Friday, December 31, 2010

Highlights of the year -the unlist

I'm really not the sort to list things - that is by number or letter or any other listy way. For some reason, when I see posts that tout "the Top 5 reasons this and 10 things you should know about that", I get slightly annoyed. Why? I'm not really sure. It's seems slightly orderly and anal.

I think H. Allen Smith (American journalist and humorist) said it best when he said; "The human animal differs from the lesser primates in his passion for lists of 'Ten Best'."

Having said that, I will now list a few major things, highlights if you will, from this past year. (in no particular order, number or letter)

From my catalog of play scripts at Play-dead.com, the most produced scripts this year were I'm Getting Murdered In The Morning", "Murder Me Always" and "Death Of A Doornail".

A few highlights I will mention about these productions are: My wife and I finally formed our own theatre group this year called The Play Set and we produced my own script - "I'm Getting Murdered In The Morning". Keep in mind, I have years experience being "on the stage" as an actor, as well as "off the stage" as a playwright and director, but none of that experience can prepare one for the "front office-producer-business" side of things. Wow. Finding a venue to stage the show and a cheap space to rehearse the show and finding funds to finance the production, a printer for the programs, it was a whole new world. But a great learning experience. We plan to do it again.

Quite a few of my plays are produced outside the United States. This year "Death Of A Doornail" was staged at the historical Manoel Theatre in Valletta, Malta.

What's amazing about this, not only was the show staged in Malta by Coryse Borg, but the "Teatru Manoel" (theatre) was built in 1731.
That gets my vote as the coolest place one my scripts has ever been produced.

Another highlight was the production of "Murder Me Always" by the International Center on Deafness and the Arts at CenterLight Black Box Theatre in Northbrook, IL. What is truly awesome about this production, is that the show was presented using American sign language and spoken English. I am completely honored to have ICOD choose my script.

This past summer, I was invited by a drama teacher at a local High School in my area, Francis Howell Central, to drop in on a rehearsal for my play, "Remains To Be Seen". It's always fun to answer questions about my scripts, what I intended with this "line of dialogue" or who this "character" may be based upon.

It's also nice to reassure actors that yes, I'm just an ordinary person. (Sometimes) Actually, I would like to visit more places and productions in the next year. I've only been invited a few times so far and I've had a lot of fun doing it. Hint Hint.

I have a plethora of projects slated for 2011. One is a "non-murder mystery" script that I have been working on recently. It's called "The Snow Day Monologues". Essentially, it's a series of scenes of students... you guessed it, stuck at home on School Snow Day. Each scene overlaps between characters so the monologues are broken up into bits but each somewhat tie together. It will be available very soon.

Finally, my biggest project has been a short film I began shooting this fall with some talented local actors. It's called "Criminetly". I had written the script a few years ago and finally found the right people to bring it to life. Most of the scenes have been shot and only a few remain. It was inspired by the New Wave French films of the 60's and noir style "heist" films - I will just say that. I hope to enter it Film Festivals in 2011.

And my biggest highlight - I get to be called Grandpa now. I know, I don't feel old or mature enough for that title, but with a face like that... who can refuse. Even though all she can say now is "gunk gunk".

Well that's pretty much it. My list of highlights from 2010. Of course, I will post this and probably think of a few more. 1 or 2 things. Or maybe a few A and B things. But that's what happens when one doesn't get all listy with stuff.

Wednesday, November 03, 2010

Humor in a sense for Richard & Trudy

I got a message this week from my friend across the pond, David Trotter with Exit Theatre in Croydon, inviting me to read the play he had written called "Richard & Trudy"- which by the way, will receive its world premier at The Charles Cryer Studio Theatre, Carshalton on February 23rd to 26th 2011.

You see, Exit Theatre had produced a play I had written called "Murder Me Always" back in August of 2004, so I was more than willing to take an advanced look at David's play.
Now one thing you must understand first of all, is that my sense of humor was shaped at an early age. While my friends were giggling at the lame innuendos on "Three's Company", I was glued to "Monty Python's Flying Circus" on Public Television. While my classmates were running around the school lunch room barking "Nanoo Nanoo" from "Mork and Mindy", I was raising a chorus of "Spam, spam, spam, spam..." or "I'm a lumberjack and I'm OK!"

I admit it, the dry British and somewhat absurdest sense of humor seeped into my system and stayed there. To this day I can quote lines from "Fawlty Towers", "Are You Being Served", "The Young Ones" and many others.

When I began writing plays, several influences found their way into my style. To be honest, I imagined my influences were Woody Allen and Kurt Vonnegut but I had several people tell me my humor was not very American. "What? You're from the States?" "Yep." "Well, then why are you wearing Doc Martins and drinking a bleeding Watneys Red Barrel?"

Anyway,you get the idea.

So, I received the script from David yesterday morning and thought I would glance at it for a couple of minutes before moving onto other things. Well, that didn't happen. I started reading the script and couldn't stop.

"Richard & Trudy" has a setting and tone very similar to "Fawlty Towers" in that a husband and wife team run a small run down hotel in North Devon. Right away, you can't help picturing John Cleese and Prunella Scales as Richard and Trudy, that is until you read on. Later you may be picturing Woody Harrelson and Juilette Lewis in "Natural Born Killers" -only keeping the Cleese humour intact sprinkled with a good healthy dose of sex. What? Did you say "sex"? What's all this then? Here now, I don't want to picture Basil and Sybil in flagrante delicto or engaged in anything but witty biting banter!
No, no. Calm down. There is a brief... well, 'flagrante' bit at the beginning when Trudy catches Richard (with his pants down -literally) on the couch with her best friend Samantha. And later.. well, yea, there is some "discussion" and "suggestion" but the actual "titillation" is left to your own imagination.

Oh yes, and a spot of violence. There's one bit with an axe and well.. you have to see it. But don't lose your head over that fact. Oh and keep an eye out for the scene with the knitting needle.

So, what did I think?

