Don’t Gravitate Towards Sports Just Because Everyone Does

I’ve seen it many times over my teaching career. Talented art-leaning students choosing sports because everyone does.

And before you peg me as a non-sports person who doesn’t know … blah, blah.

I understand. Growing up, baseball was my life. Quite literally. When I wasn’t playing on a team, I was throwing the ball against our porch wall or creating elaborate fake leagues with statistics and MVPs and trades and expansion teams. I was obsessed. And in those dark winter months, I started listening to Pitt Panthers basketball, created fake hockey scores, and played a lot of tackle football in our backyard. I was a sports guy, completely. And I wasn’t so bad at it. I had a fastball in the mid-80s and was even told I had a shot at getting drafted if I worked hard. Full disclosure, I didn’t.

And I think I know why. I was an arts person caught up in a sports world. The thing is: I didn’t know I was an arts person. How is a person to know? Okay, I liked to write poetry. Perhaps that should have been a clue. I liked to attend plays even though I was much too shy and lacking in confidence to think I should ever have auditioned for them.

I still remember watching my sister perform beautifully in the play Done to Death. I admired her so much. She painted too. She was an arts person, who sadly died her senior year in high school when I was ten. I still think about her all the time. I miss her.

I created things all the time – whether my own radio station on cassette tape or a play or a song lyric. But I loved baseball, and so I pursued it.

Nothing wrong with pursuing sports. I get it.

But I have seen too much creative talent being wasted in a mediocre basketball game. I’ve had kids who have terrific vocals, strong creative skills, wonderful acting abilities who end up playing third strong on a team when they could have been starring in the spotlight—kids who could really go somewhere in the arts—and if not, at least benefit tremendously from the communication skills and creative people-skills so in demand in today’s world.

I’ve told kids repeatedly, don’t go your entire high school career without trying out for a play. Step out of your comfort zone. I’ve seen talented and creative folks with great potential quit drama in the middle of a production because of a sport or they have too much to study.

Please, parents, you know if your kids are creative. Encourage them. “Hey, have you thought about dropping basketball for a year in order to take part in the musical? You have those abilities.”

They don’t always listen to me, but I almost can guarantee if they do, they will never regret it.

Creatitivity breeds confidence and more creativity. It will change the way you think, what you do, what you feel is important, and it will open doors you never thought possible.

So please, don’t gravitate towards sports just because everyone else does. Kids need to be encouraged  to do something creative, something co-curricular, outside of the realm of a classroom. I’m going to keep encouraging kids to do what I never did.

I realized late in life how important the arts are to me. I’m grateful I found this hidden calling of mine. I’m hoping there are many young people who will discover this side of them much earlier than I did.

Remember: create, not consume.

Frodo Is Becoming Obsolete

I started teaching drama and acting right about the time that Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings Trilogy was finishing up. Nearly everyone had seen it, and almost universally raved about it. The characterizations of the film provided the perfect example for me when I attempted to illustrate for my young actors what it means for their character to have a scene objective and a super objective.

Let me break it down for a second. Every character in every play has a scene objective in each scene. It is explained by the reason for them being in the scene and the goal or objective they are trying to accomplish in the scene. I often would have actors who were on stage without lines ask what they were supposed to be doing. My first question for them would be why did the playwright put you there? What does your character want to accomplish? This will tell you what you should be doing.

What about the term super objective, sometimes referred to as a character’s spine?  The super objective is a character’s overarching objective—the one thing he or she wants more than anything else in the world. Aren’t objectives and super objectives the same thing? Don’t ones scene objectives always align themselves with their spine? Not at all.

Enter Frodo. His characterization is so clearly defined as to provide an excellent example of both. Frodo’s scene objectives vary but revolve around the ring and his obsession in making the journey to Mordor to destroy it. His obstacles change from scene to scene and even from book to book, but they all feed into the idea of journey and accomplishing his mission and destroying the nasty ring.

Hey, wait! Isn’t destroying the ring also his super objective? Absolutely not. What does Frodo want more than anything else? And why is he going through all the pain that the ring is causing him? He wants to be home in the Shire. That’s it. He fights creatures and inner demons so he can be rid of the ring once and for all and go home to his beloved shire.

