Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Dialogue Tip from Some Other More Experienced Writer

Beginning playwrights and screenwriters always struggle with dialogue.

In short, they try to tell us too much, instead of show us through behavior.

Actually, I take that back as this is not just an issue with beginners.

Most first drafts of even professional writers have too much clutter. The difference between the professional and the amateur, though, is the amount of rewriting that goes into cutting it down and polishing the material.

As everyone knows, I'm a big fan of John August and think his stuff is pretty lean, pretty intelligent and frankly, he's one of the best screenwriters out there (and the dialogue in GO is pretty darn good--go watch that movie now and see).

In one of his posts he says:

However you spell it, dialogue is what most people think of when you say screenwriting. It’s certainly the most apparent of all screenwriting attributes; bad dialogue is always noticed.

To me, movie dialogue is what real people would say if they could take a few seconds to think between lines. It’s faster, more direct, with much less filler than normal speech.

I like to think of dramatic dialogue (and even the stage descriptions) as poetry. Poetry is spare. It behaves by the philosophy of Occam's Razor (nothing unnecessary).

Or as I like to say:

Cut 90%

A really interesting exercise I like to do sometimes, especially if I'm having trouble with a talky scene, is to rewrite it with no dialogue whatsoever. The silent actions help me figure out what really needs to be there and what can be cut. Then I can go back and add dialogue. I usually find I don't need as much dialogue as I think.

By the way, John has now put a new sidebar on his nifty site with Screenwriting 101 tips--very handy.

Sunday, April 27, 2008

Impossible Plays

Last week I gave my students an impossible assignment.

It's really one of my favorites.

The assignment is to write a play that would be totally impossible to stage. Something that a director or producer would think, "Is this playwright insane? That's impossible!"

You know, something like what Erik Ehn writes...

(By the way, I don't show them any Kandinsky paintings, but I really like this one so wanted to put it up here).

The purpose is really to go far out there, to stretch the imagination and have fun. And usually the students surprise themselves, as did these. In fact, the work they brought in was the best I've seen them do and was actually the best of the bunch for any time I've given this assignment. They were more theatrical. More imaginative. More intelligent. More fun. More crazy. And just really cool and interesting. They were playful. And isn't that what theater is supposed to be? Right? Don't we call them plays?

The point of the exercise is that really, nothing is unstageable. Even though they brought in things like characters with six arms or fishes talking underwater, we could still find a way of doing it (and not always with millions of $$).


One of my students actually wrote a stage description that was unstageable. I won't say what it was but it had to do with the number pi, which as everyone knows is infinite and unknowable...

(yeah, right, like I knew that...)

Anyway, I wanted to write one, too (and I had some hours to kill) so I did. The result is below. It's a little out there but still, nothing impossible to stage (though definitely not easy). It's sorta dadaism meets futurism, but well...have fun.

Fish Monkeys Flood the Upside Down World

By Dennis Schebetta

Time: Tomorrow

Place: Anywhere but here

Setting: Someplace large. An airplane hangar would be ideal. An old movie studio even better. There should be enough space for the audience to levitate at least three feet above the playing area.


The AUDIENCE Witnesses and participants, though they don’t know it

DIAMOND BEE He is sparkly, dressed half in tuxedo, half in pajamas.

SWINGING LADY She wears a long flowing, silk dress and her face is painted like a china doll.

PURPLE LEGS Everything is purple but his legs, which are invisible: He is only one foot tall.

COW A cow that meows

FISH MONKEY Half fish, half monkey. All mischief.


AUDIENCE enters from a foyer with blinding light into a dark room. They are led by a hand that feels wet, plunged into darkness so dark they can’t see their noses, much less be able to tell who leads them. They sit. Soon they will levitate. When all of the audience is levitating in total darkness, then one audience member will sing a Billie Holiday song. They are not told which song. They must figure this out. It may take hours. Only once the song begins does Diamond Bee light a match and start the show.

In darkness, DIAMOND BEE lights a match. The match goes out because of a sudden gust of wind. He repeats this ten times before he shines a flashlight on his face. We may see tears floating up to his forehead. There is a large echo to his voice, like he’s in a cavern.