"Richard & Trudy" is a tightly riveted ride on a roller coaster that dips through humor, death, double crosses and sex. The journey is strewn with enough twists and turns to keep the audience guessing and enough witty dialogue and slapstick visuals to create a plethora of LOLs.

So, is it because I am a huge fan of British comedy that lead me to enjoy "Richard & Trudy"? No. It's because I'm a playwright of Comedy Murder Mysteries and I know how difficult it is to walk that thin line between humor and homicide. There is a real art to murdering characters on stage and all the while killing the audience with laughter. It doesn't matter if you're British, American or Scandinavian.

I can say that David Trotter walks that line successfully with his script. He captures the oh-so-delicate "farce" timing that John Cleese and Connie Booth established in "Fawlty Towers' with mistaken identities and slamming doors and then takes it up a notch by blending a touch of sex and violence in the mix.

So, yes. There it is. I thoroughly enjoyed "Richard & Judy" and am very grateful that I was chosen to read it. The only thing I didn't like is... well, that I didn't write it. That and I probably won't get to see it when it opens at The Charles Cryer Studio Theatre, Carshalton on February 23rd to 26th 2011. It's much too far to drive. Oh yea, and Cheers!

Monday, November 01, 2010

Murder Me Always cracks up West Valley High

By VALERIE DEW/The Valley Chronicle
Published: Friday, October 29, 2010 11:50 AM PDT
Murder, mayhem, humor, and on-purpose bad acting will take center stage at West Valley High School’s annual murder mystery dinner, “Murder Me Always.”

The production centers on a theater company that is putting on a murder mystery, except someone really gets killed.

It’s a play within a play, said director Stacey Bailey.

“In the last 10 years, I don’t think I’ve directed a funnier show,” Bailey said.

She said the cast made her laugh until she cried during rehearsals.

“I thought maybe it was just me that thought this was so funny, but I had a friend that came to take pictures for our memory book and she was laughing so hard she said she could hardly take pictures,” Bailey said.

West Valley’s drama department was lucky this year. The writer of the murder mystery, Lee Mueller, went above and beyond for the actors.

Bailey said while she was choosing a production from his Web site, she e-mailed him and asked if he had a holiday show.

“He said he had one that was centered around a birthday party and he could rewrite it to make it work for a holiday party,” Bailey said.

Bailey said he ended up writing a new show and even included references to Hemet.

“I was blown away! I couldn’t believe he e-mailed me back, let alone rewrite a show,” Bailey said.

This is the second year West Valley has put on a murder mystery, and Bailey said it was a success last year.

“It went really, really well. Because it was new, the first night, we had 30 people, but the fourth night, we had 140 people,” Bailey said.

The murder mystery includes dinner and a chance to win a gift basket worth more than $50.

The guests will eat a dinner catered by Sweet Baby Jane’s barbecue restaurant. Dinner includes smoked turkey, roasted potatoes, vegetables, salad, and rolls.

The guests won’t be served in just any dining room. They will be served in the dining room of a haunted mansion, designed by technical director T.J. Hepburn.

“T.J. designed the (band) room to look like a haunted mansion dining room. He even has a false wall and ambient lighting with black tablecloths. It really is neat,” Bailey said.

Once the audience is finished with dinner, it will be escorted into the theater for the first act of the murder mystery.

Then guests will be ushered back into the dining room for an intermission, during which dessert will be served.

“They can go and have coffee and talk about the clues with each other,” Bailey said.

The audience then will be escorted back into the theater, where the cast will await.

The guests will get to ask the cast members questions to figure out who the killer is.

“Nothing is off bounds and they (the actors) have to ad lib and stay in character,” Bailey said. “Every night it’s a different show because the audience is different and they are asking different questions.”

The audience members will cast votes on who they think the killer is. Those who guessed the killer correctly will have their names put into a drawing for the gift basket.

Tickets cost $25 apiece or $45 for two with a memory book included.

Those who reserve and pay for parties of 10 or more will receive a 10 percent discount.

The Associated Student Body accepts credit cards. Those who wish to purchase tickets with a credit card must call 765-1600, Ext. 214.

Reservations must be made and paid for by noon the day of the show.

Showtimes are at 6 p.m. Nov. 4, 5, and 6.

For information or reservations, call the school at 765-1600.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Looking for "B" - A device for holding reader's attention

Here's a nice little writing device you can use to keep your audience's attention span fixed to the page - I'll tell you about it later. No seriously, that's basically how it works. What works? Hold on a minute.

First I have to explain something before I explain the something about that.
First I have to tell you that I've had an occasion to visit Hannibal, Missouri several times in last year. You see, where I currently live is not really that far from Hannibal. Well, not really that far. Anyway, if you aren't aware-- a famous writer spent quite a few years growing up in Hannibal and some of his most famous novels are set there. (Although he renamed the town "St. Petersburg" in the stories - it is Hannibal in reality.)
Of course I am talking about Samuel Clemens or "Mark Twain" as his preferred nom de plume. The funny thing about hanging out Hannibal was that my knowledge of "Tom Sawyer" and "Huck Finn" had really grown rusty. I mean, the last time my eyes had absorbed Twain words must have been in grade school. Fact is I forgot a lot but I kinda - sorta remembered a few facts and plot points but come on! There I was walking around Hannibal.

There's the Clemens house with the "white washed" picket fence made famous in "The Adventures of Tom Sawyer". There's a replica of the little shanty that his boyhood friend Tom Blankenship (model for the character "Huckleberry Finn") grew up in. Over there is the Thatcher house...etc.. etc..

All right, the point is -- here I was trying to draw up from memory, different images from the Twain novels that I could relate to the landmarks I was seeing and I had nothing. Soon after returning home, I quickly went to local bookstore and picked up "The Adventures of Tom Sawyer" and commenced to reading. Not only was I able now to bring up various places in my memory as I read, but I was also able to discover something else interesting. An interesting literary device Twain used to propel his story - a device I often use in writing Murder mystery scripts.

