I am thrilled to invite you to a reading of my new play The Seven Wonders of Chipping which will be at Artists Repertory Theatre, SW Morrison at 15th on Saturday January 26 at 2 pm and Monday January 28 at 7:30 p.m. Suggested donation $10. To get tickets call the ART box office at (503)241-1278. Do it soon as I’m hoping that we sell this out. The reading is part of the citywide Fertile Ground Festival of new plays being read by wonderful actors for low ticket prices at most theatres in Portland.
Seven Wonders is a charming romantic comedy set in a pub in the English countryside in 1953. It is a blossoming story, like the classic film Summertime starring Katharine Hepburn as the aging school teacher from Akron, Ohio who goes to Venice and finds love (based on the play The Time of the Cuckoo by Arthur Laurents.) But the tone is more like The Englishman Who Went Up A Hill starring Hugh Grant. If you don’t know these movies, I’ll wait while you type them into your Netflix que.
Have you seen the you-tube video of the proposal shot here in Portland with a whole gang of family and friends lip-synching Bruno Mars’ “I Think I Wanna Marry You?” It’s had 16.5 million views since it went up a few months ago. You’re kidding. Okay, I’ll wait again. Go type it in. You can get it with “Isaac Proposal” or any of several variations. No chance you won’t find it.
Adorable, right? Well, Isaac of the famed proposal is playing the romantic and funny leading man, Jonty, in Seven Wonders so there is yet another reason to come. Plus my dear old friend Peggy Walton Walker (some of you remember her and her husband Keith, author of Free Willy, who came to our WW conferences back in the day) is flying in from New Orleans to read the dowager role. Don Stewart Burns plays Old Bailey the local drunk and if you need a further reason, there’s a ghost.
It has been fun to write this after writing two tragedies in a row. Lear’s Follies, a new version of King Lear which some of you came to see this past summer. And two years ago The Wilde Boy at Fertile Ground is my play about Lord Alfred Douglas, Oscar Wilde’s lover, fifteen years after Wilde’s death. A beautiful and sad story.
The Seven Wonders of Chipping almost didn’t get written.
The story came to me more than ten years ago. I used to take my kids and sister and sometimes my parents and rent a cottage or farmhouse in the English countryside for two weeks in the summer. This is cheaper than hotels and they come with kitchen, woods, cows and bunnies. I would always choose a small town in the gorgeous Cotswolds from which we could take day trips by rented car to places like Stonehenge, Avebury and Stratford. And we would frequent the local pubs. A fellow at the local pub, whose last name , oddly, was a synonym for drunk, told me about “the seven wonders” of his town. And they were funny and charming and that was the seed that sprouted this play years later.
I put off writing it for a long time because it seemed hopelessly uncommercial and unhip. It is charming and heartwarming and has a happy ending. It is the kind of play they don’t write or produce much any more. One of my all time favorite playwrights, Herb Gardner, best known for A Thousand Clowns, wrote this kind of play. Nowadays plays are darker, edgier, more cynical, mostly about dysfunctional families, politics or social issues. This play has a dark side. The people in it have been damaged by things that have happened to them in life, but it’s a play that makes you feel good.
I tried to talk myself out of writing this play, but it wouldn’t go away. I’m sure you’ve had this happen to you. The story that you refuse, but that keeps developing anyway like an unwanted pregnancy and eventually you have to give up and give birth to it. This one got delivered on last spring’s Trans-Atlantic cruise. We had a whole month at sea and I read scenes aloud to the group and by the time we landed at our final port of Venice, I had a draft.
The second stage of playwriting (after doing everything you can think of alone in a room to make it good and then make it better) is to invite actors over to your house to read it out loud to you. You pay them with good food. Since this play is set in a pub, I made shepherd’s pie and stocked up on Guinness. And you invite a dozen or so of your smartest friends to sit in so you can get some feedback and find out where the laughs are, if there are any laughs.
At the end of this first living room read, (in which there was much laughter, thank you Gods of Humor whatever your Greek names may be) several of my old writing cronies who know all my plays told me this was the best one so far. And even more unprecedented, three of the seven actors asked me if they could keep the copy of the play and would I sign it . I know. As good as a standing O.
