For many people, January 1st represents a fresh start -- new year, new commitments, new opportunities. For those of us with kids, January frequently comes in August. This year, for my family, our "new year" began on August 20th at 6:00am.
Alarms rang. Parents arose, forcing grogginess aside. Dog walked, lunches made, showers taken, and then the real work began. We woke the kids. Mayhem ensued.
This year, our new beginnings include something significantly different. Now that he's big-boy-3, Sam is starting school. He is being initiated into the early wake-up/get dressed/eat breakfast/hit the road routine. I'm proud to say, although he did have the deer-in-headlights look about him, he did great. Only roughly 5,972 more days like that until high school graduation. We're on our way!
The other kids have new beginnings, too. Emma has made the transition from "little girl second grade" to "big girl third grade". Will took the gigantic leap to middle school...all the way across the street at our school. And Jack has made the somewhat easier transition to King of the School as a reigning 8th grader. He's seen all; he knows all. We're luckily he's benevolent.
But the kids aren't the only ones who get new beginnings. Parents sometimes do, too. Since my last blog post, back at the end of the school year, there has been a "new beginning" bubbling. This is really the first time I've spoken of it. Keep reading and you'll understand why.
Sometime last Spring, the writing bug hit me, as it does often. This blog is a Godsend to me -- as a guy who feels the need to write like other people feel the need to sleep, I get a public outlet for whenever the urge arises. However, the blog has its limitations, and there are times when the writing bug is compounded with the creativity bug and, in those moments, nonfiction, semi-autobiographical prose simply will not do. It's then that I knowingly hit the "new" option in Word, stare at the glaring white page, and start to shape ideas. Sometimes I know where it's headed; most times I don't.
Back in the Spring, I had an idea that needed some room to grow. I wanted to write a vehicle for my kids. As most of you know, my kids love musical theater, as do Blythe and I. The writing bug hit. The creative bug hit. The blank page stared at me. Why not write a musical for the kids?
There was one problem. I can't write music.
Never being one to allow silly little obstacles like 'not being able to write music for a musical' get in my way, I came up with a work around. I would write a story in which the characters would sing some of our favorite songs that were written for other musicals. Basically, I was going to re-purpose music. This idea really made me proud...here I was, writing something my kids would love, using music that we all love, and I was going to create and write and all was good in the world. Genius!
Here's the thing. Apparently, someone long ago decided that you can't just take other people's music and use it without asking. There are laws written for this kind of thing. In my mind, it's really ridiculous. I mean, if those authors would want to use my words, I'd gladly lend them. But, it seems, nearly all professional musicians and writers want to actually be paid for their work, whether used as intended or "re-purposed".
There was hope, though. My friend, Seth Travaglino, the gentleman who pointed out the potentially lawsuit-inducing flaw in my plan, suggested an alternative. Seth is a terrific guy, one of the most talented people I know (and a great dad and teacher, too -- He's a triple threat). He graciously read my script and made two suggestions.
Seth is ingrained in the theater arts community in the Tampa area. He offered to bring in someone who could write original music to fit the script. I jumped at the offer.
Seth also suggested something else. Every year, our Junior Thespians troupe at school (I've written about Thespians before, but in a nutshell, think Competitive Theater for kids) performs a One Act at competition. Seth asked if, perhaps, we could edit my script, add music and have the kids perform this original piece for the One Act competition.
Butterflies. No, butterflies doesn't describe the feeling correctly. Adrenaline? Anxiety? Not quite right either. I'm sure there is a more accurate word. I'm just not sure what it is.
Time for some truth about writing and me. I love writing. Since you're reading this, I'm guessing you kind of figured that on your own (but it is still very meta to mention, right?) Sometimes when I write about writing, it generates some very reassuring responses, which are all very kind, but it makes me feel like I'm pandering for response. I'm not. That's not to say the responses aren't incredibly appreciated -- more than you'll ever know, really. But, again, that feels like pandering which is what I'm trying to avoid in the first place.
I mention the butterflies/anxiety/adrenaline/neurosis and my response to response because when Seth suggested we take this to competition, I was flooded with two contradictory feelings: overwhelming excitement and overwhelming fear.
When I'm done writing this blog post and I hit "publish", my heart will race. "Going Public" with thoughts, feelings, memories, emotions creates the same feeling in me as if I'd ingested 15 cans of Red Bull. I'm excited and tingly and nervous and edgy. I imagine this must be what my kids feel like on stage. The vulnerability of it is exhilarating and terrifying at the same time. And I get like that for a simple, mundane blog post. Now, put yourself in my shoes and extrapolate that feeling -- knowing the words you write are going to be performed, publicly on stage by people you know and love, along with extraordinary music (thank you, Blake Conley -- your art is as inspiring as it is masterful) in front of an audience of strangers. A thousand thoughts and feeling crisscross all at the same time. Great big huge, hairy, fang-bearing, blood-sucking butterflies.
