Thursday, April 10, 2008

Stage Directions, a can of worms

Stage Directions cross to pantry, pick up flashlight, consider how batteries work...

I've been criticized a couple times in the past few months for the amount of stage directions I use. Personally, I don't feel like I use all that many. My plays have a lot of white space, typically. But this happened recently: a theatre in Detroit actually passed one of my scripts up the chain for further development, but then ultimately it got rejected because one reader said that I was trying too hard to tell the director how to direct and the actor how to feel. They called the stage directions "oppressive." Which made me feel like my script was not rejected on basis of its quality, but on some arbitrary argument of principle about what the province of the playwright is and isn't.

I like stage directions. I don't just like stage directions, I like impossible stage directions. My friend Jayita will literally write as a stage direction in a play, right in the middle of a scene with two friends talking in America about eating a hamburger, something like:

(A bomb goes off in Japan, but they only feel it in their pinky toes).

While this is an extreme example, I like the color that stage directions can bring to the reading of a script. I hate the stage directions of Eugene O'Neill, who will spend an entire paragraph describing what's on a table to the tiniest detail; but I love a good stage direction that describes a complicated emotional moment, or even better, an abstract concept.

I like to write something like:

(John stares ahead. His eyes unfocus, everything in front of him blurs together like the letters of a word you've stared at for ten minutes.)

Will that translate to the audience? Maybe not. But I don't think it necessarily needs to, and it's a direct communication with the reader...something that seems to be taboo in playwriting that I don't understand.

I don't like writing whimsically, so I don't try to make my characters describe emotions through poetics or departures from the scene. I like non-verbal communication and utterances, awkward tension, gutteral noises, and stutters. As a writer, sometimes the best way to describe a series of non-verbal moments or a period of silence, is to literally write the intention. The concept of the moment. The give and take.

I also think that stage direction can provide some exposition for directors and actors to consider, without dragging out exposition through forced expository dialogue, which personally I can spot like a blood stain on a doily.

Is the implication somehow that because we've chosen to write plays instead of prose, that we forfeit introspection?

Even as I say this, however, I have a tremendous respect for and faith in directors and actors. Without fail, they find things buried in text and bring them to light, and I'm consistently amazed by that. But it seems like writers are in a tricky spot. If you write no stage directions at all, the play may lose the intended shape, or certain ideas may lose emphasis; worse, a playwright could be called lazy or that they're relying too heavily on the actors to find the scene. If you write too many stage directions, you are controlling and arrogant, and how dare you have an opinion about your own work.

Obviously, if someone picks up “The Cherry Orchard,” they aren’t going to follow every last stage direction. I don’t expect my plays to be hammered out word for word either. Productions are intended to reshape plays, interpret them, and bring a new perspective to them, but that doesn’t mean the playwright should leave a blank slate in my opinion. Stage directions are, I believe, meant to inform, not dictate, the action. To that end I think they can be as specific or abstract as a playwright wants.

“Oppressive” is a pretty harsh word for having an opinion about when one’s own character looks out the window. Or the moment they forget what their son’s face looks like for that matter. Maybe that’s the same moment. It probably is.


Devilvet said...

What is wrong with specificity? The answer...nothing.

I don't know what a playwright has to gain by letting a company do the work if the readers dont like stage directions. Sounds like less than perfect collaboractors...

Now once you write the stage directions, I think there is nothing wrong with the director or producer saying things like..."why this stage direction" or "We don't have the budget for the helicopter scene..."

But, stage directions are part of a playwright's perrogative IMO.

BTW (shameless plug) Scott, come out an see Clay Continent!!!!

GreyZelda Land said...

Not to play devil's advocate ... oh, hell, why not ...

"(John stares ahead. His eyes unfocus, everything in front of him blurs together like the letters of a word you've stared at for ten minutes.)"

Why not just put "John stares ahead?" Unless you're writing a movie treatment, you'll never accomplish any practicality with eyes unfocusing. I know you're looking to communicate with a reader, but you're audience isn't reading, they're watching. And you're actors read, but they end up "doing". And printing the unfocused eye on stage would be just be silly and wouldn't print and would just make me frustrated to read because it smacks of pretension.

