Saturday, January 25, 2020

What We're Writing - The Play's The Thing

JULIA SPENCER-FLEMING: I'm not ready to show anything from UNTITLED CLARE AND RUSS NUMBER 10 (How's that for a catchy title?) It all seems a little too new and tender, and, perhaps more pertinently, I'm still figuring out the structure, so God knows how much of what I've already gotten down will ever make it in the long run. I have in the past written and tossed up to three book openings before settling on a way forward.

Instead, I'm going to share a cool project I've been working on: a stage adaptation of my (one and only) short story, A Collect for Noonday. For the past three years, the Portland Stage Company, our premiere professional theater, has produced an evening of staged readings from local crime fiction writers. This year, they asked several of us to write something original for the performance.  Rather than a ten-minute short story with a narrator, which is what most of the readings have been in the past, I adapted my short story into a stage play titled Small Town.



It was an exciting creative experience, and it's left me very interested in composing something else for the stage - or even trying my hand at a screenplay, which is, as I understand it, another thing altogether. (If I go for the latter, I'm going to ask for advice from my friend Jeff Cohen, who's been teaching writing for the screen for twenty years.) If you're going to be in southern Maine on February 10, please join Gerry Boyle, Brenda Buchanan, Dick Cass, Paul Doiron and me for the Fourth Annual Crime Writers Staged Reading!




EARLA is in the diner. CLARE FERGUSSON and RUSS VAN ALSTYNE enter.
EARLA: There you two are. I was beginning to worry.
CLARE: Worry? Why?
EARLA: It's Wednesday, in't it? If I don't have the chief of police and the Episcopal minister in my diner for lunch Wednesday, I figure there's trouble going on somewheres in town. Here, sit down, I saved your table.
RUSS ushers CLARE to their seats.
EARLA: How's Mrs. Van Alstyne?
RUSS: Fine, Earla. Busy. Thanks for asking.
EARLA (to the audience): If the reverend was my daughter, I'd tell her you’re too pretty and too smart to be settling for once-a-week lunch with a man who won’t never leave his wife, dear.
EARLA: I’ll go fetch your coffees. EARLA exits
JIM CAMERON enters
CAMERON: Reverend Fergusson. How are you? (CAMERON drops a file folder on the table.)
CLARE: Mayor Cameron?
CAMERON: I won’t interrupt your meal. I just need to touch base with Russ. How is everything at St. Alban’s? Any more Sunday parking problems?
CLARE: No, it’s fine. You’re here to see Chief Van Alstyne?
EARLA enters
CAMERON: It’s Wednesday. (to EARLA) Can I get a Coke? (to CLARE) Easier to catch him here than to try to track him down on while he’s patrolling. (EARLA sets two coffee cups and three menus by RUSS) Oh, I’m not staying. (He picks up a menu and begins reading)
RUSS (hands CLARE a coffee cup) Reverend Fergusson.
CLARE: Thank you, Chief Van Alstyne.
CAMERON (to the audience): For godsakes, why can't they just call each other by their first names? Everyone knows what's going on.
PAUL FOUBERT enters
FOUBERT: There you are, m’dear! I was going over to the church and then I realized, she’s not going to be there on a Wednesday afternoon.
CLARE: Does someone need me at the nursing home?
FOUBERT: No, no, no. I want to float an idea past you. (to EARLA) Cup of tea, please. No, make it a pot. I can still get a pot, can’t I?
EARLA: You sure can.
EARLA exits
RUSS: Jim. What are you doing here? Do you know Paul Foubert?
CAMERON: Of course I do. Half the nursing home budget comes from town taxes. (to RUSS) Look, the roadworks building’s been broken into and vandalized again.
RUSS: When?
CAMERON: Emory McFarland called me an hour ago.
RUSS: He’s supposed to call us, not you. Last time the damn fool washed away any possible evidence before we ever got there.
CLARE: This happened before?
RUSS: About a month ago.
EARLA enters. She distributes tea FOUBERT and a soda to CAMERON, then takes out her order pad.
EARLA: You folks know what you want?
RUSS nods toward CLARE
CLARE: Chili and fries.
FOUBERT: That sounds good. Make it two.
RUSS: The usual.
EARLA: Mr. Mayor?
CAMERON (buries his face in the menu.) I hadn’t really planned on staying.
FOUBERT (to CLARE) I wanted to ask if you would consider--
CLARE is shaking a huge amount of sugar into her mug.
 FOUBERT: Good Lord. Why don’t you just order a bottle of Karo syrup?
CLARE: No caffeine.
RUSS, amused, reaches for the sugar himself as she puts it back. Their fingers touch. They jerk away.
CLARE: If I would consider...?
FOUBERT: Consider doing an ecumenical service for the nursing home residents.
CLARE: You mean, separate from my individual visits?
FOUBERT: Exactly. I’ve read a fascinating study on the health benefits of community worship. I’ve seen how people respond after a visit from you, or from Rev. Inman or Dr. McFeely. I’d like to get something started that our patients who don’t have a prior church connection can participate in. As a group.
CLARE: Huh. An ecumenical service. I have to admit I like the idea...
RUSS: And you have so much spare time to devote to it, too.
CLARE makes a face at him.


