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.