When the Stage Directions Matter

Cinderella wedding

The inspiration for my play, Happily Ever After, came about because I started thinking about the fact that all fairy tales end with the wedding, and so kids who grow up reading them know how to aspire for a wedding, but have no real understanding of what happens next or how to navigate the next 50 years.  The emphasis on courtship over marriage has probably led many couples into a morass, pre-marital counseling notwithstanding.  I had no idea where I was going to go with it, but that was what put my seat in the chair.  What followed wound up being more layered and philosophical than I had anticipated, or even than I knew prior to attending the rehearsal of it.

While watching the rehearsal, I put on my director’s hat, contemplating how I would deal with the issues the director was facing if I was in his shoes.  As a result, I had to analyze my own play in a way that I hadn’t done, and so I learned some interesting things about it!

It was in analyzing the play that I finally figured out why I was uncomfortable with the changes made to the stage directions that end the play.  It turned out that the changes left the audience with two messages that were both in direct contradiction to what I had been trying to say over the course of the play.

Surprising that movement could have such a dramatic effect, huh?

Without reading the play, you may not fully understand why this is, but I’ll give it a stab anyway.

Here’s the original stage directions (remember, this is the continuation of the fairy tale — in this case, Cinderella).  I should say that the dialogue that precedes the stage directions makes it clear that, in the privacy of their bedchambers, the Prince invites her to dance.

(She brightens at this, and moves into his arms at a safe distance.  They start to waltz, and one of them — it doesn’t matter who — starts to hum.  Da-de-da.  It doesn’t matter whether the one humming can carry a tune.  It may even be better if they can’t.  Now they are both humming.  They may even laugh at how bad they are, which only emboldens them to sing louder.  As the song goes on, they gradually move closer together.  And eventually, they are kissing.  Not the chaste sort of kiss as at the beginning of the play, but the happily-ever-after sort of kiss.)

Now, here’s the changed version:

(She brightens at this, and moves into his arms at a safe distance as an orchestra begins to play.  They waltz a few steps.  She stumbles and nearly falls, but he catches her.  She looks up at him, and there is a spark.  She grabs his head and pulls him to her, planting a firm kiss on his mouth.  He sweeps her into his arms and carries her into the bedroom.)

Without knowing anything about the play, there are five distinct differences between these two descriptions:

  1. In the original, there is no orchestra, or else it is too faint to be heard, and that is why they start humming.  In the revision, we clearly hear the full orchestra.
  2. In the original, there is a shared experience which has nothing to do with kissing or sex (humming while they dance, in a silly sort of moment between two people who barely know each other but are going to be spending their lives together).  In the revision, this is replaced by her stumbling as they waltz.
  3. In the original, the kiss is a gradual melding as they begin to relax together.  In the revision, there is sudden switch that goes off in her head that provokes the kiss.
  4. In the original, the kiss is mutual.  In the revision, she clearly kisses him.
  5. In the original, there is a blackout on the kiss.  In the revision, he whisks her off of her feet and takes her into the bedroom.

Without having the entire play to view it in context, #1 can fairly easily be dismissed as not being critical.

The other four may be critical.  First off, the original seems to emphasize the romantic over the passionate.  Sexual desire is clearly at play in the revision.

Secondly, the original has the shared moment of non-romantic, non-sexual silliness, and the revision doesn’t have a comparable moment.

So what can we take away from this?

Before changing stage directions at the beginning or end of a scene or play, you need to carefully study them in the context of what the playwright was trying to accomplish or is trying to say.  Opening moments set a tone, and closing moments — especially at the end of a play — are the playwright’s final word on the subject.  You want to make sure that you are, up to the end, telling the playwright’s story, and not your own.  Also, when the stage directions are more than the minimal (he doffs his hat and exits), they are effectively substituting for dialogue and so probably deserve a similar fealty, at least in terms of intention.

Understanding the playwright’s intention is critical in changing stage directions that are more than simply practical (she sits down; he pours a drink; they turn out the lights and exit upstairs).  If the director had kept the sexual overtones out of it and found a comparable non-sexual moment to replace the humming and laughter, I might have been disappointed (or not, if he found a better way of accomplishing it than what I wrote), but I wouldn’t be uncomfortable with it.  He would clearly have gotten the point of what I was trying to say and simply found an alternative way to say the same thing.

