Category: learning new things

Creating the World of KINGLET

In the run-up to the August 2017 publication of my debut novel, Kinglet: Book One of The Gemeta Stone, I wrote a half-dozen essays on aspects of the writing process and creating Kinglet’s world. I posted the essays in sequence on the News, Notes & Info page of my website, but since that page changes a few times a month, I thought it would be fun to gather those six essays here. I hope you enjoy them.

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How Kinglet Came to Be

It feels both weird and a little pompous to say that the idea for Kinglet came to me in a dream, but that’s absolutely how it happened.

I was a junior in high school, a time when I used to have particularly memorable and vivid dreams (ah, how I miss those days). One morning, just before I woke up, I dreamed about a dark-haired young man on a black horse. In the dream, he and the horse were standing still, on a level road running through green and sunlit countryside. I saw just a flash of him, and at that moment I immediately knew his name: Kristan Gemeta.

I woke up wondering what that was all about. The name rang through my brain as I showered and dressed and gathered my books. I thought about it as I ate my breakfast, on the bus ride to school, and even after the first bell rang. And when I walked into my favorite class – Mrs. Cooper’s Advanced Composition – I was still carrying that image, and that name, in my head. 

Our assignment that day – again, weirdly – was to write the beginning of a story. Not the whole thing, just the beginning. And so I started a story about a young man on a black horse who meets a red-headed girl, on an isolated, sunlit road. I named the young man Kristan Gemeta.

I don’t know what kind of grade or commentary Mrs. Cooper gave me (I expect it was favorable; English was always my best subject), but something about that story made me decide to save it. I tore the pages out of the notepad I used for that class. I still remember that pad, plain as day:  college-ruled, top bound, with three holes in the left side so you could put it in a binder. I put the beginning of that story away with some other story ideas.

Years later I came across that fragment of story again. I read it, and felt Kristan’s character tug at me once more.

Over time, I’ve rewritten and revised the plot that eventually became Kinglet. I’ve built the world of The Gemeta Stone series, created its landscape, and peopled it with hundreds of characters, all of whom I care about intensely.

While the story and the supporting cast have changed over time, one thing has never altered: the name and character of Kristan Gemeta. It still seems unreal that, nearly 45 years later, a tiny scrap of a teenager’s dream about a gentle young man is now fully fleshed, and out into the world for everyone to see.

Creating Kristan Gemeta

When I started writing The Gemeta Stone series, I knew right away that I wanted a main character who was, first and foremost, human. And I don’t mean human insofar as species – I mean a character who has doubts, fears and flaws in addition to his good qualities.

Kristan Gemeta is the only son of a king – heir to the throne of Fandrall and to the responsibilities and privileges that come with it. But he’s also something of a misfit in his father’s court. Kristan is small, slight, introspective and gentle. Worse, he believes in Wiche, the ancient magical lore which has fallen so far out of favor that it’s been outlawed in neighboring kingdoms. This belief, coupled with his compassionate nature, puts Kristan at odds with both his warrior-king father and the pragmatic, battle-hardened knights of Fandrall.

Once I created this misfit prince, I wondered what would happen if he was suddenly and violently thrust into a position of leadership. Would he rise to the occasion, or falter and fail? I chose the latter.

With his father murdered, his kingdom overtaken, his family’s protective talisman stolen and his courage lost, Kristan flees to the forbidding wilderness of the Exilwald, a forest of outcasts and criminals. It’s there that his story really begins.

All the books in The Gemeta Stone series take their titles from nicknames Kristan is given on his journey. In the case of Kinglet, it’s the name of a small, reclusive Exilwald bird that seems like nothing special until it displays its hidden crown of red feathers. Like the kinglet bird, Kristan’s choice is between the relative safety of a life in the shadows, or the dangers of stepping forward to reclaim both his name and his birthright.

The World and Magic of Kinglet

I’m often asked about the “world” in which Kinglet is set. Let me say at the outset that it’s a familiar world to readers of fantasy: a medieval-esque setting, a largely human population, a male-dominant society, horses for transportation, swords for weapons.

But it’s a world on the brink of change, and that’s brought about by the long-suppressed and much-denigrated magical lore known as Wiche. As Kristan Gemeta, the protagonist of Kinglet explains: “My old teacher Simeon once told me that Wiche is simply a catchall term for anything beyond our power to comprehend or explain. Not everything Wiche is magic, but all magic is Wiche.”

In the world of Kinglet, there are two kinds of magic. The first is Learned, meaning it can be taught and studied and understood. It can be written down and passed on to another. It can be twisted and altered to change its purpose, and its power is limited by the abilities of the one who uses it. Daazna, the main antagonist of Kinglet, is a Wichelord – a master of Learned magic.

At the opposite end of the spectrum is True magic, or Tabi’a. It is magic in its natural form. No spell created it, no spell can master it, and no spell can destroy it. It exists for its own purpose, and no other. The Gemeta Stone, the legendary protective talisman which belongs to Kristan’s family, is one example of Tabi’a.

It’s this clash between Learned magic and Tabi’a that catapults Kristan’s life into chaos, and it’s his struggle to understand the Stone’s Tabi’a that’s an ongoing theme throughout the series.

