WRITERS’ WEDNESDAY: Writing for the Theater: A Horse of a Different Color

Theater Masks

Something appealing, something appalling…

When I joined a theater group a few years ago, I already had experience writing novels and stories. The transition was not as easy as I’d expected. Although a novel can be adapted to a script and vice versa, the two are different art forms. At the time I decided it would be easier to create a new work. I remembered stories my girlfriend Arlys had told me of her weird on-line dating experiences, and voila, a musical comedy was born! I’ll save the rest of that story for an upcoming Self-promotion Sunday post.

The first rule of script writing is that your audience – producers, directors, and actors – expect it to be in a specific format. Using a word-processor template can make this easy. There’s a reason for using the archaic Courier font: it helps keep the timing consistent. As a rule of thumb, a page of dialog should last a minute on stage, but in practice that can vary greatly.

Secondly, converting standard prose to script can be challenging. Your pretty description and narrative must be replaced with scene and stage direction, which should be as concise and utilitarian as possible. How thorough you make these directions is a matter of personal style. Some famous playwrights, such as Pinter, use almost none. In any case, you will surrender much of your creative control to directors, actors, and set designers.

This conversion will be easier if you follow the cardinal rule of good writing: show don’t tell. In the theater, the writer shows through dialog and action. A good set can be helpful, but a play can be just as effective on a bare stage. If necessary, a character can play the role of a narrator, but this device should be used sparingly.

Comedy is a difficult genre in any form because humor is a personal thing. Unless you’re a natural, I suggest writing comedy with a co-author. The social dynamics of collaboration will help you come up with better, funnier jokes.

Music adds another layer of complexity. It’s good to have a song occur early in the scene, for maximum impact. Of course, the flow of the dialog will determine the ideal place for a song to occur.

Theater writing has its positive aspects, of course. Even if it’s not your primary mode of expression it’s a good exercise. It incorporates a social element that the solitary habit of writing normally lacks. Larger cities often have showcases for local talent, and they’re always looking for new works. These provide good opportunities for publicity and increased name recognition.

In this short post, I’ve barely scratched the surface of this topic. My primary message is not to underestimate the challenge of writing for the theater, but also to point out its potential rewards. As the saying goes, there’s no business like show business!

For some dramatic storytelling, check out my books on Amazon.com.

My Favorite Collaborator


For Valentine’s Day I thought I should write about hearts and flowers, but the closest topic I could come up with was collaboration. Seriously, it’s a lot like a romantic relationship. When we consider the famous creative duos, such as Lennon and McCartney, Rodgers and Hammerstein, and Cheech and Chong, we can see that a creative partnership is a lot like a marriage, with interpersonal drama, conflict and compromise. Some teams are tempestuous and brief, and others last a lifetime.

As for me, collaboration has rarely worked. Most of the time the chemistry just isn’t there. Some people aren’t committed and don’t pull their weight; I had a high school debate partner who was like that. Others are overly invested in everything, and argue or take offense at constructive criticism.

The best partnerships are those that happen naturally. In grade school, my best friend was Joel, who shared my bizarre sense of humor. We were doing “Mad Libs” before it was popular, as we started our story-writing by crossing out and replacing words in old textbooks. Nothing we wrote was anything someone older than 12 would find appreciate, but still, we had a hilarious time doing it.

Besides co-writing those dumb stories, the closest I’d come to collaboration was my participation in writer critique groups. Not all personality types are suited for this. People who are overly sensitive or argumentative usually quit after one or two meetings. A fragile ego is fatal to creativity, because being open to honest feedback is essential to learning and growth. At the same time, one can’t be too indecisive, because critics will sometimes have opposing opinions. To be truly creative, you need a vision of what you’re trying to accomplish.

The best partnerships are those in which the participants have differing strengths. That’s why Elton John writes the music and Bernie Taupin does the lyrics. I’ve had the exceptional good luck to find a creative partner who does just that, complementing my own skills. It’s even more unusual to find that sort of thing within a romantic relationship.

