There are people who feel strongly that the stage directions in the script are The Gospel. Not just the movements indicated, but the emotional choices for the actor as well (e.g., “angrily”). I don’t seem to be able to persuade them that these not RIGHT, but they are merely suggestions. You are under no compunction to follow any of them if you have a better idea.
The people who feel this way credit the playwright with a degree of omniscience that can be misplaced. Playwrights are human beings, and they make mistakes, just like the rest of us. Physical movements are often from the original production, not from the playwright, and so don’t warrant slave devotion to them. The original set used is just one designer’s interpretation of the play, and has nothing to do with the playwright in any case. And often the physical movement noted is arbitrary. The play will not be weakened if you stand up two lines earlier or two lines later than the script dictates. It probably won’t be harmed if you never sit down in the first place.
As for the adverbs playwrights throw in so that you won’t mistake their intention, they simply reflect how the playwright heard it in his head when he wrote it. It’s not the only way to say the line (see my next post, The Half Dozen Rights, for an expansion on this idea.)
Sometimes these little notes provide clarity where confusion exists, and I’m all for playwrights using them then. But now that I understand the playwright’s intention, I can say the line however I like – and not necessarily “angrily” – because whatever I end up choosing, it will match the playwright’s intention. Which I now know. If I have a more creative choice that is still in line with his intention, I’m going to ignore his specific instruction, and the play will be better for it.
But sometimes the playwright gets a little carried away with his instructions to the actors. And you know what? Sometimes he’s just dead wrong. I know, I just spoke sacrilege. But I’ve done plays where I am convinced that the playwright was giving me very bad advice on how to play the role. I’ve come across stage directions that leave me utterly perplexed as to what he’s talking about.
The lines I say? Those are sacred, and if I don’t understand what they mean, I better figure it out, and quickly. But the advice on how to say them, or how to move? Not so much. As I said somewhere, if the playwright’s choice is the best one available, you’ll discover it for yourself just by doing the work correctly, and it will be organic when you come across it that way, whereas if you blindly follow the stage directions, you risk it appearing artificial. So you won’t do any harm most of the time if you ignore them.
I also think it’s important to remember that the playwright is a writer, not an actor. Now, I’m not saying that all playwrights are terrible actors. I’m sure there are some who are decent actors. Maybe even very good ones. Probably not brilliant, or they’d be actors, first and foremost. But their stock in trade is putting words on paper. An actor’s stock in trade is putting the words on their feet. And sometimes, things look and sound very different in three dimensions than they look on paper. Sometimes a playwright is simply too close to the work to gain a proper perspective on it.
Theater is a collaborative art. We each bring something to the table, and the ensemble effort produces the final product. We actors aren’t there to be marionettes of the playwright. We are contributing, creative artists. So when it comes to stage directions, keep what is useful and works. Use the playwright’s opinions as guidelines. But don’t turn off your own brain or instinct just because The Playwright Spoke. He isn’t God. And he can be wrong. He didn’t anticipate you playing a role in his play. If he did, he might have viewed the character differently. And written entirely different stage directions!
To read The Validity of Other Perspectives, go here. To read The Half Dozen Rights, go here. To read How Do I Know What the Right Acting Choices Are, go here. To read Line Readings and Why They Don’t Work, go here.