My heart is in this. I have given up the struggle and let myself fall in love with a story about falling in love. Let’s make this a science project. A test case to see if heart warming and charming have a place in our culture. Please come. You are hereby invited personally. I’ll see you there. XOXO
On the cruise ship during our Writing the Waves voyage last month, sitting on my balcony watching the sun set heading across the Mediterranean from Rome toward Alexandria, Egypt, I heard an unseen couple on the balcony next door talking. She sounded like Olympia Dukakis. Apparently the pyramids were on her bucket list. She said, “We should write it down.” Now, you know any sentence with the word “write” in it is going to get my attention.
“Write what down?” He sounded like Vincent Gardenia, as if Cher’s parents from Moonstruck had the cabin next to mine.
“Our bucket list,” clarified Olympia.
“No,” he said. “I don’t want to do that.”
“Why not?” It was starting to sound more like a harangue. “Are you afraid if you did everything on the list, you’d die?”
Silence from old Vince. Maybe he did think that. You see how powerful writing can be? Words jotted down on the back of an envelope at twenty can unleash the fear of mortality thirty or forty years later.
In fact my original bucket list written in my mid-twenties included “ride a camel” which I was determined to do in Egypt. Some of the things on it I have outgrown or the world has changed enough that they no longer seem important or possible. I have ridden an elephant, though of the circus variety. I have not seen Narwhals in the wild, but I have seen some spectacular footage of them on the Planet Earth DVD. I’m still totally dedicated to seeing the Aurora Borealis. I haven’t had a play on Broadway yet, but I did have one Off Broadway for one glorious night and this is one of those dreams I will not stop aspiring to until the last breath of life sighs away. To be photographed under the heading “What becomes a legend most?” while wearing a black sable coat? Well some things have vanished into thin air. It was never the coat I was interested in anyway.
But my goal of seeing all seven continents got a big boost this month. Our ship dropped anchor in four separate continents, two of which I’d never set foot on before. Egypt, as you may have heard, is in Africa. And Istanbul, Turkey is the only city on earth that lies on two continents, Europe on the west end of the bridge over the Bosphorous, and Asia on the eastern end. I didn’t get across that bridge, but a few days later we were in Kusadasi, Turkey which is in Asia Minor, which guess what? Is part of Asia! I’m only missing Australia and Antarctica to have the full set from the actual Planet Earth.
We had a fabulous group of 20 writers on this year’s writing adventure. For the first trans-Atlantic leg we had 10, all women except for Richard O’Connell the well known poet. This group set a writing goal of 492 pages. When I totaled this, I encouraged everyone to up their goal by one page each so we could shoot for 500, a much cooler number. All agreed and at the end of two weeks, we had written 580! This is an average of 73 pages per person. (We didn’t average in the poet’s pages, as 20 pages for a poet is 100 pages for anyone else.)
In addition to all this writing, we had also been to Gibraltar (a British outpost whose huge rock is the logo for Prudential), Alicante, Spain, Barcelona, Spain, Marseilles, France where I had a romantic interlude with my college-year-abroad French boyfriend (more on this hopefully later), Florence and Rome, Italy.
Our ringer was Richard’s wife, a lovely little retired English professor (and actually English as well) Beryl O’Connell, who only started writing less than three years ago and on this voyage wrote 132 pages of a horror novel that was so suspenseful, I had to forbid her to read last during our 8 -10 pm critique groups every night after it gave me Rosemary’s Babyesque nightmares. So Beryl read first every night and we ended each evening with lighter fare.
In Rome we lost six who had to head home, and gained another ten writers, including my daughter Molly, 26, who met me at the Trevi Fountain in Rome. Our second group of 14 had three men in it. A better balance. And this group, even though the number of “At Sea” days was halved, set an even more ambitious goal of 518 pages. This group ended up writing 668 pages or an average of 58 pages per person.
