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Sunday, October 19, 2014

Listening to a master explain the craft of storytelling

John Madormo
By Ted Slowik

Regular readers will know that while I'm deeply interested in developing skills and proficiency as a musician, I'm most passionate about songwriting and storytelling. On Saturday, I listened intently for more than an hour as an accomplished master storyteller spoke about the craft.

John Madormo spoke to teachers who are education alumni of North Central College in Naperville during a Homecoming Weekend event in the school's library. Many know John as a longtime professor of broadcast communication at the college and general manager of WONC-FM 89.1, one of the nation's finest college radio stations.

John established the John Drury Awards to honor excellence in high school broadcasting. The awards are named for a late ABC7 Chicago newsman, and currently the reigning No. 1 high school radio station in the country is at my own alma mater, WLTL-FM 88.1 at Lyons Township High School in LaGrange. But I digress.

A few years back, about when he turned 40, John decided to pursue his dream of becoming a Hollywood screenwriter. Sure, he had a successful career as a college professor and a wife and kids, but he talked about that "What If" theme I've written about often. Only he described it as "Living On Someday Isle," as in "someday I'll write that book" or "someday I'll sail around the world."

So John started spending his lunch hours and late nights learning to write screenplays. Here's an important point he made: If you want to seriously make room in your life to pursue your dream, you've got to give up something. For him, it was watching late-night television. A modest sacrifice, right? In my case, I'm giving up live performances in 2015 to focus more intently on writing something great and lasting.

For the past 10 years or so John's been walking to Nichols Library in downtown Naperville and writing for an hour during lunch, inspired by the books around him. Some days he would only write a paragraph, but he was one paragraph closer to his dream. He finished a few scripts, shopped them around and even had some optioned, meaning producers licensed the rights to turn his screenplays into films. He sold the rights to one outright, though none has been green-lighted yet.

He said people in the industry have called his work very original, but John explained that sometimes being original is simply combining two or more influential existing works in a new way. He says his story "Coach Dracula" is a mix of "Dracula" meets "The Bad News Bears." John says he started writing for younger audiences so he could create something he wouldn't mind having his daughters read.

Along the way someone suggested to John that one of his screenplay ideas might pitch better if it was based on a book or series of books, say, like Harry Potter. So John started writing stories about a 12-year-old character that became Charlie Coller: Snoop For Hire, a series of middle-grade mystery novels published by Penguin Books. The third book is being released this fall.

John's books have been added to the reading lists for public schools across the country, including Chicago Public Schools, New York City's Bank Street College of Education, and schools from Arizona to New Jersey. He regularly visits schools to talk about writing, appears at conferences, author talks and book signings. He's found success and a second career doing what he's passionate about, and he's an inspiration not only to many young readers but to many adults who might be thinking "What if" or "Someday I'll."

The best part of John's talk Saturday was listening to him describe the craft of storytelling: character development, story arc, the three-act drama, foreshadowing, cliffhangers and so on. Every great hero is flawed in one or more ways. Great villians have a redeeming humanizing quality, like Dr. Evil petting his cat in the Austin Powers movies. John knows writing across many media: radio, TV, film and literature. The elements of successful storytelling are the same regardless of the form, and they apply to songwriting as well.

John's a great writer and a fascinating speaker. If you have kids in second through fifth grades you should have them read John's books, and if you ever get a chance to hear John give an author talk you should go listen to him.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

A fantastic month so far of performing and hearing great live music!

By Ted Slowik

Hey, all! Been having a blast this October playing and hearing great live music! Since this blog is partially to remember great musical adventures I'll run through a recap of the last couple weeks.

Liz with Robert Cray
On Oct. 2, the great Robert Cray performed at North Central College. My sister Liz and brother Mike were there, and Liz got to meet Robert! We've seen him many times over the years. I was at the Alpine Valley show in 1990 for Stevie Ray Vaughan's final performance that included Robert, Eric Clapton, Buddy Guy, Jimmie Vaughan and others. Robert sounded great in the Wentz Concert Hall, and his playing, singing and songwriting is as superb as ever!

