On Keanu and the Importance of Saving the Cat

keanu_ii

I’m really, really excited to see the upcoming movie from Key and Peele, Keanu.

I’m excited because I recognize some obvious similarities between it and my play, Dr. Evil and the Basket of Kittens. I’m excited to see it because like my play, it takes the storytelling idea of “saving the cat” very literally and then goes on to have a ton of fun with that idea.

This premise was made famous in Blake Snyder’s screenwriting book, titled “Save the Cat.” This is one of my favorite books on the craft of storytelling. Though it specifically addresses the art of screenwriting, I have often applied this to my playwriting. I am sure it would apply similarly in other types of writing.

The first premise of Blake Snyder’s book is that your hero has to have the “Save the Cat” moment. That is… a moment early on in the story where the protagonist has a moment that shows they are good and virtuous. It can be as simple as helping an old lady cross the street or saving a cat from a tree. It can be more character and story related,  but still simple, such as the moment when Harry Potter unleashes the snake on Dudley Dursley at the zoo as his very first heroic act in a series of seven novels and a franchise of eight feature films. This “save the cat” heroic moment is often the first “beat” of many popular stories, where we get to  know the hero more and discovering their role as our heroic protagonist by seeing him or her being heroic in some simple way, before things get really complicated. It’s a key moment in a lot of popular and lasting stories.

This Westword review of the Keanu movie really spells it out, and almost literally spells out my own inspiration for my Dr. Evil play:

“Through every minute of Keanu, it’s evident we’re watching a movie made by people who love movies. They know all the clichés of action films and rom-coms, but they also circumvent them. It’s like they read Blake Snyder’s Hollywood screenwriting bible Save the Cat! — which advises you to give audiences what they want and, among other things, literally save the cat if there’s one in peril in your story — and then made an entire movie around the cat.”

Yes, I am a fan of theatre (and movies and TV and pop culture), and like to poke fun at different genres and pop culture. Yes, I do my best to give audiences what they want. Yes, I read Blake Snyder’s book and applied his principles to my playwriting.  Yes, I wrote an entire play around adorable kittens in the face of despicable evil.

So… yeah… I’m really excited to see this flick! I love Key and Peele and this flick looks right up my alley!

Do I think they stole my idea? Um, no. Heck no! I highly doubt they have any awareness of my play.

Are they similar? Heck yes they are! But only in premise alone. Their story looks to be something like a comedy spoof of Hollywood action blockbusters. My story is a comical stage play more in line with traditional farce.

But taken at face value, both stories seem to come down to one basic premise…

What happens when adorable precious kittens fall into the hands of madmen?

It’s a good idea. Especially so in this internet age that is so consumed by cat memes and cat videos.

I’m pleased I’m not the only one who sees it. 

And I look forward to seeing how their version of the story unfolds!

 

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I Am Not Throwing Away My Shot

Some unorthodox writing advice, some unorthodox life advice… Some musings and memories…

It’s been a long while since I’ve really connected with any Broadway show.

I was a high school theatre kid right about the time when Jonathan Larson’s Rent hit Broadway. Like many theatre kids then, the cast album was my anthem. Adored songs like “One Song Glory” “Will I?” “Halloween” “Seasons of Love” and of course “La Vie Boheme” and the whole story behind the show, became a sort of foundation for my worldview.

No, I am not a heathen or bohemian living life without restriction, and I try not to be, but the themes of freedom and love and unified diversity and “this is my one life and I’m not going to blow it off” really connected with me. Still do…

As a kid who lost a very significant figure, my father, very early in my life,  I was very attuned to these ideas… Life is short. Life can be taken away at any time, unexpectedly. Make your life mean something. Or at the very least, live to the fullest while you can. Make it yours. Love. Dream. Imagine. Listen. Learn. Work. Achieve. (Probably, in that order, then repeat.)

Lately, I’ve been grooving to the newest Broadway sensation… Hamilton, by Lin-Manuel Miranda. Though I’ve not yet absorbed enough of it to fully appreciate it, I’m really digging some of the same ideas from that show.

