A Playwright’s Directions

For the past three weeks I’ve sat in rehearsals as a remarkably dedicated group of artists work to bring my new play, Tindersticks, to stage.  The process is full of challenges and revelations.  Words are wrestled with and changed.  Scene dynamics are pulled apart, shifted this way and that.  One of the most interesting parts, though, is figuring out what to do with words that are never spoken.

Stage directions are fascinating.  For ancient plays they hardly exist.  Our notions of how Greek and Roman performances actually occurred in space are drawn almost entirely from architecture, prosody, and secondhand description.  Even as recently as Elizabethan times, stage directions were comparatively scarce.  Shakespeare’s texts – as we have them today – are rather famously withholding.  But for updates on entrances and exits (with occasional guest-spots for bears), Shakespeare seemed content to eschew authorial commentary.  As readers, we are not told who stands where in relation to whom, which character holds what prop, at what moment in the speech a rapprochement is meant to occur.

For many actors and directors this model has become a kind of ideal.  Fewer stage directions means greater freedom for interpretation.  Further, many artists embrace the challenge to discover direction hidden in the dialogue itself.  Read your Shakespeare carefully, they say, and he does tell you precisely where to cross, where to shout, where to cry.  Any italicized interpolations are unnecessary.

These artists often view an excess of stage directions with suspicion.  And they have good reason to.  Published editions of plays frequently contain notes from the first production.  It may well be a stage manager telling you where to drink (or rather informing you of where another actor once drank) instead of the author herself.

Even when it is the playwright speaking, some have a tendency to step on actors’ shoes.  Edward Albee is the master of adverbial advice.  Whole pages go by in his scripts in which every block of dialogue is preceded by a “warmly” or “savagely” or some other note on how the line ought to be played.  I have met more than one actor who simply blacks out every italicized word in Albee’s scripts on the first day of rehearsal so as to be able to discover the moments freely.

(This practice has inherent dangers.  I’ve also heard a story – probably apocryphal – of a director requesting an entire cast do so for a first reading.  Late in the play they wondered why a particular character had become so silent.  Flipping back through the script and scrutinizing the ink-scoured type, they discovered that the character had died at the end of the first act.)

And so when I got serious about writing plays, it was my goal to use as few stage directions as possible.  I spared them only for necessary and necessarily complex bits of business.  Once in a while I’d throw in an Albee adverb when I was feeling insecure about an actor understanding a character’s tone or intention.  By the time a college professor asked me to write a scene with no directions whatsoever, the actual challenge of the assignment seemed redundant.

At the time I was also doing quite a bit of acting and directing, and I thought as a writer I was being generous to those other artists by just giving them the dialogue and getting out of their way.  I hadn’t noticed that in some cases I was actually making their lives harder and setting terms by which I would almost certainly be dissatisfied with the embodied work.

Modern dialogue is different in so many ways from Elizabethan and Ancient playwriting, but one of the simplest is that our speech rarely demands an action.  Much of this has to do with convention: one can track (to some extent) the movement of the actor or chorus in Greek theatre through the order of the verse.  In addition to the many rhythmic and tonal clues buried in Shakespeare’s language, his character will frequently make explicit reference to such (seemingly apparent) facts as where they are, where they have come from, who they are talking to, and how they feel about them.  Some of this comes from a pre-Freudian, pre-Chekhovian age in which subtext was not a prominent part of drama.  Some of it is just theatrical convention for dealing with the practicalities of how plays were performed at the time.

Point is: where Shakespeare can get away with leaving his texts bare of direction, the modern playwright doing so often courts obscurity.  “Wait what is that pronoun referring to?” an actor asks.  “Oh, he’s got a gun in his hand,” the playwright answers.  “Wait, when did that happen?”  “Well, see where there’s an ellipsis in her line, that’s meant to indicate her reaction to seeing it drawn.”  “Oh…ok…got it.”

So I blushed at my naïve pretention, and I decided to let some directions back into my scripts.  But how would I know when to stop?  Is it appropriate to write that two characters share “a tender moment”, when I could just say “a moment” and leave it up to the director and actors to figure out what kind it is?  I erred on the side of caution, but I began to question my restraint.  Why not, after all?  Why shouldn’t a playwright describe what they see as fully as possible?  If Albee wants to thread his scripts with directions for actors, how is that different from a composer leaving his score dense with dynamic notations for the future conductors and players?