Enough statistics. Let’s get to the exciting part where Cynthia rides a camel. We arrived in Alexandria, Egypt and climbed on a bus for a three hour ride up the Nile to Cairo and the Great Pyramids of Giza (one of the seven wonders of the ancient world) and the Sphinx. I was surprised to see this country a mess. Trash and garbage everywhere. Canals clogged with litter. Unfinished buildings already turning into slum dwellings on the lower floors.
I had imagined that the pyramids would be out in the middle of the desert, but it turns out they are at the edge of the city, and there’s only one spot where you can photograph them without ugly buildings in the background. The sphinx is smaller than I imagined. But I did get on a camel. The exciting part is the moment the camel stands up. He stands on his back legs first, then the front, so for a harrowing moment you are sitting on a nearly vertical downward facing camel saddle. Ditto when he sits down at the end. So it’s hold on tight which I did and loved it. Worth the $7 for the ride plus one for the handler and one for the animal. I can’t think of a more fun way to blow $9.
By the time we had lunch and were getting back onto the bus, maybe ninety minutes later, a man on the street came running up to me yelling “Five dollars! Five dollars!” And waving an 8X10 color photo of me sitting on a camel with the pyramids in the background, tucked into a cute “See Egypt” photo folder. I never saw him take the shot, but you’ve got to reward this kind of effort and ingenuity. So I of course handed over $5. That night when we met for our nightly writers salon, and I announced “I rode a camel today,” Peggy, our resident actress instantly retorted, “I rode two camels.” So much for one’s moment of glory. All I could say to Peg was, “At the same time?”
I’ll share more adventures next month. In the meantime, if you love me or even like me a little, please go online to portlandshakes.org and buy tickets to my new play Lear’s Follies which will run at Artists Rep, NW15th and Morrison from July 11 to August 5. For my pitching class see the box on p XXX and for my fall screenwriting class see the box on p. XXX. See you all at the conference!
And remember, we writers never have to fear getting to the end of our bucket lists. We can write more things on them at any time. We hold the pens of immortality in our nimble fingers. I am remembering the immortal Ray Bradbury who as a small boy, volunteered to go up on stage at a carnival with “Mister Electrico” who reached toward little Ray’s chest and a spark of electricity arced across the air and zapped the little boy with a crackle, as Mr. E shouted, “Live forever!” And so you shall, Mr. Bradbury. So you shall.
Our European writing adventure this spring was better than ever. We had more than a dozen writers in our group this year. We wrote an average of 57 pages per person over the course of our 16 days together. For me personally, this meant half a play written from scratch. (Well, actually written from King Lear, so not exactly scratch. More on this later.)
Every evening we read out loud to each other. This was sometimes critique and sometimes pure entertainment. One of our writers, Beryl, a lovely English lady, started writing after retiring from a prestigious career as a university professor. And she turned up with a new short story almost every night. She writes horror stories. Totally fun. Her husband Richard is a dignified and admired poet, and we heard his poems as well in the evenings. Gary (from Eugene) and Roxanne (from Alaska) read us their murder mysteries on the installment plan. Peggy read from her memoir about her husband Keith and how he came to write Free Willy. We also had real-life lady pirates, Nova Scotia fishermen and a Haitian earthquake. We were doubtless the only people in the dining room who were anxious for the gorgeous five-course dinner to be over so we could get back to our writing adventures.
In Dublin we encountered Oscar Wilde’s statue and childhood home, a fabulous Yeats exhibit at the Dublin Library, and the Book of Kells at Trinity College. Great pub food and drink. And a world class hat shop where half the gang bought tweed caps.
When we docked at Liverpool, Beryl took us to one of her childhood haunts, the medieval city of Chester which is a perfectly preserved town inside an intact Roman wall. Luckily we no longer need 35mm film or we definitely would have run out in Chester, one of the most photographically gorgeous towns in Britain.
In France we went to Bayeux to see one of the world’s oldest and longest tapestries. A hundred and fifty -seven feet long, telling the story of the Norman conquests and the Battle of Hastings in 1066. Apparently they are still arguing over whether it was sewn by women or the men of the weavers’ guild. A thousand years and counting.