Now. We’re underwater. Now. You. Me. Underwater. The entire world. But the water itself is upside down. Downside up. See it hanging? A mist. Dripping. Hear it?
(The audience hears a chain saw as if its right next to them).
How do you know what’s right side up? Can you trust me?

A balloon filled with light floats above, illuminates SWINGING LADY. She swings, her flowing, silk dress almost touches the ground.



Why do lights burn so bright in the darkness?


My heart sails towards heaven.

COW ENTERS, walking upside down on ceiling, stops to chew some grass. It scratches its ear with its back leg, then meoooows like a cat. Diamond Bee hovers toward audience with glass of milky liquid.

Drink this.
(audience drinks)
Is that lemonade or kool-aid?

He touches them, his wet hand leaves marks.

It’s laced with PCP.



I am not!

PURPLE LEGS dives headfirst into the ground, disappearing as if jumping in water. ENTER FISH MONKEY who climbs a rope sideways across the stage. Diamond Bee slaps him. Fish Monkey shrieks, falls and does a perfect flip landing on his toes. He runs around, then flies, disappears into thin air.

Fish Monkey can’t swim.

PURPLE LEGS runs back in with a fish bowl filled with bright neon pink water. Inside the bowl, FISH MONKEY swims. Swinging Lady drops fish food down. The fish food is shaped like tiny bananas.

Stop. I want to die. Now. No, stop. Yes. I want to--


I want to live

There’s no reason for


There’s no reason for

No, I want to


There’s no reason for


Like we do.

If I were a cactus in an apple, how would I be cored?

(They all look up at her.)

She falls backwards in slow motion, lands flat on her back. Audience hears CRACKING of her neck breaking.

There are people here. Now. People.

Purple Legs gives Diamond Bee the bowl.

I’m scared of sharks.

(Looking at audience)
Tell them to die.

They’re not even alive.

Call this living? You. Living. This you call?

Diamond Bee looks at the bowl. Fish Monkey has become a shark. Diamond Bee becomes a Fish Monkey, drops the bowl and flops around on the ground like a fish out of water. We hear Swinging Lady’s voice. The audience might feel like someone is whispering it into the left ear then the right.


Is there a


Is there a

I need a doctor.

Fish monkey in the house?

I want to die. Kill me. Kill me. Kill me. Kill me.

Death has no answers.

Shorter colors seem long

The sun appears—it is massive and so bright the audience can barely look at it. Sunglasses will instantly appear on their faces. The sun stops by the cow that keeps eating grass. The Moon appears. The Sun and Moon kiss. Then fade. The cow burp

Where are dreams dreaming in the night sky so blue in the ocean?

Stars appear twinkling on the ground.

Careful each step.

Each fish monkey is a dream. Each dream is a star. Each star is a fish monkey

Let’s eat the fish monkeys.

But they


But they


But they will poison us

Fish Monkey turns into a mist and floats away.


Where are you going?

Hold me. Now. Hold. Me. Now.

Purple Legs kicks Diamond Bee who bounces up. They both pull swords that reach the ceiling. There is a fight. It ends badly. Blood pours up from the ground, bubbles over and trickles upwards. There is the smell of charred flesh that drifts. Clouds appear above, then lightning flashes. It rains.

Damn those fish monkeys.


The stars twinkle below as water floods the stage. It rises and rises. Purple Legs pulls out an umbrella. Right before the water gets to his mouth, he says:

Do you really trust that person you came in with?

The water envelopes him. The audience has a choice; continue to levitate or drown. They are plunged in blackness again and feel a cold, wet hand.

End of play.

Hola mi amor

If you can't make art...

Make paella.

My wife wants everyone to know that we made this on the weekend.

Okay, I admit it. We didn't make it. She did.

But I did help with prepping by chopping vegetables.

Not only is she a great cook but she can also pontificate on Shakespeare, theater during the Spanish Golden age, and/or Marxism at the same time.

Try that, Martha Stewart!

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Hug this!

My apologies.

I realize I may have offended some people the other day by referring to Earth Day as some crappy tree-hugger thing. I don't want people to think that I'm not eco-conscious or environmentally friendly because that's not the case at all.

I just hate tree-huggers.

I'm kidding!

Wow, you people are too sensitive.

I have nothing against tree-huggers or Earth Day. In fact, go this
if you don't believe me.

I'm going to go out and hug a tree right now.