I could have written the “la-di-da” into the dialogue, and probably will so that future directors will understand that it is a non-negotiable element of the play.

So here’s my argument for why the changes reversed the intended meaning of the play:

I associate the sexual desire and attraction between a new couple with the fairy tale story; while critical to beginning a happy ending, it is insufficient in and of itself.  Love and friendship are the more important elements.  By removing the humming, you remove the friendship; by dispensing with the gradual, mutual kiss, you remove the love; and in its stead, you’ve got passionate desire on both sides (her kiss, his carting her off to the bed).  A misplaced emphasis on sex has ruined many a marriage, and that was part of why I wrote the play.  When you end on that note, you are saying, “This is a fine way to go about it.”

The director said he chose to have her initiate the kiss because she had been avoiding it up until that point.  That’s fine, but if I wanted that 180 degree turn, I would have written it that way.  Making her the aggressor makes her a very different girl (and him a very different man).  Before you make a 180 degree change, you need to be sure the script supports it.

He also said, “she stumbles and he catches her before she falls, as he will for the rest of their lives”, and it’s a sweet, if traditional concept.  However, it plays into the old-fashioned myth of the fairy tale — the white knight who will come along and save the damsel in distress and make everything perfect forever — that I had spent ten minutes unraveling and arguing was not going to produce a healthy marriage.

So change the stage directions if you have a really good reason to (I’m still not sure why they decided to change mine), but if you must, please make sure that you are being fully faithful to supporting the playwright’s intention and theme.

A Few Thoughts on Blocking

You-Cant-Take-It-With-You-5281-701187I just got back from AACTFest 2015 and am reflecting on a couple of questions a director from Rochester asked me after the Blocking Workshop I gave on Friday:

  • Is it wrong to have an actor move when someone else is speaking?
  • What if you need an actor to move, but you have no good reason for him to move?

The questions arose, in part, in response to comments I had made about not moving when it is someone else’s “scene” and the need to have a reason to move, be it emotional or practical.  Let me address them in reverse order.

Anyone who has directed a play has encountered a moment when you realize that Actor A needs to be in Position B for one line and Position C for a line that follows, but you have no good way of getting him there.  You backtrack to see if there is another way to block the scene to eliminate the problem.  You try three different options, but none of them are satisfactory — either none of them solve the problem, or else you lose more than you gain.  There’s no real choice — Actor A has to move on another actor’s line when he has no real need to move.  What to do?

In a perfect world, you want to find a reason for him to move, because people just don’t move without a reason.  But the reason doesn’t have to be important or even material to the play.  Have you ever spotted a pin or a penny on the floor and picked it up?  Found something in your pocket you want to throw out and walked to the wastebasket to do just that?  No reason why you can’t have your actors do that.  Adds a bit of verisimilitude to the scene.  Done slowly enough and with minimal motion, it shouldn’t disrupt the scene, especially if the actor is carefully paying attention to what is being said at the time.  His focus on the speaker while he moves actually redirects the audience’s eyes back to the speaker.  Clearly, they think, the speaker must be saying something important!

But let’s say that there is no wastebasket and bending over would be just a little too distracting at that point in the play.  It’s not unheard of for someone to take a step or two for the simple reason that they are tired of standing in one spot.  Even without the excuse that the character wants to lean against the piece of furniture a few steps away, moving just to physically change position is fairly normal.  Is the speaker saying something that Actor A needs to consider?  Sometimes pacing helps people to think, and taking a few steps while pondering what the speaker is asking looks entirely believable to the audience.

Worst case, have the actor slowly sidle to the new location.  It’s unlikely the audience will notice it happening unless he is standing directly behind the speaker.

Which brings us back to the first concern:  is it a bad choice to have an actor move on anyone’s line but his own?

Well, there are times when it is entirely appropriate to do so.  Say there are five of us in the room plotting a bank robbery.  We’ve been going through a dry run, and the lady of the household arrives home with the groceries.  I’m the leader of the gang, and I start shouting out orders, telling everyone what to pick up and where to hide it, so she won’t know what we’re doing.  Everyone should be moving while I speak in that scenario.