What is it?

O.K. I will tell you. It's simply withholding crucial information until after the fact. Case in point - in Tom Sawyer, Twain glosses over key bits of exposition that a reader would normally expect in the time-line. Twain lifts it and places it after the fact. What is the Effect? Keeps you reading to find out what just happened.

One example is during the murder trial of "Muff Potter", we the readers, along with Tom and Huck all know that "Injun Joe" is true killer. But will Tom or Huck reveal this crucial piece of information? In the story, the night before the trial, Twain makes a casual point of mentioning in a small sentence:
"Tom was out late, that night, and came to bed through the window."

Does he tell us anymore about this? No. Just a "throw-away" line it seems.

The next day at the murder trial, just as we are about to believe an innocent man is going to be found guilty, the defense calls "Thomas Sawyer" to the stand!
Wait! What?
Yes, the defense calls Tom to the stand! Tom reveals everything! That fatal night in the graveyard. What he and Huck both witnessed. How Muff Potter didn't do a thing and how Injun Joe is the real culprit here!

Wait a second! Did we miss something?

No. Twain did tell you about it. Well, sort of. Remember that night - the one where "Tom was out late"? Well, Tom was out late because - he went over to the Defense lawyer's house and confessed the whole truth.
Oh! I see.
Sure, you see! Now!
But do you also see what Mark Twain did there? Sort of a literary "sucker punch" if you will. He sets up a trial of an innocent man -- builds up the suspense making you hope against hope that someone will come forth and tell the truth!
Suddenly, Tom is called forth and saves the day and as a reader you think: "Hold on a second, Mr. Twain! How does this lawyer know that Tom knows the truth?"
When did that happen?
Hmmm, I guess I better keep reading to find out!

And what you find out, what Twain finally comes forth with is more or less an: "Oh by the way, remember when Tom was out and that whole, 'came to bed through the window'. Remember that bit? Well, that's when he went over to the defense lawyers house.
Why didn't he tell us that before? Like.. right before the trail?
Well, honestly that would have been rather dull now wouldn't it?
As a reader you would know what to expect: This happened - which will lead this thing to happen - which will cause this deal to happen. A to B to C.
One thing that will lull readers into boredom and frustration is allowing them to predict or guess where your sentences and story are heading.

I recall many years ago, working a quiet Sunday afternoon with a girl who was an avid reader. Upon completion of the book she was reading, she violently hurled it across the room. Why? She had it figured out in the 2nd chapter. She only kept reading until the end in hopes that she was wrong. She wasn't.

Now I come the part where I (and others) use the same "sucker punch" device. It is a staple of the murder mystery genre. As you know, in almost every good murder mystery, there is point toward the end of the story, where the detective has the "murder" figured out. Does he or she immediately shout out the killers name? Does he or she quickly reveal what clues and indications were discovered and share them with everyone? No.
In the classic mystery scenario, everyone is asked to gather together while the detective goes over each point step by step until it builds to a finger pointing crescendo. It's essentially the same device - withholding important information until the end. It keeps the audiences attention. They want to keep reading or watching to find out "who did it"!

As a writer it's important to hold your readers attention. If you reveal everything right up front, your book could be thrown across the room. It's like wrapping up a birthday present and handing it to the person and saying, "It's a food dehydrator."
It's best if you don't tell them everything. Allow them the pleasure of finding out. And one little nice device is taking them from A to C. Make them wonder where B is.

Friday, July 02, 2010

Waiting For The Laughs -or training an audience

I read an article in the "Arts Beat" section of the "New York Times" called "The Perils Of Being Too Funny" (which you can read by clicking here.) Essentially the article concerns comedy in the theatre and how the audience is so occupied with laughter they miss everything else.. you know like.. the rest of the dialogue and other stuff like, the plot.

The story ran around my mind and dislodged some old gems of wisdom I picked up by playing comedy on stage. And since I just blogged a bit about comedy and timing, I thought I would share some these nuggets of wisdom since they relate back to comedy and timing.

As you may have noticed, I called this blog "Waiting For The Laughs or training an audience" - and you many have thought, "I understand the first part, the 'waiting' part, but what in the world do you mean by 'training an audience'?
Actually these two concepts go hand in hand - waiting and training. Really, they do.

First: "Wait For It"

A wise older actor once took my aside during a particularly funny play we were in and explained how to "wait" for the laughs.
Now, you have keep in mind that actors rehearse plays for long periods of time.
We rehearse in front of no one but ourselves and because of this fact, we develop a certain timing: I say my line, you say your line, I say my line, ad nauseum.
And if we're rehearsing a comedy, the lines are supposed to be funny.
Sure, when we first read through the play, the lines were funny. Most of us laughed. But by week 2 or 3, it's not that funny anymore and no one is really laughing now. (Well, there may be a few that still laugh. Those are the actors you need to keep an eye on. I'm just saying.)

Anyway, the issue with rehearsing a comedy is that you can forget that it's a comedy. You can forget where the 'laughs' are. You're so programed into the robot timing of I say my line, you say your line.. the laughter of a live audience can throw a wrench into your robot clockworks.

Laughter can completely discombobulate some actors. They forget their next line because their timing is thrown off. Some actors aren't sure how long to wait. Some actors wait too long. Some actors don't wait at all and just plow into their next line, laughter be damned!

Back to that wise older actor I was telling you about - here's what he taught me.

  • Always wait for the laugh. But don't wait too long. If you wait until they've finished laughing completely, you'll throw the timing off and they'll stop laughing.

  • Don't start your line too soon or else you'll cut off the laugh. If you cut off the laugh, the audience may stop laughing at everything. Why? Because, they're afraid they'll miss something the next time. You see, if you start your next line while they're still laughing, you'll cause them to stop because they want to hear what you are saying. By not waiting you're training them to not to laugh as much or as long.

  • If you happen to start speaking your line during a laughter break, just stop and wait for the laugh. You can start your line again when they finish. But again, don't wait too long.

