Friday, April 9, 2010

"Operation Yes" Author Talks Improv, Writing and Push-Ups!

For the grand finale of theater week, we are thrilled to present an interview with the fantastically awesome Sarah Holmes. She is the author of two YA books, Letters to Rapunzel and Operation Yes. Not only does Operation Yes feature student-performed improv theater, but Ms. Holmes herself was a drama nerd!

On top of fitting our theme, we are thrilled to feature Ms. Holmes as she is local, her books are awesome and she's coming to speak to our Middle School Writer's Group Monday on May 3! If that wasn't enough, I have seen her drop and do 10 one handed push ups at a book-store reading.

Would you mind giving us a quick description of "Operation Yes?"
Operation Yes is about the creative and kind students in Room 208 and their wild new teacher, Miss Loupe, who brings improv theater to a rundown school near an Air Force base. Improv theater is a creative team effort in which you make up scenes and lines as you go along. I'm part of an Air Force family and that's what it's like when you move all the time---you always have a plan, but you're often asked to improvise a new life over and over again!

Since it's theater week on the blog, let's start with, do you have a favorite play (either to see, or to be in)?
I love all of Shakespeare's witty comedies, such as As You Like It and A Midsummer Night's Dream, as well as the tragedies of Macbeth and Hamlet. I also love his plays remade with great cleverness into new works on TV like the BBC's Shakespeare Re-Told series.

I also adore Edmond Rostand's romantic play about Cyrano de Bergerac, who is both a brilliant swordsman and a talented wordsmith, but whose enormous, ugly nose keeps him from approaching his love, the beautiful Roxane. (You may know it as the movie Roxanne with Steve Martin)

The kids in Ms. Loupe's class do a lot of improv, did you have a lot of experience with this kind of theater?
I got into into drama in high school, acting in plays and going to theater competitions. Early on in drama class, my teacher introduced us to improv by giving each small group three words and five minutes to come up with a scene. I remember my group's words were: cactus, diamond, and cowboy. We wound up doing a Western with two cowboys "riding" bucking black diamonds and trying to rescue a cactus in distress named Polly Prickebutt (that was me!)

What made you think that improv would be a good fit in this sixth grade classroom?
Sixth grade is sometimes the top grade in a school and sometimes the bottom. But everywhere, sixth graders are young enough to totally get into playing around on stage, but old enough to also completely understand that you have to support each other up there. Have you ever seen middle-schoolers doing Theater Sports? It's craaaa-zy! And inspiring.
Do you have a favorite improv game?
Return Department is usually a winner. One player is the clerk at the return counter. The audience picks the object to be returned, like "a Scooby-Doo sleeping bag" or "bright orange nail polish." Then, the second player comes on stage as the unhappy customer and tries to return the object---without knowing what it is. The resulting dialog can be hilarious.

Here's some more info on Improv:

--Some websites:
Canadian Improv Games:
Improv Encyclopedia of Games:

--Here's a short list of improv books, too:

The Second City Guide to Improv in the Classroom by Katherine S. McKnight and Mary Scruggs (for teachers)
The Playbook (Improv Games for Performers) collected and edited by William Hall, available at

Did you ever have a teacher like Ms. Loupe?
Yes, my drama teacher, Miss Linda Lyle. She's not exactly Ms. Loupe, but she was the most creative teacher I'd had up to that point, and she most definitely encouraged her students to try big things and take risks while learning. She was the one who encouraged me to try Shakespeare for the first time.

Which character in "Operation Yes" was your favorite to write?
Coming up with clean swear words for the librarian, Miss Candy was fun. Also, I loved having a large cast, and giving each of them a distinct personality and a unique battle to fight.

Did you draw on a lot of your real-life to write this book, or did you need to do a lot of research?
For this book, the research was my life. My son actually did play “cross-country golf” on base, like Bo does with Trey; my daughter taught me how to make paper stars like Gari does; I’ve watched planes drop into landing patterns above runways all across the country.

I’ve sold drinks at an air show, my husband adores the antics of the real Flying Farmer, and there’s a “Remove Before Flight” bright red tag on several sets of keys in our house.

On the other hand, even though I dedicated the book to both my children, the characters in Operation Yes are wholly the product of my imagination, created to live in this particular story. (Although I did throw in some last names of military families I knew as a little shout-out.)

Do you have a favorite place to write?
My office. I have an enormous desk, which I allow to get extremely messy. I surround myself with books, posters, toys, and all sorts of junk. I have a three-headed dragon marionette, a rainbow slinky, and a bright yellow timer which I use on low-motivation days to get myself going.

What sorts of things inspire you?
The outdoors---I love hiking with my husband and my dog. Also, reading amazing fiction makes every piece of me feel alive and longing to write as well as what I've just read.

When you're writing, do you talk with teens or show them your drafts?
Not while I'm writing. Afterwards, I love to talk to my readers. But during the creating process, I need to hibernate.

Do you have a favorite YA author or book?
I finished Terry Pratchett's Nation and Markus Zusak's Fighting Ruben Wolfe recently; both were amazing. I also love Lloyd Alexander's Prydain chronicles, Norton Juster's The Phantom Tollbooth, and M.T. Anderson's SF novel, Feed.

Do you have any advice for our teens who want to pursue writing as a career?
Improv has a rule called “yes, and…” which means that you always say yes (accept) what the other actor is adding to the scene, instead of ignoring or blocking it. But then you also have to add some new detail to the story---which is why "yes" is followed by "and"!

"Yes, and…" helps my writing because when I’m drafting or revising, it reminds me to acknowledge what I already have on the page while striving to add something fresh. Never block yourself. Instead, be kind and look for the one hook that you can use to propel yourself and the scene forward. It’s there. Reach for it.

An example of "Yes, and..." in a scene:

How many push-ups can you do?
In a row? At least 30. Maybe more if a drill sergeant was yelling at me. :)

Thanks Sarah!
You can find out more about Operation Yes at Sarah's website: or check out her fantastic blog here. And here's an article on reader's theater in libraries that gives a shout out to Operation Yes!

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