I am not throwin’ away my shot.

I am not throwin’ away my shot.

You know I’m just like my country,

I’m young scrappy and hungry,

And I am not throwin’ away my… shot!

or…

History has it’s eyes on you…

or…

I’ll never be satisified…

or…

The whole premise of revolution and fighting against ‘the man’ or the status quo or authority or the powers that be or whatever to make and shape your own life and legacy… It’s a struggle and the struggle is real.

I’m admittedly a little late to the Hamilton party here, but I totally see why Hamilton is making a huge impression on this new generation of theatre kids. It’s about life, it’s about legacy, it’s about stirring the pot and making something happen. It’s full of energy and life!

As writers, as playwriters, as living breathing humans, I think we need to embrace these energetic, hopeful, big dreams!

Say what you need to say.

Write what you need to write.

Dream big.

Stir the pot.

Make things happen.

Leave an impression.

Don’t throw away your shot.

 

Fin

It’s been a bit of a writing dry spell or slow spell for me of late (months, really), but for the first time in a long while now, I just… finally… wrote those sweet, sweet words…

“End of play.”

Now for a bit of tidying before submission. 😉

On Writing – Characters

This is along the lines of what I’ve been writing about in terms of stories and how they hold the power to connect us all, whether we are writers, creators, readers, or just friends sharing stories with one another. (For further reference, see On Writing, parts 1-6 here: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6)

I think about character. I really connect with some of my characters. I think as writers, we must do that, otherwise we’re doing it wrong.

Obviously, the same can be said for the characters we read about. If we’re not connecting with characters, why read at all?

But my mind goes to a story shared by a beloved college professor of mine. As she so graciously has shared this story with me and many others, I’m sure she would be happy to have me share it with you. It goes something like this:

She was once tucking her child into bed. They had a habit of reading stories together. Her young son, after having read another fascinating tale, exuberantly quipped, “Oh, mom, I just love all these characters we read about in the tales! I wish they were real!”

To which, she replied, “Oh, but they ARE real. Just because they are fictitious doesn’t mean they aren’t real.”

I just love, love, love hearing that tale. I love hearing it when she tells it (I’ve been lucky enough to hear her tell it a few times), and I love remembering how she tells it. There’s just so much to take away from that.

Yes, fictional characters are real. I believe that. 

I’m certain many of your favorite characters seem very real to you. Some of my favorites… Harry Potter and his friends, Bilbo and Frodo Baggins and their travelling companions, Eragon, Katniss, Jean ValJean and even Javert in Les Miserables, Link from The Legend of Zelda videogame series, Wang Lung (from The Good Earth), Billy Coleman (from Where the Red Fern Grows)… I could go on and on… Practically all of the fictitious characters I’ve enjoyed in my lifetime are very very real to me.    

The characters we storytellers create, I’m certain, are also very real to us. Obviously, when I wrote myself into The Murder Mystery at the Murder Mystery, it was just for fun and to serve the story, but as I wrote it, I really knew that was me. A fictional, superhuman version of me, yes, but still me and still very real. The Princess Aislin in The Princess Who Had No Name, is also very real to me. Having worked with that character in three versions of the script and still currently exploring the character in novel form, she has become a very real part of my life. I am without a doubt connected to her. She is very real to me.

And just to further prove my point that fictional characters are real, I’m going to make one up, right now.

Penelope Thomas is a young girl. She lives on Massachusetts Lane in San Francisco, Ohio. Penelope likes to draw and paint with her mother. She likes to fish with her dad. She loves her little brother. Though he can sometimes be a pain, she loves helping him out with his math homework and showing him how to make pillow forts. Penelope does well in school, but she wishes she could devote more time to training her dragon, Spike. Penelope and Spike are the best of friends and they have been on so many adventures together. They once saved a kitten from the top of a tree. The firemen asked Spike to be a volunteer fire brigade dragon. The mayor gave Penelope a key to the city. 