Yeah, I'm a director.

I'm an O'Neill fan and enjoy his stage directions because, well, they're practical and paint a universal stage picture that most theatre companies would be able to accomplish in collaboration with their set designers and actors.

I love well-written, thoughtful-of-future-collaborators stage directions. Tennessee Williams comes to mind. He's excellent at putting the mood and color in his descriptions and the roles become very easy to play because everything is so clear.

I'm currently directing a Caryl Churchill play that contains stage directions like this: "Silence and gloom. Josie appears on her hands and knees scrubbing the floor. A Monster comes to watch her. It is the Skriker. There is a fountain."

And then Churchill's dialogue fills out the rest of the literature. And she allows productions to use their imagination without puppeting the action. And, as a reader, my imagination is perked. Imagination is powerful.

And, I personally, as a director, like following the writer's stage directions because it sets a rhythm to the production and communicates that to me without us having to directly communicate in person. Because you'll be dead someday. But hopefully your play will live on and on forever.

Now, Scott, I don't know your writing at all, so I'm not trying to get into a fight here. I'm just coming in from the producer/director angle and I like to skim off the fat when at all possible in the works we choose to do. If I received a play with tons of stage direction that didn't serve the play and its movement, I wouldn't do it either.


Scott Barsotti said...


I appreciate you playing devil's advocate, that's the point of this blog. But there are several things you write that are precisely what I'm talking about. I think your final statement is a sad commentary on literary management. Without knowing me, without reading the play I speak of, you've determined (hypothetically of course, but still it seems rather absolutely) you would not want to do it. Keep in mind we aren't talking about story, theme, content, or even style. We're talking about form, about process. We're talking about a way expressing of an idea. What you're suggesting is not imaginative, it's regulatory.

Why not just put "John stares ahead?" The answer to that is: they aren't the same thing. A question I'd ask is: do you consider plays to be literature? And if so, why can't the reader have a completely different experience than the audience member?

I experience theatre three distinct ways: as a maker, as a watcher, and as a reader. What I don't understand is that playwrights are expected to tell the characters what to say, and to a certain extent what to do, but not in any way how to feel, or how to navigate their own experience.

You say of Williams' stage directions that they make the roles easy to play. What is it about that facility that's interesting to you? There is a difference, to me, between describing how a character is feeling and telling an actor or director how to interpret that moment. Those are very different gestures and I'm talking about the former.

I don't see why narrative stage directions need affect the movement of a play at all. It's exploding a moment beyond real time using language, which is what stories do all the time.

While I'm still alive, I would hope that a director/producer who saw value in a script would not say "oh...but those stage directions" and chuck it in the trash, but rather have a conversation with me about what they see. That's collaboration. Otherwise you're smacking me on the wrist for not playing by the rules. And if my plays outlive me and I can't be reached, then I would hope that by that point they'd proved their merit and people would choose to keep doing them, stage directions or no.

Plus, as I said, I don't expect my stage directions to be followed to the letter. They're for me and the reader, and the actor if he/she wants them. I'm quite flexible on how a play of mine is realized and actually not super-protective (like I said, I trust actors and directors completely, and find they rarely get it wrong).

devilvet said...

but how much is too much? I expect no consensus, but to further pick at an issue...

Even though they are not ripe with verbosity, I could say "Silence and Gloom" is too much, why not just say "Silence" and let the director, actors, audience imagine the gloom?

You might think I'm splitting hairs, but what one person calls puppeting the action another calls completing the picture.

It is the director's producer's perrogative to pick the play they want to produce, it is the playwright's perrogative to decide how much is too much. Now, a playwright might suffer fewer folks wanting to direct the work, but I think there is something in reading the totality of choice in the playwright's vision before practicality or compromise come into play.

A playwright can choose to leave things to the imagination of the other collaborators, but if the playwright knows certain things about the action, setting, etc that complete the picture either literally for the production or figuratively for the actor interpreting why not share it?