The Gemeta Stone: Writing a Series

With the publication of Kinglet: Book One of The Gemeta Stone, I’m often asked by people how in the world I was able to write one book, let alone an entire series. My answer is: “I didn’t realize it was going to be a series!”

When I first started work on the series, I didn’t even know it would be a series. I was simply writing scenes about characters who appealed to me. While I don’t outline, I had an idea of a through-line, but letting myself write all the “fun stuff” first – the fight scenes, the exciting dialogue exchanges, the introductions of each character. I’d skip the hard stuff like transitions and exposition, promising myself I’d get back to them later. Eventually I had a ring binder full of scenes, and realized I only had to put them in order and write the missing parts, and I’d have a book. Easier said than done. When I finally finished, my heart sank at the knowledge that the book was too long (like, 350k words of too long).

So I dived back into the story, cutting and tightening. I ended up with a more manageable 225k words – still too long, and I had a lot more story to tell. That’s when I acknowledged that what I was writing was not a single book, but a series. Fortunately there was a logical place to “break” that first massive tome, so voila! I suddenly had not one book, but two. I didn’t know what to call them, so I put them aside and started work on the third book.

This time I made myself write in order, so I wouldn’t have such a scrambled-up mess to deal with later on, and I also edited and polished as I wrote. As the story spooled out, I had two big realizations: 1) the nicknames my protagonist earned along his journey would make great titles for the individual books in the series, and 2) Book Number Three was going to be another whopper.

I had about four months of being semi-blocked while I dealt with a major stumbling block in the plot. During that time I did a fair amount of editing, but barely wrote anything new. Instead, I stewed over solving that plot problem.

At the end of those four months I was visiting my elderly mother in Tennessee. She’s a devout Catholic, and even though I’m not, I accompanied her to church. During that Sunday’s sermon I was sitting quietly, letting my mind wander, when suddenly a potential solution to my plot problem hit me. I confess that I sat there, barely breathing, as a partial idea took shape. I’d had other solutions that hadn’t worked out in the end, so I didn’t rush home to the computer. For a week I just let things percolate. Lo and behold, the following Sunday, again at church, again during the sermon, the rest of the solution came to me. This time I rushed home and started work again. (Thank you, Mom. Thank you, God.)

The place where I’d been blocked turned out to be the very place to break the story into Books Three and Four. It was while I was polishing Book Three for my beta readers that my agent called and told me we had an offer for the series. That was just about a year ago, and I’m still stunned at how fast things moved once I’d signed on the dotted line. Kinglet is out in the world now, with its sequel Fiskur to follow in November, and the third book, StoneKing due for release in early 2018. Meanwhile Book Four, Ragis, waits in the wings while I work on the series’ finale.

The Strong Female Character

I recently joined a Twitter group called #51writers, named for the percentage of women vs. men in the U.S. It’s focused on the creation and development of strong female characters in literature. Even though Kristan Gemeta, the main protagonist of Kinglet (and of the entire The Gemeta Stone series) is male, and his primary antagonist is male, it’s the women in the series who end up being most influential.

Foremost among these female characters is Heather Demitt. Heather is young when we first meet her; barely eighteen, impetuous, bright and outspoken. Originally she was conceived as a love interest for Kristan, but her bold vitality contrasted so well against Kristan’s more cautious and introspective personality that she developed into a co-protagonist. Nearly half of Kinglet is told from her point of view.

Then there’s Ariphele, the mother of Kinglet’s antagonist, the Wichelord Daazna. As powerful and terrifying as Daazna is, Ariphele’s sarcasm and blunt opinions never fail to get under his skin. Theirs is a strange and complicated love-hate relationship that provides some of Kinglet’s most unsettling moments.

At the beginning of Kinglet, Kristan receives a warning of coming catastrophe from two old women he meets while out riding. They were such an interesting pair and I had such fun writing their dialogue. Here’s a sample:

The larger woman looked at him sharply. “The world is full of little splits and cracks and clefts and rifts, boy. You can see them every day – not when you ride a fast horse, mind – but only if you walk slow as we do, with your eyes and your ears open, with your skin feeling and your nose smelling and your tongue tasting the air like a snake.” Suddenly she ran her tongue out and in, and Kristan jumped a little. 

“But when the cleft is large, like this one,” said the small woman, “when it runs a long way and spreads as it runs, like this one – it’s a Reaving. Something even a boy on a fast horse can see. For years these Reavings have moved through the mountains north of Hogia, as is right, because the mountains are fearsome things, full of strange and terrible magics. But in the last few seasons, Reavings have wended down the mountains and spread into the Plain of Hogia itself. This is the first time one has crossed the River Mor. It signifies, boy.”

Their words have such a profound impact on Kristan that he tells his father the king of their warning, knowing full well that such magical pronouncements are viewed as nonsense and he’s risking his father’s wrath for even speaking of them. That simple action sets Kristan up for a disaster that will change his entire life.

The funniest thing about that scene is that it was inspired by this photo of my mother, Marge Lillard, and her younger sister Julia deRooy. I took the photo some years ago, when we were strolling in Aunt Julia’s large backyard on a gray winter day. I can’t remember now why Mom and Aunt Julia were pointing at the ground, but the image hung with me for years. In Kinglet the season changed to spring, and the setting is somewhere in the royal fields of Fandrall instead of a suburban yard, but that’s the magic of writing: you can find inspiration in the most familiar faces and the most mundane places.

