The Best Christmas Pageant Ever

Hi everyone,

I’m headed to Branson this afternoon. The Tanneyhills Community Library in the Branson area is having a fundraiser in the Payne Stewart Country Club House and I’ll read to children from 2:00 – 3:00. I’ve chosen to read excerpts from Barbara Robinson’s classic story, THE BEST CHRISTMAS PAGEANT EVER. If time remains, I’ll read one or both of my own Christmas stories, MRS. STANLEY’S CHRISTMAS and THE CHRISTMAS SPARROW. And if that’s not enough material, I’m taking a copy of A VISIT FROM ST. NICHOLAS.

We received more ice and snow overnight but I think the roads will be okay.

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200,000

Hi everyone,

Sometime today my blog will welcome its visit number 200,000. My thanks to all for making this a spot to drop by. Whether you are an occasional visitor or one who comes often, I thank you for making my blog a cordial community that welcomes people of all ages. If you haven’t signed the guest book on my website, I hope you will.

On another front, I heard yesterday from Barbara Robinson’s daughter, Margie. She says that Barbara is till holding her own but has little strength. She still loves the notes sent by friends and fans.

David

Barbara Robinson

Helpful Hint: If you aren’t familiar with the process of leaving a comment, click on the balloon with a number (of comments already posted) in it. See it there in the upper right corner of this page? Click on it and go to the bottom of the comments already posted. There you’ll find a box that says to leave a reply. Type your comment there, click on the button just below it, and you’re all done.

NOTE: My thanks to everyone who has left a comment for Barbara. Her daughter Margie reports that Barbara is napping a lot but Margie reads your comments to her when she’s awake. Here’s Margie: “I read to her some of the many emails she has received in the last couple days. Her eyes truly brighten with each happy memory. Thanks so much.” If you haven’t left Barbara a note yet, you still can. I’ll leave this post up again today.

Hi everyone,

One of the most joyful stories ever written is THE BEST CHRISTMAS PAGEANT EVER. It’s author, Barbara Robinson, has forever remained modest about her wonderful accomplishments, which is just one of many reasons why she has legions of fans and friends who love her. On January 21, 2011 I interviewed Barbara for this blog. I’m re-posting it today.

Barbara is struggling with a serious health issue. I know that she will be cheered by your comments. Whether you know Barbara personally or through her work, I hope you’ll take a minute to wish her well.

January 21, 2011

Hi everyone,

It’s such a treat to feature Barbara Robinson today. She might not want to admit that she has participated a number of times as one of a four-member cast doing readings from plays by Sandy Asher based on my poems or our poems. I’m amazed the lady hasn’t won a Tony. Anyway, here’s my friend, Barbara.

My writing career – that sounds fancy, and for a long time, when people asked me, “What do you do?” I said, “Oh…I type.”..in case, I guess, that turned out to be the whole truth. I began as a short story writer, in the days when there was a vibrant market for short stories in the popular magazines. It was a great training ground – the accepted length was five thousand words, which for me was about 11-12 pages. No room there for vivid writing, or for six juicy words instead of one workhorse of a word…no room, really, for anything that didn’t feed the story, so I murdered many of my darlings.

Nevertheless, it’s my favorite form, and it’s served me well, as several stories turned into books or large parts of books..most notably, a short story published in McCall’s in 1967 – The Christmas Pageant – which became The Best Christmas Pageant Ever – book, play, tv movie, short reading version which was performed in Symphony Space in New York, and, as of Christmas 2011, a picture book. This is a scenario I wish for every writer who wants the work to stay around a while…but it is not a process free of angst.

Adapting the book as a play was the easiest, only because I had studied theatre in college and knew most of the rules about playwriting..and broke one of them right away. You’re not supposed to use a narrator in a play -‘show it, don’t tell it’ – but I couldn’t bridge that gap, maybe because the book itself is in the first person. I had to be sparing, though, in the narration – a play just has greater forward momentum than narration (or should have) and really needs to move along.

