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YOUR FAITHFUL SERVANT—
(NOTE: In somewhat different form, this appeared as an article in Dramatics magazine, November 1999, under the title, "The Actors Guide." My deep appreciation--again!--to those who e-mailed or wrote me about the article. I was delighted, too, to hear that the piece has been posted on theatres' bulletin boards and I got a kick out of hearing about the controversies the article provoked in a certain-unnamed-here august institution and another I-wouldn't-want-to-identify-publicly professional organization. I've been asked if the opening conversation is fictional. No, gawd save us, it really took place, although I did doctor it a tad. To those who urged me to put it on the internet--here it is.)
"My acting teacher taught us that first thing we should do with a script is mark out every stage direction," she said. "Especially all of those about the characters."
Astonished, I sputtered incoherently and finally got words out. "Nonsense! Who taught you that garbage?!"
We were in playwriting class, a particularly strong group this semester. Our discussions often are free-wheeling, dynamic explorations of the mysteries and wonders of creating theatre. At this moment, however, we had a specific focus: A playwright had just finished reading her play and someone had asked about the validity of a particular stage direction. I’d spoken about its potential helpfulness for the actor playing that role when another student dropped the bombshell about being instructed to blot out stage directions.
A second student spoke in support of her classmate. "I’ve heard that too," she said. "But it was in my direction class. My teacher says that whether he acts or directs, he uses a black Sharpie pen to mark out every stage direction."
"Why in the. . . .!?" I forced myself to speak politely. "And could you tell us what reason he gave?"
"’Stage directions inhibit creativity,’" she recited in a fine imitation of a pompous professorial pronouncement from Olympus. "’All that nonsense about how the character sounds or reacts or speaks or looks, and that junk about the setting and clothing--all worthless.'"
"That's what he told us," she said. "He says, 'They get in the actor’s way of truth and the director’s creative intuitive responses. Therefore we should always cross out those notes without reading them. It’s a matter of artistic freedom.’"
I shuddered. "So that's artistic. . .um. . .freedom, huh?"
"That’s not all," the first student continued, reciting from memory. "My acting teacher says, ‘No one can tell if the stage direction was written by the playwright or a stage manager at the first professional production.’ She says that makes all directions worthless."
"More garbage!" This time I didn’t say it out loud. But I was shocked.
One particularly attractive aspect of my job is that I get to teach -- and learn -- acting, play direction, and playwriting, both in classes and while directing productions. These three arts are, I’ve discovered, remarkably similar, although with different jargon. For example, the actor creates a detailed character biography, a technique which is (or ought be) in the playwright’s toolbox, too. The director echoes (let us hope) the playwright’s concern for conflict, structure, and rhythm — indeed, for telling the basic overall story. The playwright’s solid focus on motivations and objectives is (or should be) matched by the actors and directors. Each theatre artist connects with the other. Or should.
Of course I knew that "decontructionist directors" like to deliberately ignore or reverse the dramatist’s stage directions, change characters and locations, even shift the original order of the scenes. These types seem to operate on a premise that "Like, hey, dude, I have to prove I’m super-creative, too, y’know?"
Yeah, sure, dude.
But I didn’t know that plague was spreading to actors.
And in the classroom--teaching students to delete major aspects of a
as a standard practice? My lord. What the hell kind of
academic training is that? Whatever happened to artistic
responsibility, common sense, and ethical standards?
If we eliminate the playwright's vision,
Eliminate the playwright’s stage directions?? That means doing away with how the dramatist’s imagination "heard" and "saw" the characters to create a stageworthy piece. It eliminates a vital part of the playwright's vision. Deleting that communication system cancels the original creator’s concept.
If we think it is correct to mark out the playwright’s clues, then
carry the logic further. Why not remove all of a novelist’s
about a character’s thoughts, emotions, and reactions, leaving only
dialog? While we’re at it, why select only writers? Let’s
be sure actors speak
lines in a flat monotone so they won’t convey emotions or subtext, in
"erasing" their "stage directions." Scene and costume designers
use a neutral color and style to erase all possible meaning.
designers—well, by logical extension let’s not have lights at
Shall we take a figurative black Sharpie to mark out all that so-called
A matter of respect to collaborators
One governing premise of theatrical productions is that it is a collaborative effort. We expect each theatre worker to treat all others with respect.
Isn’t it therefore bizarre that there are those who believe they have "artistic freedom" to radically change the playwright’s script, reverse the order of scenes, or (as in this case) throw out the original creator’s stage directions?
Aren't they saying through their actions they respect every artist except the playwright?
So much for respect and collaboration in theatre.
Ignore stage directions?
That’s like putting on a blindfold to drive on the interstate.