  • When is too soon and how long is too long? - Think of the audience's laughter as a wave. It starts out soft, a few chuckles and then as more join in it becomes a cacophony of noise that rises in volume upward.

    Like a wave it will peak and slowly begin to descend. Ideally, you will wait for the peak and as the wave begins descending; there - about halfway down on the back of the wave, come in with your next line. And come in louder than normal so they can hear you.

  • You will never know where the laughs will come or how long they will last from night to night. One night they may laugh at everything, the next night nothing. Always be ready.

  • The length of time the audience laughs will vary each night. You never know. Old time comedians use to measure the laughs they got by counting out loud. You may have heard a comedian say, "two, three, four.." after he told a joke. He was counting the length of the laughs he got. But this isn't something you can do on the stage. At least not out loud.

  • Whatever you do - don't play for a laugh. If you have a funny line, it's best if you play it straight. Straight is funny. There is a famous old story about this very subject.
    The story goes like this: A couple were in a play on Broadway. During a particular dinner scene each night, the actor would ask "for the sugar" and get a tremendous laugh from the audience. After a few more nights the actor playing this same dinner scene noticed that the audience wasn't laughing when he asked "for the sugar".
    After the show one night the actor mention this to his fellow actor, "I don't know what happened. I used to get laughs on that line."
    The other actor simply said, "I know what happened. Before, you were asking for the sugar and getting laughs. Now, you are asking for the laughs and only getting the sugar."

  • If you are playing comedy on the stage and the audience begins reacting with laughter, how the actors respond at first sets the tone for the rest of the show. You in essence "train" the audience how to respond. They will adapt to the timing you set. These simple rules imparted to me by a wise older actor when I was a noob on the stage really helped me. Now, I guess it's my turn to be the wise older actor and impart this knowledge to others.

    Parker Arts Council Presents 'I'm Getting Murdered in the Morning' - Parker, CO - AmericanTowns.com

    Parker Arts Council presents I’m Getting Murdered in the Morning

    By Lee Mueller

    Directed by Patricia Goodman

    The public is invited to a wedding reception and it’s not going to be over until someone is dead.

    The Parker Arts Council presents “I’m Getting Murdered in the Morning” at the Victorian Peaks Collection, 11020 South Pikes Peak Drive, Parker, CO.

    The popular antiques store will be transformed into a cabaret-style theater for the two shows and will include a buffet dinner plus a cash wine bar. Tickets are $35. 24-hour online advance reservation for the dinner and show is required by calling 303-840-5406 or online at www.parkerartscouncil.org.

    The audience is invited to guess who-dun-it as they become guests at the most unlikely wedding celebration they'll ever attend.

    “The purpose of the play is for them (audience members) to actually feel like they were at a real reception,” said Director Patricia Goodman creator and director of the performing troupe, Murder Gourmet Ltd.".

    What : The Parker Arts Council presents "I’m Getting Murdered in the Morning”

    When : Sat., July 24 at 7:00 p.m.

    Sun., July 25 at 2:00 p.m.

    Tickets: $35 includes buffet

    Venue : The Victorian Collection Antiques, 11020 S. Pikes Peak Drive, Parker, CO.

    Advance tickets by calling 303-840-5406 or online at www.parkerartscouncil.org (24 hour advance required).

    Friday, June 25, 2010

    When Life Intimidates Art

    One aspect about writing or play-writing is that you can choose to be topical and place your characters and/or story in present day. You can litter your prose with pop culture references in an effort to appear "fresh" and "hip" with your audience. I know. I've done it.
    The problem is that "present day" soon becomes yesterday and moves on to last week which becomes last year and so forth. The freshness of a present day joke becomes past tense. A writer must keep in mind a famous phrase attributed to a Persian Sufi poet: "This too shall pass." Sorry, but one day that Sarah Palin joke in Act I scene 2 won't have the punch is delivers now.

    I confess, in a few of my murder mystery plays, I'm guilty of sneaking in jokes or references that were ripped from the headlines. It didn't seem to be an issue until one day I received an email from a student in a High School theatre group asking "What a 'Bruno Magli' shoe was?" and "Why was that supposed to be funny?" Umm well.. you see, back in June of 1995, Bruno Magli shoes were a topic of conversation during the O.J. Simpson trial.. and back then, in '95, you see... that joke killed! But now I guess, the joke is dead. It too has passed.

    I remember being perplexed as a kid by a punch-line in a Bug Bunny cartoon called "Falling Hare". Bugs battles a tiny gremlin in an airplane which eventually begins plummeting toward the ground. Just before it crashes, it runs out of gas, stopping inches above the Earth. Bugs quips: "You know how it is with these A Cards". Uh..no actually. I don't. I just assumed it was a reference to something. A reference that would hold meaning for a kid growing up around World War II. Specifically, a kid familiar with ration cards. Me? Not so much.

    Anyway, from time to time, I will go back to my scripts and update any old jokes or references that are dated to keep them "fresh" and "hip". Lately, I tend to stay away from being to trendy with my material. This saves me from having to recycle it every few years. I have found it's safer to paint jokes or reference with a very broad brush. Example, making a joke about "Political Elections" in general as opposed to a specific campaigns or politicians. Sure, "Death Panel" jokes and "Bridges To Nowhere" references may cry out to you but remember, you may get an email 10 years from now, asking you what a 'Death Panel' is. If you have to explain a joke, it's not funny.

    One other aspect about reflecting real life in your art, is that one day it may turn on you and no longer be appropriate. Example: if you are familiar with the show "Avenue Q", you will know that there is a character named "Gary Coleman" based on.. you guessed it Gary Coleman. As you know, Gary recently passed away so the question is.. what do you do? There is a great article on Playbill.com by Robert Simonson called "Reality Bites: When Fate Messes With Broadway Shows" Click Here to read it.