In Dover six of us hired a van for the day for 30 pounds apiece and had a fabulous day touring the white cliffs, the Queen Mum’s castle and some amazing historic sites, including both the oldest church and the oldest pub in England.
Brugge, Belgium, had a completely different look from anywhere I have ever been. The architecture was like ornate doll houses with tranquil canals and swans.
After disembarking in Amsterdam, I spent nine days in London with three of our group. I saw eleven plays. And since I booked them by phone (thank you, Skype) months ahead, we were in the first or second row for almost every one. I call these the nosehair-viewing seats. At War Horse, the puppet horses were grazing right at our heads. If they’d been real they would have nibbled our hair. We saw Lord of the Flies outdoors at Regents Park Theatre. With trees, and darkness and wind and little feral boys scrabbling at our feet. Totally scary.
Best moment in the theatre this year? Billy Elliott, the Musical. Since I saw it two years ago, I didn’t have to wait to cry. I could just start at the beginning of the overture and sniffle through the whole thing. Killed me. Again. Those little English boys can really dance. And they’ve got perfect Yorkshire accents to boot. Heaven.
Now for the really fun news. (And thank you for indulging in my travelogue. Your true friends are the ones that will sit through your photos of Brugge, and you are my TFs.) Next year it’s going to be a whole new adventure. In response to requests by Writing the Waves alums over the last three years, in spring 2012, we will have two trips to choose from, and you can do either one or both.
Part One is Trans-Atlantic from Fort Lauderdale on April 28, on the Crown Princess ship, with eight At Sea writing days with class in the mornings, writing afternoons, dinner together and critique group in the evenings. This cruise is 14 nights and docks at Gibralter; Alicante, Spain; Barcelona; Spain; Marseille, France; Florence/Pisa, Italy and ends in Rome on May 12. Prices start at $1,655 for an inside cabin ($1,155 for non-writing roommate.) This is only about $100 per day. Meals included, though not airfare. Balcony rooms start at $2,155 ($1,655 NWR).
Part Two is a Mediterranean cruise of 12 nights. We depart from Rome, spend 2 days in Alexandria, Egypt, a day each in Mykonos, Greece; Istanbul, Turkey; Kusadasi (Ephesus) Turkey; Athens, Greece and ends with 2 days in Venice, Italy. This cruise includes four At Sea writing days in the blue Mediterranean. Part two prices start at $2,540 for an inside cabin ($2040 NWR).
But here is the great news. You can do both. You can book a 26 day Tran-Atlantic and Mediterranean Cruise with Cynthia! We already have four of us signed up for the whole thing. If you can swing it, it’s going to be the writing adventure of a lifetime. For the near-month-long cruise prices start at $3,620. ($3,120 NWR)
Even if you’re not 100% sure you can swing it, you can book now for 20% deposit which is fully refundable until next January and these low prices will be locked in. For a flyer email me at email@example.com and I’ll send you one. We’re also offering the $500 writing class portion of the cruise at the silent auction at the conference. (Where you can also see the actual photos of our trip.)
If you have always wanted to see the great pyramids and the sphinx but were afraid to go on your own, take my hand. We can do this. Seriously. Go for it. Let’s do it.
We have returned from the high seas, fat wads of new pages clutched in happy fists, waving high. This year we had the added excitement of being mid-Atlantic when we heard that 17 European countries’ airports (including the ones we had plane tickets home from) were closed. Hordes of travelers were apparently stranded in airports worldwide while the most dramatic volcano since our dear Mount Saint Helens sent a dark cloud over all of Europe.
Somehow the thought of being stuck with each other indefinitely, struck no fear in our collective heart. Stranded with our projects and our fellow writers? This actually sounded good to us.
This year there were twenty of us. Seventeen writers and three non-writing friends/spouses. Our ages ranged from early twenties to early 80s. One flew in from Bangkok to join us. One broke a hip five weeks before and worked like hell to rehab at high speed so she wouldn’t miss this, and she made it! We came from all corners of North America, from Vancouver B.C. to Nova Scotia, from Oregon to Florida, North Carolina, Virginia, and Nashville.