The playwright does not have to limit oneself to the realm of literature. Action, Image, Environment, etc... can all be dictated in stage directions.

Does a playwright put oneself in peril of not being as often produced? Potentially. But, I've never read a play and thought not to produce it because of stage directions.

Less is more? Yes but only sometimes...

"Too many notes, Mozart"

That being said, I do believe that some directors want to engage their own imagination and even if they respect the words of the playwright, think about what they as directors can bring to a script, rather than what is already there. They think of the playwright's text not as the actual "thing", but rather the skeleton or frame upon which they drape thereby create the 'thing'.

(I want to make sure everyone understands that the previous observation is not directed to anyone in particular, rather just at a certain type of archetypal director sort I am sure we all have encountered.)

That sort of individual might view a plethora of stage direction as an obstacle to their vision for your play.

Perhaps... sometimes the director is the auteur, but sometimes the playwright is the auteur (can you imagine someone telling Charlie Kaufman or Harold Pinter how to write movie/stage play?)

GreyZelda Land said...

"I don't see why narrative stage directions need affect the movement of a play at all. It's exploding a moment beyond real time using language, which is what stories do all the time."

Right. And I think that's where I'm coming from, albeit the opposite direction ... it's a play. And, yes, you're telling a story, but not in the same way you're telling a novel or a short story.

All of this, of course, is just my personal preference. I do feel that stage directions should, if the play is planned for performance, help give the director and the actors a clue as to what the rhythm of the show is going to be so that, if you were to come see the show, you would think ... yeah, that's what I was looking for.

I do read plays from a practical level, a lot of times ... I guess I've been doing that before I even started directing. I certainly do consider them literature, which is often why I'm so picky on what we end up doing. I think, a lot of the times, I'm looking for movement in the dialogue and then in the stage directions, as well, because that gives a clue to, again, the rhythm of the thing. People laugh at Pinter's pauses, but they're absolutely necessary. But, again, he's pretty stark with his stage directions once it gets down to the nitty-gritty of the scene. The dialogue is what moves the play forward.

If I decided to do or not do your play ... I would never tell you to change your stage directions. I'm just saying, for my personal aesthetic, I might not end up choosing your submitted play if it was filled with tons of stage directions like that because I might, personally, become frustrated.

If I were dissecting the play in an english class, that's another thing. But you're talking about having your play done in production.

Shakespeare has nary a stage direction other than the where. It's all in the dialogue.

And, I would say "gloom" is quite necessary to get the mood across as the last scene was quite vibrant. Gives a clue to the lighting designer and the costumer, as well as the actors. It's a direct contrast to what was just seen. So, it helps me flesh out what Churchill wants there.

Quick question ... are there any playwrights, living or dead, who weren't, say, a novelist before (Ayn Rand, for example) who were able to get their plays read on the literary level before they were produced first?

Here's an excerpt from good ol' Wikipedia:
"A play, or stageplay, is a form of literature written by a playwright, almost always consisting of dialogue between fictional characters, intended for theatrical performance rather than reading. The term is often used in contrast to "musical," which refers to a play with a lot of music and singing.

Many people (especially scholars) read plays for pleasure, or study them in an academic manner. There are rare dramatists, notably George Bernard Shaw, who have had little preference whether their plays were performed or read. So, the term "play" can refer to both the written works of playwrights and to their complete theatrical performance.[1]

Richard Monette, who held the longest tenure of Artistic Director at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival (1994-2007), said that plays on the shelf are literature, whereas plays on the stage are theatre."

So, we're all right, yes? Many consider plays as things to be performed and some consider plays just fine to only read. I'm honestly speaking from the producing theatre's point of view and why they would reject a play based on stage directions.

And comparing yourself to Mozart? It reminds me of someone who compared himself to Moses recently. Heh heh.


GreyZelda Land said...