    The point is, if you're writing something for the moment - something with a short shelf life, then I wouldn't worry too much about your content's statute of limitations. If you are writing something that you intend to endure for years or at least stick around for a good long while, it helps to take a few moments and peak down the road. Are my references strong enough to last? Will they travel well and not rust with age? Could some unforeseeable event throw a wrench into your work?
    Or can you just ride out the expiration date of your material and sail into the future?
    If a work is good enough and strong enough to outlast dated references, such as Mark Twain, Oscar Wilde or even Bugs Bunny, then it can happen. Pick up a copy of "The Adventures Tom Sawyer" or "Huckleberry Finn" and note all the footnotes that define what a particular word or phrase meant during the period it was written.

    But then again, it will take a long time to reach the class of Twain, Wilde and Bunny. Until then, I will continue to update my work every few years.

    Thursday, June 17, 2010

    A few thoughts on Comedy

    I am frequently asked about "Comedy" in writing so I thought I would share a few thoughts on the subject. You may have heard the quote attributed to Edmund Gwenn on his death bed, "Dying is easy, Comedy is hard." - if you've ever tried to tell a joke or write a funny line, you can relate to Mr. Gwenn's insight.

    I recently read an article in an educational Theatre publication on the "Mechanics" of Comedy. The article introduced the "laughter" theory of French philosopher and Nobel laureate Henri Bergson (1859-1941)
    Monsieur Bergson proposed that Comedy happens when "something mechanical" is reflected in human action.
    "The attitudes, gestures and movements of the human body are laughable in exact proportion as that body reminds us of a mere machine."

    Bergson theorizes that "laughter" occurs as a result of our recognition of this "mechanical" function: a person doing a task over and over similar to machine or even some cases, along with a machine. (see assembly line)

    While this theory may have some truth, I believe the actual humor rises when the "machine" goes out of whack and a person must adapt his own mechanical actions to compensate; e.g. the classic "I Love Lucy" episode where Lucy and Ethyl are stationed on an (assembly line) and their task is to wrap chocolates that are moving down a conveyor belt. While the robotic action is amusing, the real laughs are derived when the belt begins moving faster and faster and they desperately to keep up.

    My personal favorite is Charlie Chaplin as the Little Tramp working on a factory assembly line in the film "Modern Times". A brilliant bit of comedic choreography as Chaplin's own mechanical timing ebbs and flows with the march of the mechanism. Also, in a later scene of the film,the Little Tramp is picked to test a mechanical "Feeding Machine" - which of course goes whacky and you guessed it, hilarity ensues.

    John Cleese, of Monty Python/Fawlty Towers fame, stated in an interview, (I will paraphrase) that someone acting silly or crazy is not as funny, as someone watching someone acting silly or crazy. For instance, a person having a absolute fit or tantrum is one thing but having an unknowing person suddenly walk in adds comedy. The humor may lie in the fact that we the audience understand completely what is going on, but this poor person who just entered hasn't the slightest clue. Their naive reaction makes us laugh. Many T.V. 'Situation Comedies' subscribe to this form of comedy.

    Another type of comedy comes from the world of "misdirection". Now this may be a term one would associate in the world of magic, but it also has a place in humor. The basic premise is simply guiding the audience along one path or direction and delivering an outcome of least anticipation. An example of this could be found in the comedy of the late Henny Youngman. His classic one liner was: "Take my wife..(beat) Please!" The expectation is that he is going to say .."for example." The path or direction leads you with "Take my wife.." and that oh so brief pause allows your mind to anticipate or fill in the blank with "for example". Ha! Wrong! That sudden switch with the jolt of "Please!" turns the sentence into something else with a completely different meaning. Our reaction is laughter.

    A few more examples of misdirection jokes:
    A man walks into the doctor's office with a bird on his head. The doctor says, "How can I help you?" The bird says, "Can you get this thing off my ass?"
    (misdirection is that the Bird speaks)
    While hunting in Africa, I shot an elephant in my pajamas. How an elephant got into my pajamas I'll never know.
    (well, you can figure that one out)

    Why do we laugh when our minds are mislead or tricked? Good question! I once heard someone define laughter as "a reaction of disapproval" however, I was never certain if this "disapproval" comes from ourselves, as in "shame on me for thinking one thing that turned out to be that other thing" or if it's directed outside ourselves, as in "shame on you for tricking me into thinking the one thing etc. etc.." which makes us react with laughter.
    There is also a theory that laughter is essentially a 'release' for acquired tension. If a human feels threatened in some way, the release valves are tears, laughter or in some case becoming ill.

    As a writer, I rely on the 'misdirection' brand of comedy because I limited to use of words. Sure, I could describe a whacky assembly line scene or a character acting like a machine but the actual comedy would depend upon the actor performing the action. Specifically the actor's timing. The real key to comedy is "timing". Yes, timing.
    If you go back and watch Lucy on the chocolate assembly line you will notice what makes it funny is her timing; trying to catch up with conveyor belt, wrapping the chocolates faster and faster, falling behind by going to slow etc.. If Lucy kept up with the task it wouldn't be funny.
    If she just stopped and gave up - not funny.
    If you watch the old great slapstick comedians, Chaplin, Buster Keaton or Harold Loyd you will see what actually makes their situations funny is the timing of their actions and reactions.

    The same timing fact applies to misdirection humor. If Henny Youngman did not pause for a second in "Take my wife.. Please", the joke would not work. What makes 'comedy hard' is learning the timing. When to have the innocent person walk in the room and observe the guy acting crazy. When to have the conveyor belt suddenly speed up and how fast should the workers react to it. How long to lead the readers down one path before turning back into a humorous twist.

    The best advice I can offer is to observe the great comedians. Read the best comedic writers. Discover their rhythm of humor. Personally my comedic influences are (visual or action timing)-Chaplin,Keaton,Peter Sellers, Rowan Atkinson (for word/written humor) Woody Allen,Mel Brooks,Kurt Vonnegut,Tom Robbins,Neil Simon, Douglas Adams (dry witty humor) Monty Python,Tom Stoppard, Oscar Wilde, Steven Wright... I could go on and on with influences here but the point is I have learned a lot from these people and essentially what I learned is the art and/or science of comedy and timing.