But let’s say it’s a domestic scenario with a husband and wife.  Here’s my rule of thumb about virtually everything that happens on stage in a realistic play:  Does it happen in real life?  That is, in real life, do people walk when other people are talking?

Of course they do.  If it happens in real life, it can happen on stage.  Do it in a very real, natural way that does not distract from the important stuff in the play, and it will probably enhance the believability of the scene.

Having said that, there are times when you shouldn’t walk on someone else’s line.  I’m sure it’s not a comprehensive list, but here’s some examples:

  • Important plot points are being revealed.  For instance, in a murder mystery, you want to make sure the audience hears the red herrings.  Don’t do anything to interfere with that.  On the other hand, feel free to muffle the real clues just a little by some sort of sleight of hand — tossing it off as entirely unimportant or covering it with some sort of distracting physical action — not enough so the audience doesn’t hear it, but enough so they don’t think it matters.
  • Very dramatic or very funny moments.  Someone is telling you about their rape twenty years ago?  Don’t move a muscle.  There’s some funny shtick going on?  Keep still.  Someone is giving the punchline?  Hold your breath until two seconds after it’s finished.
  • When your action is big.  A simple short cross is often not a problem.  Nor are physical activities (business) that make sense for your character.  But anything too involved will draw the audience’s focus.  Make sure that whatever you’re doing is less interesting than what the speakers are doing and saying.  That way, if the audience looks at you, they think, “Oh, that’s believable” and not “Wow, that’s a lot more interesting than what the leads are doing!”

When should you walk on someone’s line?  Draggy scenes or extended exposition.  If these have stayed in the play to publication, it’s probably because no one — neither the playwright nor the original director — could figure out how to write the play without them.  Kind of like you with the actor stuck behind the chair when you need him over by the table!  Bail the playwright out by providing visual interest so the exposition won’t go down like bad-tasting medicine!

Actor’s Etiquette: Cheating, Part 1

chambers-etiquette“Cheating”, in case you don’t know, is what we call “opening” yourself up, physically, to the audience, even if in real life you’d be facing in a different direction.  For instance, let’s say that two actors are face-to-face downstage center, which means that the fronts of their bodies are perpendicular to the proscenium.  This gives the audience in the center of the theater their profiles.  Anyone sitting on the sides gets a reasonable look at the face of one of the actors, and the back of the head of the other.

For brief moments, this is all right.  If it lasts for more than a few lines, however, it becomes problematic.  The profile view deprives the center of the audience of some emotional impact, which requires a more direct look at the actors’ faces.  The views from the sides of the audience are one-sided – that is, they have a good idea of what one actor is feeling, but can read nothing of the other actor’s feelings except from general body language, since they can’t see his face at all.

Once upon a time (like back in the days of the Greeks and for many centuries afterward), acting was declamatory.  Actors faced the audience fully and spoke.  There was no real pretense at reality as we know it today.

Somewhere along the line – perhaps because of Stanislavsky, or perhaps it began before him – actors began to pull one foot back a little so the front of their bodies were no longer parallel to the proscenium, but they were angled slightly – a bit of acknowledgment that they were talking to someone else on the stage, not to the audience.  These days, 45 degrees is typically the right place to start, and you adjust from there – more “open” (facing the audience more) when you can get away with it, and less “open” (facing another actor more than you do the audience) when the interaction between characters demands it (arguments, etc.)

If you aren’t used to cheating, it feels very unnatural, for the simple reason that it is.  We are accustomed to facing people more directly when we interact with them, and “opening” ourselves up, physically, to the audience for reasons of sightlines is nothing like what we do in real life.  However, it’s a necessary adjustment that adds to the audience’s pleasure and understanding.

The first thing you need to know about cheating is that it looks better from the audience than you think it does.  A few years back, I did a production of Blithe Spirit with an actor who did a lot of musical comedy.  In musical comedy, the cheating is a lot more apparent, because songs are typically directed out to the audience, even if they are being sung to someone else on stage.