I could go on. In fact, I’d like to go on. But in the interest of time, I hope I’ve proven my point. Penelope is fictional. I’m guessing Massachusetts Lane and San Francisco, Ohio are as well. But between you and I, those places are real and Penelope is real, just by the simple fact that we’ve shared Penelope’s story together. Heck, even Spike and Penelope’s mum and pop and brother are real since we’ve done so. To the people who do not read this post, all of those things do not exist. But between you and I… they exist. They are real.

Writers, if you don’t believe that your characters are real, or can be, then quit writing. It’s not for you.  

On Writing – Why We Do This – Part 6 of 6… Epilogue

So… why do we do this? Why do we write?

It’s because stories connect us.

To fans, to other artists, to ourselves, to our families and friends, to total strangers, to the characters we create, to God, to the universe, to history, to life, to humanity, to everything.

And that’s true whether you’re a writer, a director, an actor, an audience member, a casual reader, or just a friend sharing a story with another friend at lunch. 

Stories connect us.

You write them because you are a storyteller. 

I’ve barely scraped the surface of all the ways stories and writing them connects us to everything life has to offer. But the desire for connection is a very real and very deep human need.

So keep on sharing your wonderful, beautiful, hilarious stories, my friends. And don’t forget to whom you are writing, and how it connects you to them.

On Writing – Why We Do This – Part 5 of 6

And what about the others?

What about those we connect with as creators?

In this love affair we call theatre, I would be loath to omit those who bring our stories to life. Those collaborators who take our words and interpret them in new ways.

Lately, I’ve called myself a writer, but at one point in my life…

I was an actor. 

I was a director. 

I was a techie. 

It’s been a while, too long, since I’ve played any of those roles, yet I still identify with them all.

I’m very vocal about how theatre is meant to be collaborative. I love that it is. Playwrights, remember that you are writing for them. Also, I encourage you to embrace new interpretations of your work. Other artists may do something truly beautiful and excitign with the script you’ve written. But that can only happen if you allow room for creativity. Plays with excessive restrictions (no word changes allowed, for instance) limit creativity. Yes, protect your work and your artistic intent, but I encourage you to leave the door open for amazing creativity.

As an actor, director, designer… I was a huge fan of the writers whose stories I was helping to bring to life on stage. Studying their words, I felt somehow connected to them. My most recent acting gig was in Fools. I also have directed the play. In a strange way, I feel like I know Neil Simon personally after having invested so much into this one play.

We write for those collaborators. As playwrights, we write for directors and for actors. Novelists write for readers, who direct and act out the stories in their minds. Writers should not forget about them and should feel connected to them. Writers should write for them.

On Writing – Why We Do This – Part 4 of 6

And as a creator, stories matter, too.

Our stories…

The stories we create…

The stories we live…

Though writing can sometimes seem a very isolated activity, what we write connects us.

My very most favoritest part about being a writer is seeing what other people are doing with the shows I write. Theater is a collaborative art form. Directors, designers, actors and crew all work together to bring the best creative elements to a story. The writer is a part of that. I love that I have a sort of connection to the groups out there producing the shows, and I love seeing all the additional creativity being brought to the shows. I would guess that even novelists experience something like this when they get to hear or read about their readers’ connections to their stories.

I watched Saving Mr. Banks the other day. No, I didn’t write that one, but so many elements rang familiar to me. I could connect to the writer character, the very real P.L. Travers, in so many ways, and I feel it’s a good explanation of how writers make connections through their storytelling. The connection between a writer and his/her characters (Travers loves Poppins, Disney loves the Mouse). The connection between a writer and other collaborators (Travers and Disney, Travers and the musicians and screenwriter). The connection between a writer and his/her family.

I was particularly moved by that last element I mentioned. Late in the film, Disney discovers that Travers took on her father’s name as a pseudonym. That hit very close to home for me. I don’t use a pseudonym, but my own name. I use it because it honors my father. Like Travers, I lost my father early in life. I, of course, share my father’s last name, but I was also adamant that the D. be left in my professional name. We share a middle name… Dale. I miss my father so, but I honor his life by wearing that name that we share. I’ve also passed that name onto my son.