    I would like to end this with a favorite old joke I heard long ago - A guy goes to prison and one day is in the cafeteria eating dinner with the other prisoners. One of the prisoners stands up and says "Number 47" and the other prisoners all laugh out loud. A few minutes later another prisoner stands up and says "Number 11". Again, laughter erupts. Later that day this new inmate puzzled by what he witnessed at dinner asks his cell mate, "What was the deal at dinner? Somebody stood up and said a number and everyone laughed. I don't get it." His cellmate explained, "Well ya see, it's like this. We don't get a lot of time here to socialize at dinner. You know, to tell stories or jokes. So we have this one 'Joke Book'. And in this joke book, all the jokes are listed by number. So, we've all memorized these jokes by their number. So if somebody stands up and says a particular number, we recall the joke and have a laugh." Intrigued with this information, the new inmate gets a copy of the 'Joke Book' and commits all the jokes to memory along with their numbers.
    So one night at dinner, he feels the time is right. He stands up and says "Number 27", and nothing. Not a snicker, not a peep. Well, maybe that's not a good joke. He stands up again and says "Number 82!" Again, nothing. On their way back from dinner the perplexed inmate says to his cell mate, "Gee I don't get it. I learned all the jokes like you said. I tried it out at dinner tonight and nothing! Why?" His cell mate pats him on the back and says, "Face it man. Some people can tell and jokes and some people can't."

    Thursday, March 11, 2010

    All Said and Done

    My most recent play, Irritation To A Murder has just concluded its debut production and one question that frequently pops up in the post show world is: "How do you think it went?"

    I have always considered this question rather deep and I usually provide a deep answer to the inquisitor, whether they care or not.
    First you must understand, that once I complete a script, I hand it over to the director and for the most part, stay away from the production process.

    I do not sit in at rehearsals and offer advice or point out how a scene or character should be played. I will attend the first "read through" to hear the play read out loud, but that is primarily to listen for errors because I tend to think faster than I type. I can think "He went to the store" but I type "He went store". Granted I do proof read the script a few times, but some blatant mistakes always rear their ugly grammar. I'm also available to the director and the actors at first in case they have questions about particular intentions in the script, but generally I shy away revealing or over explaining too much.


    Well, this ties into the root of my own philosophy. (note: this is 'my own philosophy' and is not the standard rule of every playwright)
    My philosophy goes like this: as a playwright, I essentially create a world in my imagination. In this world, I imagine particular people, (characters) and then imagine these people interacting in a particular way (plot). Ultimately, this imaginary world transfers itself onto paper which is a play. If I have done my job correctly, I will have come close to capturing my imagination into words on the printed page. Anyone should be able to read those words and understand exactly what I envisioned. I should be able to hand it off to a director and a group of actors and not have a bad feeling that they just "won't get it."

    But at the same time, I must also understand that a director will digest my printed imagination with their own subjectivity. Furthermore, each actor will spin the appointed character with their own interpretation.

    I never forget the fact that I have directed plays and formulated my own take on the material. I have also stood on stage as an actor and have taken liberties with the way character was written and ran in a new direction. Nor will I ever forget the tongue lashing I received from a theatre patron after he noticed I changed the word "darling" to "dear" in Arthur Miller's play "After The Fall". (I didn't feel comfortable as an actor saying the word "darling" nor could I make it ring true, so I asked the director who allowed me to change it.) I didn't feel that altering a simple noun threw the crux of my character into unrecognizable realm. Nor do I think that Arthur Miller felt a small part of himself "die" when I made the change.

    Having been a champion of change and interpretation, I may be somewhat more forgiving of directors and actors than other playwrights. I believe if a playwright has to be at every rehearsal and define each character and give a line reading on every bit of dialogue, then they haven't done their job or else have an unhealthy control problem. (but that's just me)

    The bottom line is this: if the performed play is anywhere inside the ballpark of my original imagined world, I am happy.
    So when someone asks me, "How do you think it went?", I always consider how close the end result lands in the area of my original idea; first, there is the world I saw in my mind, next there is the world that comes out on paper and finally there is the world that comes to life on the stage. If I can see a common element running through each world or better yet, my mind's world resembles in any fashion the stage world then, I am satisfied. Someone once said, "There's the play in your head and then there's the play that you see. They're never the same thing."
    True, but if you do it well, they can come mighty close.

    Tuesday, March 02, 2010

    Death of a Doornail in Carleton Place Ontario

    'Death of a Doornail'
    Production promises mirth, mayhem and murder
    reported by Kathleen Everett

    The winter is lingering and the lack of sun is starting to fray us around our emotional edges…but hark, is that the call of another fun-filled Mudds Murder Mystery Dinner Theatre to the rescue? Why, yes it is!

    This time the setting is a wealthy American home of the 1950s. The snobby relatives of the patriarch, Albert Doornale, are forced to brush up against his less polished friends when all are invited to dinner one stormy night. Throw in an English butler, an embittered Irish cook, and a detective that just happens to be in the vicinity, and you have all the fixings for a classic drawing-room mystery.

    What is particularly endearing about this piece, “Death of a Doornail” by Lee Mueller, is how Mueller uses the audience’s familiarity with this classic mystery format to his advantage. He counts on the fact that we know these stereotypical characters and will revel in their selfishness, their sneakiness, their snobbery, stupidity and innocence. Thus, while we are not generally ‘surprised’ by these characters, we are thoroughly entertained by them.

    The director, Sandra Dunlop, and the cast work this “familiar” character and plot angle to the hilt. Tony Scott’s English butler is wonderfully over the top, and Meredith Millman, as the spoilt daughter Pricilla, brilliantly portrays a deplorably snobby young woman that has, nevertheless, managed to maintain the capacity to truly love her family. Michele Eno, playing the mind-bogglingly dumb, yet endearing, new girlfriend of Albert Doornale, is a hoot in every one of her scenes. This large cast (10 in total) has done its homework; each character pops off the stage (as it were), and Mueller’s quick, clever script is delivered with a perfect sense of timing.