Creating a Believable Bad Guy

When I was completing the first full draft of Kinglet: Book One of The Gemeta Stone, I attended a week-long writers’ workshop – one that I found valuable mostly for the discussions with my fellow author/attendees. One day when we were kicking around the topic of antagonists and how we introduced those characters in our books, I discovered that I was the only one who began my story with my bad guy –  the other writers started off with their protagonist. When I revealed that my villain, Daazna, was a powerful magic-worker with a thirst for revenge, one of the other authors got very excited. “Then you have to show just how dangerous he is right away,” he said with a gleam in his eyes. “He needs to do something awful.”

I realized he was right. Originally I just had Daazna arriving by ferryboat on the shores of Fandrall, thinking about how he’d been wronged by the kingdom’s royal family years before. It was interesting, yes, but it wasn’t the kick-ass start I needed. And so I took that author’s advice and rewrote the beginning – and what Daazna ended up doing gave even me the heebie-jeebies.

But an all-powerful, 24-7 bad guy can get dreary. I found that it was equally important to show how deeply Daazna’s anger was rooted in jealousy and hurt. I’m not saying an antagonist has to be sympathetic, but certainly the motivation for his actions should be clear – otherwise he’s just a cartoon villain. It helped that Daazna’s mother Ariphele is a supporting character, and I was able to use her sarcasm to goad Daazna and ramp up not just his anger, but his need to prove himself to her. Their relationship is one of the most intriguing in the book.

And that’s why I really enjoyed writing Daazna’s scenes – even the creepy ones.

A Bounty of Riches – Part 2 (Getting Published)

Back in July of last year, I was headed to the beach for a family vacation when I got The Call from Cynthia, my literary agent: we’d received an offer for my fantasy novel KINGLET. In fact, we’d received two offers.

To say I was gobsmacked would be putting it mildly. I had been anticipating a quiet week of sun and sand but instead, my stress level began to ramp up. I was excited, of course – who wouldn’t be? – but how can one relax at such a time?

Two offers – both from small, independent publishers. Publisher #1 was a brand-new outfit, based in Atlanta, with a real go-getter attitude and waving a contract that included a nice advance and a generous royalty split.

(For those unfamiliar with the world of publishing, an advance is a sum of money paid to the author up front, in anticipation of book sales. Royalties are the monies – usually a percentage of the book’s cover price – paid to the author from those sales. If an author receives an advance, their book must “earn out” its advance before the author receives any additional money – in other words, if Author gets a $1k advance, their royalties are withheld until Publisher recoups that $1k from the book’s sales.)

Publisher #2 was based in Alabama, with a two-year track record, offering a decent but less-generous royalty split and no advance. On the face of it, this looks like a no-brainer choice, right? Choose the one offering the most money, right?

Actually, nope. Further study of Publisher #1’s contract revealed that their royalties were based on net profit – meaning that certain expenses had to be recouped before royalty payments began. This is a business model one sees fairly often in new, undercapitalized publishers. It’s a bad deal for the author, because in this scenario the author ends up paying for the publisher’s cost of doing business. I’ve seen some publisher business models wherein the cost of cover art, editing, printing, marketing and distribution are all creamed off the top before the poor author sees a dime.

In the case of Publisher #1, they wanted to recoup the cost of printing the paperback edition of my book. They were planning on using offset printing rather than the more common small-publisher print-on-demand (POD) process. However, while it results in a higher-quality book, offset printing is far more expensive than POD, and in this case, was projected to cost more than double the advance Publisher #1 offered.  This meant that the book would have to make more than three times the advance before I’d be paid a cent of that generous royalty split. This, coupled with the publisher’s lack of real experience in the business, made me leery of the deal.

I should add that all these negotiations were ongoing via email and phone calls while I was supposed to be relaxing in the sun (ha), and I complicated matters further by first cracking the screen of my laptop (I closed it on one of my headset’s earbuds) and then dropping my brand-new HTC 10 cellphone in the toilet (I was carrying it with me everywhere in case of phone calls from my agent, and had it in the back pocket of my jeans when I went to answer a call of nature). The phone immediately died, which resulted in a near-meltdown from me – thank goodness for my husband John, who took all the appropriate steps to activate the phone’s “Uh Oh” warranty (was ever a contract clause so aptly named?).

The upshot of all this drama was that I opted for Publisher #2, Fiery Seas Publishing. I signed with them for both KINGLET, the first book in my fantasy series (to be released in August 2017) and its sequel, FISKUR (to follow three to four months after KINGLET). The ink was barely dry on the contracts before the publishing process started. I was assigned an editor, filled out a lot of paperwork to assist in the marketing and promotion of the books, and spent several days writing and rewriting what would eventually become both the back cover copy for KINGLET and the meat of Fiery Seas’ October press release announcing the acquisition of the books. The publisher provided me with some nice art to accompany my own social media blast on announcement day, and meanwhilie my editor Vicki forwarded her first editing pass on KINGLET to me, along with her compliments on how clean and tight the manuscript was. It was small comfort as suddenly everything I’d written seemed awful and I was sure I was a talentless hack. Vicki was incredibly patient as I made a number of tweaks and returned the m/s for its second editing pass.