Or maybe just fondle some grass.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Happy birthday, you big mass of hardened lava, you!

My calendar is telling me that it’s Earth Day today!

How could I forget? I didn't even get it a present. To make up for it, let's all break out the ice cream and cake and sing happy birthday!

Happy birthday to you.
Happy birthday to you
Happy birthday, dear earth
Happy birthday to you!

Now do a jell-o shot!

C'mon, you're a big planet, you can take it...

Oh, wait…what?!

You mean that’s not what Earth Day is for?

It’s some crappy tree-hugger thing instead?

So no party?

No ice cream and cake?

Oh, man!


Hey kids, did you know Earth Day started in Seattle?

Are we surprised?

No, we are not.


Oh, here’s a fun site if you’ve never been. Try to find your house!

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Rite of Passage

Today I am truly a golfer.

It SNOWED today while I was playing.

Okay, it didn't look like this picture. And actually it HAILED first for a bit, then stopped for a few minutes before the snow came down.

Then the sun came out.

Then it hailed again.

Then the sun came out only briefly.

And then it snowed.

And then it got really cold.

But I played my 18 hole round, regardless. And you know what? I played that course better than ever.

Thank you very much.

Friday, April 18, 2008

Beware the Ides of...April...

It is snowing.

Out the window.

Right now.

*(This is an actual photo from our window taken only fifteen minutes ago)

All I can say is...

"What the f--!?"

April truly is the cruelest month...All I want to do is play golf in the sun but the northwest weather is against me.

I don't want to complain, but...okay, I do like to complain. I come from a long heritage of grumpy people. My family can actually pass the time complaining about anything and everything, from bad drivers to bad tv (maybe its the Italian heritage, I don't know). In fact, I have thought that maybe I should devote a whole other blog just for my complaints...and I could call it "Grumpy Young Man". Then no one will have to read my complaints and I can stick to the purpose of the site instead of diverging into grumbling all the time.

Yay or nay?

If you're reading this, weigh in...We wanna know...

To show that I can still find the beauty in all things,

here is the wonderful rug I bought in India...

The dog is not from India...

I don't know where she came from...

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

When Pirates Breed...

This video may explain why we are hesitant in having children...

WARNING: Strong language.

Because we would TOTALLY DO THAT with our kids.

I mean, seriously, right?

They're like talking, move-by-itself puppets.

Except puppets don't poop.

There's that.

(It's been awhile since I had a post mentioning poop and today just felt right to introduce the word again).

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

You've Come a Long Way, Baby

It has just been announced today that Bob Dylan has been awarded an honorary Pulitzer prize for his "profound impact on popular music...and lyrical compositions of poetic power."

It's about time you finally got some props for your words and songs.

Way to go, Bob!

Oh, and that little play on Broadway, August: Osage County won one of them Pulitzers, too. But that's not really a surprise to anyone in the theater world.

Now I'm wishing I had seen it when we were in NYC last December.

Random Poetry of the Day

Here's some poetry for today:

"April is the cruellest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain."

--T.S. Eliot, The Waste Land

In other words...brrr, its cold today!

Friday, April 4, 2008

Our Cat is a Superhero

This is totally off-topic but we have this cat...

Her name is Anna.

We have to lock her up in the other room at night because otherwise she roams around and prances on us and we don't ever sleep. This has been going on for years.

Anna does not like to be locked up at night. We have to trick her into the room with treats and/or catnip. But she is fooled every time.

But every night she scratches on the door. Constantly.

She either has no capacity to learn (which I sincerely doubt) or she likes to make us aware that she is unhappy with the present policy of being locked up at night.

And sometimes she throws herself against the door in an effort to open it up. No really. First time I heard it, I thought a prowler was in the house. You'd hear scratch, scratch...pause...BUMP!...scratch, scratch...pause...BUMP!. Odd thing is sometimes it actually worked. She has literally busted the door open.

To counter this we put a five pound dumbbell down to hold the door.

But she still busted it open, moving the dumbbell.

Anna is tiny. She weighs, like...3 pounds.

She is a super cat.

Anyway, this cartoon from youtube is funny and reminds me of our cat. There is another one of these cartoons where the cat wants to wake the owner up (which demonstrates why we lock her up.)

Wednesday, April 2, 2008


I love the first day of school.