    Yes indeed, this sweet theatrical treat, along with the Inn’s wonderful epicurean offering will surely fill your winter weary soul to the brim with good times. And, don’t let the fact that this is a classic drawing-room mystery fool you! There are plenty of twists and turns of plot in this who-done-it — enough to keep the most ardent mystery lover’s grey matter working the entire evening.

    So, if you want to know who gets killed, how, and by whom, you’ll just have to get yourself down to the Carleton Heritage Inn for tickets, or call 613-257-2525 to reserve your place for either March 19 or March 20. Tickets are on sale at $45 each, which includes the show, a great dinner and taxes (gratuities are extra). The doors open at 6 p.m. and the show begins at 6:30 p.m.

    For More Information visit the Mississippi Mudds of Carleton

    Friday, February 12, 2010

    Killer Wedding Reception

    From the Daily Triplicate in Crescent City California. Article on Del Norte High School's production of "I'm Getting Murdered In The Morning".

    Written by Adam Madison, The Triplicate
    The public is invited to a wedding reception Feb. 27 and it’s not going to be over until someone is dead.

    It’s all part of a murder-mystery dinner theater event planned by Del Norte High School drama students, who spent part of their Saturday rehearsing in costume at the school.

    “The purpose of the play is for them (audience members) to actually feel like they were at a real reception,” said Alisa Rojas, student director and maid of honor.

    Attendees can expect to take part in the action, because the players will be prompting the audience’s participation, Rojas said Saturday.

    The audience can even fill out a resolution card to tell the players who they think the killer is.

    “They can get in on the dancing between scenes, they can catch the bouquet and they can participate during the garter toss,” Rojas said.

    The production of Lee Mueller’s “I’m Getting Murdered in the Morning” begins at 7 p.m. on the school’s Multi- Purpose Room stage at 7 p.m., and it’s a Saturday-night-only event after originally being planned for two nights.

    The dinner will be catered by Fabulous Foods by Julie (Violante) and includes chicken breast, rice pilaf, salads, Portuguese sweet bread and beverages. And, of course, wedding cake.

    Deborah Scott, DNHS theater and English teacher, is directing the performance with Rojas’ help.

    Scott said dinner theater doesn’t happen overnight.

    “We came up with the idea last October, we thought something with audience participation would be fun,” said Scott.

    She kept an eye on her players and held a script up as she talked about the work that goes into a murder mystery, especially one where guests can participate.

    “Tasha come on get ready, Robert let’s go,” she yelled, clapping excitedly.

    Along with “various strangers and dancer,” according to the playbill, more than 20 students will be acting, as well as serving food at the event. Bride Brenda Montague is played by Shannon Benn and groom Edward Crock is played by Tasha Thiessen.

    The price for dinner and a play is $25 for a single person, $40 for a couple, and $17 apiece for people in groups of four or more. Tickets are available at the DNHS main office at 1301 El Dorado Street, Del Norte Office Supply at 240 I Street and from DNHS theater students.

    For more information contact DNHS at 464-0274.

    Tuesday, February 02, 2010

    What's in Store for Theatre Space

    When I first entered the amateur theatre circuit in my local area, oh so many years ago, there were at best 4 or 5 groups in the city. Most of these groups were real "Mickey and Judy" type of community theatre troupes, as in: "Hey kids! Let's put on a show! We can use my Uncle's barn and my grandma can make some swell costumes!"
    You know, that type of 'gung-ho, grin and show' community theatre.
    All these years later, a dozen or more "new" theatre groups have emerged. Many of these new groups border on being classified as semi-professional troupes. That old mom n' pop community theatre spirit is a thing of the past. These new troupes wouldn't be caught dead producing old standards such as "Our Town", "Arsenic and Old Lace", "Blythe Spirit" or any other play that local high schools have long since worn holes in. No sir.
    Most local productions now offer up Mamet, Sheppard, Albee, Durang and host of other plays written by contemporary playwrights. This trend is in fact bringing out a new audiences to live theatre as well as veteran audiences who have been numbed by a billion productions of "Bye Bye Birdie" and would love to see a play from this century.

    But there's the Rub!

    With so many groups springing up, the question of "space" has been an issue. One troupe may run for a season in church space only to loose it the next year. Some theatre troupes bounce from a coffee house to a school to a warehouse but never really planting roots in a given space. It's a tough existence.
    At the same time, as a result of the recent economic hiccup, many local shopping malls flirted with the ambiance of "ghost towns". Vacant store after vacant store dotted the once vibrant, climate-controlled consumer landscape.
    Somehow, the down trodden "Mall" collective and the Theatre group in search of a home, collided and found common ground. This common ground may have been where once people "Fell Into The Gap" but are now, filing in to see live theatre.
    In fact, my own group is leasing a "store" space in a local mall and my new murder mystery play will premiere there. Yes, in the mall. Of course, they don't refer to these spaces as "mall", per se, no, they are "art spaces". Along with a host of live Theatre venues, other spaces feature Art work, pottery, photograph prints from local artists. So, yes it is an "Art Space".
    In fact, another mall in a nearby suburb is also allowing Artists and Theatre groups to move into the vacant stores. Perhaps this idea will spread across the country and all the little orphaned theatre troupes will finally have a place to "play".
    Mickey and Judy would be proud! Hey kids let's put on a show! We can use my Uncle's Mall!

    Wednesday, January 20, 2010

    More on Exposition: Show don't tell or don't show at all.

    A standard rule you may hear in writing is "Show don't tell". Actually, you will hear this applied for stage or film writing. Essentially, it's easier for your audience to "see" what they need to know about a character or situation than it is to have a character describe something. Overstating the obvious can insult the intelligence of your audience.