Then, too, what reads well doesn’t necessarily speak well, so you have to try out the lines. One example – Beverly Slocum whistling the carol What Child Is This, and passing out on the altar, is funny to read and to picture, but messy to say. And, of course, there were practical concerns – you can’t burn things down onstage or, to my regret, have a crazy cat destroy a school room. I tried to get that in, but soon learned that cats are lousy actors.

No special concerns in the reading version, which was designed for two actors – Anne Jackson and her actor daughter Roberta Wallach. My job here was largely editorial, cutting out whatever parts of the story or whatever language didn’t serve the actors. They were very much on their own in a static situation – sitting on stage in two comfy armchairs, living room set, no bells and whistles. I also had to assign, with their input, who would read what.

Neither were there practical concerns in the movie – we could have a fire, and the Vancouver Fire Department, and even a crazy cat. But a movie is not a book, and I soon realized that there was not a reader on the other end of my story, but a camera. I had to learn to ‘see with the eye of the camera’ and then write that. This was the strongest advice of all the movie people. Best example – I had written four good crisp lines of dialogue, and the director said, “Yes, they’re really good, but one camera shot will do the job of all four lines, and do it better,” and he was right. It’s tempting to think that the words don’t matter, but they matter very much to the actors, who have to create and hang onto a character through the disjointed, out of order filming sequences. The actors all told me that whenever I moaned about the loss of some precious words or phrases. You have to murder a lot of darlings in the movies!

The picture book is brand new to me, and both intriguing and scary. I had the notion that the text must serve the artist – must set up the picture, so to speak – but was told by editors and authors that I had it wrong way to – that the artist would find the picture in the text. I found it hard, though, not to think…Oh, I’ll use this little bit of story instead of that one because it will make a better picture. The trouble with this is that I’m not an artist, don’t have an artist’s eye, and can’t really know what will make the best picture for a particular story moment.

Many fewer words in a picture book, an d I found that it was rarely the juiciest word or words that proved to be the right ones…which took me right back to my early writing days – fewer words and no vivid writing. Full circle, I guess.

I haven’t yet seen Laura Cornell’s pictures – and isn’t it a blessing on this project to have her take on the Herdmans again! – but when I talked a little bit about this book during a school visit, one little boy said, “I can’t wait to see that book!”

Me, too!

WRITERS AT WORK, Wrestling with Endings (Part 4)

Hi everyone,

I especially like this month’s topic about endings because it keeps leading us into new genres. Sandy Asher, who speaks today, is a gifted and often recognized children’s playwright and today she gives us some insight into that world. In June, Sandy will be part of New York University’s New Plays for Young Audiences development workshop at the historic Provincetown Playhouse in Greenwich Village. There will be rehearsed readings, free and open to the public, on Saturday, June 11 at 3 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. and on Sunday, June 12 at 3 p.m. Sunday’s reading will be followed by audience discussion with the director, actors, and, of course, Sandy. I know of at least thirty friends of Sandy’s who are making the trip to NYC to celebrate with her. You might want to add the date to your calendar if there’s a way to attend. I’ll be in New York on June 6-8 following my poetry workshop in Honesdale. I’ll miss the performances by three days but hope to hook up with Sandy for a visit while we’re both there.

Our WRITERS AT WORK chats are meant to be casual and practical without getting preachy. Sandy has hit it perfectly.

WRITERS AT WORK
Topic: Wrestling with Endings
Response 4: Sandy
March 22, 2011

Yes! David, I couldn’t agree with you more about the sheer perfection of Barbara Robinson’s last line in THE BEST CHRISTMAS PAGEANT EVER. It’s the perfect ending to a perfect book. Tears of joy, indeed.

In fact, I ran downstairs – okay, limped downstairs with my recently bashed knee — to my autographed copy bookshelf to read it again. Then I remembered I’d lent it to a friend. (I really need two copies of that book, one to lend and one to keep in case the other never gets returned.) But here’s what I was looking for: Is that unexpected but totally appropriate shout of “Hey! Unto you a child is born!” really the last line? Don’t the other characters react? Doesn’t Barbara want to say a few words about the religious and social significance of that line? To me, that line in that context has its traditional meaning, but it also applies to our need to wake up and pay attention to all children, including the very challenging Herdmans of this world.