For once I was grateful that my 2016-17 theatrical slate was pretty bare, with only a summer show, a holiday production and a few miscellaneous gigs on the books. Even though that meant I wouldn’t be making much money, it translated to more time for both the publishing process and to continue writing on the series. As the holidays approached, I finished the third book, fired it off to my trusty beta readers, finalized Vicki’s second pass on KINGLET and her first pass on FISKUR.

And then I booked WAR PAINT.

Suddenly my time was no longer my own. In the space of a few weeks, I had to complete the run of my holiday show, negotiate the WAR PAINT contract, travel to NYC to look at potential sublets, and upend my life in general, while trying to enjoy Christmas and New Year’s (ha). I signed a one-year contract for the show and prepared myself for the move to NYC, all the time driving myself crazy with worry over how I could learn and rehearse a Broadway show AND maintain my commitment to Fiery Seas AND keep writing the rest of the series.

Once again, the upshot of all this drama is that I could, and did. Because Vicki had kept us so far ahead of schedule, I was able to complete the second round of edits on FISKUR and review the galley proofs for KINGLET without undue pressure, as well as work with my publisher and cover artist on the covers for both KINGLET and FISKUR. (If you float your cursor over the “Writing” tab above, you can click on KINGLET to see that beautiful cover, but you’ll have to wait a while for the FISKUR cover reveal. Trust me, it’s equally gorgeous.) I’m currently working on the final draft of STONEKING, the third book in The Gemeta Stone series, with book #4, RAGIS, already in rough draft form.

Everything continues on track for WAR PAINT’s April opening and KINGLET’s August 2017 release. I’m still overwhelmed by it all, but so grateful for both opportunities. As tiring as it’s been, and often nerve-wracking, I know how lucky I am to be experiencing not one, but two huge life events at the same time.

 

A Bounty of Riches – Part 1 (Broadway)

Two years ago, if you’d told me that I would be simultaneously working on a Broadway show and getting ready for the release of my first novel, I would have laughed at you. Nay, guffawed. I had no plan to return to The Great White Way, was happily ensconced in regional theatre, and had barely begun looking for an agent to represent my book. But the world whirls on its merry way whether you like it or not, and I keep wishing there was some way I could put the brakes on both projects just long enough for me to sit back and appreciate the bounty of riches that has landed in my lap. I decided I’d blog about them, as a way of stopping time a bit.

So I’ll start with Broadway first. I’m currently understudying the legendary Patti LuPone and swinging three ensemble roles in WAR PAINT, now in previews at the Nederlander Theater. I’ve had a number of non-theatrical friends ask me “what does a swing do?” and I can now tell you from experience that it’s one of the hardest jobs in show business (right up there with stage management, in my opinion). A swing’s job is the same as an understudy’s, except that a swing covers multiple tracks (a track being a particular performer’s journey through the show, including their spoken lines, sung material, entrances and exits, set or prop moves and costume changes). The swing must be ready to “swing into” any of those tracks when a performer is absent or otherwise unable to perform.

What this translates to in real life is that I spent most of my rehearsal time sitting and watching and taking copious notes. In the studio I was parked at a table off to one side with the other swings (there are five of us), but once we moved into the Nederlander our table was up in the mezzanine, which afforded a great view of the stage and made it a lot easier to observe specific moves. We also had the freedom to move about the theater and watch the show from different angles.

As Ms. LuPone’s understudy, I was (and still am) occasionally called on in to step into the role of cosmetic titan Helena Rubinstein during our daytime rehearsals. It’s a taxing role, and in order to give Patti plenty of time to rest (especially if there’s a show that evening), she isn’t called when we’re focusing lights or running transitions from scene to scene or doing other tweaks and adjustments to the show. Last week, prior to our first preview, we did a run with our wonderful orchestra, mostly for the sake of timing the show. I had the great privilege of standing in for Patti that afternoon, and even though I was not in costume and occasionally had script pages in hand, it was still thrilling.

Costumes – can I just say the costumes for this show (by the amazing Catherine Zuber) are absolutely stunning? I had my first fitting with her last week, to try on “emergency” costumes for the Rubinstein track. My own set of Rubinstein costumes are being constructed as I write this, but the “emergency” ones were pulled from stock against the very slim chance I’d have to go on before mine are completed. Even so, the care that Ms. Zuber and her staff took with fitting those costumes and choosing all the attendant accessories was just awesome. I’ll also have a set of costumes for the ensemble tracks I’m swinging, so a lot of fittings are in my immediate future. (I’ve already been fitted for wigs; I’ve seen a couple of them in the wig room but haven’t had a chance to try them on yet. Stay tuned.)

Once the show has its official opening (April 6th), then I’ll rehearse four hours a day, twice a week, with my fellow swings and the other understudies.( “Other understudies?” you may be asking. Yes, indeed. Typically, in a Broadway show, each major role is covered by two people: a swing and a cast member who performs in the ensemble.) Meanwhile, I’m required to be in the theater for every performance, “standing by” in case I’m needed. I hope I’m not. But to quote the Immortal Bard, “the readiness is all.”