But sadly, this example is becoming obsolete. Ten years ago, all of my students knew the story. Today, most don’t. Usually a few of them do. “I kind of remember it.” “Yeah, I didn’t like it very much.” “It’s such an old movie.”  “I heard of it.”

Sigh. I thought Ben-Hur was an old movie.

So now which movie series can I use? That’s the problem. I don’t watch many movies these days, and please don’t say Marvel Universe. I’m pretty sure all of their super objectives revolve around making money.

Who would have thought that Frodo wouldn’t have staying power?

It makes me realize one other thing: someday a new director will come along to remake the LOTR Trilogy because the entire series has become obsolete.

They did that with Ben-Hur, remember? And look what a disaster that was.

Thank you, beta readers

It’s done. Novel #9 sent to my editor. More than any other novel I’ve written, the writing of this one has made me understand the true purpose of beta readers.

Writers have blind spots. Or possibly soft spots. Maybe I get a little to sentimental at times and think a few chapters can get by with charisma without conflict. Whatever the case, I had two beta readers for my novel Moses the Singer who essentially said the same thing: the conflict of the story became less apparent about two-thirds through.

I’ll be honest. When the first one said it, I kind of brushed it off as different people have different perspectives. But when suddenly different people have the same perspectives, it made me take note. And they were right.

I found the problem. A story strand which I had left on the table. It turned out to be a crucial turning point in the life of the protagonist. In the first draft, he kind of floated through a few chapters without motivation. Well, not any more.

The re-worked manuscript adds about 6000 words and two brand-new chapters. And conflict? Oh yeah. Big time. It’s the type of big moment which pushes the story forward and which helps to define a character’s actions. It was big, and I missed it.

So, once again, thanks beta readers.

Moses the Singer now clocks in at about 90,000 words. It scheduled for a summer release. I already have the cover and will be revealing it soon.

Here’s the first published description of the book. Much more to come:

Moses the Singer: A man without a country lives a disenfranchised life on the beautiful island of Penang, Malaysia. A group of teenage musicians witness the old man being taken advantage of by a local resident. What happens next is a whole lot of sweet harmony.

Be Willing to Make a Major Change in Your Writing

As I’ve mentioned, I had sent novel #9 out to some beta readers for feedback prior to final draft and sending it to my editor.

Two beta readers, whom I respect a great deal for their knowledge of literature and their ability to just tell me honestly what they think, said basically the same thing. One could not recommend the book because, in the beta reader’s opinion, there was a pause in the conflict during a certain section about two-thirds through. The other would recommend this book to others but also said something similar at the same part. The conflict seems to be undefined giving the reader no real clue where the story is going.

I was happy with the story the way it was.

So now what?

As a writer, am I willing to slow down the publication of my story and make a major change to the plot, not really knowing the ripple effects it may have for the story?

Yes. Emphatically, yes.

I have learned that I cannot entrench myself so far into my writing that I’m not willing to take criticism and make changes. That’s the whole point of having a beta reader, right? If I’m not willing to listen to them, then I just wasted their time, and I slowed down the time line of my book for no reason.

But I want to do this right. This writing thing. So here I go.

What am I about to do? My book is 34 chapters. I’m really happy with it through chapter 16. I’m also happy with the ending, and I think both beta readers were too. But the back middle is sagging, so I will:

  • enter a brand new plot twist to chapter 17.
  • not whine and complain when it wrecks havoc with some of my chapters.
  • welcome the ripple effects and go where they take me.
  • try to make it into the kind of book that the first beta reader would recommend.

As I’ve been thinking about this for the past few days, something hit me. They are right. They are absolutely right. I left a conflict on the writing table. It’s right in front of me. Part of the story just disappears. Neither of them mentioned this, but it’s obvious to me now. And this missing storyline will become the needed conflict which will, hopefully, propel the story to its ending.