We had writers in all genres. And we were a colorful, eclectic bunch. A couple of retired college professors, one a poet, the other writing sci fi/ fantasy, who met romantically on a slow boat from Brazil decades ago. A couple of screenwriters who live in a rock star tour bus, traveling North America and writing full time.
Our group was fully engaged in creating novels, screenplays (comic, sci fi and thrillers), plays, biographies, memoirs, zen journeys, children’s books and how to books. Murder mystery and true crime history. Like Shakespeare, we had comedy, tragedy and history in equal measure. Needless to say we found ourselves wildly entertained.
The format on our nine “At Sea” days turned out to be the perfect balance of camaraderie and quiet writing time. I taught a writing class from 9 to noon each of the nine days which included screenwriting, playwriting, novel writing (from Laura’s book Novel Shortcuts) and Writing Non-Fiction Book Proposals (using Elizabeth Lyon’s terrific book as our text.)
The cruise line gave us their gorgeous Executive Boardroom for the duration of the two weeks, so in the afternoons people could plug in at the mahogany table and write silently from 2 to 5 pm. We had dinner together at two adjoining tables for 10 and sat beside a different new friend each night.
Then from 8 to 10 p.m. we met again in our boardroom to read aloud and helped each other polish our work. After which some of the younger among us would then go out dancing and drinking into the wee hours.
The top five highlights:
#1. For me it was thrilling to hear how in the course of two short weeks, everyone’s work markedly improved. The drama became more impactful and emotionally moving. The humor sharper. The language clearer and stronger. We became better writers.
#2. We wrote a massive amount of pages. Our group goal was 1,000 pages. We wrote 1,074. This is an average of 63 pages for each of our 17 writers.
#3. I got most of the rough first draft of my new play written during the cruise. It’s called The Seven Wonders of Chipping.
#4. The travel. Exploring Barcelona with my daughter Molly, 24. Discovering the medieval mountaintop village of Eze, a one-Euro bus ride up above Nice and Monaco. Stunning. Ending up in Venice for four days. All of the sight-seeing adventures however, turned out to be icing on the towering, white paper cake.
#5. But best of all? Having twenty new friends that will last my lifetime.
One night at our evening salon, our poet Richard, got tickled while reading one of his poems, and started laughing so much he couldn’t finish the line. And we, trying to imagine what word could possibly come next that would paralyze him with giggles, started laughing so hard that soon the room was convulsed with laughter. I had forgotten how much better than laughing or crying is laughing until you cry. Runners have got nothing on these endorphins.
Something about working hard, laughing hard and playing hard has unexpected health benefits. After eating three and four course dinners every night, eating gelato, pasta and cappuccinos daily in Italy, somehow when I got home I had lost a pound. Has someone written a book on The Joy Diet? This is one of my new favorite types of magic.
By the time we were scheduled to check out of our gorgeous four star hotel with balconies on the canal in Venice (Costco Travel deserves a plug for this, by the way), the airport was open and we stepped onto a plane. Arriving home, we discovered that spring had sprung. Lilacs and dogwoods were blooming. And Laura’s little 8 pound Binny baby (nickname for little Robinson) had blossomed into a peachy ten pounder.
It’s good to be home. And so good to have a play in my hot little hand that a month ago was nothing more than an idea I have been fond of and idly musing about for more than ten years. That is a miracle of manifestation. From nothing to something real in 20 days. You know, it seems to me all you need to do to believe in magic is pay attention. Magic is real.
Next year, if you can make it, the Writing the Waves Cruise will depart on Holland America’s ship The Rotterdam from Fort Lauderdale, FL on May 17, 2011 and cross the Atlantic in a 16 Night cruise with 8 At Sea writing days followed by 8 ports: Dublin and Cork, Ireland; Liverpool, Devon and London, England; Cherbourg, France; Brussels, Belgium and Rotterdam, Netherlands. Prices start at $1,999 ($1,499 non-writing roommate/spouses.) not including airfare. Start planning.
See you all at the conference. And it’s not too late to get your project in marketable shape. Go for it. Make it happen. I have recent proof that you can do it. And do it brilliantly.