Next up: A Bounty of Riches – Part 2 (Getting Published)

Flight School: Ursula Aloft

Getting pre-flight instruction from Daniel Kondas.

Getting pre-flight instruction from Daniel Kondas.

As some of you may know already, I’m reprising one of my favorite roles this summer:  that of Ursula the Sea Witch in Disney’s The Little Mermaid.  This time it’s for the Alabama Shakespeare Festival in Montgomery, AL.  It’s always fun to revisit a role, and here’s the really fun part this time around:  Ursula gets to FLY.

(Bear in mind that since Ursula is an octopus – sort of – that her scenes are water scenes.  This means that her flying is actually more of a grandiose floating, a wafting, a gentle settling on the ocean floor.  At least that’s the goal.)

I’ve always wanted to learn the art of stage flight, but I’ve never been cast in a role that called for that special skill.  Fortunately, the director for this production of Mermaid, Geoffrey Sherman, is a man of singular vision and exquisite taste – meaning he agreed with me when I said I thought Ursula’s first appearance should be aloft.

Billy and Michelle: Excited and Scared

Billy and Michelle: Excited and Scared

Five of us will be flying in the ASF production of Mermaid:  me, Michelle Pruiett as Ariel, Billy Sharpe as Scuttle the Seagull, and ensemble members Danielle Marie Gregoire and Andrew Eckhert, who are the stunt doubles for Ariel and Prince Eric and will also be performing some aerial gymnastics in “Under the Sea.” Michelle has flown before, but the rest of us had not, so there were varying degrees of nervousness involved as we all gathered early one Tuesday morning for “Flight School.”

Our flying director was Daniel Kondos of ZFX Flying Effects, who spends some 300 out of 365 days of the year traveling from venue to venue to instruct actors and crews in the fine art of stage flight.  First we were all fitted for harnesses:  Michelle, Andrew and Gabrielle were put into somersault harnesses, which gives them the freedom of movement they need for their swimming sequences (as well as allow them to rotate 360 degrees!).  Billy and I were fitted for simple seat harnesses, which will basically allow us to be raised and lowered.

Billy gets strapped in.

The harnesses had to fit good and tight.  Once we thought we were well and truly buckled in, we were required to squat and the straps were tightened even more.  There was a certain amount of wincing and groaning as we all got used to binding in unusual places.  One’s flabby bits tend to get shoved up around one’s ribcage or down by one’s thighs. The somersault harnesses were trickier to fit, as the center of balance has to be just so.

Billy was first in the air:  with Dan’s instruction and the assistance of fly crew, he performed some basic up-and-down, back-and-forth action and then hurried off to dance rehearsal (Scuttle not only flies, he tap dances!).

Michelle shows us how it’s done as Dan keeps a watchful eye.

 

Next up was Michelle, who was very relaxed and graceful in her rig (she’s played Ariel before, as well as Peter Pan).   She took a few practice twirls and somersaults before determining that the swivels weren’t in quite the right position, so while her harness was being adjusted, I got ready to become airborne.  It would be fun to say I was nervous and jittery, but to be honest, I felt like a little kid at Christmas – I was so thrilled I couldn’t stop grinning.  Here’s my first flight, with Dan directing:

The original idea for Ursula’s entrance was that I would get rigged up off stage left and be lifted above the proscenium level.  Then I’d be flown into position above the set (out of the audience’s line of sight) and be lowered in for my Big Entrance.  Unfortunately, with all the lights in the way, I couldn’t be lifted high enough to be hidden.  A rethink was in order, and while that was going on, Danielle and Andrew took their first spins in the harness (literally: Dan had them do a couple of somersaults to see how their rigging fit).  Here’s a look at their maiden voyages:

Danielle gives it a whirl.

Andrew preps for a somersault.

Andrew preps for a somersault.

It was great fun watching everyone dipping and swirling around the stage, but I couldn’t wait to get back in the air again.  Finally the big set piece representing Ursula’s Lair was brought into position and after a brief confab with Geoffrey, Dan and the flight crew, I was lifted into the rafters off stage left (about 30 feet up).  With a slight up-and-down motion reminiscent of an octopus bobbing through the briny, I was lowered to the stage area just to the left of the Lair.

Checking in with Dan after Lair Landing #1.

It was good, but not quite good enough.  After another confab, we repeated the journey, only this time I alighted briefly on top of the Lair before being lowered to my landing spot on deck.  Much more effective!  When we added the entrance lines and music, plus my rehearsal skirt just to get a sense of how it would all look, I think everyone was happy:

So this old dog learned another new trick and is feeling pretty happy about it.  I can’t wait until we get into tech, so I can get back in the air again.  I’m eager to experience what happens when I’m completely tricked out in Full Ursula, tentacles and all.  Meanwhile, my dreams are all full of flying!

 

 

Becoming Ursula, Part One – Getting A Head

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Who wouldn’t want to play a Sea Witch? With eels, no less?

I’ve been fortunate to have had a long and rewarding career in musical theatre.  I’ve done Broadway, a National Tour and countless regional theatre productions.  I’ve appeared in world premieres, revivals and revisals, in roles dizzying in variety.  In 2014 alone, I played an aging stripper, a Jewish mother, an amoral British money-lender and the mother of artist Georges Seurat.

