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.


Hoisted On My Own Petard, or What About Those Stage Directions?

ArrowsI’ve taken to writing plays lately (not really the reason I haven’t posted in a while — my life has been somewhat tumultuous for months, but is returning to normal).  One of them, a short play called Happily Ever After, is about to be produced.  The director invited me to a rehearsal.  Most of what they are doing is just fine; some of it misses the mark, but I also think playwrights have to accept that.  However, the ending of the play is not dialogue, but rather stage directions, and the director and cast decided to change them.  I noted the change, wondered about it, was disappointed in it, but it took a good 24 hours to fully understand why I was uncomfortable with it.

If you’ve read my posts on stage directions, you know that as a director and an actor, I largely believe in disregarding them.  For the most part, I figure that if the stage directions are really good ones, I’ll find them myself in rehearsal.  I believe in hanging on to stage directions that are needed to make the play comprehensible (e.g., he hides the gun under the seat cushion).  I believe in hanging on to the stage directions of complicated business — the climactic fight scene in Wait Until Dark not only has plot points, it is well-crafted.  The nature of Wait Until Dark is that you can’t really use a set that is much different than the original, so the fight scene can’t be much different than what Frederick Knott wrote.

I believe in hanging on to stage directions that help to indicate what I should be striving for in a scene.  Eric Coble wrote a wonderful satire, Bright Ideas, that I badly wanted to stage once upon a time.  (I still do, but directing doesn’t seem to be in the offing right now.)  There are a number of scenes where the stage directions help to clarify the playwright’s intention.  I wouldn’t blacken those out, but would keep them to remind me of what he was going for.  I might end up using his ideas, or I might come up with something more clever, but in the same vein.

For instance, Coble has a scene that involves using puppets in the way that child psychologists use dolls to help children talk about the scary things in their lives.  I may not use every puppet move he suggests if I can find a different movement that is funnier, but I’ll keep his stage directions in my script to give me a framework within which I can be creative.

The scenes that end each act also have a good bit of business that I remember thinking might need to be modified in some way, given the theater I was doing the play at.  We were a very low-budget company that rented a stage for Tech Week and the duration of performances, and so needed a very easy set that could be loaded in in a matter of hours.  I hadn’t come up with a solution by the time the production was cancelled, but I remember thinking that I needed to find a way to accomplish what Coble wrote without spending the money that it would require.  The set changes would have meant some small tweaks to the stage directions.

(If you haven’t read Bright Ideas, you should.  Coble is a very talented writer.)

So back to my play, Happily Ever After.

Some of my plays are pretty straightforward.  Happily Ever After is a play that requires a bit of thought, and I sat in the rehearsal and tried to figure out what I would say to the cast if I were the director (it was an early rehearsal, so there were still wrinkles to be ironed out.)  I realized pretty quickly that I needed to understand what it is about.  Surprised by that?  Playwrights don’t always know their play as well as you might think.  They know it works, but a certain amount of it may happen so instinctively and fortuitously that they don’t fully comprehend its idiosyncracies unless they choose to dissect it as a director or scholar would.  I put my director’s hat on with Happily Ever After and understood what I’d written as a result.

So I realized that there is yet another situation in which a director (and the cast) should at least be cautious about changing stage directions.  But I’ve reached my word limit, so that’s for the next post!

On Staying in the Moment


Hamilton The Musical is my current obsession, and so I came across the above interview with five of the cast members.  Scroll down and you’ll find Leslie Odom, Jr., who plays Aaron Burr, talking about the moment every night when Lin-Manuel Miranda, as Alexander Hamilton, hurls the insult that causes Burr to challenge Hamilton to a duel and ultimately, to kill him, simultaneously ending his own political career.

“Every night, I’m looking for it in his eyes — I want him to make different decisions. I want it to end differently.”

When you are so in the moment and caught up in what your character is feeling that you actually want what your character wants, hope for it to be so, even though you know it can’t happen any other way — that is truly being in the moment.

Also interesting to note:  how they deal with the different energies that audiences bring with them to the performance, and how they continue to develop and understand their characters over time (and they’ve been working with the show for at least a year now).


The Stage Director as Film Editor

The stage director has a number of functions.

  • She chooses the tone of the play and makes sure that every aspect of the production supports that tone.
  • She identifies what she thinks the playwright is trying to say, and makes sure that all the actors’ choices are consistent with that point of view.
  • She is in charge of the mise en scene, and in that role plays traffic cop.
  • She is the Big Picture artist of the production.  Actors are little picture people.  She controls the scope and feel of the evening.  We are responsible for the moment-to-moment details.

film editorIn other words, she’s a film editor for the stage.

