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:
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:
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.