Survival Colony 9 is here!

Hey! A fellow Pittsburgh writer, Joshua David Bellin, is being published today. As in, RIGHT NOW! As in, if you like this excerpt, you can buy the book. Today! So do that. I will. :)

Fourteen-year-old Querry Genn’s world is a desert where small groups of survivors struggle against heat, starvation, and the creatures known as the Skaldi, monsters that appeared on the planet after war swept away the old world. Suffering from amnesia brought on by an accident, Querry struggles to recover the lost memories that might save the human race. But the Skaldi are closing in, and time is running out on Survival Colony 9.

 
In this excerpt, a scouting party investigates the western desert, where the colony has been driven following a Skaldi attack. There they find an abandoned settlement. Through Querry’s eyes, we meet some of the novel’s main characters: the commander of Survival Colony 9, Querry’s father Laman Genn; Laman’s second-in-command, Aleka; and Querry’s nemesis, Yov. We also hear rumors of the Skaldi, who are an ever-present threat in this world.

The trucks crawled up the hill, coughing and wheezing, pulled up on bare dirt and stopped with a squeal. My dad, moving faster than I’d seen him move in weeks, jumped down from the cab. He took a long look at the place, hands on hips, nodding slowly. Then he turned to us.

“Who found it?” He directed his question at Aleka, but I could tell he hoped the answer was me.
“Yov,” she said. “The kid’s got eyes like a hawk.”
My dad stepped over to Yov and reached up to pat him awkwardly on the shoulder. Yov had a calm look on his face, like he was saying, “hey, just doing my job,” but I knew I’d be hearing about this later. From both of them.
“Good work,” my dad said.
Sure enough, Yov looked sidelong at me and smirked.
“We’ll have to double-check,” my dad said. “Aleka, have your team sweep the perimeter. Querry,” he signaled. “Get over here.”
While Aleka and the others fanned out to circle the compound, I accompanied him to the interior, near the crater. For an hour he had me get down on my hands and knees to peer in the dust for signs of Skaldi. He’d taught me how to detect their presence, but it’s not easy. When they leave a body behind, there’s nothing much to see. Emptied, like a sack of skin.
He kept up a running commentary as I crawled around in the dirt searching for evidence. “It doesn’t have to be much,” he reminded me. “Scraps, flakes. Teeth. Anything they might have left behind.”
“What about this?” I lifted a long, thin strip of some translucent material from the floor of a ruined house.
He scrutinized it. “I don’t think so. Bring it back, though. I’ll have Tyris take a look at it.”
Eventually we came to the very lip of the crater. He considered sending me down inside, but the walls fell away steeply and the rock looked precarious. He made me hunt around the edge anyway.
“Seems clean,” I told him when I was done.
“Check again,” he said.
I dropped to the dust and searched once more for signs I couldn’t see.
We strolled back to the others when he was satisfied with my inspection. “Something about this place,” he said. “Familiar. Like I’ve heard someone talk about it before.”
He shook his head, remembering, not remembering. He’d told me stories about what cities used to look like, with shining towers of steel and legions of cars streaming down the avenues. But he’d never seen one himself, not that he could remember. Only the old woman had, and the holes in her memory gaped as wide as the cracks in the houses that were left.
When we returned to the others, I could feel the anticipation in the air. No one budged, but all eyes zeroed in on him.
“Aleka,” he said. “Report.”
“No sign,” she said. “And Laman—there’s food.”
The magic word shivered through the crowd. His face remained composed, but I saw his eyes light up. “Where?”
Aleka led the two of us to the structure farthest from the nucleus of camp, a windowless square of gray cinderblock overlooking the hill’s eastern edge. My dad said it looked like a bomb shelter, but even if bombs had been flying or Skaldi breathing down our necks, there was nowhere near enough room for our whole camp. Probably it had belonged to a single family in the time before. It seemed to be the only building in the compound with working locks, two in fact, one in front and one on a trapdoor that led to a basement level. But the doors stood open, the deadbolts sprung. A flight of rickety wooden stairs led below. And in a corner of the basement, on the packed dirt floor, sat a pyramid of wooden cases filled with rusty metal cans.
“You’re sure it’s edible?” my dad asked, holding one of the cans up in the glow of Aleka’s flashlight.
“According to Tyris, properly canned goods have an effective shelf life of forever,” she answered. “But Laman. . . .”
He lowered the can. “I’m listening.”
“It might be best to take what we can carry and go. I’m not—comfortable here. We’re exposed. There’s only one way out. If they were to block the road. . . .”
“Not their typical behavior,” he said. “And you told me the perimeter’s clean.”
“So far as we can ascertain,” she said. “But this room—I suspect it’s been looted.” She shone her flashlight on the floor, revealing parallel tracks where cases had been dragged. “We may not be the only colony to have visited this place.”
“And the ones who beat us to it are plainly gone,” he replied. “Driven away by Skaldi, most likely. Leaving nothing but food the Skaldi won’t return for.”
“Unless they return for us.”