Do you want to be a passenger, in that car or on the stage, with
Examples of stage directions that
Take Harold Pinter’s plays, for example. This author of plays such as The Homecoming and One for the Road is famous for his "pauses" and "silences" —indicated by, let us emphasize, the stage directions . During those moments nothing is said out loud, but the silences contain major subtext messages that shout out the unheard. Mark out his stage directions for "pause" and "silence" and you erase about two-thirds of the characters’ thoughts and emotions, not to mention the dramatist’s guides to rhythm and pace. Communication from the stage to the audience is sharply reduced. Deleting his stage directions is gutting the play.
A director imperils the production of Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot by ignoring stage directions, especially the famous one at the play’s end. Says one character to the other, "Shall we go?" The other replies, "Yes." The stage direction says: "They do not move." Curtain.
Is someone going to argue that Beckett's stage direction is immaterial? I hope not.
Can you tell if Pinter's "pauses" or Beckett's "They do not move" was written by the playwright or by a stage manager? You bet. "They do not move" is the core of the playwrights' story, not the work of a stage manager.
No actress playing Lyuboff in Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard can
the role completely if she crosses out the author’s directions
the character’s initial moments after her entrance. In order, the
stage directions say she is:
has done a masterful job of writing for the theatre to depict
character. He uses the
theatre like a savvy showman. Those stage directions for Lyuboff
come in the first minute or so after she enters. Don’t those stage
give you significant cues about her mercurial nature? What do you
would result if those were all marked out so the actress didn’t know
playwright’s concept of that character? What if the director
out all of those stage directions--would it be an improved
(Yes, I can hear the director claiming huge improvements. Plah.)
It’s hard to find even one slightly irrelevant stage direction in Tennessee Williams’s A Streetcar Named Desire. For example, who’d want to erase the play’s opening stage directions? In the beginning of the play, Stanley enters with a blood-stained package of meat and tosses it up to his wife, Stella. Pretty clear metaphor, isn’t it? The caveman-gatherer brings home food (raw and bloody at that) for his mate. He doesn’t give it to her. He throws it. A moment later Stella asks Stanley if she can go with him to the bowling alley. "Come on," he replies—and he leaves without waiting for her. From that one moment the basic aspects of their relationship are made clear — through stage directions. Cross them out and you destroy major pantomimimic dramatization and kill vital aspects of characterization. A novelist would need pages--perhaps even a chapter--to express what the playwright so expertly and deftly shows. Through stage directions.
Equally, stage directions about Blanche’s first appearance contains a vital descriptive metaphor: "There is something about her uncertain manner, as well as her white clothes, that suggests a moth." What actress (or director or costume designer) would be better informed if "white clothes" and "moth" were marked out by a black Sharpie pen?
One of theatre's most striking stage directions is Chekhov's "the sound of a harp string breaking" at the end of The Cherry Orchard. And there is that intensely meaningful sound of the closing door at the end of A Doll's House. Cross out those stage directions? Why? Isn't that murdering the play?
The playwright uses stage directions on the script like a composer uses notations on the score. These are vitally important indications of how the art is to be transform from the paper to a performance. Can you imagine any symphony conductor telling his musicians, "First thing, cross out all the notations"? Yes, absurd. Or can you imagine any symphony's board hiring a conductor who crosses out all notations from his score? Again, absurd. (Yes, you're right: I indeed wonder about the artistic integrity of any theatrical organization hiring a theatrical director who crosses out stage directions.)
Two categories of stage directions
The above examples illustrate the two types of stage directions you find in plays.
One is the "actor direction," which aims specifically at one actor and consists of line readings and reactions ("Laughing," "Frowning," "In a flat voice," "Hesitantly," and so forth).
The second category is more broad "production information," which also can be called "stage direction." Here you find descriptions of the environment (furniture, props, lighting, costumes, and the like) as well as character relationships and descriptions (age, clothing, and so forth), scene and act divisions, entrance or exit information, sound effects, and more.
Both communicate playwrights’ visions—how their imagination heard and saw the play and characters.
The production information--all those supposedly inhibiting stage
directions--contains the "given circumstances" that Stanislavki felt must
be aborbed by
the actor to develop the character. Would he approve of
a black Sharpie to stage directions? Not bloody likely.
Do Stage Managers write Stage
There is an urban myth about stage directions. Some theatre practitioners claim stage directions aren’t worth much because so many are written by the stage manager of the play’s first professional production.
What you see within the script is by the playwright.
Okay, sure, modern editors have put a few stage directions (act
divisions, a few entrances and exits) into
Shakespeare's plays. That's merely a literary editorial job to
make the plays easier to read, not
a stage manager's insertions. And that has nothing to do with
modern playwriting practice.
A Matter of Sensitive (and
intelligent) Play Reading.
Certain theatre practioners, like those cited at the beginning of this article, argue you can’t tell which stage directions are by the playwright.