Oh! and Arthur Miller has stage directions that definitely tell an actor how to feel ... but "eyes unfocusing" has nothing to do with feeling or emotion ...unless you rephrased it somehow ... it's more of a physicalization. I certainly get the idea from the stage direction of what you want, but I don't, personally, need the additional "like the letters of a word you've stared at for 10 minutes," to get your idea across to me.

Oh, and I totally don't need to know you personally to figure out if I would want to do your play. Your play should certainly speak for itself. I'm sorry if that seems harsh, but ... again, you're going to be dead someday, but hopefully your play will be able to speak for you. The whole "dead" thing does seem harsh, but ... we're still playing Mozart's notes just the way he intended them and we didn't need Shaffer's play to remind us about that.


Scott Barsotti said...

“it’s a play.”

Personally, I think throwing around ultimate language about what plays and elements of plays should and should not do is dangerous.

Yes, we’re talking about aesthetic differences, but again, Rebecca, you’ve asserted that from a producer’s standpoint, rather than engage the writer about a shared vision of the piece, you would chuck the play, not because you didn’t like the story, but because you didn’t like the writer’s method. That’s a frightening thought, and feels more personal than professional, as it did with that theatre in Detroit.

I’m not saying this is you, but I do get this feeling from a lot of theatres: that they sometimes wish there were plays but no playwrights. Across the literary board, I feel a sentiment that producers wish there was material but no writers (if the WGA strike was any indication…but that’s another blog).

You don’t have to tell me to change my stage directions. That also doesn’t mean that you have to abide them either. Stage directions are not the play, they are part of the play. They are writers notes, essentially, not a blueprint. A play of mine was done in New York a couple years ago, that involved people being chained to the wall, and early in the process the director said, “so hey, I’ve got this idea about the chains, as in not using them and implying the restraint through movement and light, is that cool with you?” I said yes, because she wasn’t changing the play, she was interpreting it. She didn’t ask me to take the chains out. She didn’t say, “I like the play, but man, I hate those chains” and choose not to do the play. And that play included some of the abstract stage directions we’ve picked at here, and the actors in that show (who were method actors) found those stage directions very helpful, and didn’t interpret them literally, but used them to inform nuanced moments, particularly during pregnant silences. Again, because I wasn’t telling them what to do or what to feel, but how I imagine the character is feeling (it boggles my mind why playwrights are not supposed to have an idea about how their characters feel).

I agree with Bob’s statements about “too much.” It’s a slippery slope. Why not just write “John stares” then? Why not just write “John” on a blank page and let the director have at it? My point is that I still don’t understand why playwrights are given limited jurisdiction over their own ideas, if we want not to be industry pariahs. Why is writing what a character feels telling an actor what to do any more than writing lines for them to say? They still have to perform them, and there are countless ways to interpret an abstract personal moment. Saying “gloom” is necessary but the “unfocused eyes” bit is not sounds like you’re picking and choosing what you want to interpret (which is your prerogative as director). “Gloom” doesn’t imply a mood. Unless you’re always unhappy on a cloudy day. “Silence and gloom” is just as abstract and undefined as “everything blurs.”

And realistically we have no idea what Shakespeare wrote or didn’t write, any more than we know for a fact if Chekhov’s original stage directions were written by Chekhov or by Stanislavski’s stage manager. Except of course the impossible sound in “Cherry Orchard.” That was him.

And please don’t tell me what a play is based on a Wikipedia entry. That makes me want to cry.

“So, we're all right, yes? Many consider plays as things to be performed and some consider plays just fine to only read.”

I say they’re both, and uniquely so.

And the 'dead someday' thing doesn't sound harsh. It's true. It's only harsh if you plan on killing me. I'm actually planning on coming to "The Skriker." So you'll get your chance.

ps, Bob, I'm going to try to come to Clay Continent next Saturday.

Scott Barsotti said...

"Oh, and I totally don't need to know you personally to figure out if I would want to do your play. Your play should certainly speak for itself."

Fair enough. I hope they do.

GreyZelda Land said...