And isn’t there beauty in the author’s descriptions?  Can’t they tell you so much about the thing they are creating?  Look at Eugene O’Neill and Tennessee Williams, both infamous for their long-winded authorial asides.  O’Neill writes to the last physical detail of his characters and environment, as if they really existed and he were running about his memory of them with a magnifying glass, shouting clues up to the conscious mind.  Williams revels in poetic description, conjuring images that, while not strictly produce-able, are wonderfully evocative and full of suggestion for the artists coming after.  Each of them has managed the feat of leaving so many notes that the actual play starts on page three or four of the script.

Finally who decided that the spoken word is the playwright’s only medium?  Is he or she not also responsible, to some degree, for the composition of the drama in space or time?  If the play is a recording of actions, why should the playwright hesitate to include non-verbal actions?  In this reach of the argument, Samuel Beckett is master.

His plays are comically over-stuffed with action-directives for the players (who, I should note, rarely find this funny).  Each blink, each turn of the head is dictated precisely in his scripts.  Beckett himself was, and his estate now is, notorious for hounding artists attempting to disregard his directions.  Nearly all theatre artists I’ve spoken to are horrified by this rigidity.  On the other hand, ninety percent of them will defend absolutely an author’s right to protect her dialogue.  Well, what if Beckett considers the physical action equal in importance to the spoken word?  What if he considers it more important?

By the time I came to write Tindersticks, I’d settled on a balance.  I would feel free to interrupt dialogue with directions when the action seemed necessary to reveal the play.  I would include occasional “playing notes” (cousin to Albee’s adverbs) where I felt the dialogue would otherwise be unclear.  And I would include only such descriptive prose as I felt helpful in welcoming the reader to the script.  Everything else had to go.

Dealing with the stage directions as I managed them for this play has been instructive.  I’ve learned first that no presence or absence of stage directions will answer all the performers’ questions – and that’s a good thing.  Pauses I felt necessary to suggest to the actors the nature of the moment prove only to pose questions, and once the actors have answered the question, the pause itself may be superfluous.  Sometimes a tricky acting beat is just going to be tricky no matter what I try to do to hint at a solution, and so I should just get out of the actors’ space.  Then there are stage directions that seem benign but only manage to hamstring directors and designers.  This isn’t just a case of limiting their room for artistic interpretation (as mentioned above): when blocking, lighting, setting a scene in space, the less specific I am in my demands, the more practical solutions are available to the artists.

Probably my favorite kind of stage direction (to write, work with, and think about) is the impossible direction, or the one written with no particular regard for practicality.  These have a long history, from the goofy (Williams describing Big Mama in a moment of such dignity that she almost becomes thin) to the grand and grotesque (Sarah Kane has characters eaten and carried off by animals).  Mark Lawson wrote a brief article about this genre of direction for The Guardian last summer.

The fun in impossible stage directions is that they give you the what directly from the playwright’s mind, but they leave the how up to the artists responsible for staging the production.  When I write such moments, I am often consciously challenging the director to think creatively, to surprise me in creating a moment I can hardly myself imagine.  As a courtesy, I don’t write directions until I’ve imagined a plausible solution (which I usually keep to myself), but whether it is always the author’s responsibility to do so is a matter for debate.

In Tindersticks, I’ve written several such moments.  There are at least three wordless passages that seem as if they could not well be played naturalistically as written.  Dylan Key (the director), along with his team of actors and artists, has proven me wrong on one sequence by more or less doing it straight (with the aid of one design convention).  On another, he and the actors devised a solution close in spirit to what I imagined but somewhat different in practice.  The third challenging stage direction is still under consideration.

Observing work on these passages is particularly exciting because they are, in a sense, the least testable parts of the script outside of the production process.  With a good ear, a playwright can avoid 95% of cringe-inducing dialogue before the script is even printed.  Another four percent can be stamped out in readings.  Major wordless passages – whether they demand impossible events or not – simply don’t exist until they are seen in time and space.  And if they are integral to the play (as each part should be), then the play itself cannot be fully seen to succeed or fail as a construction until these moments have been built.

In these moments the stage directions are made of the same substance as the rest of the play: they demand all the attention of a thorny dialogue exchange, a howling monologue.  And while they can be challenging to bring to life, I have the comfort of knowing – for once — beyond a doubt that what I’ve written in italics is worth the space on the page and the care of the artists.

Stephen Foglia, Literary Manager

PS — Here’s a good excuse to link this Onion article.