When I watched Nick work in scenes I wasn’t in, I studied how he stood and how I felt about it, as an audience member.  He was angled at perhaps 20 degrees, not 45, and from the audience’s perspective, that’s almost as if he is facing them, and yet I never felt like he wasn’t fully involved with his partner.  In other words, it looked perfectly natural and realistic to me.  Why?

There’s two ways to handle this, and only one way works.  The way that doesn’t is to stand as Nick did and turn your head to your partner for the bulk of the scene (both when you’re listening and when you’re talking).  This isn’t much better than if you stood at profile to the audience, or anything between 45 and 90 (or more) degrees.  If the point of cheating is to give the audience a better look at your face, then turning your head defeats the purpose.

What does work?  That’s for the next post!

Telephone Booths, Cat’s Paws, and Wanderlust, Part 2

cat pawCat’s Feet is what happens when a director tells someone with Telephone Booth Syndrome to “move around, use the stage”.

Have you ever seen a cat knead?  If you have, imagine an actor doing the same thing with his feet.

Kneading doesn’t require that you leave the telephone booth.  Because actual movement is involved, actors think they are doing what the director asked.  They honestly don’t realize that they haven’t really relocated their body but instead are wearing a hole in the carpet.

They may be rotating left to right, and both feet may be moving, but they haven’t actually taken a full step in any direction.  It’s more like a quarter step.  Keep encouraging them to move, and you might get them to use 6 square feet of space (3 feet wide, 2 feet deep).  But that’s about it.

It’s as if there is a leash that keeps pulling them back to their original position every time they stray too far from “home base”.

Eventually, they realize that physical movement means horizontal, not vertical, movement.  They may even come to understand that the stage is their oyster, and they are welcome – no, encouraged – to use every bit of it.

This is when they become Wanderers.

Wanderers move, alright.  They may cover the entire stage (although typically, they wear a path in the carpet from point A to point B.)  But usually, they move slowly in one direction and then reverse when they reach the “end point”.

The important thing to understand about Wanderers is that there is no connection between their emotional life and their movement.  They are walking because the director told them, “this is your scene, use the whole stage.”

Name one person you know who wanders aimlessly while they are talking and who doesn’t have a distinct psychiatric disorder.  I doubt that you can.

There is ALWAYS a purpose to our movement which results in a distinct start, movement with purpose, and a distinct end.  Wanderers tend to blur these divisions.  They stay in motion for the sake of staying in motion, not because they have any practical or emotion need to be in motion.

Let’s say that I’m playing a scene where my character is very angry at someone and has a lengthy speech where I rail at my scene partner.  “Work the room,” says my director.  “Use the whole stage.”  Given these instructions, I’ve seen actors slowly and deliberately, often without relating back to their scene partner in any meaningful way, traverse the set in a way that is counter to the deep emotions they are feeling.  Sometimes they are in constant motion, but any stops along the way rarely have any connection to what is going on in the text.

To the audience, they look like they’re wandering.  Because, in fact, they are.

Stage movement is essentially punctuation to the script.  It needs to buttress the emotional arc of the characters.  It therefore needs some intentionality and to be chosen carefully.

More on this in a future post . . .


Telephone Booths, Cat’s Paws, and Wanderlust, Part I

telephone boothThere are three bad onstage habits that actors are inclined to have, with regard to movement:  Telephone Booth Syndrome, Cat’s Feet, and Wanderlust.

“Habits” is perhaps too hard-hitting a word.  Actors aren’t aware they are doing any of these things until it’s brought to their attention.  These seem to just be natural behaviors that many, and perhaps most, actors are inclined to exhibit until they learn how to NOT do them.

If they are such bad choices on stage, then why do actors do them?  Don’t know for sure, but I’ve got some hypotheses:  Fear.  The inability to pay attention to too many concurrent activities (talking, listening, emoting, moving).  Fear.  A conviction that saying one’s lines is the primary, overriding concern.  Fear.

Whatever the cause, I find that when I bring it to an actor’s attention, he will usually understand why it isn’t the best choice available to him and why it doesn’t reflect real life.  However, the ease with which he can learn to overcome it and use movement effectively varies from person to person.  Nevertheless, I believe that everyone can, because after all, it IS something we do quite naturally in real life.