 What do you think, dear readers? Do you like live theater? And have you ever been energized by trying a new sort of creative endeavor?

51 comments:

  1. BFA in theatre here, so yes, I like it, and this is marvelous! I'm already playing with staging and blocking ideas in my mind. Although somebody is going to have to stand up and move besides Earla. Will it be a full staging, or more a reader's theatre format?

    I think it's great that you're playing with new ideas, new ways of telling your stories. Go for it! I hope it takes you all the way to Hollywood, or wherever you want to go.

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    1. Thanks, Gigi! Yes, it's a reader's theatre format - the actors will be in the same clothes for all five pieces. I haven't seen what the director's done with any blocking, but the gist of the play is that residents of the town keep entering the diner and sitting with Russ and Clare (usually without an invitation.) There are a total of nine character in all, and I thought the producer would want me to edit a few of them down and give their business to others, but they've cast it with all nine parts!

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    2. I love it. It will be so much fun.

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  2. Julia, I love this excerpt from “Small Town” . . . . I remember reading the story; how wonderful it will be as a play. Live theater has a special place in my heart. There’s something magical and spontaneous that happens as the actors bring the story to life. I hope you’ll let us know how the 10 February performance goes . . . .

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    1. Joan, I'll try to get better pictures than I had from the last time I participated!

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  3. Love it, Julia! I'll see if I can make it up there on the 10th. It's fun to remember Russ and Clare in that earlier stage of their relationship. I make a quilt every couple of years, and I do keep my hand in at writing short crime fiction, but that's not branching out much.

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    1. Edith if you really felt like heading north for wintery Maine, I would be happy to host you for the night. We have plenty of room in our lakeside house. We are an hour from the bridge, and an hour into Portland. But we will be at the theatre on the 10th.

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    2. Celia, you are a dear! I also have good Quaker friends who moved to Portland last summer. I'll see if I have the energy to drive north.

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    3. Celia, I'm so glad you're coming! And Edith, it would be a delight to see you as well. If we get enough mystery writers there, it will be a spontaneous Maine Crime Wave!

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  4. It's great, Julia, very Thornton Wilder. And as for screenplays, I look forward to Hallie waking up and chiming in. She must have a screenplay gene somewhere in her genetic makeup.

    I do like live theater, and although I'm not creative in the sense of making art, I get very energized in helping to solve health issue for my friends and neighbors. I find that if I hang a stethoscope around my neck, I get half a foot taller and many percentiles smarter -- in their eyes, anyway.

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    1. I love that, Ann! There's something deeply embedded in the American psyche that responds to the sight of a stethoscope slung around someone's neck - maybe all those medical dramas we watched on TV?

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  5. I love this, it should be great fun.
    If I did not hate driving so much and if it was not winter, I would go. I even checked Google maps : 378 km, 4.45h. Way out of my comfort zone.
    I like trying new sorts of things

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    1. I appreciate the thought, Danielle, but there's no way I'd suggest anyone make the trip from Quebec (I think you're a Québécoise, right?) to southern Maine in early February. The weather is just TOO variable. Last year, we did the Portland Stage event on April 1st and there was a SNOWSTORM!

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    2. Yes I am Québécoise and I don't go very far during winter.

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  6. I love live theater. It's so energizing, especially when it's high quality.

    Love the above. I can just see Russ and Clare communicating silently, "Well, there goes our lunch."

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    1. Liz, in the short story, they keep getting shoved further and further apart as more townspeople join them. I'll be interested to see how the director stages this. They may all just be standing up with reading stands.

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  7. Fun peek back at Russ and Clare in the early days, when there was so much tension in their relationship. Wish I could join Edith in driving up to see it on stage.