Nope. There is nothing after that line. There is no reaction from the other characters. There is no speech from the author. It’s not surprising to learn that Barbara Robinson has a theater background. She knows that when the problem is solved (the pageant is uniquely saved), the tension of the story drops and there’s only one thing left to do – get off the stage! By doing so without so much as a backward glance, Barbara accomplishes exactly what you’ve advised, David: Want to think more deeply about what the other characters’ reactions might be? Want to explore the meaning of the story further? Read the book again!

Oh, my. You really sat us down at the feet of a master, David. Now there’s an even longer line of wise words for me to follow. What can I possibly add?

Well, I can answer your question about the boomerang ending. Yes, absolutely, I’ve done it before and I’ll do it again. For example, there’s my second book about Rabbit and Froggie, WHAT A PARTY! My original title for that book was WHAT A DAY!, and I wish the marketing folks hadn’t messed with it. (But that’s another topic we can take up later.) For me, this is a story about the fullness of a day. Froggie wakes up in his comfy bed in his cozy home, wildly excited about attending his grandfather’s birthday party. Off he goes, and, indeed, he has a wonderful time. But the party ends. Everyone’s tired. It’s time to go home. Froggie doesn’t want to leave — ever! Eventually, he does go home, as we all must, and rediscovers the comfort and coziness waiting for him there. It’s a fine place to be at the start and at the end of a lovely day. If the reader wants to linger a bit longer at Grandpa’s party, of course, he or she can read the book again.

Since you’re moving on to non-fiction and poetry endings in your next post, David, I think I’ll say a bit more about plays. In fact, I’ll talk about boomerang endings AND plays. Right now, I’m working on a new script called “Walking Toward America.” It’s based on my dear friend Ilga’s experiences in Europe during World War II. When Ilga was between the ages of 10 and 17, she and her family fled their home in Riga, Latvia; spent time in a forced labor camp in Germany; walked over 500 miles in two wintry months; spent several years in Displaced Persons camps; and finally sailed to America through the worst Atlantic storm in many years. Ilga has written about these events in a series of short stories and also in a longer essay for a community life story project. So I have plenty of material to draw from. More than enough, as you’ll see.

After much thought and shifting around of those jigsaw puzzle pieces you mention, David, I’ve decided to start the play with Ilga on the ship; then, as the storm is at its worst, cut back to a joyful time in Riga; go through the labor camp and the long, treacherous walk westward; and finally cut back to the ship again as the storm ends and Ilga and her family arrive in New York harbor. The end. That leaves out about six years in DP camps. It also leaves out Ilga’s delightful story about her family’s final destination of Oak Lawn, IL, where they’re introduced to the wonder of Wonder Bread.

Why omit such rich material? Believe me, it hasn’t been an easy choice. But even though there were challenges in those DP camps (two or more families to a room, for instance) and great humor in that loaf of Wonder Bread, at those points, the family is safe. And “safe” means a drop in the story’s tension. Recognizing that, I feel I have to stick with the high tension moments, mention the DP camps in passing, then get her to America, and get her off the stage. By using “the boomerang ending,” I’m able to do that. No P.S. about the Wonder Bread, just as there’s no P.S. after Barbara Robinson’s final line.

That said, I’ll get off the stage myself. And that’s your cue, David.

Barbara Robinson today

BULLETIN: Don’t miss watching Marilyn Singer’s interview tonight as part of the Kennedy Center series. Here’s what Marilyn just sent me. Caroline Kennedy’s POETS AND PRESIDENTS: Marilyn Nelson, Naomi Shihab Nye, Charles R. Smith, Jr., and Marilyn Singer, interviewed by Maria Salvadore, can be heard starting this Friday, Jan. 21, as part of the Kennedy Center Performing Arts Program. If you’re interested in hearing this, you can register for free at: http://www.kennedy-center.org/education/pwtv /

Hi everyone,

It’s such a treat to feature Barbara Robinson today. She might not want to admit that she has participated a number of times as one of a four-member cast doing readings from plays by Sandy Asher based on my poems or our poems. I’m amazed the lady hasn’t won a Tony. Anyway, here’s my friend, Barbara.