Here’s what I keep telling myself:

  • be open to change
  • keep trying to get better
  • listen to others
  • do the best you can
  • then accept it, finish it, and move on.

MOSES THE SINGER coming summer 2020.

 

In Defense of: Cats?

The critics seem to agree. Tom Hooper’s CATS is a disaster, and it is bombing spectacularly at the box office. It is set to lose tens of millions of dollars and will surely never recoup its 100 million dollar budget.

I’ve seen the stage version of CATS once. It was in London’s West End many cat lives ago. I was in college. I was an English major. I had studied T.S. Elliot as any good English major would, and I was curious about his cat poems published as Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats. I made sure to buy myself a copy when in London, and I made sure to go see CATS.

I wasn’t even much of a theater geek at the time, but I loved the musical. It didn’t have much of a plot. Just a loose look at different kinds of cats from TS Elliot’s mind and Andrew Lloyd Weber’s musical imagination. When those sleek clothed cats started dancing to that infectious beat of Jellicle Cats kicked in, I was hooked.

So when I saw Hooper (whom I respected greatly for Les Miserables movie and The King’s Speech) was bringing CATS to the big screen, I couldn’t wait to see it.

I had read some of the reviews before going. A certain NY Times columnist spouted some weird thoughts about how the “Milk Bar scene” was like cat porn. Others used the word “disturbing” — commenting on the weird fur. One complained how Jennifer Hudson kept “crying from her nose.” Reading the reviews for CATS was kind of entertaining in itself. I just couldn’t figure out how Hooper had messed it up so badly. I had to see it for myself.

I did.

And you know what? I loved it.

Hooper gets it. These critics can’t get over themselves enough to let the music take them away and relieve a truly ground-breaking musical. When the song Jellicle Cats started, I was captivated once again. And while it’s not a perfect movie, it recaptures all the emotions and joy, yes, joy, that I felt in the West End that evening a long time ago. So let me break this down into a few strengths and weaknesses of the show.

  1. The music is fantastic. I found myself tapping my foot, looking on in wonder, and enjoying most all of the numbers.
  2. Francesca Hayward. She played Victoria, a cat without friends who finds herself caught up with the Jellicle cats on the night of their annual ball. Hayward weaved the loose story together with her subtle expressions, fresh face, beautiful dancing, and lovely singing. Her performance itself is worth the price of admission.
  3. Tap dancing. I so enjoyed the tap dancing of Skimbleshanks, the mail train cat, and the inventive way Hooper brought the entire scene together.
  4. Hooper, himself. He’s been much maligned with this film, but he uses the set and music to recreate the world of the Jellicles in a vivid and lively manner. I found myself anticipating the next songs and wondering how the spectacle would be able to keep upstaging itself. It did.
  5. The cast. It is an extremely talented cast which, once again, brings the music to life. I was singing it on the way home. Heck, I’m still singing it.

Let me tackle a few weaknesses of the show before I surmise what went wrong.

  1. CGI. Hooper admitted it wasn’t ready. I went to the show with my daughter who noticed that the dancers feet kept disappearing and reappearing, making some of the scenes take a back seat to the bad graphics. Supposedly, the film has been patched which takes care of a lot of those problems, but that is a sloppy problem to have for an expensive film.
  2. Gumbie Cat. If any scene was disturbing, it was this one with dancing cockroaches which Gumbie cat would toss into her mouth. It was all a little grotesque. I didn’t exactly appreciate Hooper’s choices in this scene.
  3. James Corden’s overacting. He was a little over-the-top in his scenes. I would have preferred a scaled back version of raiding the garbage cans.

So the remaining question is this: Why was it panned so badly?

The only thing that makes sense to me is expectations. I saw the musical, so I knew what to expect. I knew it would be light on plot, big on spectacle, and really big on Weber’s pop-rock music.  Hooper delivered on these three, which made it work for me, but I’m a sucker for musicals. If someone walked into the cinema thinking they were going to be watching a cute, heartwarming story about cats, well, then I guess they might have been dumbfounded by what they saw. Make no mistake about it: Hooper created a piece of theatre. He just happened to put it on film, and in my estimation, it lived up to the musical. I recommend it if you are willing to suspend your disbelief and just enjoy a night at the theatre, in the cinema.  I look forward to seeing it again. Although I might just fast-forward through Rebel Wilson’s scene.