That’s a difficult argument to understand. The above examples clearly are the playwrights’ ideas. Who else? All you have to do is read the play with a modicum of sensitivity and insight and you automatically know that it is the author speaking to the director, actors, and designers. If a theatre person can't tell that's the author's writing, then he or she has major problems with playreading techniques. Big-time problems.
How blindly insensitive do you have to be to not know who wrote the stage directions in the examples above from Williams, Beckett, Chekhov, Pinter?
In the vast majority of plays--let's say 99.9% of them-- everything within the script is the playwright’s.
Often, however, at the back of the acting edition you’ll find light
a sketch of a floor plan, lists of props or costume changes, and the
like. Quite possibly those outside the script are from the notes
of the stage manager
of the first production of the play. But not always. Some
publishers-leasing agents like Samuel French often ask the playwright
write those tech notes at the end of the play.
those who insist the stage manager inserts materials into the
play: Do you really think a playwright--any author--would
allow someone to
do that to his or her play? Aww, come on!!
The playwright's obligations with stage directions
Playwrights who want their stage directions studied will apply good theatre sense and recognize the difference between effective and ineffective stage directions.
For example, there are two major problems in this sort of stage direction:
First, "DL door" may irritate the director and scene designer who can have perfectly sound reasons to put that door somewhere else. Playwrights shouldn't try to be scene designers. Never say "DL door." Say "front door." Never write "He moves DC to the chair." Say "he moves to the chair." Don't design the floor plan: the scene designer and director have far more knowledge about design for their particular theatre.JOHN-BOB enters DL door, angry that his dog ran off while they were walking in the park.
Secondly, and more significantly, stage directions about a character’s internal mental or emotional processes aren’t playable. If you were playing John-Bob, how could you show that anger and the cause?
Better would be something like this:
Even better would be to write a bit of dialog for John-Bob such as:JOHN-BOB enters through the front door. HE carries a dog’s collar and leash. HE looks at them, then vigorously slings them across the room.
JOHN-BOB. I knew we shoulda taken that damn mutt to obedience school! That’s the last time I take him to the park! He can stay lost for all I care!
Are stage directions followed in every detail?
No theatre-savvy playwright expects directors, actors, or designers to follow stage directions slavishly. Some directions are simply impossible. For example, Federico Garcia Lorca’s intense poetic drama, The House of Bernarda Alba, examines the tragic consequences of tradition on a woman and her daughters. Early in the play the playwright’s stage direction calls for "two hundred women of the town" to enter. They have that one appearance, entering to bewail the death of Bernarda’s husband. None has individual dialog. All disappear forever after.
Cast two hundred women for a two- or three-minute scene??! And the scenic impossibilities: for Bernarda's house to be large enough to hold 200+ characters means one whoppingly large home, but after the townswomen leave we are to feel that the daughters are caught inside a tight, small prison.
While directors may not cast 200 women in Lorca’s play, they should work carefully to be sure they understand why the playwright wants that effect. That's really what a director should do with stage directions: figure out why the author calls for this or that effect. Then try to decide how best to achieve the playwright's vision. Not cross out the vital information in stage directions.
The reasons Lorca calls for the women of the town to enter aren’t difficult to find. First, the town shares Bernarda’s grief. Secondly, this is the last time Bernarda’s home will be open. From now on, in keeping with tradition, it will remain closed for mourning, locking up the five young daughters who are eager to experience life. Finally, putting a crowd of women on stage--and 200 is a crowd!--will emphasize the loneliness that the daughters experience by themselves during the rest of the play.
Well, then, the director might reason, can I achieve Lorca’s goal with, say, ten or fifteen women? That’s an intelligent artistic choice, not at all the same thing as marking out all stage directions.
Equally, descriptions of scenery, costumes, and lighting may not be followed to the letter. Often a production company simply can’t achieve every effect.
But certainly the playwright has every right to expect the director and
actor to think very carefully about what effect the playwright wants,
then find ways to achieve the effect, if not the full specifics.
Mark out stage directions?
Not in my directing and acting classes!
Not in productions I direct!
And in my playwriting classes I most certainly will continue to tell my writers to feel free to write stage directions to show what they saw and heard while creating the play. I most certainly will remind them that the play is their property, a fact guaranteed by the copyright laws of the land, and they do not have to tolerate bastardization of their artistic creation. Stage directions are one important tool for the playwright to communicate his or her vision, and damned if they'll be told to throw that out.
I’m an optimist—couldn’t be in theatre if I weren’t—and I continue to hope all of us in theatre will treat each other with mutual respect, will honor the art in each individual, will collaborate in good faith. Crossing out any part of the playwright's creation shows a shocking lack of respect to the creator. Teaching impressionable students to cross out stage directions is, I think, a shocking display of self-centered arrogance.
The next time you approach a play, think of the stage directions as a form of mental telepathy, from the playwright’s mind to yours, expressive statements that help you transform the play from the page to the stage.
Please don’t let anyone tell you to blindfold yourself!
Louis E. Catron
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