But there’s one kind of role that’s always eluded me:  a shrieking, mugging, scenery-devouring, terrifying-funny psychotic.  I’m talking, of course, about playing a Disney villain.  More specifically, a villainess – since the few major Disney bad guys pale in comparison to their female counterparts.

So when Olney Theatre Center announced that they were producing Disney’s The Little Mermaid as their 2014 holiday show, I was beside myself.  I love Ursula.  She’s a slinky, slimy, sexy sociopath.  Her big number, “Poor Unfortunate Souls” is brilliant.  (Side note:  Ursula is one of the few Disney villains who actually sings.)

Since the role is such a plum, naturally many of my fellow actresses were interested in it as well, but I was shameless in letting the good folks at Olney know that I really, really, REALLYREALLY (really!) wanted to be seen for the role.  To their credit, they did not shy back in horror at my eagerness, and when auditions rolled around I was called in to read.  As it turned out, shameless was exactly what director Mark Waldrop was looking for.  To my delight, I was offered the role, and accepted with greedy alacrity.

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With Tracy Lynn Olivera and Jamie Kelton, in Pei Lee’s costumes for Olney’s 2013 production of “Cinderella.”

Becoming Ursula, though, was going to take more than just me being eager.  The Sea Witch is a grand creation:  part human and part octopus, she’s an undersea nightmare that has to be translated from the anything’s-possible world of animation to a flesh-and-blood actress treading the all-too-solid boards of a theatrical stage.  It’s a major challenge, but when I discovered that Pei Lee was going to be designing the costumes for Olney’s production, I knew I was in good hands.  Pei and I have worked together in the past (that’s some of her work on Olney’s 2012 production of Cinderella to the left) and I’m a huge admirer of her creativity and attention to detail.

 

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Ursula’s headdress, a work in progress.

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A noble profile, in the making.

Because Olney’s PR department wanted to do a publicity photo shoot in October, Pei got in touch with me in late July to start work on the Ursula costume, specifically on the character’s headdress, which would be featured in the photos.  We met so she could make a wrap of my head (a complicated process involving plastic wrap, scissors, felt-tip markers and a LOT of tape), and approximately a month later I went out to Olney for a fitting.

Even unfinished, the headdress was amazing.  It had the shape and flow of Ursula’s hair from the animated feature because it’s made of a lightweight fabric called FossShape (which can be sewn and then “frozen” into place using heat).  It fit like a dream and was even comfortable. Pei had included details like reversible sequins (which can be shifted from white to black) and during the fitting, roughed in “sideburns” to complete the look.  We were both tremendously pleased with the results.

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Halloween $13-off ticket promo ad.

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Menacing the Mermaid.

Since the photo shoot was going to focus on head and shoulders, we also had to do a makeup trial.  The day of the shoot I came in early, and we played with both water and creme-based makeups for about an hour.  Rather than the purple-skinned Ursula of the cartoon, Pei wanted a paler version with just some gray-lilac shading beneath the cheekbones, with teal, black and purple around the eyes and bright red lips.  While we liked the translucency of the water-based makeup, applying it with a makeup sponge was tricky and the results somewhat uneven and streaky.  Since the photos would be edited and the publicity team, along with our Ariel, Laura Zinn, were waiting, we decided we’d revisit the makeup issue down the road.  I got into the now-completed headdress, a rough mockup of the Ursula costume (which was far from ready) and we did the shoot.   The photos turned out great.

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In front of the green screen.

Our second makeup trial happened during the third week of rehearsal, when we needed to shoot a green-screen video for a special-effects moment which occurs late in the second act.  The costume was still being built, so the rough mockup was called into play again.  For the makeup, we had a little more detail this time, including some whacked-out tinsel false eyelashes I happened to have in my kit.  However, we still weren’t happy with the streaky results of the water-based foundation, but didn’t want to sacrifice its translucence for a smoother but opaque creme-based makeup.  (We also decided that the lashes, while fun for the video shoot, were a bit too pale and fragile for eight shows a week.)  After the video shoot, I scrubbed my face and went to rehearsal.  While talking over the shoot with fellow cast members, I mentioned the makeup issues and our dissatisfaction with the streaky application.  One of our Mersisters (Gracie Jones, who plays Andrina) looked thoughtful.  “Why don’t you try airbrushing?” she asked, and on being quizzed further, showed me photos of airbrushed zombie/ghoul/ghost makeup designs she was currently producing for Markoff’s Haunted Forest in Dickerson, MD.  (Great article about the Forest here, if you’d like to know more.)  “I’d be happy to do your makeup,” Gracie added.

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A little too zombiefied.

 

Well, you can bet I pounced on that offer.  I texted Pei, and 48 hours later we were into Ursula Makeup Trial #3.  Pei, Gracie and I (well, Pei and Gracie – I just sat there) experimented with the airbrush technique for a good hour.  The application process was super-smooth and even, and took half the time of the previous sponged-on trial.  Our first version ended up looking a little too ghoulish, so I washed off and we started again.  This time I pincurled my hair, as Pei wanted to see the finished makeup with the headdress.

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Success! And in half the time!

 

With a little lighter hand on the shading, Gracie was able to produce the results Pei wanted.  She was also able to lay down a base of teal and purple for the eyeshadow, and using a template of Pei’s design, even swooshed in Ursula’s wildly arched eyebrows.  The smoothness of the application, not to mention the time saved, was cause for celebration.