 

… and What’s on Tap for 2020?

A new year for a writer is filled with hopes and ambitions. Most of them swirl around the hope that any particular writer (me, in my case) will have enough time to accomplish all that is whipping around in their brain.

If 2020 is an ideal year for writing, here’s what I hope to accomplish.

NOVELS

  • I plan to release my 9th novel–MOSES THE SINGER–by mid-year. It’s now in the final editing stage.
  • Novel 10 – an alternative history novel which I have been toying with for the past two years. I’ve even written the first chapter, but it has some problems. I hope to overcome those and get the darn thing down.
  • The great baseball novel. I have an idea which I too have been fiddling around with. I wrote a short story called THE HUNDRED PITCH AT BAT which I intend to be a jumping off point for an entire baseball book of fiction. Let’s do it!

PLAYS

  • I want to write a new complete show to be produced in the following school year. I’ve started with some preliminary writing. It will be a play with different stories but are woven together as an ensemble show. I have some interesting ideas. I want to get this done in the spring.
  • Christmas Compilation: I have been trying to compile and publish my second volume of plays. This one called: Tales of Wonder: The Plays of Christmas.  It’s a compilation of the three Christmas shows I wrote and produced in Penang. I need to get this done by the summer.
  • Dear High School – I plan on compiling and publishing this play which is a full-show of different short plays themed around high school. All of them have been produced to great success, and I think this would be a fun one for many schools to produce.
  • Lastly, I have a play I’ve written over the last five years about the confluence of different ideologies between evangelical Christianity and the LGBT movement in relation to the gay marriage movement and the 2015 Supreme Court ruling. Maybe I’ll finally let this one out of my clutches. It’s my most raw play I’ve ever written. But perhaps it’s time.

Other stuff:

Writing residency. I’m hoping to create my own residency and head back to Penang for a week to write and eat and write and enjoy my old stomping grounds. I think that could be a productive time.

Maybe a trip to Turkey? Ancient Ephesus sounds nice.

And finally, I’ll go where my brain takes me. There are always unexpected writing twists and turns depending on what is percolating up there. We shall see.

Here’s to a productive 2020!authorsasse

What happened in 2019 …

Another busy year of writing and related endeavors. It’s always nice to look back at what was accomplished before looking at what’s ahead. So here goes:

Writing:

Finished and published book 3 of The Forgotten Child Trilogy: A Parting in the Sky.

Wrote novel #9: Moses the Singer. (now heading into final editing stage before a mid-2020 publication date.

Wrote several short plays, most of which either have or will be produced soon.

Published my first baseball short story: The Hundred Pitch At-Bat  (much more to come in this vein)

Plays:

I directed and produced three plays in 2019:  Stories Vol 1 in April, Stories Vol 2 in October, and Seussical: The Musical in December.

I saw my plays produced in Columbus, Ohio in January; Portland, Oregon in March; Penang, Malaysia in November. I even picked up the Festival Director’s Award for my play in Penang.

I updated my book Theatrical Duets, giving it a 3rd Edition distinction with several new plays.

In 2019 I also realized one thing: I don’t have enough time to write. Even my writing months in the summer were over-taken by a variety of other tasks (including settling into a new house). All of these tasks were great and needed, but I wasn’t able to accomplish several of my other writing goals. You know the old saying: you can only do what you can do. But the main point is: do! Don’t ever lament about what you didn’t do. Just continue to do.

Travel: 

I was fortunate enough to travel to Cairo, Egypt and Athens, Greece … in addition to my summer travels to the USA and my normal life in Jeddah. Traveling is wonderful fodder for writing. It brings ideas to life, and it will be fun to see how these places make there way into some of my future writings.

I’ll leave the year with a couple of my favorite photos. At Olympic Stadium in Athens and at … well, you’ll recognize the geometric shape.

mark athensmark egypt