But not only that, if you read closely, several of my plays have an important focus on names. In my first, Revenge of the Pigs, all the pigs share a middle initial D. just as my, my son and my father do. The Princess Who Had No Name, Princess Who? and Princess Whatsername (all the same story, just in different forms) are almost obsessive about names. You have the Princess, who doesn’t know her name, Rumpelstiltskin, who is very proud of his name, the Queen of the North, who desperately needs to learn his name…

Heck, there’s even some funny stories I haven’t shared about a couple of the names in The Murder Mystery at the Murder Mystery.  The character Brett is named after a very close friend of mine. Not because he resembles the character, but because he’s a talented actor and I’d love to see him play the character. I, of course, show up in the play as myself. It’s part joke, and part of the plot, but Brian D. Taylor does make a fabulous appearance. But the other funny thing about the names in that play is the name of the character who dies first. Now, this was play my first attempt at a murder mystery. I had never killed off a character before. Yet, since it was a murder mystery, someone had to go. When I wrote the stage directions for that first murder in the play, I was a bit surprised by it. Thunder. Blackout. The lights come up to reveal Gary, dead with a fire poker in his chest. Now, one thing I don’t like about murder mysteries is the way they can sometimes play around with the topic of death a bit too carelessly. I poke fun at that on some level in this play. I also attempt to directly address some of my very real concerns with how the weight of death is almost ignored in so many murder mysteries. But on another level, it was  all very real to me, particularly in this instance. By total accident, I had named that character Gary. Gary was my father’s first name. When I wrote the lights up cue, revealing Gary dead onstage, I was surprised and taken aback. Why had I done that? Did I just subconsciously murder my father? Of course, that’s not the real case. It was mere coincidence, but it did cause me a brief moment of alarm and self-reflection. I even considered changing the character’s name after the fact, but decided to keep it was it was. Something strange, subconscious, metaphysical was going on there. Somehow, I think it was just meant to be.

Anyway… It’s a common theme in my plays, because I believe names are a very important part of character. Names are a very real part of the fabric that binds us together. Shared family names, the pseudonyms we choose… our very identity is closely wrapped around our name in many ways,which is why, I think, The Princess Who Had No Name has caught on so well. We need identity. We need connection.

All of this is to say that writing stories is a means of connection. It connects us to ourselves, to our families, to total strangers, to humanity. It’s how we relate to others.

Even as I write this post, I realize that I’m sharing some very personal details about my life, which I don’t do all that much. But you know… I don’t mind, because I know there’s a connection being made out there somewhere with someone reading this.

That’s the power of story.

I’m happy to share my own story.

On Writing – Why We Do This – Part 3 of 6

Stories.

That is what connects us.

As a reader, theatre-goer, film-fan, etc., I think of stories that move me.

Les Miserables is one of them. I was first introduced to this tale in high school. All thanks to Paula McConnell, an amazing drama teacher, to whom I can never give enough credit for what an incredible job she does as an educator. Not long after she showed me and my theatre friends a short video on the show, I made my way up to the big city to see a full production of the show. I was blown away by this and became an instant fan. I later had the privilege to TD a summer youth camp production of the show. It was amazing in so many ways, but the two high-points I took away were… I was finally an active part in a show that I loved, and… probably more importantly… the kids who performed the show were spectacular. Because of those kids and their shared love of this show, this may be my favorite production of the show I’ll ever experience. In other words… fond memories were made during that telling of the story that will never be lost.