    In my previous post on exposition, I used the concept of "telling" about a character named Uncle Henry. The telling came through dialogue between two characters in the guise of a casual conversation. It was established that Henry drank, gambled and was injured during the war. Henry's character background was established before he ever entered the scene. Now, if I were writing a play or a film , I could save some of that 'exposition' by simply allowing his character to "show" some of those details. How? Well, Uncle Henry could enter the stage with a bottle of whiskey in his hand and he could slur his words as he spoke. He could walk with a limp or even use a cane to move about.(Henry drinks) He could be wearing an old army jacket or coat with the Purple Heart medal attached to it.(Henry was in the war) Henry could ask the other characters to loan him money because he was trouble with his 'bookie'.(Henry gambles) Any of these elements would "show" the audience detail of his character without needing to establish these facts in expositional dialogue.

    As a writer, one question you may find yourself asking yourself is: what do I really need my audience to know? Do I have to "Show" or "Tell" them everything? What it important to the story and what is just fluff?
    That is a question I wrestle with all the time. One great example of a major 'detail' being left out is in the Cohen Brothers film Barton Fink.
    Halfway through the film, a female character is murdered and the head is missing from her body. Later on, Barton receives a mysterious package that appears to be a box. The audience is not told or shown that the victim's head is indeed, inside this box, it's only an unspoken idea the viewer 'assumes'.

    This assumption carries all the way to the very end of the film, where Barton is sitting on a beach and nearby character asks him, "What's in the box?" and Barton replies, "I don't know." End of film. We never truly know.

    A writer may choose to omit certain facts or details. Sometimes the audience's imagination is far more powerful than what it can be shown or told.
    I personally think what made "The Blair Witch" frightening is what we didn't see. The great Japanese film director Yasujiro Ozu was famous for not "showing" or "telling" the audience certain details. For example, a story will lead you up to a Wedding and the very next scene will be years later, without the wedding ever being shown. It was implied, the viewer knew about it, why then waste time showing you what you all ready knew?

    When it comes to exposition and telling your audience what they need to know, deciding what they need to know or in some cases not know can be a sticky wicket.
    The best way to determine this, is to ask yourself: does this detail add to the story? Does it help move everything forward? Or is it just you, the writer, showing off your descriptive skills. Does James Joyce really need three pages to describe a character walking around a corner? (Well, that's what made him James Joyce isn't it? He mastered the art of "telling" which is can be tiresome in a visual medium.)

    When it comes to exposition, do we really need to know "What's in the box?"

    I don't know.

    Tuesday, January 19, 2010

    Writing and dreading exposition

    One of the aspects of writing that I really dread is 'exposition'. Yes, I do know exposition is very important to a story or play because it establishes bits of information the audience needs to know and/or understand who's who and what's what.
    I have read and heard very bad deployment of exposition in plays and stories, sentences such as:

    Beatrice: "Oh! Look! Here comes Uncle Henry up the pathway. Uncle Henry of whom the family rarely speaks about since he drinks too much and lost his fortune at the race track. He appears to be limping also. It must be that old war wound he received long ago when he saved his entire platoon during his time France."

    For the sake of the story, we now know critical information about Uncle Henry. Details that will hopefully, move the plot along as well as define this "Henry" character.
    But in terms of this exposition sounding like a natural sentence or something you would hear spoken in everyday conversation, not so much. It pretty much screams out "Oh! Look! Here comes some very awkward exposition up the pathway!"
    So, how do you avoid it? How do you make it sound a little more natural?
    One trick (or cheat) I employ to establish exposition and make it sound a tad more natural is to use an "outsider", or someone who doesn't know much about the other characters. For example, in this scene about Uncle Henry, I would have someone in the scene with Beatrice, perhaps a new neighbor or someone "outside" of the loop of information. That way, Beatrice can deliver the same information in a conversational manner. Such as:

    BEATRICE: Oh No! Here comes Henry.
    OUTSIDER: Why do you say "Oh No"?
    BEATRICE: Because, my dear Uncle Henry is a bit of a problem.
    OUTSIDER: A bit of a problem? Why?
    BEATRICE: Well, he drinks for one thing.
    OUTSIDER: Ah! I see. And?
    BEATRICE: And he always wants to borrows money. Money that he just blows at the racetrack. In fact he's blown his whole fortune at the track.
    OUTSIDER: That's a shame.
    BEATRICE: What's really a shame is that he was a War Hero! Saved his whole platoon over in France and got injured in the process. Shrapnel in his leg. Received the Purple Heart. And now, look what has become of him. A limping, broke old drunk.

    In this scene, the same exposition about Uncle Henry was established but sounded a bit more natural. I picked up this outsider "trick" many years ago when I was a fan of the old "Doctor Who" series. (the original Doctor Who that aired in the States on PBS, not the New Doctor on SyFy)
    Anyway, the character of the Doctor, who was immensely intelligent, was always paired with a somewhat less intelligent companion. The main idea behind this pairing was to a way to introduce exposition in a natural manner. When the Doctor would ramble off scientific jargon or figure out some complex plot point, the (outsider) companion would simply ask, "What does that mean Doctor?" or "How did you figure that out Doctor?".

    This is also very similar to the plot vehicle Sir Arthur Conan Doyle used in Sherlock Holmes. The character of Dr. Watson was outside the loop of Sherlock Holmes' deductive reasoning. Watson would ask questions of Holmes and the answers were simply points of exposition. In essence, this "outsider" is essentially a representative of the audience. Their role is ask questions out loud of the characters so that we might understand. It's a great tool for writers and helps everything flow in a natural way.

    More exposition cheats, coming soon.

    Friday, January 08, 2010

    Irritation To A Murder is now available

    My newest script "Irritation To A Murder" is now available. It's an updated take on the classic 1930's detective murder mystery with a dash of screwball comedy thrown in. Of course the title is a variation or twisting of the Rufus King, 1934 mystery melodrama play called "Invitation To A Murder".
    The plot of "Irritation" is basically a tip of the hat to the old "Thin Man" mysteries from MGM, but set in the present day.