Exit pursued by bear…. some thoughts on stage directions

imagesI recently got into discussion with two different friends about the same issue. It was not about Syria, the treatment of women in India, Cameron’s stupidity on Europe or even the distressing activity of the nasty party in the UK generally. We weren’t discussing the level of unemployment in Spain, or the depth of the snow in the East neuk of Fife. I’m afraid it was one of the geekiest of dramaturgical discussions. It was about stage directions.

When I teach, this is an issue which crops up repeatedly. How much information should we put into our scripts? What follows is a precis of some (but not all) of my thoughts on the issue of stage directions…

1) We are dramatists writing a blueprint for the stage. (Passionately) Please respect the skills and imaginations of those who read the work, plus the actors or directors who may produce it. (Sarcastic) It is a collaboration. Allow actors to surprise you with how they interpret a line. (With menace) Please try not to control your actors, nor infringe on their and the director’s process and creativity by trying to direct how a line ‘should’ be said by putting an impossible action (bursting into tears) in italics, bold, or brackets before a line of dialogue. (Laughing bitterly) You may discover they know better than you how to present the line, and in an unexpected, thrilling way, beyond the narrow confines of your own initial ‘hearing’ or interpretation provided by the voice in your head. Besides, they will no doubt ignore what can be seen as a vain and ridiculous attempt to nail everything down, to be in control. Sadly, you will only be revealing your own inexperience and distrust. If you have done your work well, the character, dynamic, and intention will come across. It will be there in the dialogue, the pace, the action, choice of vocabulary, the syntax, the subtext, the thrust of narrative and revealed characterisation. Of course errors and misinterpretations can occur, but please please please don’t give emotional stage directions anywhere in your text.

2) Be sparing in your descriptions of the set. You will discover that the detailed description of every stick of furniture, its placement Stage Left/Right/Centre, plus items on it (also known as props) will invariably not have been written by any playwright post 1956, but is actually the loving, exquisite work of the company’s Deputy Stage Manager, or DSM, who has recorded all from the production in ‘the book’. This then may have been the script sent to the publisher.  However, the tendency to write extremely long descriptions of an interior in excruciating and gnomic detail in the second decade of the twenty first century will invariably reveal that the playwright has probably not read a contemporary script, or a publisher other than Samuel French. I am not being snide, snobby, or bitchy about Samuel French – I think they do splendid and immensely useful publications, specialising as they do in presenting all the practical elements required for production (including prop lists, costumes, etc). The issue is when a contemporary playwright presents such a description of the set. It will either be seen as further proof of a control freak (see 1), or someone not widely promiscuous in the purveyor of play texts. I personally know that when we are first creating the world of our play, we need to write everything down (including description of set, costume, traffic of the stage, how lines are said, etc). Once the draft is developed, it will probably do the writer a favour to then cut these descriptions out. Allow your reader (and hopefully future director, designer, actors, etc) to create it anew – to ‘own’ it – and provide their own versions.

 3) A handsome man of above average height wearing a check suit under a buttoned-up mackintosh enters USR. With a barely perceptible smile he moves elegantly on a diagonal to the battered oak table, its surface ruined by coffee rings too numerous to count and generations of careless family use, sitting on a slight angle front edge pointing DSR on the elegant Persian rug CS. The moon glints in the window USL and falls on the exquisitely hand knitted Arran jumper worn by our heroine, sauntering with assumed nonchalance   

Had to stop, was losing the will to live writing that. See 2 above re-‘the book’ and DSM re-traffic of the stage and 1 above for being a tyrannical control freak.

Don’t do it. A simple indication of who enters or leaves will suffice. The director and actors will decide where they stand/move. The lighting designer will decide where the moon glints from (if at all). The costume designer will decide – etc etc. Our job is to write the play. We don’t like it when a director or actor tries to rewrite our lines or do our job. So respect, and let them do their job, also.

4) Assume you will have a production and there will be collaborators to deal with that other stuff (If you don’t want others to contribute, but want to do it all yourself, good luck, but I doubt you’ll have read this far, anyway).

5) There are of course exceptions to these – playwrights whose vision not only created extraordinary stage worlds, but who also rewrote the so-called rules, who challenged convention, transformed theatre, and brought in new forms, processes, theatre languages… They of course often used stage directions extensively (see Beckett), but not in the manners outlined, above.

I hope we will continue to have more such innovators, so as for everything I write, nothing is rigid, nothing is prescribed, but I hope it is stimulating.

(c) Kaite O’Reilly. 25/1/13. 

3 responses to “Exit pursued by bear…. some thoughts on stage directions

  1. As a director who often works with new writers I have had the extremities to deal with from the dictator writer to the deserter writer where we are given absolutely no clues via stage directions.
    To the dictator I usually state make sure your stage directions tell us something new about character or story if it doesn’t it’s probably not necessary. To the deserter more often or not it is good to know where everyone is if you give nothing else give us this.

    • Thanks so much for this. It’s great to get a director’s perspective, and some engagement full stop about this. Thanks for covering the ‘deserter writer’. My experience as dramaturg has usually been writers giving too much information – but I’m grateful to you for reminding me of the opposite. There’s nothing more disconcerting than having a voice suddenly appear in the middle of a scene, realising a character has entered at some point but without being marked – or a character who I thought was present being very silent for a very long time, and realising they have gone…

  2. love it….

    Ruth Gould MA FRSA CEO DaDa

    Mobile 07990544897 Office: 0151 707 1733

    Sent from my iPad

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