After that, the film came out. Now, I could write blogs and blogs about this story and this film. The show was already important to me, but this production blew everything up. This was it. To keep things short and sweet, I’ll suffice it to say that I loved it in so many ways. But the thing I want to focus on for the moment is a very brief experience with this show, after I was already a huge fan, on an ordinary day just a few days ago when a song from the show brought me to tears…

My kids are young enough that I can still say that I’m a new dad. When my firstborn was just born, I had a very sublime reaction to him in the early days when I sat there with him in my arms. I looked at him and thought, “How is it possible that you can be mine?” Yes, I technically created him. Yes, my wife very realistically bore him for nine months and gave birth to him. But the whole experience that I… ahem, we… made life… was unbelievable to me. After all… there had been an entire nine months to prepare me for this. There had been almost a lifetime of knowing where babies came from. And yet… This… those first moments… those first weeks of holding my child in my arms… was simply amazing and unbelievable to me. Suddenly, I was a father…. “How is it possible that you can be mine?”

And I remember those moments so dearly.

And when I listened to the film soundtrack of Les Miserables on that very ordinary day, and the song “Suddenly” came on, and I broke into deep happy tears on my way to work because it resounds so perfectly with those first moments with my newborn son, on a day just like any other day…

I realize that this is why story matters.

It connects us.

To others…

To ourselves…

To the past…

To the future..

It connects us to life itself…

It surprises us when the road becomes too familiar…

It’s capable of evoking the most amazing emotions.

 

 

 

 

On Writing – Why We Do This – Part 2 of 6

Read. Watch. Enjoy.

Call it what you will. It’s all the same.

In my first post in this series, I maxed poetic about why writers write. This post is a bit different, yet still the same. This post is about why we read books, why we watch plays and movies, why we love art…

To me they’re one and the same. The consumption of art and the creation of art go hand in hand.

We want to connect.

We want to share something with another.

We want to find something that says, “That’s me.”

We want to find something that says, “That’s my best friend” or “That’s my mom” or “That’s so-and-so.”

We want to find something that says, “That’s us.”

What is that thing? What is that thing that says, “This is us”?

Whether you’re a writer or a reader or viewer, that thing is the story.

It’s stories that connect us.

It’s stories that make us writers.

It’s stories that make us readers.

It’s stories that make us human.

Whether real or fictitious, storytelling is the tie that binds us to one another.

A story shared over a family meal…

A story recollected between friends gone-by…

A story shared between strangers…

A story shared just because…

This is how we connect with one another.

 

 

On Writing – Why We Do This – Part 1 of 6

Why write? Why write at all?

There’s no guarantee of a livelihood.

There’s no guarantee that people will listen.

Those two elements can be a primary driving force for writers. Paychecks and fans.

Yes, money is important. You have bills to pay, kids to raise, responsibilities…

Yes,  fans are important. After all, they pay those bills, help you raise those kids and allow you to meet those responsibilities…

But that’s all the sideshow. It’s not why writers write. If that is why you write, you will have neither.

So why write?

Because you must.

You write because there’s something inside you that you must tell the world…

You write because there’s something inside you that you want to share…

You write because you’ve had an important experience that you need to explain, but can only do so through story…

You write because you’ve been inspired by something. Life, people, a person, a moment, an amazement…

You write because there’s something you’ve discovered that says, “This is me, but it’s also you.”…

You write because you love stories and want to make new ones…

You write because you love something and want others to love it too…

You don’t write for paychecks or fans. Those things will come, but neither is the main thing.

You write because it’s who you are.

It’s your connection to this world.

It’s bursting inside of you to come out.

You write because you’re a storyteller.

You write stories, because you’re a writer.

 

The Benefits of Working with a Publisher

“I often hear from playwrights who say that they don’t want to be published… Instead, they spend a big chunk of their time promoting their plays, arranging for the performance rights and collecting the fees.

“Now everyone has the right to pursue their career the way they see fit. But if your goal is to make some money at this game, then I think this view is shortsighted.”

Sage advice from playwright Todd Wallinger, who penned the fantastically witty murder mystery play The Butler Did It! and is an all around classy guy. His writing blog is definitely one to follow.

I can’t agree more with his point of view on his recent blog post, “Why You Need a Publisher,” (click to read the full article) where he anecdotally outlines the benefits of seeking publication and how publishers offer playwrights some tremendous promotional power. 

