Stage Directions Nobody Needs Anymore

There’s a New York Times article making the rounds (I got to it admittedly late, via Art Hennessey), detailing one of Paula Vogel’s recent “Boot Camp” exercises at Second Stage. And while the Boot Camps themselves are fantastic courses for writers, and I highly encourage anything that gives them more exposure, the quote that has really gotten everybody’s hackles up comes courtesy of “Young Theatre Director” Nicholas Gray, who didn’t like Vogel saying that stage directions can be used to provide different types of moments in plays:

Such a heavy authorial hand drew heated complaints, however, from Nicholas Gray, a young theater director who had been invited by an associate. Mr. Gray railed against lengthy stage directions, saying he crossed them out in scripts before he would begin rehearsals with his actors.

“It’s the playwright being tyrannical over all of the other artists who will ever work on the play,” Mr. Gray said, adding that even “Long Day’s Journey Into Night” would not escape his pen.

Young Master Gray is being, at best, incredibly reductive, and at worst, to use a technical term, a huge haughty jerk. But one thing that I haven’t seen being discussed yet is what led to the attitude Gray and those like him espouse, and what we as playwrights can do to avoid it. In short: we need to make sure our stage directions belong in our plays in the first place.

One of the most common issues that I encounter when I’m teaching playwriting is the idea of Playwright As Director, attempting to dictate the exact pace, location, blocking, and tone of every moment being constructed. It’s a natural inclination: we all have an imaginary stage in our head on which all of our plays are performed by an imaginary ensemble of perfect actors.  There are two problems with this, though:

  1. Imaginary stages, by definition, don’t exist. The stage all of my plays get performed on in my head is a proscenium set-up with five hundred square feet and a state-of-the-art projection and fly system. I’ve kind of come to terms with the scarcity of such spaces in real life, and also with the fact that…
  2. All of my very clear ideas about how everyone sounds and where they stand on the stage are the result of my imagination and my imagination alone, and thus are limited to one point of view. I’m already crafting the structure, dialogue, action and overall rhythm of the play; are we really to assume that my distracted brain will also come up with the best blocking and set design? Of course not. That’s why we work with directors and designers and actors. Many brains are better than one.

This is not to say that stage directions aren’t useful. They’re immensely useful, but only as a part of the overall experience. Paula Vogel advocates for stage directions that open doors, and play a part in the tone, spirit and approach of your play. Directions that, when you hand them to directors, designers and actors, actually get them excited about the further possibilities provided. Stage directions like “A fuzzy pause,” or “Uh oh,” or “Everything starts changing,” or “The space begins opening,” or, hell, “An angel bursts in through the bedroom ceiling.” These are stage directions as challenges, as collaboration: it’s you saying “Hey, fellow artists, I want something that kinda feels like this, and I know we can all come up with a solution together, so let’s do this thing! Go team!” Even a pause or a beat, properly placed, tells your artistic team more about a moment than a direction that tries to fill that same moment with a specific action. It’s up to the team to figure out how to fill the pause; all you know is that it has to be there. (But, seriously. Make sure it does have to be there.)

Your script  is a skeleton that your collaborators build the meat on to, and stage directions are just additional bones in that skeleton. What they are not is an instruction manual on where all the organs and muscles go, and how sarcastically the heart beats. But, of course, it’s hard to let go of that kind of control, and trust your collaborators, and so a lot of writers try to dictate everything and bring their imaginary productions to life on the page. And that leads to Young Theatre Directors who decide that, y’know what? Fuck it. No stage directions for everyone. To prevent further angst in this regard, I propose the following list of Four Types of Stage Directions That Nobody Would Miss And You Should Probably Avoid When Writing:

  • Adverbs: Sarcastically. Eloquently. Angrily. They’re crappy in prose fiction, and they’re crappy in plays, too. That line that you think just NEEDS to be delivered deeply, sadly, and profoundly? I guarantee you that your actor can come up with a better reading, that actually springs from the rhythm of the scene in rehearsal, and fits the moment of that production exactly. So give your actor the chance to find that reading on his or her own.
  • Geographical Stage Plots: You demand that there be a beige couch, but we only have a red divan. And that door you want stage left, five feet from center? Too bad; we only have off-stage space on stage right. This is the Imaginary Stage all over again. If your play has a Big Significant Visual Metaphor that absolutely demands a specific orientation of objects and set pieces, then I guess you can include it, but it better be a damn good metaphor and you’d also better be willing to adapt it to a three-sided thrust when that’s your only chance at a production.
  • Incredibly Specific Actor Positioning and Movement: No one gives a crap what side of the couch you think your actors need to sit on. They don’t! They really don’t. Such is life. Let it happen.
  • Stage Directions that Interrupt the Rhythm: When I’m reading a script, there’s nothing more frustrating than reading a vicious, fast-paced argument scene that is constant broken up by stage directions like “She turns away from him,” “He gets a glass of water from the kitchen,” or whatever other random actions the writer feels the need to tell me are also helping. The first experience any artist (director, producer, actor, designer, whatever) has of your script is on the page, so why not use that first impression to actually let them feel the moments as intended? If the scene needs to be fast, make it a fast read. If it’s a super-involved, intense discussion, then make it as lean and mean and propulsive to read as it will be to watch. Don’t shoot yourself in the foot by demanding that the reader switch gears between dialogue and direction constantly.

Really, all these points boil down to one major thought: stage directions shouldn’t be used to tell people how to do their jobs. They’re a part of your toolbox, and your job is to use them to evoke, inspire, and challenge your collaborators. So have fun with them! Obviously every rule I’ve just stated is made to be broken, but recognize that, if you’re not breaking it for a really really good reason, you’re just giving more ammo to every Young Theatre Director out there who wants to justify their laziness by cutting all directions they see.

15 Comments on “Stage Directions Nobody Needs Anymore

  1. Ok, Walt. I think you’ll get a lot of agreement on this post. Of course, you are giving advice, and not making rules.

    The exception I can think of to the onerous-by-popular-declamation adverb, is when the playwright wants a particular reaction that absolutely does not follow from the texts, actions, or any other element in the play, where the reason for the reaction is only revealed later. And I suppose it’s possible, however unlikely, that the reason would never be revealed at all.

    More importantly, there’s an exception to stage directions that has to do with dumb shows. I’ve written favorite scenes that have no dialogue at all, but merely indicate actions. They can be hilarious, scary, and revealing of character. The playwright can follow the spirit of including director and actor collaboration by making the dumb show as open to interpretation as possible, but the playwright has to write it, and has to ensure that his author intentions are clear.

    On a matter only tenuously related, when I was in high school, I wrote my own grammar which extolled the virtues of adverbs. Now, at the other end of life, while I no longer agree with my earlier position, I still have a soft spot in my head for adverbs.


  2. I agree with you, and I agree with Bernard. Regarding adverbs — and I am loathe to defend adverbs or adjectives — I’ve noticed that they can be useful if the first iteration of a piece is either a staged reading with limited or nonexistent rehearsal or a workshop. In other words, if the script will be pretty much cold-read, I think that it’s important to imbed the tone for the actors you’re hoping to hear the first time. After all, sparse dialogue can be read really fast or really slow, and it’s much more useful in growing the script if you are responding more to the words than to the way the actors are reading them.

  3. I read the NYT piece via Art Hennessey too, so it’s been on my mind this week. I think, oddly enough, it’s taken me longer to learn how to write stage directions than it has to learn how to write dialogue.

    I totally agree with you about the adverbs. My overuse of them when I was just starting out wasn’t out of a maniacal need for control, but out of lack of confidence in my writing. I was afraid that readers and actors wouldn’t “get” what I was going for, so I’d add adverbs in to help them navigate my mess of a scene. I’ve since learned to trust myself and let go of that.

    I wish that crafting stage directions were something that got taught more often–maybe it does on the undergrad level and I just missed out on it? I never knew what was “right” or “wrong,” and I did a lot of figuring that out along the way. I’d read other plays that spelled out “a red chair up left” and would think that it would be careless to not include specifics, but now I rarely use anything that specific.

    One of my favorite stage directions ever remains “she explodes” from your play. 🙂 It was a “wow, you can do things like that” moment for me.

  4. Bernard & Brian, there are definitely times when adverbs are necessary, but I think that they’re incredibly rare. The kind of situation where context provides no clue whatsoever just doesn’t come up a whole lot, and when it does, I think it’s usually better to write an action or a pregnant pause than to try to signal that by coloring the line itself. But it’s really just about trying to find other solutions first.