My writing career – that sounds fancy, and for a long time, when people asked me, “What do you do?” I said, “Oh…I type.”..in case, I guess, that turned out to be the whole truth. I began as a short story writer, in the days when there was a vibrant market for short stories in the popular magazines. It was a great training ground – the accepted length was five thousand words, which for me was about 11-12 pages. No room there for vivid writing, or for six juicy words instead of one workhorse of a word…no room, really, for anything that didn’t feed the story, so I murdered many of my darlings.

Nevertheless, it’s my favorite form, and it’s served me well, as several stories turned into books or large parts of books..most notably, a short story published in McCall’s in 1967 – The Christmas Pageant – which became The Best Christmas Pageant Ever – book, play, tv movie, short reading version which was performed in Symphony Space in New York, and, as of Christmas 2011, a picture book. This is a scenario I wish for every writer who wants the work to stay around a while…but it is not a process free of angst.

Adapting the book as a play was the easiest, only because I had studied theatre in college and knew most of the rules about playwriting..and broke one of them right away. You’re not supposed to use a narrator in a play -‘show it, don’t tell it’ – but I couldn’t bridge that gap, maybe because the book itself is in the first person. I had to be sparing, though, in the narration – a play just has greater forward momentum than narration (or should have) and really needs to move along.

Then, too, what reads well doesn’t necessarily speak well, so you have to try out the lines. One example – Beverly Slocum whistling the carol What Child Is This, and passing out on the altar, is funny to read and to picture, but messy to say. And, of course, there were practical concerns – you can’t burn things down onstage or, to my regret, have a crazy cat destroy a school room. I tried to get that in, but soon learned that cats are lousy actors.

No special concerns in the reading version, which was designed for two actors – Anne Jackson and her actor daughter Roberta Wallach. My job here was largely editorial, cutting out whatever parts of the story or whatever language didn’t serve the actors. They were very much on their own in a static situation – sitting on stage in two comfy armchairs, living room set, no bells and whistles. I also had to assign, with their input, who would read what.

Neither were there practical concerns in the movie – we could have a fire, and the Vancouver Fire Department, and even a crazy cat. But a movie is not a book, and I soon realized that there was not a reader on the other end of my story, but a camera. I had to learn to ‘see with the eye of the camera’ and then write that. This was the strongest advice of all the movie people. Best example – I had written four good crisp lines of dialogue, and the director said, “Yes, they’re really good, but one camera shot will do the job of all four lines, and do it better,” and he was right. It’s tempting to think that the words don’t matter, but they matter very much to the actors, who have to create and hang onto a character through the disjointed, out of order filming sequences. The actors all told me that whenever I moaned about the loss of some precious words or phrases. You have to murder a lot of darlings in the movies!

The picture book is brand new to me, and both intriguing and scary. I had the notion that the text must serve the artist – must set up the picture, so to speak – but was told by editors and authors that I had it wrong way to – that the artist would find the picture in the text. I found it hard, though, not to think…Oh, I’ll use this little bit of story instead of that one because it will make a better picture. The trouble with this is that I’m not an artist, don’t have an artist’s eye, and can’t really know what will make the best picture for a particular story moment.

Many fewer words in a picture book, an d I found that it was rarely the juiciest word or words that proved to be the right ones…which took me right back to my early writing days – fewer words and no vivid writing. Full circle, I guess.

I haven’t yet seen Laura Cornell’s pictures – and isn’t it a blessing on this project to have her take on the Herdmans again! – but when I talked a little bit about this book during a school visit, one little boy said, “I can’t wait to see that book!”

Me, too!