Yes, this is a kids' show. Yes, I understand some of you will accuse me of being overly dramatic (not the first time I've been accused of that. Probably won't be the last.) The incredibly high quality work that Seth creates on stage would change your mind, I promise. Kids show? Yes. But it is not trivial or trite by any means.
In my show, one of the story lines has a boy coaching his friend on how to ask out a girl. The boy being coached is concerned because he's never admitted to this girl his feelings for her. He's afraid of her response. He is having a hard time being vulnerable. His friend gives him this advice:
"Close your fist. When your hand is in a fist, nothing can hurt the inside. But nothing can get in, either. Now open it up. Sure, it’s vulnerable now. But it doesn’t keep everything out, either. (Puts a piece of candy in his hand) It’s one or the other. Have an open hand. You won’t regret it."
I took my character's advice. Here I am with an open hand. It's exhilarating and terrifying. I can't wait to see this thing on stage. It's exhilarating and terrifying and it's exactly as it's supposed to be.
But let's back-up a little bit. Before we get to the point where this story could be performed as a one act, it had to actually be one act. When I wrote the original script, pilfering other people's music and bending it to my will, I wanted to fit in as many amazing (and apparently illicit) songs as I possibly could. So, the script was a traditional two act show. Okay -- not exactly a "traditionally" two act....it was a long-ass, jam-packed two act show.
You might think, well, it shouldn't be that hard to edit a two act show down to one. Cut some story threads here and there. Take a major character or two and push them to the background. Make sure you hit the themes harder and faster. No big whup. Right? Right.
And you'd be absolutely correct. If you weren't the writer of the piece. And if you were, you'd stress. You ask, "How can I take out a single perfect word?" Then, you make deals with yourself. You find ways to turn three sentences into one. You condense descriptive words into a single describer. You find less important themes and untangle them from the story. You make it work. And with every cut, with every reduction, you agonize. It's analogous to pulling out every hair on your head, one hair at a time.
And after the multiple surgeries, you prepare to take off the bandages -- a read-through without editing. A read-through to ensure the spirit of the piece lived through the process. To ensure your characters were still who they were supposed to be. To see if the retold story is the story you want to tell.
So, I did all of that. And when I was done, I realized, the process was the best thing to ever happen to my writing. If necessity is the mother of invention, she must also be the aunt to creativity. This process forced me to find an economy of words. To ensure each word had impact. To ensure each word had necessity. To make the very best story as tightly wound as possible without extraneous thoughts or notions or verbiage. It helped me make something better than what I had made before.
And so, it was then, when I handed over this new one-act creation of beauty to Seth and we started to discuss time restrictions (One Acts can be no longer than 40 minutes, from set-up to strike) that the realization struck me -- my beautiful, finely tuned, dare I say 'perfect' editorial effort was, well, at least twice as long as could be allowed. Crap.
Long (long...LONG!) story shorten....this happened a few times. The script needed further edits for time. And each time I edited it, I thought I could find no further way of cutting it without losing the integrity of the story. And yet, with each round, somehow, I felt like it became more pure and really what it should have been to start. Through this process, I learned to write a better story (none of those skills are on display in this particular blog piece, though. So sorry.)
There is another really important part to the story of the short but eventful life of this one act, and that is the collaborative process that helped it become a real show. Our partnership deserves a blog post all of its own -- it was magical and reassuring and awesome in so many ways. Seth Travaglino brought in Blake Conley, our uber-talented composer and lyricist. This is not an exaggeration -- the first time I listened to a song Blake wrote for the show, my jaw went slack and I was speechless. As you all know, for me, that's a true rarity.Last night, I played a song for the kids that Blake recorded recently -- Will, by far my most discriminating child and harshest critic, very seriously told me that Les Miserables has been replaced as his favorite musical by this show. It wasn't my writing that affected him. It was these amazing, addictive songs. Blake, my friend, your talent astounds me.
And the driving force through this process was Seth himself. Every team needs a rock, someone to give vision, keep focus, and lead. Seth is so good at all those things, it's hardly noticeable when huge leaps of progress are achieved. Working with both Seth and Blake, I am humbled by their enormous artistic and humanistic abilities. And I'm grateful to have been a part of this group effort. As I wrote earlier, this topic really deserves an entire blog post, but until I can make that happen, it would have been criminal not to give them the utmost credit I possibly can. From the depths of my soul, thank you, Seth and Blake.
So, onward this little show goes -- today, kids received the script and music to start the learning process. By November 8th, it'll be a full fledged one act production, brought to life via the talents of co-directors extraordinaire Seth Travaglino and Micheal Vokoun. This should be an amazing ride. On occasion, I'll post an update or two.
Welcome to life, "Understudies". You're in good hands.