Not to be defensive, but "silent and gloom" is absolutely necessary for the scene as you'll see when you come to the show. It starts out silent. And it's gloomy and sad. Gloom is an excellent descriptive word that paints an immediate picture in the reader's and interpreter's head.

It's a stark contrast to the previous scene, as I said.

I am sorry that you took Detroit's rejection personally. I do like following the playwright's stage directions because I feel it's a part of the entire whole and if the playwright didn't want it done, why would he or she put it there? I'm not trying to argue ... I'm really trying to validate your stage directions and the need for others to follow them the best they can. Yes, the director a couple years ago followed your stage direction and continued the capture of the "chains" just with a different interpretation but she still followed it. And checked with you first, which was very considerate.

There are a couple of moments where we weren't physically able to follow the exact stage directions in Skriker ... we don't have the character of Johnny Squarefoot who is mentioned at the beginning of the show and we're not having a "beach covered with Blue Men", again because we don't have the huge cast, but we tried to follow everything else to the best of our abilities because I really like her stage directions and feel they should be respected.

If I did read a play and didn't relate to the author's use of the stage directions, then chances are I might not like the dialogue either. Some people like my directing, some don't. Some people will like my actors, some won't. Some people will like the incidental music, some won't. But ... I'm not going to take it personally if I can help it.

I look forward to meeting you at the show! Because you're listed on our blog role, you'll be able to see the show for free.

And, Scott ... if you believe strongly in your play, stage directions, etc ... who gives a fig what that Detroit theatre or me or anyone says? Especially if it doesn't honestly matter what we say ... you took it personally and it seems like you want to make it out to be our problem with oppression. I'm definitely not trying to victimize your art here. If no one produces it and you want it produced, haul off and do it. You say you've been criticized a couple of times... you can either take the note or not. You say you like the impossible. But our job as the people who put your play on its feet is to make the impossible possible.


GreyZelda Land said...

"Yes, we’re talking about aesthetic differences, but again, Rebecca, you’ve asserted that from a producer’s standpoint, rather than engage the writer about a shared vision of the piece, you would chuck the play, not because you didn’t like the story, but because you didn’t like the writer’s method. That’s a frightening thought, and feels more personal than professional, as it did with that theatre in Detroit."

Sheesh - here I go again writing. I guess my question, too, is ... this Detroit theatre is probably pretty busy reading and deciding what gets passed on. Why do you feel that you need to have a personal conversation with them to explain what's wrong with their initial instinct on it? Not every theatre has time to help the playwright workshop ... they want to do something that's ready to go and that speaks to them on the personal level.

And, a lot of playwrights don't want to have a shared vision with the director. And vice versa. I like the playwright's words, but I don't know how we would end up collaborating together ... which is why, honestly, I don't do a whole bunch of it. I always think that I have to be gentle with my words and feedback about the play because the playwright might not like what I have to say or might not like my interpretation and might want to step in and do my job for me.

Which goes to stuff talked about a while back on this blog I think.

Anyway ... I haven't read your story and might like it. I am definitely not judging you on your writing based on the sentence I read. That would be plain nutty.

I don't know if you want to, but ... I'd like to read your play now that we've talked about it so much. Would you be willing to email it to me at Then, I feel like I could give informed feedback from where the company might be coming from or disagree with why it was rejected, etc instead of riffing off of the blog.


devilvet said...

I've been offline for a while, but...

"And comparing yourself to Mozart? It reminds me of someone who compared himself to Moses recently. Heh heh.


Couple things...I could say...

I wasnt comparing myself to Mozart, so much as I was comparing you to the Emperor...heh heh

or I could say that after years of comparing myself to Salieri, I just for once want to be on the winning side...

or I could say to compare oneself to a genius like mozart is acceptable if you are a genius such as myself. Whereas to compare oneself to a biblical figure is unacceptable in any capacity...

But, I was quoting something we all know to provide reference regarding when one critics another's work.

Personally I hate Mozart, I thing someone ought to infuse a little more gloom into his work.

GreyZelda Land said...

Yes, indeed ... off with your, er, my head ... if we were ... in ... France.