Funny how difficult it seems to be to do on stage what we do so naturally the rest of the time, huh?

So what are these three habits, in brief?

The first is Telephone Booth Syndrome.  For those of you too young to remember them, telephone booths were narrow, four-walled spaces designed for privacy for making a phone call from a public phone.  (Yes, once upon a time we didn’t care to conduct personal business while walking down the street!)  Even with one shoulder against a wall, it was impossible to fully extend one’s other arm.

Actors with Telephone Booth Syndrome act if they are similarly restricted.  They are inclined to remain rooted to one spot (trapped in the confines of the booth), and the idea of using gestures which would violate the dimensions of their invisible booth is unthinkable.  Their upper arms tend to remain in contact with their torso, while the lower arm does all the necessary pointing.

For these actors, holding their arms out to the side, parallel to the ground, in a gesture that is inclusive, encompassing the world and all its possibilities, is nearly impossible.  It’s fascinating to me that while these actors will take direction and move from Point A to Point B when the director asks them to, asking them to exercise the freedom to fling their arms wide as a reflection of a line that says something about “the whole wide world” causes them to panic.

They try to oblige, but their elbows are still distinctly bent.  They THINK they’re responding to the direction, but they aren’t, and it’s massively uncomfortable for some of them to go to full extension.

These are also they actors who usually need to be given all of their blocking by the director, because they are either uncomfortable creating their own or else don’t know how to, and they will perform the direction to the letter.  Their emotions don’t drive their movement, it’s only the director’s wishes that does

But imagine, if you will, five actors standing on stage, each in their own little telephone booth.  How dynamic or interesting is that to watch?

Telephone Booth Syndrome is perfectly understandable, because it is our “personal space”.  By personal space, I mean the area around us that we prefer other people to not enter.  You know the stranger you just met at a party who gets uncomfortably close to you, invading your personal space?  Well, it seems that not only do we not like others to invade our personal space, we don’t really want to leave our space ourselves (at least, not when we’re on stage)!

But the rules are different on stage!  Knocking down the personal space walls is essential.  Actors need to feel the freedom to let their emotions run amuck.

Next up:  Cat’s Paws and Wanderlust

Actor’s Etiquette: Mind Your Sightlines

RequiredEtiquette-CD_1In a perfect world, the audience should be able to clearly see everyone on stage all the time.

It’s not a perfect world, but here are some guidelines.

If you’re doing a large musical with chorus people in the background, it’s okay for the leads to stand in front of them.  But the primary characters in crowd scenes should all be visible.

It’s okay to cross in front of someone when they aren’t speaking as long as you do it reasonably quickly and, heaven forbid, don’t stop in front of them.

Don’t forget the people sitting in the front row against the walls.  They need to be able to see you, too.  If you are upstage of other actors, pay attention during each performance so that you can adjust your position if necessary to give those audience members a glimpse of your face.  Similarly, if you are the downstage actor, be courteous to those upstage and adjust your own position if you are aware that you are blocking them.  Play with it in rehearsals so you will know what kind of flexibility you’ve got on performance nights without having to stare at the end seats to figure out if you need to move.

If you find that you are positioned on one side of the stage and looking toward the other side of the theater for a prolonged period of time, find reasons to turn your head in the other direction with some frequency.  The audience on your side of the theater deserves more than just your profile, too.

And lastly, remember that when you’re backstage, be careful about peeking through the curtains to watch the action on stage.  If you can see the audience, they can see you!

Stage Directions Aren’t Always Right — An Example

rainmakerThere may be no successful playwright who has written more stage directions than N. Richard Nash, the author of the wonderful romantic comedy, The Rainmaker.  (The 1956 movie starred Katharine Hepburn and Burt Lancaster.)  The Rainmaker is chock full of emotional and physical choices, so much so that the usual measures of timing (minutes per page) can’t be used in determining the running time of the show!

Below is a portion of the scene between Lizzie, the old maid daughter of a rancher, and the Deputy Sheriff she has had her eye on for years.  Read the scene through, including the stage directions, and visualize the scene in your mind’s eye.  The directions are so extensive that I hope you can get a clear picture of how it can be played if you stick to everything in the script.