SURVIVAL COLONY 9 is available now from Simon & Schuster, Amazon, Barnes & Noble, IndieBound, select Wal-Mart stores, and other online and physical retailers!

About me:

I’ve been writing novels since I was eight years old (though the first few were admittedly very short). I taught college for twenty years, wrote a bunch of books for college students, then decided to return to fiction. SURVIVAL COLONY 9 is my first novel, but the sequel’s already in the works!

To connect with me and learn more about SURVIVAL COLONY 9, check out the following links:

Website

Twitter

Facebook

Blog

Goodreads


Shakes DIY: 5 ways to make teens into pros

We have professional standards for our Shakes kids. After all, we can’t have a professional-quality show if our kids are acting like amateurs.

Here’s how we get our professional results:

1) Expect professional results. This seems simple, but a lot of adults lower their expectations just because kids are kids. That doesn’t fly with us. We expect results, so we get them. Kids will rise to your expectations if you give them the chance and the tools to do so. Here are some things our kids do simply because it’s expected: Wear their costumes without complaining (unless something hurts). Use their rehearsal props. Hang up their costumes when they’re finished. Don’t touch other people’s props. Help set up/put away the rehearsal set. Look at their line notes and then look over their line notes. Follow the director’s direction onstage and the stage manager’s direction offstage. Respect the facility (both the rehearsal and performance spaces), respect the authority, respect each other, and respect themselves (the four rules of all Urban Impact programs).

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2) Use rewards more than punishments. We use food rewards a lot. I don’t necessarily agree with using food rewards for everything (see above- they get no rewards for those things except a hearty “Well done! Thank you!”) but they sure are helpful for big milestones, like line memorization and a habit of being on time. Example One: We expect lines to be memorized weeks before the show, and we hold them to it. We usually offer ice cream to the kids who are off-book on time. On their off-book date, we test them when they’re not rehearsing. If they have their lines memorized enough to drop the script, we take them out for ice cream. We’ve also had a big, half-hour-long sundae party when the whole cast was off-book once. If they’re not memorized, they get to see their friends have ice cream. Example two: We want to teach our kids to be on time. If a kid is on time for every rehearsal for a week, we order take-out for their last meal of the week. Sometimes it’s subs, sometimes calzones, sometimes deli sandwiches, sometimes pizza… Everybody gets lunch, but only kids who are on time every day get Special Lunch. Everyone else gets regular, boring ol’ cafeteria-style lunch. As for punishments… the worst I can think of is hiding their shoes and/or costume if they forget to put it away. Oh! And we charge them five dollars for a new script if they lose theirs.

deli vs cafeteria food

 