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The finished product.

 

With Gracie’s work done, she cleaned up while I added the fine details (yes, I actually did something more than just sit there the whole time).  I finessed the brows, applied a thick, sturdy set of lashes, lined my eyes a la The Black Swan, gave myself a full cupid’s-bow mouth in bright red, and for the finishing touch, added Ursula’s signature beauty mark.  Pei brought in the headdress, we popped it on and voila! URSULA!

(Side Note:  One of the problems we’d struggled with in earlier iterations of the design was my own eyebrows interposing themselves into the mix.  Using my brows as the line of demarcation between the teal and purple shadows, along with Gracie’s airbrushing, made that problem literally disappear.)

To say we were three happy campers would be the understatement of the year.  At last Ursula’s face was in place!

Up next:  Tentacles, et al.

The finished Ursula and her creators:  Gracie Jones, me and Pei Lee.

The finished Ursula and her creators: Gracie Jones, me and Pei Lee.

 

 

Good Ol’ Collards

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Mmmm…collards.

I’m sorry to report that the vegetable garden this year has been almost a total bust.

Right after John and I got the garden planted, I had to go to Tennessee to help my mom get re-situated in her house after several months in rehab recovering from a broken hip.  I was away from the garden the entire month of June, and when I got back it just didn’t look as vigorous as I’d hoped.  It may have been the weather, which was cool and pleasant for the first part of the month and then soggy with rain in the second.  It may have been that I wasn’t there to keep an eye out for stressed plants or bugs or whatever.  More than likely, it was just the Will of the Garden Gods.

But I’m blaming the deer.

I’m accustomed to losing part of my garden to gray squirrels and chipmunks.  There’s no way I can keep the little buggers out of my yard – I have oak trees, after all, and oak trees mean acorns, which scream “BUFFET!” to my rodent neighbors.  But this was the first time I had to deal with deer.

We’ve had ’em in the yard this past fall – pretty things, but they kept eating the hosta and our baby fruit trees.  Then we had a long spell of not seeing them, and I assumed they’d moved out of the neighborhood.  Silly me.  I first realized my error when the fifteen lovely Italian green bean plants I’d put in were about four inches tall.  I had come home from my show on a moonlit night and had stood for some time looking at the plants, thinking it was time to stake them.  The very next morning I walked out the back door and discovered all but five of them had been bitten off short, with a lovely clear deer hoofprint to show just who the defiler was.

They moved in on my tomatoes next, elbow to elbow with the squirrels and the chipmunks.  Even my beloved birds got in on the act – I looked out my kitchen window one morning to see a Northern Flicker clinging to my Black Cherry, pecking one of the beautiful, just-short-of-ripe fruits.  I scared it off and picked what I could (delicious – the bird had good taste), but it was a foreshadowing of things to come.  I think I’ve gotten less than a dozen tomatoes off seven plants this year.

Every morning I’d come out to find plants uprooted, bitten off and broken.  I had a brief rush of lovely little cucumbers and baby patty-pan squash, and several big spaghetti squash ripening on the vine, but then the deer moved in on those, knocking the fruit down and taking big bites before rejecting the rest.  Then some kind of wilt carried off all three plants, and that was that.

The one bright spot in all this misery have been the collards.  This was my first year planting collards, and I guess the deer don’t like them because they’ve left them alone, along with the brussels sprouts (which may change now that those plants are starting to put out buds).  I finally got around to harvesting some collards a couple weeks ago.  I knew I wouldn’t be able to eat them all, so I cast around on the interwebs for how to freeze ’em, and now I pass that on to you.

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Advantages of a double sink: collards bathing on the left; stripped-out stems to the right.

First, go out and pick your collards.  You can just snap off the leaves and leave the plant in the ground; it’ll keep producing well into the fall (I have a friend who says he’s harvested collards he had to shake snow off of).  Pick a LOT of leaves, because they cook down a lot.  I probably got about a peck from my three plants without stripping them.  Then you’ll want to give the leaves a good wash, because there WILL be dirt and outriders on them.  I filled one of my sinks with cold water and gave the harvest a good soak, then ran each leaf under running water before stripping out the center stem.

Some people use a knife to cut out the stems; I don’t see the need.  Just fold your leaf in half, grab the stem and strip it out, like so:

No, I'm not magically doing this with one hand.  I had to let go with the right had to take the photo.

No, I’m not magically doing this with one hand. I had to let go with the right hand to take the photo.

The process goes fast, and in no time you’ll have a pile of stems and another of leaves ready to process.  I tossed the stems in the compost bin , then piled the leaves up on a cutting board and chopped them into biggish pieces – about palm-sized, because I like big pieces, but you can cut them as small as you like.  Some people cut the leaves up after they’ve blanched them, but to each his/her own.

Set a big pot of salted water to boil.  Make a place for your blanched greens to dry; I covered a couple of baking sheets with clean dish towels and then placed a layer of paper towels on top of that (to keep the greens from staining them).  Have more paper towels ready to lay on top of the processed greens.

Bunch'a greens going into the water.

Bunch’a greens going into the water.