On that note ... Have an excellent weekend everyone and thank you for a fun Friday conversation.

I feel like Sam, the sheepdog, punching out with Wile E. Coyote. Or was it Ralph Coyote? I forget.



Devilvet said...

"Your play should certainly speak for itself."

Opening up an old wound, but I cant help myself as I reread the discussion...

"Your play should certainly speak for itself."

and by that do we mean not the play...but the dialogue...I intrepet alot of directors (who dont write plays) to mean...

Your dialogue should certainly speak for itself.

i.e. Your dialogue should withstand any directorial concept. Your dialogue is all that we (the director/producer) allow you playwrights...why? Becuase...Once the playwright dictates anything other than dialogue...he/she is limiting/censoring the artistic contributions of the other participants...

If the play should stand on it's own...then why does

"John stares" stand the test of time better than "John stares ahead. His eyes unfocus, everything in front of him blurs together like the letters of a word you've stared at for ten minutes"...

Personally I think that if the play has to stnad alone...the second one has better chance.

In addition to that notion, I also think in our increasing "visual" based worldview and media/consumption...why not speak in an language visual and ripe with miniua and specific...why not set goals that just exceed our reach?

Also, If this play were produced in a small black box like the Side Project or The Loft at the bAiliwick...then those stage directions are...achievable...

GreyZelda Land said...

DV - Like I said earlier in my comments ... write whatever you want to write, it's your play. I'm just saying that you can't get offended if somebody doesn't want to do it for aesthetic reasons.

I just like a clean script with well written stage directions ... whether they can or cannot be achieved, I'm going to do my best to achieve them because I believe that if the playwright didn't want them achieved, then I don't understand why they would be written in the first place. And, if you're clever enough to give clues in your dialogue, then I think you're getting to be a very good playwright. Emphasis on "I think". You might not think it. That's fine with me.

Churchill's very good at writing the given circumstances into the character's speech and, obviously, I like that so much, I'm producing and directing it.

We've written a couple plays and adapted a couple to three more ... but they're not ready to be sent to another theatre company's consideration, at this point, because of things like the stage directions. We want to make sure that everything's clear enough for future producing companies ... and we're not looking to put tons of stage directions in because that, to us, seems like it's cheating a little bit ... we just want to be able to paint a universal picture so, if it was produced in Hong Kong, it would still come across with a similar rhythm and intent.

Again, it's just me and my opinion, my friends.

It's a free country. Write what you want to write. And I'll produce what I want to produce. Just because I'm a theatre person, doesn't mean I have to love everything everyone does theatrically or agree with everyone's writing style just because they write. I try to have pretty discerning taste in all the artforms I choose to take in. Yes, I'm a snob about certain things, fo sho.

Have you ever read Stephen King's "On Writing"? Say what you want about Stephen King, but ... it's a great book and he talks a good deal about paring things down. I agree 110% with that outlook as both a writer and a reader of literature. To quote Stephen, "To write is human, to edit is divine." That about sums up my feelings on that dear bit of stage direction.


David Daniel said...

As an actor, I'm absolutely fine with working with stage directions of Shaw or Pinter. I'll use what both give me...or don't give me. But I believe you should follow your creative instincts when your writing. Like all artists, those instincts will change and develop with time....a "John stares ahead. His eyes unfocus, everything in front of him blurs together like the letters of a word you've stared at for ten minutes" direction may evolve into a "away"... who knows- and that is not to say that less is more. It is to say that you're the writer- write. I've discarded stage and character descriptions that Shaw has given me and I've longed for something more from Pinter about "that" moment.

I will also say that a stage direction has absolutely made a play for me. In Two Shakespearean Actors, the last stage direction is what had the greatest affect on me as a reader, as an actor in the play, and as an artist in the world. The actor is left alone on this case a stage within a stage... and the playwright gives us this as a final direction- "He starts to go and then stops and turns back not knowing where else in the world he'd rather be." [a recollection not a quote] That was enough to send me into rocket mode and put me on a course onstage and off that has "paid off" invaluably.

You write what you want.