    As for cold reads, again, some guidance is necessary but I actually think that informative/adverbial SDs do more harm than good in those situations, because if the actor is reading the scene out loud for the first time, excessive direction makes them pull themselves out of a moment to process and incorporate what you want from the moment. Actors are crazy smart: if a line’s meant to be read sarcastically, they’ll probably be able to pick up on it from the context and flow of the lines alone. If not, and they make the “wrong” choice, then it’s probably instructive about what the exchange is actually coming across as.

    (And thanks, Colleen! Someday that explosion’ll happen, and it’ll be fun to see precisely how.)

  5. Salient replies regarding adverbs. They probably can be avoided altogether always. And people writing and speaking in the real world tend to drop the “ly” even when it should be used, so case closed.

    But no one’s replied regarding dumb shows. And I’ll take it a step further. I not only write scenes without dialogue, but also scenes with suspended dialogue, where actions are the only thing happening. Would be interested if any of you had comment about how you handle such stretches of verbal silence.

  6. I once got a call from a director who was working on a reading of one of my plays, out of town. He had also blacked out all the stage directions before handing them to the actors, and his call was out of confusion– why did a character stop talking during the scene? No one could figure it out.

    The answer: because she DIED. The director had blacked out the stage direction that said so.

    Sometimes the writer actually knows what they are doing.

    • I’ve always felt that, ideally, there should always be a step in any rehearsal process–and any development process as well, for that matter–when anything is allowed, just to discover the unexpected, a “free square” where all the rules are expressly ignored. Completely cutting all stage directions prunes the creative result, the opposite of the purported intention of rehearsal (or development).

      [“Ideally” is an adverb, right?]

  7. Jamie, I think that’s my new favorite story ever. Like, seriously. That’s just perfect.

    And Bernard, totally agree on dumb shows and suspended silence. Obviously, it’s up to you to write the action in those circumstances. But even then, I think the emphasis should be on writing that action with a particularly evocative voice, instead of just straight-up reportage of who moves where when. That way, you ensure that the tone you’re going for carries through, even without any dialogue to establish it. Less is more, in other words: let the language and rhythm of what you write inform the feeling you’re going for, and the actors/directors/production team will figure out the best way to execute.

  8. The world stubbornly defies categorization. Guidelines are useful, but for every “rule” there exist a thousand counter-examples. Judge each case on its own merits.

  9. One of my plays – one with very few stage directions beyond entrances and exits – was being produced by a community theatre. The director complained to me that I didn’t give ENOUGH direction. There are pages and pages of dialogue – what are the actors supposed to – sit in the chairs the whole time. It was one of those – damn I’m glad I’d not drinking a cup of coffee – moments.

    • In a situation like that, you should just send the director a copy of the script with “ACTING!” written in between each line.

  10. I think the impulse for Young Directors to black-out or otherwise ignore stage directions comes from a couple of places. One is that most of us came to theatre through high school/college/community experience, which for the most part means that we learned what a script looks like from DPS and Sam French editions, which are riddled with the kind of micromanaging stage directions we all hate so much. We learn to ignore those early on, so it stands to reason that a Young Director might reject a new play’s stage directions as a matter of course. Another reason might be the influence of film and its “Director is King” philosophy, where a script is less a blueprint to be built upon, and more a road map to be frequently and gleefully ignored.

    • I think that’s very true, especially about the published stage directions; they’ve probably done a lot more harm than good over the years. I remember reading a Sam French edition of a play in high school, seeing the props list in the back, and thinking “Oh, Jesus. I have to keep track of all the stuff I’m writing in?” Luckily my laziness won out, and I dodged that particular bullet.

  11. Thanks for this post. This topic has been making my head spin for awhile. A playwriting group that I was in for about a year was led by someone with a playwriting MFA who insisted that no stage direction ever, ever be used because directors will black them out. I don’t have the MFA, so assumed that person knew what they were talking about, and I stopped using all stage directions (prior to this, I had hardly used stage directions anyway, except when I thought they would be really useful in a particular moment). Then I read the NYC Paula Vogel piece, and my eyes crossed. Who I am I listen to? Going forward I think I’ll be listening to Ms. Vogel, thank you very much.

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