Now I’d like to show you how there are alternatives that ought to be at least considered, and by considered, I mean tried in an actual run-through of the scene.  Because you won’t know if something works or not until you try it.

I’m starting the scene at Noah’s exit, in the middle of page 67 (here’s The Rainmaker Excerpt).

File (Going to the door)  Well –

“Well” might mean, “Well, I guess I’ll be going”, but it doesn’t have to.  Perhaps it means “Well, I’m not sure what else to say.”  And even if it does indicate a departure, that’s a very good reason to not move to the door.  When a character says he’s leaving and he doesn’t leave – or he moves his upper body as if to leave, but his feet stay planted – that’s a loud and clear message that his heart is still in the room.  That’s both powerful and interesting to an audience.

Lizzie (Afraid he will leave)  if File chooses to stay where he is when he says “Well”, perhaps Lizzie isn’t afraid that he will leave after all.  And perhaps Nash is wrong when he says that Noah broke the spell between them.  Perhaps he didn’t break the spell at all, and something monumental is happening between these two.

Lizzie (Snatching for a subject that will keep him here)  If the spell still has them in its hold, then she doesn’t have to snatch.  But more importantly – the topic of his divorce is huge.  You don’t just snatch for such a sensitive topic because you want to keep someone in the room.  You offer him a slice of pie to do that.  No, the better (that is, the more dramatic choice) is for Lizzie to mention the divorce because she desperately wants to hear the details about it.  For her, the divorce is what has kept them apart.  Now is her chance to clear the air.

File:  No – I wasn’t – (Then, studying her, he changes his mind.) – but I will.

The implication is that he is still at the door, ready to leave, until he studies her and changes her mind.  Except that he doesn’t have to.  He can still be standing stock still when he says “No, I wasn’t.”  And he doesn’t necessarily change his mind, he simply decides to tell her.  And that’s a very different thing for an actor.

Lizzie (Helping him to get it said)  Kentucky?

Maybe Lizzie IS trying to help him.  Maybe she is just trying to connect with him, to indicate her understanding.  Or maybe she is covering her own nervousness about the topic but saying something, anything.  Or maybe she is puzzled by someone from so far away stealing File’s wife – how did he come to be so far west?

File (A step toward her)  Yes, she was.

Lizzie (Her hopes dashed)

If File is moving toward her, why are her hopes dashed?  When the man you love moves toward you, it’s a positive sign.  It offsets the “Yes, she was”, or at least should cause confusion.  The moment is probably stronger if he stands still and watches her while she becomes a nervous wreck.

As for Lizzie’s next lines, I almost think the start of the word “afraid” is too much.  It’s implicit in the line and is overkill if she actually says it.  If I had written the play, I would have had her stop at “That’s what I w—“, or maybe even drop the “w”.  And rather than “catches herself”, I might have said “smiles”, as in that bright smile that covers the tears.  But even if we leave the line as written, the smile still works.

Lizzie (Drearily).  Why drearily?  And on her next line, why “Agreeing – but without heart?”  What if Lizzie sincerely believes that women with black hair are the most beautiful, and her mousey brown is unattractive?

File sits when he describes the schoolteacher.  But is there any compelling reason to?  I’d have the actor try it standing, try it pacing, try it with movement that isn’t pacing, AND try it sitting.  I can’t begin to guess which choice better underlines what is going on for File emotionally until I see what impact the movement has on how he behaves and says his lines.

File (Raging)  What if the rage comes between “No I didn’t” and “Why should I?”, instead of before both sentences?

Lizzie (Astounded)   The only problem with this adjective is that the word tends to indicate something big, and the italics in her lines that follow underscore that intention.  But what if she is a combination of exasperated and astonished on “Why should you?” and then goes very quiet and intense on “Why didn’t you?”  Or the opposite:  a very quiet “Why should you?” as if she can’t believe he even asks that, it’s so absurd, followed by a loud, berating “Why didn’t you?”

Lizzie (Desperately)  What if she isn’t desperate on this, but instead challenges him with this line?

I could go on, but I hope I’ve made my point.  Nash’s choices certainly work, but so do mine.  Only by trying them can you determine which works better.  Or perhaps find a way of combining the two!