    I love live theater, although I rarely get to indulge myself. My middle daughter wanted passionately to be an actress when she was in grade school, and she spent two weeks every summer at acting camp at the Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park. She and I always had season tickets to the Playhouse when she was in high school. They had a student ticket price: $12 for the entire season! I miss going with her.

    I wrote a brief play in a workshop once, and still toy with the idea of fleshing it out more.

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    1. Karen, I'm with you - I love live theater, but I don't go nearly enough. That might be a good resolution for the coming year; try to see a live performance every other month. Even with ticket prices the way they are now, that can't be too out of reach.

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  8. Love this, Julia! The screenplay won't be nearly as hard as you think. I've always loved live theatre (and dance; magic happens on a stage that you just don't get in the movies (although I love movies, too--especially when the screenplay is well-written). I've adapted a short story into a play (for a class), written a screenplay, a few short stories--and it feels great to stretch in new directions. Wish I could be there for the reading!! YOU ROCK!!

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    1. Flora, you make me laugh. Thank you. I like to think I rock, now and then. :-)

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  9. I love live theatre and live old-fashioned radio dramas. I wish I could see this play!

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    1. Cathy, the same company's Christmas performance this year was a live radio show version of "It's a Wonderful Life." We didn't get to see it (the dates didn't line up for when the Sailor and his girl would be here) but I thought it was a fantastic and unique idea for an adaptation.

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    2. Julia, that would be fun to watch (and hear)!

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  10. This is wonderful! I printed out this short story and keep it with your books.

    I love live theatre. My husband courted me by taking me to the theatre and we have always had season tickets to at least one theatre company. Our favorite vacations were a long weekend in NYC with theatre every night and twice on Saturday.

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    1. Where do I find the short story to print and enjoy???

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    2. It should be on Criminal Element (criminalelement.com).

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    3. Like Deborah, I've searched criminalelement.com both by your name and by the story's title and I've come up empty...

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  11. I have very little experience with live theater but I do love this! Keep up the great work, Julia!

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  12. I remember the diner story, maybe from your website? Great story. I love lunchtime at small town diners in the winter. Just wrote one about the influx of affluent residents demanding changes in the menu, from grilled cheese and tomato soup to three-cheese on sourdough with tomato-basil soup.

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    1. Oh, Margaret, that would be great. I wish now I had included something like that - it's so indicative of what happens when the city folks move in.

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  13. I love this, Julia! Too bad I'm too far away to drive over and see it on Feb 10th. I'm sure it will be grand.

    I used to do a lot of theatre in my younger days -- in high school through drama class, and then in university some friends and I created a women's theatre troupe we called Hecate's Players. We prepared scripts from feminist writers/writing around a theme -- motherhood, work, etc.. It was great fun and we had some very meaningful experiences at women's gatherings and conferences. Our sound system was an old boom box, and our lights were garden floodlights -- oy, we operated on a shoestring budget, that's for sure!(And that's enough wandering down that memory lane for this morning!)

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    1. Amanda, Hecate's Players sounds amazing. I suspect an old boom box and garden floodlights are closer to the real spirit and history of theater than any number of splashy special effects.

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  14. What a fabulous excerpt. I love remembering Clair and Russ earlier on it this series. This feels like it could have happened just before Clair broke it off - which book was that, Julia?

    Live theater? I started college as a drama major. Ended up switching out when most of the live productions turned out to be musicals. I can't carry a tune in a paper bag! Still the acting was fun. I should look into it again. We have an active theater group here.

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    1. Clare broke it off in ALL MORTAL FLESH, Kait, but I set this earlier - between the third and forth books.

      And yes, you should look into returning to the stage. There's SO much great community theater going on all over the place.

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  15. How great is this Julia? Way to go! Just loved the extract, and February 10 is on our calendar. I'm happy to host and JRW readers who want to venture north for an adventure. My theatre experience has always been backstage. My first experience in building costumes goes back to my teens building a dress for Maria in Twelfth Night, a production by the British Council Players in Accra, Ghana. That was the start of all sorts of community theatre fun and frustration. Why do directors never talk to the costume designer until the dress rehearsal? It's a bit late then to recostume. (Back to our punctuation blog, should recostume have a -?). My daughters high school had the senior class mount a Spring Musicial each year to take their minds off collage applications. I was asked, with another parent, to head up the costume committee. Now every senior who desired, had a part; even the footballers). 300 kids approximately to fit into turn of the last Century costumes for High Button Shoes with a budget of $50. And we did it. Halloween, birthdays, any costume, though my proudest is making the talking hat for Aidan's 8th? birthday with no notice and nowhere local to get supplies. I found a piece of forest green velvet upholstery in my box and turned it out in time for the party. What gets me going even now is a new project. I do love project management at any level. Getting others involved, solving problems and smoothing troubled waters. I think I need a new project.