Once the water’s at a brisk boil, drop in your greens, a handful at a time, then set a timer for three minutes.  (Other greens take only two minutes, but collards are tougher and need that extra minute.)  Once the three minutes are up, take the greens out of the boiling water and spread them on your drying surface.  I used tongs for this, along with a flat mesh strainer to catch the smaller bits.

Cover the blanched greens with a layer of paper towels and pat them down to blot up the excess moisture.  Leave them for a bit so the water will soak into the towels and the leaves will cool down.  I let mine sit for about thirty minutes.

The harvest.

The harvest.

Once the leaves have cooled and the excess water absorbed into the towels (the leaves won’t be completely dry), put them into freezer bags, press the air out of the bags, seal, label and freeze.  I got four quart-sized bags of blanched collards out of this harvest – enough for several servings, although I’m perfectly capable of eating the entire bag myself.  I do love collards.

I love them so much that I kept back a handful of fresh greens to cook for a quick snack.  I sauteed some garlic and a sprinkle of red pepper flakes in some olive oil, added a little chicken broth and brought it to a simmer, then put in the fresh greens and tossed them in the cooking liquid until they were limp, about four minutes.  I put them in a bowl, hit it with a shot of vinegar and then enjoyed a bowlful.

Those deer don’t know what they’re missing.

 

Adventures in Bread Baking Part 2: The Baguette

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Everybody RISE! RISE!

For my second whirl with the Vatinet baking book, I wanted to try something a little more flavorful but not complicated (I wasn’t quite ready for the Kalamata or Beaujolais recipes just yet).  I also wanted to try out my new couche, so I decided on a whole wheat recipe flavored with just a touch of honey, shaped into baguettes.  This involved a certain amount of flipping back and forth between the recipe and the baguette-forming instructions, as well as some adjustments on my end to make up for my less than industrial kitchen.  For example, Vatinet wants you to bake the baguettes on a big stone, but a big stone I hava no.  What I did have was a brand spankin’ new Chicago Metallic baguette pan, so that was going to make its debut as my baking vessel of choice (I also have CM’s French bread pan – damn those Amazon “frequently bought together” deals).

The dough creation process was more or less the same as in making the boule.   The big difference was the addition of whole wheat flour and that little touch of honey.  My honey had crystalized, so it needed a brief nuke in the microwave and then time to cool before it could be used, so I reviewed recipe, kneading technique and proper baguette formation and assembled the ol’ mise en place while I waited.

Because of the whole wheat flour, the dough was a good bit stiffer and took a little longer to work this time, especially using Vatinet’s pinch-and-pull kneading method.  The results were still very pleasing – this dough smells good.  I popped it into its floured bowl and left it to rest.  Once again, it didn’t rise as much as I thought it should (this could be because John and I keep our house on the cool side), but after an hour it had doubled, just barely, so I forged ahead.

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Voilà le pain en la couche.

Forming the baguettes was fun.  First you form the dough into a rectangle (and Vatinet is very specific about how you do this, just as he is specific about every step in the baking process), then you use your fingers to create a kind of dog-bone shape, and then both hands come into play as you roll the dough longer, into the traditional baguette shape.  I wished for a larger working surface, such as a big table, but I was NOT going to prep bread on the Stickley.  The longest counter top in my little galley kitchen had to suffice.  Then I put the two baguettes on the couche, lifting a couple of folds between the loaves.  The couche was big enough to then cover both baguettes for the second rising.

(A note.  Every time I try to type couche in this blog, I type douche instead.  I don’t know what that says about me or my typing skills, but it’s making me giggle.)

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Pan for le pain.

The baguettes didn’t rise a whole lot, but then, they’re baguettes and compared to the boule recipe, use very little yeast.  They looked adorable – so adorable that I spent time admiring them instead of taking their photo, once they had been panned and slashed with the trust razor blade.  A photo of the brand spankin’ new baguette pan will have to suffice.  Pretty, no?  I wish you could have seen those baguettes cuddling in it, side by side.  Adorable.

Since I didn’t want the baguettes to over-bake, I used my instant-read thermometer to test them for doneness.  They baked very quickly and smelled spectacular when I took them out of the oven to cool.  Well, in theory they were supposed to cool, but when I showed them to John he demanded hot bread, then and there.  Vatinet does NOT want you to eat hot bread.  He wants you to let it cool completely before you eat it.  Well, in our house Vatinet was swiftly outvoted and John and I ate one entire baguette, hot,  and it was DELICIOUS AND WE WOULD DO IT AGAIN.  We had half of the second one with our dinner, cool, and it was delicious as well but not DELICIOUS.

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DELICIOUS, I tell you.

So I highly recommend A Passion for Bread to both the novice and experienced baker.  I did find some of Vatinet’s methods a little too persnickety for a casual (and often irreverent) baker like me – I did not bother with a dough log, weighing the ingredients or tasting the dough for salt, for example – but I found his kneading method effective and will probably use it again.  The banneton, couche (yep, did it again), Chicago Metallic pans and even the humble razor blade did their jobs well, so they were worth the not-much I paid for them and have been added to the plethora of specialized cooking implements in my already stuffed-to-the-rafters kitchen.  I’m looking forward to trying more involved recipes, just as soon as that confluence of time, ingredients and inclination hits again.