Clarence Goodman, Kim Treiber and friends
On Oct. 3 I made my debut playing electric guitar in band. The very talented Clarence Goodman invited me to join Lyons Township High School class of 1979 friends to perform at their 35th reunion at a joint called Saban's in Hodgkins (great food!). The band featured fellow Suspended Animation bandmate Dave McGranahan on harmonica, Clarence on acoustic guitar and vocals, Kim Treiber (LT '79 who now lives in New Mexico) on lead vocals and acoustic guitar, Rick Demski on bass and Kim's cousin Randy Ourada on drums. I played lead guitar with the house band at the end of the evening, and opened the night with a 30-minute set of acoustic originals and covers. My cousin Shelly Powers was in from Arizona, and I had a ton of fun hanging out with Shelly and her St. Cletus classmates from the old neighborhood. I was especially surprised when Betty Tompkin, mother of some good childhood friends from Timber Trails Swim Club, popped in unexpectedly after seeing a post on Facebook.

Sat., Oct. 4, was the big Barn Dance show at the center of my musical universe, Chicago Street Pub. Bad Saddles, Alex Hoffer Band, Edward David Anderson and The Leadfoot Band performed. All the performances were awesome and the atmosphere was electric with many friends on hand! I captured video of some of Leadfoot's performance.

Noah with B.J. Novak
On Wednesday, Oct. 8, after my son Noah met actor/author B.J. Novak at North Central College, I popped by Tribes Alehouse in Mokena for a couple tasty craft beers, great company and awesome live, original music hosted by John Condron. I've really enjoyed making near-weekly appearances at Tribes' open mic for the past three years and learned a lot about performance by watching John and so many other talented people that appear there regularly. When I compare myself now to where I was three years ago, when I set aside the bass and picked up the acoustic guitar after the final Big Eddy Springs Blues Band performance, I'm very happy with the progress I'm making as a musician and performer. Every time I play feels like a personal best.

Nick Domberg at White Horse

Thursday, Oct. 9, found me at the White Horse for open mic hosted by Brian Barry. Brian's such a great guy, and his wife Kristin is very involved musically as well managing appearances by Alex Hoffer and others. Great musicians, singers and songwriters like Nick Domberg and Allison Flood were there, and Aly, Brian and I performed "Red Rover" together. I never cease to be amazed by the broad and deep pool of musical and artistic talent that fills Will County!
Allison Flood at White Horse
BTW, Allison Flood and John Condron are topping the bill when I open for them Nov. 1 at Lewis University's Studio Theatre. We'll each do about a 30-minute set of acoustic songs, mostly originals likely, in a benefit for the Heritage Theatre Company alumni troupe in residence there.

As if that wasn't enough fun, on Friday, Oct. 10, I was back at Chicago Street Pub to hear Allison's very talented husband Chris Flood open for The Righteous Hillbillies. The Hillbillies have become my favorite band, and it's been great getting to know singer Brett James (who did the artwork for my "Comfort Zone" CD), bassist Jeff Bella and drummer Barrett Harvey. I've been taking guitar lessons since Christmas from Hillbillies lead guitarist Kev Wright and owe a great deal to him for the progress I continue to make. Taking music lessons builds your self-esteem and confidence in addition to your abilities, and I find those improvements transfer over into all areas of your life.
Righteous Hillbillies at Chicago Street Pub

Also this week I was honored when Kev asked if I'd warm up the crowd when his fellow student Chase Patrick Walsh celebrates the release of his CD "Your Friend the Robber" at an all-ages show at 2 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 16, at Chicago Street Pub. I met Chase when I was helping publicize Hopstring Fest this year and was immediately impressed by his talent, abilities and work ethic. Chase has unlimited potential, in my opinion, and I look forward to watching and hearing his progress.

Then I was back at the Pub last night to hear J. Ross Green open for The Regressors, a very talented band of friends keyboardist Kevin Krauss, guitarist Chris Foray, bassist Tom Flavin and drummer Jeff Sledge. I've listed to their new release "These Times" and think it's very good! The recording quality is excellent and their performances showcase their range and appreciation for varied styles. Plus I LOVE J. Ross Green (aka John Green) and how he writes personal stories in local settings. His newest material is his best, in my opinion, and his performances, recordings and songwriting continue to be the best every time I hear him. I captured video of a couple of John's songs, "Blood On My Boots" and "15 Shots."

J. Ross Green and The Regressors
Well, that brings us up to date on the musical adventures during October. In addition to the Nov. 1 and Nov. 16 shows, remember you'll only have a few opportunities to see me perform live for a while because I'm suspending public musical appearances in 2015 to focus on an extended writing project. The big finale will be a farewell show Saturday, Dec. 20, at Chicago Street Pub. You won't want to miss it!