To read all of Todd’s great writing advice, head on over to his blog: Todd Wallinger – Playwright

*Great job this year, Todd! 😉 

Happy Almost Two Years* and More to Come! Special Bonus: Some Thoughts on Writing in Today’s Connected World

So… WordPress tells me this blog has now been live for three full years! I’m really bad at keeping track of time, so that seems like about a year more than what I was thinking, but, hey, cool! Happy Anniversary, blog of mine!

(*On further inspection, my first post was on May 10, 2012. I began working on the blog on May 5, 2012, but I would calculate the official anniversary based on the first public post. Thus, the real anniversary is on Saturday and not today. But more importantly, 2014 minus 2012 is not three years. So… 1) I was right about the one more year than I was thinking thing, and 2) WordPress is either 2a) really bad at mathematics or 2b) not counting anniversaries in the same way that the entire human race counts them. I’m starting year three WordPress, not ending it. Geewhiz! Make me feel old why don’t you?)  

Also, you may have noticed that things here at the old blog have really slowed down lately. I have plans to get back in the saddle and get this wagon train rolling once again with more about new plays I’m working on, the novel, and more writing advice. The only way to get rolling is to pack up and get rolling, so here we go! For starters, a little writing advice based on my recent musings on writing for television. I don’t write for television, so I can’t speak to everything TV writers have to consider, however, I feel there are enough similarities among writers of all types of entertainment that I can speak to this on some level.

I was thinking tonight about writing in today’s society. My thoughts are more specifically in regards to today’s constantly connected world and how the writers of TV series must deal with this. On one hand, there’s a lot of great positives. The connected, engaged and rabid fanbases and the conversations that take place among them are pretty darn cool. On the other hand, wild fan theories and deep dissections of TV series as well as endless predictions as to what will happen are also at play and must be difficult for writers to deal with. 

I guess my thoughts go specifically to those fan predictions. As a writer, it must be difficult to have so much speculation and endless predictions about where your story is going to go before you have a chance to take it there, as is the case with popular serial TV shows that extend into multiple seasons. Some popular topics include: Who will die in the season finale? (Or, conversely, who will survive?) Will He and She finally get together after all this time and live happily ever after? Will so-and-so ever be able to do X, Y or Z? And while there are infinite guesses about what is sure to happen and many theories about how the writing of the series has spelled out the ending, so many that it’s difficult to keep up with, there are some fan theories that gain a lot of mass media and social media traction and are shared over and over. So what does a writer do with all of this? Does the writer cater to that and go in a direction the fans want? Should a writer stay 100% faithful to his/her original story goals? Or should a writer, in the interest of surprising viewers, intentionally change those story goals because a set of fans has caught onto where the story is going?

I’m not sure I have a satisfying answer to solve that. It’s more an open ended question and one that is somewhat situational. It’s also a question that will continue to change as we grow more and more connected. Ideally, I think TV writers should avoid reading fan speculation as much as possible, but I imagine it’s almost impossible to ignore it completely. Thus, probably the best solution is to do a bit of all of the above. Yes, cater to the fans. Yes, stay true to your story goals. And also yes, throw in more twists to keep them guessing. 

I can see that methodology in my own writing tendencies and play preferences, though playwrights don’t have to deal with the fan speculation in the same way that TV writers do. Obviously, having fans is great and we want people to enjoy what we write. But must we always give them what they expect from us? I think if writers do so, then they’re on the fast track to having their fans lose interest. That’s where I think this topic applies most to playwrights. It’s important for playwrights to keep changing their game. Write in multiple genres, write new plots that are nothing like your old ones, write characters that are unfamiliar to you… Change it up. If you normally write long plays, write some short ones. If you typically write small cast character driven plays, write some large cast story driven plays. If you normally write comedy, try a drama or suspense. 

If nothing else, it will keep your writing fresh. You can always come back to what works for you, but a quick, off-the-beaten-path writing excursion is bound to be helpful in several ways.