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    1. Holy cow, Celia. That's an impressive record of costuming. I hope your talent was appreciated by every body you helped clothe!

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    2. I sewed a lot more when my sons were at home. Great Halloween costumes, curtains, skirts and dresses for myself.

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    3. Actually, I think I'M Celia's latest project! :-)

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  16. Our high school did High Button Shoes too! I love the magic of live performance, as an audience member only! I was fortunate to be able to see quite a bit as a high schooler here in Houston: theater-in-the-round, Alley Theater, and others. And as we moved around as adults I managed to continue enjoying live theater until fairly recently. I just don't go anymore because of the hassle of traffic and parking, which is really too bad. I remember the short story on your website, Julia! I can imagine Clare and Russ suppressing eyerolls everytime someone joins their table. That their Wednesday lunch is so well known is hilarious!

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  17. I love the sense of fun in this Julia. Having a character address the audience. Brilliant

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  18. I love this, Julia! What a clever idea--I wish I could be there to see it performed. As my compensation, I'm going to go look up the short story!

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    1. Julia, I searched Criminal Element but didn't find the story.

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  19. Julia, that is wonderful news! Did the actress and actor playing Clare and Russ read your novels before or did they ask you questions about their characters? I love live theater. Whenever they have Sign Language interpreters on stage, we get the chance to attend live theater. Most of the actors have been wonderful about the ASL translators on stage (usually on the left or in an area of the audience where the Deaf theatergoers can see them). When I lived in England, we went to see Shakespeare's Measure for Measure at a theater in Oxford and it was fascinating to watch the British Sign Language translators. The British sign language is different from American Sign Language. One of the BSL translators was from Wales and we learned the sign for Wales, which looks like your sign for three then you flex the three letters.

    We have Sign Language translators once in a while at performances in San Francisco.

    And a long time ago they used to have the National Theater of the Deaf, based in Connecticut, with many Deaf actors and a few hearing actors translating Sign into voice for the hearing people in the audience.

    Diana

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  20. This sounds great, I remember this scene. I can picture Clare and Russ being pushed further apart during the reading especially after that accidental finger brush. I've done a little theater in my past. High school produced a musical my senior year and chorus members were encouraged to tryout. About 10 years later I ended up in a small community theater group as the house manager which introduced me to the new theater workshop across the hall. I ended up as a stage manager for them and then wander to Sonoma with them for two summers of Shakespeare in a vineyard. I was given last minute walk on parts with each company but it ended. Lately I've attended some shows that my second cousin participated in at his middle school. The kids did a nice job.

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  21. This sounds great! I do love the theater even if I don’t get to go often.

    I do get energized by new projects. During the school year all my energy tends to be focused on teaching, but I do love to come up with new activities for students and new ways to present information to them.

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  22. Love it!!! You would be amazing at screenplay writing - absolutely do it!!! I say this as a person who can’t even imagine undertaking that but I know you can. You’re brilliant!

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  23. This is great, Julia! If I should win the lottery between now and the 10th, I'll use the money to fly from the Gulf Coast to the frosty, far-away North! I really like readers' theater. It is often has a bigger impact, particularly because you can focus on the dialogue without getting distracted by something visual that might bug you if it was a "traditional" play. Break a leg!

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  24. Oh, I love this script excerpt, Julia! How I wish I had that lear jet I could fly up to Maine and attend this reading. I definitely think you should do more screenplay writing. Do you know Wendall Thomas, author of the Cyd Redondo mysteries (Lost Luggage and Drowned Under)? She is so fantastic, and she is adjunct professor at UCLA School of Theater, Film, and Television. She is also a script consultant and teaches a course in script writing in Australia every year. I think you and she would have so much to talk about, and both of you have wonderful senses of humor.

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  25. I took a class in college where we explored the process of literature becoming film. It was a fascinating class and I've been slightly more forgiving of film adaptations of my favorite books ever since. I'm sure the process of taking it to the stage is similar and painful. Looks like you're handling it well!

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  26. So late! I had a big day today :-) Julia! What is it like to think like this?

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