Arlys and I began our creative partnership by an interesting accident of fate. My friend John from the sci fi writer’s group invited me to accompany him to a meeting of a theatrical group. They were an interesting bunch. Many of them were adapting excerpts from their own novels or short stories for the stage. Under other circumstances, I would probably have not continued, because my own work didn’t seem well-suited for that purpose.

But then I thought of the stories Arlys had told me, of all the odd and quirky characters she’d met through on-line dating. One of those guys was a “furry,” who liked to dress up as an animal. To most furries, it’s a fun costume to wear to sci-fi conventions and other get-togethers for some innocent role-playing. For others, and this fellow was one of them, it’s a sexual fetish. Arlys found the idea ridiculous, and did not see that guy again, but to me it was hilarious. I thought, why not do a musical number where the actors danced around and sang about the joys of sex in a fur-suit? That was how “One Good Man,” our musical comedy about on-line dating, was born.

So far, Arlys and I have co-written half a dozen scenes of our show, three of which were staged as part of the “Out Loud” showcase here in Phoenix. A fourth is scheduled to be performed next month for “Out Loud” number two.

Since then, she been the first person to read and critique all my writings. As a collaborator, Arlys has many strengths that I lack. She’s a wizard with dialogue, and far better than I am with jokes. She brings the woman’s perspective that we men find difficult to write. Her sense of style caused her to fall in love with the steampunk movement, which was the genre of my second novel, Fidelio’s Automata. Some of her artistic creations have helped inspire new stories. She has given unconditional support to all my ventures, and that means the world to me. And so does she.

Review, Book of Mormon (The Show, That Is!)


When I heard that Matt Stone and Trey Parker of South Park fame were doing a musical comedy based on the Book of Mormon, I had high expectations. This week I finally saw the show, and they did not disappoint me.For those who don’t know, the play is the story of two American Mormon missionaries who are sent to Uganda. One is a narcissistic over-achiever, the other an Asperger-ish compulsive liar. This, combined with the hellish conditions and cynical inhabitants of the village they’re sent to, makes for some very hilarious and un-PC hijinks.

It’s interesting, when you’ve been listening to the sound track for a long time, to see what the actual show is like. I ended up going twice, because my girlfriend Arlys’ employer changed the date of a conference we’d been planning around. Rather than trying to sell the original tickets and risk not seeing it at all, we bought two more. On Tuesday night I saw it with family, and on Thursday with Arlys. Both times it was fantastic, with top-notch acting, singing and dancing. Seeing it a second time was an opportunity to notice the details and laugh at the jokes I’d missed the first time. Not that I’d have gone twice otherwise, because even high in the second balcony, the tickets weren’t cheap.

I realize that all traveling Broadway shows are pricey these days. It’s just a shame that when a show appears on a college campus (the Gammage at ASU) that the students can’t afford to see it. My son, an ASU freshman, was one of the lucky ones. I didn’t notice too many other people his age when we were there. In any case, the performers all did an excellent job and deserved to be well paid. They were accompanied by a top-notch live orchestra. It’s worth noting that Parker and Stone are among the world’s richest comedy writers (at least, according to one of those Internet “top ten” lists.) I sure wouldn’t complain as the money rolled in.

The Book of Mormon is probably the most politically incorrect musical to ever win nine Tony awards. Besides plenty of vulgar language, it lampoons a major religion, albeit a religion that’s overwhelmingly white and conservative. It gets an equal amount of comedic mileage from the horrible problems of modern Africa – war, famine, AIDS, and female genital mutilation. To the writers’ credit, they didn’t throw in any lines that blamed this on the white man. They did, however, have the African characters complain that foreign missionaries would tell them lovely stories and then leave without fixing anything. The part about an insane general trying to force circumcision upon helpless women was probably furthest from reality. From what I’ve heard, African women are usually the ones who are the most adamant about subjecting their daughters to this barbaric practice.