3) Show yourselves to be trustworthy. Kids will not give you their best work unless they trust you. That means listening to their ideas, fears, and insecurities, and taking them under consideration. On every audition form, we ask questions about comfort level when it comes to kissing, killing, singing, playing instruments- We don’t want to make kids do something that makes them really uncomfortable. We also as for their input when it comes to blocking, choreography, and music. We don’t laugh at them. We don’t make fun of them. We don’t let anybody else laugh at them or make fun of them. We workshop major scenes, taking their ideas into consideration, instead of giving them prescribed blocking. We only make promises we can keep. We are open and honest when things are going well and when they’re not going well (like when our venue backed out on us three weeks before the show). We show up. Every day. We go to their school plays. We answer the phone when they call.
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4) Cast a vision and make the kids part of it. Kids will not know professional theatre if they’ve never seen it before. Take them to see it. Tell them, “We’re going to be like that.” Show them movies. Tell them, “We’re going to act like that.” Play them music and say, “We’re going to sound like that.” Show them pictures and say, “You’re going to look like that.” Put their faces on the poster. They’ll want to show everybody. They’ll want to put the poster up. They’ll feel famous. If they see all those things and believe you (because you’re trustworthy, remember?), then they will work hard to achieve what you told them.
Julius Caesar poster 3 AWC

 

5) Provide professional-quality trimmings. I know this is the hardest one for most people reading this, but keep an ear to the ground and make some good connections with your local colleges. Our posters get a lot of attention because we use professional photographers and a real graphic designer. We have a professional set designer and lighting designer. Our props master (mistress) is detailed beyond belief. Our director is innovative and creative. We (meaning me) use fashionable friends to help with costume design. And, by the grace of God and through the generosity of volunteers, it’s all within budget. Like I said, this is the one area where we can’t give you a cut-and-dry “how-to” because our professionals are all blessings we could have never gotten on our own. But here’s the thing: If you have the other four things, this last one is less important. Our Romeo and Juliet had very little professional anything, and it was still impressive because we followed the first four guidelines.

The Friar watches as the wedding crumbles.

 

Which of these suggestions can you follow today? Right now? What are your expectations for your students? What kind of rewards can you use? How can you instill trust? What vision will you cast? And how can you start putting feelers out for those hidden professionals?

Leave your answers in the comments!


Shakes DIY: Schedule stuff

So now that I’ve give you a few pep talks and told you how to make Shakespeare cool, let’s talk nitty-gritty.

What does a day at Shakes look like?

We run Shakes in the summer, four or five days per week for six or seven weeks,  so we have a ridiculous amount of time with our kids. Here’s what an average day looks like:

9:30 AM- Optional work-out. We work core mostly- abs, arms, some stretching… a great way to get in shape/stay in shape for the summer.

10:00 AM SHARP- We open with prayer. Urban Impact is a faith-based holistic ministry and we believe that the body, mind, AND soul are important! If you’re late for prayer, you’re considered late (remind me to do a post on how we get kids there on time!)

10:10 AM- Acting Class starts. Each year’s acting classes are tailored to the students we have and the play we’re performing. We’ve done everything from zip-zap-zop and volume exercises to Viewpoints and Laban.

10:55 AM- Break. ‘Cause they gotta check their phones sometime!

11:05 AM- English Class. Our incredible English teacher tailors each year’s focus to the group and the play. We learn everything from deciphering the text to the Great Chain of Being!

11:50 AM- Break. Again with the phones…

12:00 PM- Bible Study. The soul is important! We split guys and girls during most of the week so they can concentrate better and speak more freely. We come together once a week to do a group study.

12:30 PM- Lunch. We are blessed to be able to feed our kids alongside the church’s summer day camps! Our food is provided through SNAP.

1:00 PM- Rehearsal. We rehearse in a space that is separate from our performance space. Like a professional theatre company, we tape the outline of the already-designed set onto the carpet of our rehearsal room. The kids who aren’t in rehearsal are memorizing their lines or running scenes in rehearsal rooms.

3:50 PM- Prayer again. We meet together to say goodbye.

4:00 PM- Students are dismissed.

And that’s when the real work for the adults begins- tech-ing an entire show.

Let me know if you have any questions and good luck with your own schedule!


