Monthly Check In: December 2019

Marge Dunn and Stephen Sampson in Cato & Dolly at the NEMA conference

November was a lot more relaxed than the previous six months, which was lovely. I got to see some plays again and even do some writing that was just for fun (including two new ten-minute Christmas comedies).

The big work event was bringing Plays in Place‘s Cato & Dolly to the annual conference of the New England Museum Association (NEMA) in Burlington, VT. On our first afternoon there, I gave a talk with Courtney O’Connor (who has directed the play) and Jon Ferreira (who runs the theatre program at the Old State House Museum that commissioned the work). The actors, Marge Dunn and Stephen Sampson, and Courtney and I all stayed at an Airbnb right on the edge of Lake Champlain, which was a nice escape from the city.

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Our view of Lake Champlain

The next day Marge and Stephen performed the show in front of an 8ft tall banner featuring an image of the door from the Hancock Mansion, in a large exhibit hall, in front of 50-60 museum professionals all sipping their morning coffees. As expected, they gave a strong performance that captured folks’ attention and led to some promising conversations. Courtney and the actors had to return to Boston for work, but I stayed another day to get the entire conference experience. I kept pitching Plays in Place and also soaked in as much as I could about the museum world.

I love going to conferences as a non-expert–there’s just so much to absorb, not just about content but also culture of the profession. (This was my third time at a NEMA conference.)  I think I could go to a random conference at least once a year, just to see what makes the people excited.

The good news is that the conference feels like it paid off and led to some potential projects. I’m driving up to New Brunswick, Canada, later this week to see if I can get one of these to really happen. One of the best things about the shift my career has taken is that I suddenly have a lot of excuses to visit cool museums and historic sites.

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New furnace in the barn.

Because my schedule has been so crazy busy, my time to attend plays has been sharply curtailed–I was in daily rehearsal and production mode for more than 8 weeks between April and October. Plus I was busy fixing up the house and barn in Northampton. In a normal year, I see 50-60 plays, but this year, I’ll barely make it to 40. Right before Thanksgiving I had a week where I got to see three plays–Quixote Nuevo at the Huntington, The Seagull at Arlekin Players (amazing!), and Murder on the Orient Express at the Lyric, plus a magic show by my friend Evan Northrup (he’s the best). Plus we had auditions and callbacks for my upcoming play, Mox Nox, with Brown Box Theatre Project.

It might be true that I feel most myself when I’m really busy.  (But I actually like a mix.)

We did make some minor progress on the barn in Northampton–we had a furnace installed in the basement of the barn, so we can have water there year-round. Now we’re waiting for the inspections and gas hookup, but the initial stage is done. And I spent three days fixing up one of the studios, doing cleaning and painting and repairs, so that now both are available for rent.

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Stripping and painting these doors took some work, but they look great now.

What’s up right now:
I’m doing research for the trip to Canada to see if I can firm up the next gig for Plays in Place, with a whole new pile of books from the library. Starting to add up stats from the year and doing end-of-year accounting for my writing business as well as Plays in Place. Trying to rent out the studios. And reading a bunch of plays–I’m a reader for the Seven Devils Playwriting Conference, as well as a board member.

And very much looking forward to my daughter, Kira, coming home from grad school for a few weeks. The holidays will be a little darker without being able to talk to my dad, but having Kira home will make them bearable. Writing-wise, I’m crafting Plays in Place proposals for various sites, and also hoping to do minor revisions on a whole list of my plays, though I December is generally my least productive month. My 2019 goal for writing/research time was 450 hours, but I won’t make it. There is a slight chance I could get to 400 hours, but it’ll be a stretch.

What I’m reading:  Work Optional by Tanja Hester. I also just finished reading Don Zolidis’ novel, The Seven Torments of Amy and Craig, which was a fun read.

Look for the annual year-end Writing by the Number post at the end of this month.  What kind of writing tasks are you willing to take on for the end of the year?

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Sep 13, Grand Remembrances

Today is Grandparents Day in the United States. Being a Grand is a special honor. I feel very blessed that my wife and I have two grandchildren. We were able to visit them today. Yes, we are still being cautious with the coronavirus, but we also find it very difficult to not see them when they live so close. So today we did drop by to visit Jacob (age 10) and Sophia (age 7) along with their parents. We brought donuts and caught up with them. Our grandchildren are still pretty young and this is a precious time in their lives – and ours!

I wish I had known my grandparents better. We never lived in the same place. Dad was a career Air Force pilot, so we moved around a lot. But we did get to see them once in a while when they would visit us, or we them.