Why? Because it’s all about expectations and surprises.

Which also happens to be one of the reasons I love theatre (good theatre, that is).

Even when you know the name of a class, you don’t really know anything about what’s going to happen or how you'll change from the first to the last day, whether its ten weeks or fifteen weeks or just even a short span of three weeks.

You walk into the room and figure out where to sit. Maybe you know one or two people. Maybe you know no one. You meet a new classmate. You chat. You’re all a little nervous in some ways because you’re asking yourself a few random questions:

Will I have to do a lot of reading and other homework?
I wonder if I can just hang out in the back of the room and sleep?
Should’ve I taken that tennis class instead?
Should I have sat down in the front row next to that cute guy/gal?
Is the instructor going to be a total tyrant or a pushover?
Will he/she even remember my name?
Do I have to actually say any intelligent things today?
I hope we don’t play that stupid name game.
I definitely should’ve sat down next to that cute guy/gal and started talking to him/her.
Did I come too early?

Certain expectations are laid out on that first day of class. I usually don’t know my students, so that first day is a big learning day for me as well as for them. Even if a student has been in my previous class, this time it’s a whole new ball-game. First of all, we have a different group (dare I say ensemble?). All the students are on a different path. And that student I already know is already a different person from my last class.

So I don’t really know how the day is going to go or what will happen next.

And that anticipation is similar to the beginning of a play. Because there is one question that should linger in the mind of those who are watching:


It's a very basic idea not dissimilar to Noel Coward’s advice, “Never, ever bore your audience.”

I used to start my first day of class going over the syllabus. Man, that was boring. Now I start with a brief discussion (like 5 minutes) and then we get right to work with exercises. I don’t even explain that much about what they’re doing, I just let them start working. They’ll catch up. And I can explain later. Of course, if they have questions, I answer them. But usually they don't, because the answers get illuminated in the doing of the work.

I also want to tell my students EVERYTHING all at once. Making new plays, writing, directing, and acting— there’s so much to discuss, to know, to work on…But life doesn’t work that way. We can only do so much.

The first day is about beginnings. And beginnings are about expectations and surprises.

As is the first moment of your play.

All you have to do in the beginning of your play is set up that question:


You don’t need a mountain of exposition to do this. You don’t need an overload of set descriptions or character bios. You just need to begin.

Let the characters start doing whatever it is they need to do.

Hamlet is a great example.

(This is why there was a photo of Olivier holding Yorick's skull at the top of this entry. It's not there just to confuse you...really...)

Pretend you’ve never heard of the play and go to that first scene and first line. It takes place on a castle wall of Elsinore and Francisco calls out “Who’s there?”. Barnardo approaches and Francisco tells him he comes “most careful on his watch”. Barnardo tells him it’s almost midnight and to look out for Horatio and Marcellus.

Okay, so do we know Hamlet’s father was murdered by Uncle Claudius? Do we know anything about the Ghost of Hamlet? Or anything about Ophelia?


What we know is that we have some guards possibly freaked out about the fact that it’s almost midnight. In Elizabethan times, as like now, midnight can be pretty creepy. And these guys seem slightly more cautious than normal. Are they at war? Are they waiting for someone? Or something...?

See how good ol’ Billy is letting the audience ask themselves WHAT WILL HAPPEN NEXT?

It won’t take long to start getting into the story. We find out about the Ghost. Horato tells Hamlet and we start to get the details about the story, etc.

A really bad playwright might’ve worried if the audience would be confused by the situation (I mean its complex, right?). So he/she might’ve started the play with Claudius speech where he talks about the death of his brother and recent marriage. Or starting with a Hamlet soliloquy like “O, that this too, too solid flesh would melt…”.

But Billy knew his audience likes good ol-fashioned ghost stories, and he wanted their attention and he didn’t want to bore them. He wanted to get the play started.

When they first walk in, that audience has little expectations. Oh sure, they may have pre-conceived notions and either expect the play to be terrible or brilliant, but otherwise, they don’t know what to expect from your script. They’re like those students on the first day of class, just getting into the theater with their own random questions (Will this be good? Will I leave at intermission? What’s it about? Maybe I should’ve sat next to the cute guy/gal?) They don’t know your characters or the story. So take your time in laying out the information.

Get going and let the audience catch up. They will.