Having a strong sense of the big picture is an essential ingredient in a quality director.  The ability to attend to detail is an asset, but it isn’t critical.  You can be a very good director if you have people around you to handle the details.

The reverse is true for actors.  The more you can work with the minutiae of what happens in a single moment (giving oneself over to it without overthinking it, that is), the better your work is apt to be.  If you can also see the big picture, so that you can tailor your work to intentionally enhance the grand scheme and ease the director’s burden a little bit, then your performance is apt to scale some impressive heights.  But it isn’t necessary, because the director is your film editor.

Unlike a film editor, who works after all the filming has been completed, the stage director does her editing throughout the rehearsal process.  That means that you, as the actor, need to provide her with quantity of film to select from.  Take after take.  And each take should be a little different.  Each take should offer something slightly (or majorly) different to the director.  Your job is to provide choices.

Now, truthfully, you’ll do a lot of the editing yourself.  You’ll try stuff in rehearsal and realize this works and that doesn’t, and select accordingly.  But there will be times, as in The Rainmaker scene I’ve cited, where you may try two materially different approaches, and both seem to work on some level.  What to do?  Which to choose?  How do I know what’s right???????

You don’t have to.  The director will.

Isn’t this a beautiful system?  You don’t have to worry about it.  The obvious choices?  Go ahead and make them.  The ones that panic you so much that you think you have to make them early and often?  Let the director shoulder that responsibility.  That’s what she’s there for.

And this frees you up to try everything you can think of.  Because a good director will give you immediate and solid feedback about what works and what doesn’t.  Good feedback, I believe I said, speeds the learning process.  So you don’t have to worry that you won’t get it all done in time.  You will.

How to Make Decisions About Your Character

chrysanthemumBefore I get into how to use trial and error effectively (and why it matters) in the first half of rehearsals, let me answer the questions that have probably flitted through your brain by now, if they haven’t taken up permanent residence:

“But I have to make choices eventually, don’t I?  Ultimately, even if I’m choosing what is ‘best’ rather than what is ‘right’, I have to determine what is ‘best’, right?  So how do I do that?  And when do I do it?  When is it safe to make choices without worrying that I am choosing the wrong ones?”

Truthfully, I’m not sure how many active decisions you need to make if you are working properly.  Try enough different things often enough, and those decisions will start to make themselves.

Let’s say you’re working on Scene 1.  You try it three or four different ways, and they each have their merits.  Should you weigh their merits, debate the pros and cons, and make a choice to use Option C?

Not yet.  No need to, yet.  You’re still in the early days of rehearsal.  There’s still a ton of things to learn about the character.

Characters don’t reveal themselves easily.  If you think they do, then you’ve probably chosen a stereotype.

No, characters reveal themselves over time, over the course of weeks, as you read and reread the play.  As you rehearse each scene again and again.  The more you review the play, either through study or performance, the more it will open itself to you, in the same way that a chrysanthemum moves from a tight bud to a fully open blossom with a hundred petals revealed to you.

As you work on each scene, trying a variety of approaches, a pattern will start to emerge.  You’ll start to see some consistencies in the character from scene to scene.  You’ll start to see how a character trait in one scene is more fully developed in a second scene.  How something that happens later in the play reveals something about your character in an early scene.  That something which was confusing to you is suddenly explained by a line you never took much notice of before.

By remaining open to possibilities for longer than you may be comfortable with (thank you, John Cleese), you will discover that the possibilities that don’t work will simply fall by the wayside.  It’s like letting the chaff blow away in the wind.  Give the wind enough time, it will reveal the wheat to you.  What you will be left with is a focused performance with both adequate consistency and surprise.

Decisions get made for you over time without you having to do much about it, if you’ve explored sufficiently.

To read Can’t I Make Any Decisions?, go here.

How on Earth Can I Be Creative As An Actor?

creativity_or_Art_by_amr_nkim5Dictionary.com calls creativity the ability to transcend the traditional and to create something new.  In other words, don’t settle for the obvious, the stereotypes, the ordinary.  Don’t go for hackneyed line readings or hang on for dear life to the first decent idea that comes down the pike.

But something new?  Really new?  Well heck, if that doesn’t put pressure on you, I don’t know what will!  So let me rephrase that in a way that will put a lot less pressure on you.

Creativity is about making something unique.

Fortunately, since you ARE unique, you are completely capable of creating something unique, as long as you stay true to yourself.  That means avoiding all those obvious choices, because you know what?  They aren’t new, and they aren’t you.  They are copies of what you’ve seen before, in movies and on television, or on Broadway the last time you visited NYC.  They are an imitation of things that impressed you on some level.  But even at their best, they are an imitation of someone else.  They aren’t uniquely “you”.