A Plague of Giants

There are five known magical ‘kennings’ or types: air, water, fire, earth, and plants. Each nation specializes in of these kennings, and the magic influences the society. There’s a big pitfall with this diversity of ability and locale–not everyone gets along.

Enter the Hathrim giants, or ‘lavaborn’ whose kenning is fire. Where they live the trees that fuel their fire are long gone, but the giants are definitely not welcome anywhere else. They’re big, they’re violent, and they’re ruthless. When a volcano erupts and they are forced to evacuate, they take the opportunity to relocate. They don’t care that it’s in a place where they aren’t wanted.

I first read Kevin Hearne’s Iron Druid books and loved them (also the quirky The Tales of Pell), so was curious about this new venture, starting with A PLAGUE OF GIANTS. Think Avatar: The Last Airbender meets Jim Butcher’s Codex Alera series. Elemental magic, a variety of races, different lands. And it’s all thrown at you from page one.

But this story is told a little differently. It starts at the end of the war, after a difficult victory, and a bard with earth kenning uses his magic to re-tell the story of the war to a city of refugees. And it’s this movement back and forth in time and between key players in this war that we get a singularly grand view of the war as a whole. Hearne uses this method to great effect.

There are so many interesting characters in this book that I can’t cover them all here. Often in books like this such a large cast of ‘main’ character can make the storytelling suffer, especially since they don’t have a lot of interaction with each other for the first 3/4 of the book–but it doesn’t suffer, thankfully. And the characterization is good enough, despite these short bursts, that by the end we understand these people and care about what happens to them.

If there were a main character it would be Dervan, a historian who is assigned to record (also spy on?) the bard’s stories. He finds himself caught up in machinations he feels unfit to survive. Fintan is the bard from another country, who at first is rather mysterious and his true personality is hidden by the stories he tells; it takes a while to understand him. Gorin Mogen is the leader of the Hathrim giants who decide to find a new land to settle. He’s hard to like, but as far as villains go, you understand his motivations and he can be even a little convincing. There’s Abhi, the son of hunters, who decides hunting isn’t the life for him–and unexpectedly finds himself on a quest for the sixth kenning. And Gondel Vedd, a scholar of linguistics who finds himself tasked with finding a way to communicate with a race of giants never seen before (definitely not Hathrim) and stumbles onto a mystery no one could have guessed: there may be a seventh kenning.

There are other characters, but what makes them all interesting is that they’re regular people (well, maybe not Gorin Mogen or the viceroy–he’s a piece of work) who become heroes in their own little ways, whether it’s the teenage girl who isn’t afraid to share vital information, to the scholars who suddenly find how crucial their minds are to the survival of a nation, to the humble public servants who find bravery when they need it most. This is a story of loss, love, redemption, courage, unity, and overcoming despair to not give up. All very human experiences by simple people who do extraordinary things.

Hearne’s worldbuilding is engaging. He doesn’t bottle feed you, at first it feels like drinking from a hydrant, but then you settle in and pick up things along the way. Then he shows you stuff with a punch to the gut. This is no fluffy world with simple magic without price. All the magic has a price, and more often than not it leads you straight to death’s door. For most people just the seeking of the magic will kill you. I particularly enjoyed the scenes with Ahbi and his discovery of the sixth kenning and everything associated with it. But giants? I mean, really? It isn’t bad enough fighting people who can control fire that you have to add that they’re twice the size of normal people? For Hearne if it’s war, the stakes are pretty high, and it gets ugly.

The benefit of the storytelling style is that the book, despite its length, moves along steadily (Hearne is no novice, here). The bits of story lead you along without annoying cliffhangers (mostly), and I never got bored with the switch between characters. It was easy to move between them, and they were recognizable enough that I got lost or confused. The end of the novel felt a little abrupt, but I guess that has more to do with I was ready for the story to continue, despite the exiting climax.

If you’re looking for epic fantasy with fun storytelling and clever worldbuilding, check out A PLAGUE OF GIANTS.

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The Artwork Of Gary Choo

Gary Choo is a concept artist/illustrator based in Singapore. I’ve know Gary for a good many years ( 17, actually ), working together in animation studios in Singapore like Silicon Illusions and Lucasfilm. Gary currently runs an art team at Mighty Bear Games, but when time allows he also draws covers for Marvel comics, and they’re amazing –

The Art Of Gary Choo
The Art Of Gary Choo
The Art Of Gary Choo
The Art Of Gary Choo
The Art Of Gary Choo

To see more of Gary’s work or to engage him for freelance work, head down to his ArtStation.

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