Another verse

Remember this post? Where my Shakes student wrote a verse in rap about going back to school after quitting? Well, they won’t let her back in because there’s no room in the budget for fifth-year students. This is a girl who memorizes hundreds of lines of Shakespeare with ease. Who read the whole series of Anne of Green Gables in 6th grade. Who quit school in part because the dropout factory she attended wasn’t challenging enough for her. Anyway, she wrote another verse. Hope it inspires you in some way.

I tried to go to school, I’m knockin on their door. But their turnin me away, no love for me in school no more. So I’m stuck in square one, lookin at square two, wishing my gradma was here to tell me what to do. I’m prayin up to heaven, wishin on my God, hoping that he shows me the difference of right and wrong. But I feel like I’m alone, a success in disguise, but I know I’m a failure in everybody’s eyes.


Shakes DIY: Making Shakespeare Cool

Why don’t kids like Shakespeare?
Probably because their main exposure to it is sitting in class, cold-reading it in front of their friends and stumbling over every other word. (“Cold-reading” is a theatre term that means, “to read aloud for the first time.” Professional actors are cowed by cold-reading Shakespeare.) They don’t know what it means, they just know that everyone’s giggling because they’re Lady Macbeth and have to say “damn.” They see pictures on the cover of these books of people who look nothing like them, doing things they’ve never done.

Ah yes- I wear this all the time.

If I had a nickel for every time I see this…

So this play is about a girl WITH GIANT SHOULDERS and a mask…?

So how do we, at Urban Impact Shakes, make Shakespeare relevant, approachable, and, dare I say it, fun?

How about you learn from our mistakes!

Our first year of Shakes, we did Romeo and Juliet, set in the 1930’s. It was tremendously successful. Nobody even thought Shakespeare could be performed without pumpkin pants and pointy hats! They were awed.

pointy hats   pumpkin pants

“Great!” we thought. “Let’s take our next concept out of history!” So the second year, we did The Tempest set in Post-WWII Siberia. Although the staging, costumes, and especially acting was better, it was… less successful. Now that the students knew we could do Shakespeare without pumpkin pants, they were not awed by our new concept. Despite the 10-foot-tall sprite on stilts and glow wire magic guns.

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After The Tempest, we had a decline in enrollment, and only two new students. Uh-oh! Something must have gone wrong. Little did they know, Julius Caesar would be when we got it right. Why? We based our concept on something flashy, exciting, and way too hot to be cool. We invented something we called, “Rome-punk,” like steam punk but with Roman-era influences. Our set was deconstructed and in the round (so the audience surrounded us on all sides), our fights were more dances than fights, we involved the students (who, by now, were capable actors) in the creation of our movement. The costumes were based on runways in Milan. In short, we hit the jackpot.

Julius Caesar poster 3 AWC

We decided to take the theories behind what made Caesar so successful and implement them into Much Ado About Nothing, and here’s what we came up with:

1) Choose a concept that is interesting and current. For Much Ado, we did it in a neo-folk style. (like Mumford and Sons)

2) Involve your students in the creation of the show and ask them to contribute their unique gifts. We had a brilliant student musician in our group, so we asked her (and helped her) to write and perform music, which we taught to our students, who performed it live during the show. We spent hours workshopping the songs to make them work.

3) No age makeup. We have a rule in our shows now that the oldest person on stage is the oldest person in that world. Parent/child relationships are played out and understood, but age is suggested in costuming, mannerisms, and interaction, not black lines and grey hair.

4) Act alongside your students, or get semi-professionals to join in. The students will rise to their level. They’ll see the way Shakespeare is supposed to be portrayed. We had two post-grads and one college student in Caesar (told you enrollment was down!) and one post-grad in Much Ado.

5) Get professional posters. Really helpful if you can afford it. Your photo shoot will be one of your first activities together and it sets the tone for all your rehearsals as well as casts a vision so the kids can see what the final show will be like.

6) Let your kids be who they are. Our kids are urban kids. We don’t try to get them to put on British accents. Yes, they’re expected to speak clearly. No, they’re not expected to be suburban kids. When our Prince left his earrings in, we told him to keep them in. Every night.

Last year's production of Much Ado

 

What concept is rolling around in your mind? What are your kids good at? Will pumpkin pants ever make a comeback? We can only hope.