Let me repeat what John Cleese said in his 1971 presentation on Creativity:  It is NOT a talent.  It is simply a way of operating.  A way of going about things.

Exactly how you go about being creative depends on your own personality type.  Certain types of creativity are easier for each of us, and certain types harder.  If you know what it comfortable for you, you can use it to your advantage, probably without thinking too much about it.  And if you know what isn’t comfortable for you, you can intentionally go after it, because you’ll be inclined to avoid it otherwise.  You expand your own creative potential when you work this way.

The most important thing is to recognize that deep inside you is a completely unique interpretation of any role you might play.  It’s deep inside you.  It’s not the stuff floating on the surface.  What you’ll find there is whatever you’ve most recently absorbed from others, or the stereotypes.  You’ll find the flotsam and jetsam.

We’re looking for sunken treasure ships.

It’s okay to start with the obvious, with the stereotypes.  Use them as warm-up exercises.  Use them to get them out of your system, to understand their limitations.  Just don’t stop there.  Keep looking for the sunken treasure.

Sometimes you can intentionally dive for it.  This is called trial and error.  You keep trying different stuff until you yell, “Eureka!”  Sometimes all you do is open the hatch to the hull of the ship and get out of the way, and trust that the jewels will float to the surface in their own good time.

Avoiding the stereotypes and seeking out the less obvious alternatives is an act of courage, and some people find it easier to do than others.  Trying things you think will fail or at the very least, aren’t sure will succeed is hard.  Isn’t it a waste of valuable rehearsal time?

No.  As Ben Franklin said, “Just because something doesn’t do what you planned it to do doesn’t mean it’s useless.”

Very often, the stuff that falls on its face helps you to find the thing that soars.  Something you would never have found if you hadn’t tried that stupid idea.

To read What Is Creativity?, go here.  To read What If I’m Not Creative?, go here.  To read John Cleese on Creativity, go here.

What If I’m Not Creative?

hard workYou’re human.  You’re creative, by definition.

I hope the previous post goes some distance to convincing you that creativity isn’t just inspiration.  The famous Thomas Edison quote on the matter is “Genius is 1 percent inspiration and 99 percent perspiration.”  It’s not about sitting around waiting for something good to show up.  It’s intentionally working toward your goal and creating opportunities for good stuff to happen.

Creative geniuses don’t just produce works of genius at their first attempt.  Yes, apparently Edward Albee wrote Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? in one sitting, but I guarantee you the play had been in his head for quite a while before that.

But even so, that’s the exception to the rule.  For most of us, quality work is trial and error.  We’ve all seem film images of the writer tearing a piece of paper out of the typewriter and crumpling it up, tossing it on a pile of one hundred similarly treated sheets and holding his head in frustration at his inability to produce one decent paragraph.

We’ve seen images of the composer at the piano, tinkering with a melody and not finding a tune worth keeping.

We’ve seen the tormented artist, unable to capture the light with his paintbrush in the way his eye sees it.

Why the heck do we think, as actors, that we can arrive at our destination any more easily?

I said this before, but it’s worth repeating:  You just met this character.  How can you possibly know what the RIGHT choices are (or even the BEST ones) until you’ve lived with the character for at least a few weeks and have learned something about him?  Would you expect to learn everything you need to know about someone on a first date?

Of course not.

As actors, though, we rush to judgment.  We are so scared that we won’t be ready in time that we lock choices into place as quickly as possible.  In doing so, we close the door to our own creativity, to spontaneity, to surprise.  We suck the life out of the character and the play when we stick with these early and invariably obvious choices.

Yes, the author churns out more words than he keeps, but finally, there IS a moment when he types “The End”, and the paper comes out of the typewriter with a flourish.  Mozart, suddenly inspired, starts scribbling notes like a madman.  And the artist springs out of bed and takes up his palette, sure of what his painting was lacking.

It is the element of surprise that keeps our attention as theatergoers.  When we don’t know what’s going to happen next, we are on the edge of our seats.  That’s not just a function of plot twists.  When characters don’t follow the stereotype, we want to know more about them.  If they do follow the stereotype – the well-worn path – there is no need to stay awake.  We can let our attention wander without missing much.  “Wake me up when something interesting happens.”

How do we find the something interesting?

Well, it’s this thing called creativity.  And as John Cleese says, creativity is NOT a talent.  It is a way of operating . . .

To read What is Creativity?, go here.  How on Earth Can I Be Creative As an Actor?, go here.  To read John Cleese on Creativity, go here.