This is just how I use them. Since I am a big proponent of NOT using them, I think I should probably help you understand exactly what I mean by that.
When I direct, actors love to say to me, “But it says in the stage directions,” to which my typical response is “So?” But the truth is that I do use them. I’m just not a slave to them, that’s all.
The first time I read a script, I skip the stuff in parentheses altogether, unless I’m unclear as to what is going on or if the stage directions are very lengthy, in which case they usually represent physical action that isn’t reflected in the dialogue. In this latter case, what happens is usually material to the plot, and I need to know what is happening.
But my first reading is to get my visceral reaction to the play and to my character. What hits me between the eyes when I read it? What is my experience like? What is the tone of the piece? In broad strokes, what seems to jump off the page about my character? What seems important? Do any images or sounds come up for me?
The second time I read the play, I read it very closely. I breeze through the first reading, but I slow down the second time, making sure I get every word and its meaning, and this time I read the stage directions, just as carefully. I know that they are an amalgam of the playwright and the original production, but I like to know what those who have gone before me thought.
The third time through, I highlight my lines. The fourth time through, I blacken the stage directions with a Sharpie. But not before reading them again. Some I actually leave in. Here’s my logic:
Sometimes what is in those parentheses are unnecessary. A year ago, I did Alan Ayckbourn’s Woman in Mind. Virtually every adverb instruction (nervously, indignantly, affectionately) was obvious from the writing, I felt. And with a good writer, this is usually the case. When that’s the case, I blacken them out.
When I come across an adverb that surprises me, I stop and consider it. Clearly, I have had a different reaction to the line than the playwright expected. So what about his choice? Is it valid? Is it more interesting than I what I felt? Does it change the meaning? Is it playable?
If, after giving it consideration, my reaction is, “Oh, I see! Of course!”, then I’ll probably blacken it, too. I’ve made a reasonable commitment to it in that moment, or at least I am confident that I will remember the playwright’s opinion when I rehearse the scene. But if I’m not confident that I’ll remember, or I find it an interesting idea and want to try it, I’ll let it stand. Anything I don’t blacken out is there because I want to revisit it, and so I’ll notice it again every time I read the script. Once I’ve made a decision to use it or not to use it, I’ll blacken it. (Note that I’m blackening it out whichever I choose.)
The same thing goes for physical movement. If the business suggested is inherent in the dialogue – “(lifting his glass) Here’s to us, darling!” – I’ll strike the “lifting his glass.” It’s just unnecessary and is cluttering the page, which makes it hard for me to find my lines. If it’s a physical cross – “crosses to table” – I’ll strike it. These kinds of movements are entirely flexible and may be different in each production. “Sits down” may seem obvious, especially if I’ve been invited to sit down, but I want the freedom to sit down when I want to. Perhaps I’ve been invited to sit, but have reasons of my own to delay sitting. I’ll sit eventually, but I’ll discover in the course of rehearsals exactly the right moment to sit.
(Bear in mind, too, that actions in the script don’t necessarily happen at the exact moment indicated. The convention of writing often requires that the movements be noted before or after a line, when in fact they happened in the middle of the line in the original production. But many actors are determined to do it at the exact moment the words show up in the script!)
Physical action or business which isn’t clearly indicated in the dialogue (such as an ironic lifting of a glass in a silent toast, unaccompanied by the words, “Here’s to us, darling!”) is worth considering. I may or may not use it, because I may or may not end up coming to the conclusion that it is in character or that it’s an ironic moment. Or I may find something better to do.
But if it’s worth trying, and I think it is original enough that I might not think of it myself, I’ll leave it be, to remind myself to try it on for size. If I think it’s an option that will readily occur to me during rehearsals, I’ll strike it.
Any action that is essential to the plotline but isn’t indicated in the dialogue gets to stay in my script. Descriptions of fight sequences or other complicated physical bits get to stay. I may or may not use what is suggested, but the stage directions help remind me of what’s important, and give me a base to work from. A lot of the stage directions in a farce like the Farndale Avenue series stay in, because the script would be incomprehensible without it, there is no need to start from scratch on everything, and it is the cleverness of the authors in coming up with all those sight gags that makes the plays work.
But everything else is pretty much gone after the fourth reading.
If you can take the stage directions with a grain of salt, then there is no need to blacken them. I do it both to clarify what is spoken and what isn’t, as well as to force myself to work a little harder, on the theory that if I have to dig, sometimes I’ll come up with gold.
Every once in a while, I’ll be deep into rehearsals and a scene isn’t working. So I go back to my script to find how the original production solved it. Only to find I blackened it out.
But not to worry! Because most of the actors have left their stage directions untouched, I always have access to them if I need them!