’t work for some reason.)
  8. Upload the pdf to Amazon and/or Ingram.
  9. Design a cover using the templates provided by Amazon and Ingram or hire a designer. You can also noodle around on Canva’s book cover creator. The only problem is that it only creates a front cover, not the back. (Reedsy is a great place to find design professionals for covers or even interior layout. It also offers a free software program that will turn your print script into an e-version.)
  10. Publish!

You can purchase discounted author copies of the scripts, though you have to pay for shipping, even if you are an Amazon Prime member. And you have to do all your own marketing (another topic for another day). But now you have a printed script that actors can use for rehearsals, a professional looking paperback that you can hand to a director or producer, and tangible evidence that indeed, you are a playwright. You can even wrap it up in pretty paper and give it to your parents to prove it.

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.