 


This. So much this.

One of my Shakes students quit school last year and decided to go back this year. Today she posted this:

I was meant for school but adapted to the streets.
Didn’t even have a home, stayed in a few traps, tried to make ends meet.
Now I feel like a jackass, a high school drop out.
But I’m going back to school to prove I’m more than what people talk about.

So proud of this girl!


Shakes DIY: You can do it!

Question: When are you ready to start your own student Shakespeare program?

Answer: RIGHT NOW.

When we started, we were a motley crew: A professional actor, an aspiring director, and an English Education major. That’s it. Three semi-adults producing a fully-realized Shakespeare show with middle schoolers. The idea: Romeo and Juliet, set in the 1930’s, with the Capulets as stars of the silver screen and the Montagues as railroad-riding dustbowlers.
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You know one of the reasons we originally did Shakespeare? There were no royalties. We had next to no budget for this program. The average age of the cast was fourteen. We had no stock of costumes or props- we had to make or buy every little thing. Our lights were very old TV lights, and each had its own giant dimmer- no lighting board. Our sound system was borrowed and there weren’t enough mics. I was in charge of costumes and, to give you an idea of my sewing skills, it took me fourteen hours to make a white apron. Unlined. Our props master was the English major and she’d never made props in her life.

So how did we do it?

We had five things that made our first year successful:

1) VISION: Our aspiring director cast a vision and we told everybody that’s what we were striving for. We wanted to do professional-quality Shakespeare with teenagers. Nothing less.

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2) DRIVE: Literally and figuratively! We drove half the cast members to and from rehearsal every day. Our English teacher (the college student) picked up the girl who played Juliet every day to memorize lines before rehearsal. We drove our personal cars for hours on tour. And figuratively? We got pocket knives on ebay for a dollar each. We talked yardsalers out of their crates and barrels. We built a frame for the set in our two-bedroom, second-story apartment. Our director blocked every single move, using colored pencils and X’s and O’s like football plays. If our show was going to fail, it wasn’t going to be because we didn’t give it our all. And our show succeeded.
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3) STANDARDS: Our director never let us forget our standards. Each Capulet was outfitted only in black, white, and silver. Only. Each Montague was outfitted in brown, blue, green, and off-white. Only. Our Romeo was thirteen years old and was expected to memorize over 500 lines of Shakespeare. He did. Our students were expected to handle firearms (a starter pistol), fight choreography, and special effects blood like professionals. They did. They were expected to be off-book weeks before the show. They were. They were expected to wear their costumes without complaint. They did. We didn’t give them any excuses because they were young. We just expected them to rise to the occasion. And they did.
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4) SUPPORT: Remember our TV lights? Donated. The church space where we performed? Donated. Our tour performances happened only because the places we called said yes and offered to house us. Urban Impact Foundation backed us totally, giving all that they could in the way of time, money, connections, and personnel. A lady made us a dress. A volunteer went on tour with us to usher our audience and work the giant dimmer packs for our TV lights. Every day, lunches were provided by the food bank. And hundreds of people came to see our show.
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5) MIRACLES: We couldn’t have done it without the miracles that kept us keeping on. There were a lot. We worked hard, but none of this would have been possible without God. Example: Three weeks before the show went up, we still didn’t have a way to build one of the set pieces our director had designed. At this point, we either had to cut the piece or attempt to build it. That day, a woman walks into the Urban Impact offices. “I don’t know if you can use me,” she said, “but I’d like to volunteer for you. I’m a professional set designer.” That weekend, we were in her garage, building the set.

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You will never be completely ready. You will never have everything you need. At some point, you just need to jump in feet first and say, “Now is the time.” Keep following my Shakes DIY series- I’ll tell you how we costume a show in one week, how we do our sound design, what kind of personnel you need to do a professional-quality show, how to make Shakespeare cool, why our students keep coming back, how to foster a sense of community, what our daily schedule looks like, etc, etc.

If you have any specific issues you want addressed, feel free to contact me!


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