It was fascinating how much actual Mormon / Latter Day Saints doctrine made its way into the show. The opening historical background sequences reminded me of time long ago when I went to the visitors’ center of the Mormon Tabernacle in Salt Lake City (or Sal Tlay Ka Siti, as the Africans call it.) Of course, it’s all presented in a satirical, cartoonish fashion. My favorite song is “I Believe,” in which Elder Price begins by singing about the standard Christian dogma we all know – that God created the universe, that Jesus died for our sins, that there’s some good in everyone. He continues with the more unusual Mormon beliefs – that ancient Jews sailed to America, that God lives on a planet called Kolob, and that in 1978, God “changed his mind about black people.” Another of the best musical numbers had the sci-fi obsessed Elder Cunningham being chastised by Joseph Smith, Lt. Uhura, hobbits, and Yoda.

I’ve heard very little about LDS reaction on the show, which seems to portray Mormons as well-intentioned but bumbling do-gooders. When I first heard of the show a few years ago, the reviewers claimed that it was popular among younger Mormons, though I personally don’t have any close friends in the church I’d feel comfortable about asking. I definitely wouldn’t recommend the show to anybody who’s offended by profanity, sexual humor, or mockery of religion. To everyone else I say, for Christ’s sake, see it!

(Picture of Salt Lake Assembly hall is from Wikimedia Commons.)



Presenting “Out Loud”

After a three month hiatus, it’s high time I return to my blog, though this entry will be a relatively short one. In early November I became quite busy with my writing projects, which turned out to be much more demanding then I expected. All my marketing activities ground to a halt, though I now have something important to promote, which I’ll get to shortly.


First of all, I was attempting to meet my personal goal of finishing my second novel, Fidelio’s Automata, by the end of 2013. Although I made a valiant effort at editing and cleaning up the draft manuscript, I was forced to set it aside. I’m recently resumed that project and hope to be done by the end of this month. I’ll keep you posted.


My second, more urgent project is a theatrical production, which is called OUT LOUD! Stories from the Gayborhood. The show boasts five contributors of different short works, including three scenes by myself and my girlfriend/collaborator, Arlys Holloway. The latter are excerpts from our work in progress, a musical comedy about on-line dating called One Good Man. When I took up writing a few years ago, I never expected it to go in that direction. Frankly, if I’d have realized how challenging writing a musical would be, I probably would not have attempted it. (By the way, many thanks to JR McAlexander with his invaluable assistance with the music.) Despite several weeks of chronic sleep deprivation, it’s been an enjoyable and educational experience.


Now, after two years of preparation, OUT LOUD! is finally coming to the stage, with seven talented local actors playing over twenty roles. Besides our own musical numbers, the show features works of fantasy, young romance, and drama, by playwrights Ben Gill, B.D. Heywood and Lori Hicks. Like us, they’re newcomers to writing for the theater, and we owe a debt of gratitude to our facilitator, mentor and director, Richard Schultz. (Shameless plug: Gill, Heywood, Hicks and I all have novels published on Amazon.)


The title makes obvious the show’s lesbian/gay theme, and in fact, it is a benefit for the One Voice LGBT Community Center in Phoenix. All the works have gay/lesbian characters and/or writers. Though Arlys and I have a more conventional orientation, we are proud to support the cause of equality for the LGBT community. Though gays and lesbians have achieved much in recent years, there has recently been a resurgence in bigotry around the world, especially in the Middle East and in Putin’s Russia. Vladimir would no doubt consider our show “homosexual propaganda,” which is his standard smear on anyone who opposes his agenda of making gays into scapegoats for his country’s problems. (Though I do appreciate his opposition to the neocons’ Syria war plans – but that’s another topic.)


For those who would rather support Truth, Justice and the American Way, showings of OUT LOUD! will be February 6, 7, and 8th at the Phoenix Center for the Arts, 1202 North 3rd Street at 7:30 PM. Tickets are $10 and $25; to buy in advance, call 602-254-3100, and for more information, www.1vcc.org. Warning: these works have mature subject matter, so it’s not for children or for the easily offended. We invite those of a more eclectic bent to join us for an enjoyable evening of original theater by local Arizona writers.