To Use, or Not to Use (Stage Directions)?

So this farce I’m directing (I know, I owe you more posts on it, and I promise, I will deliver), is Boeing Boeing, and there is a scene in the second act which describes Robert, our leading man, going into the bathroom, washing his face, strutting around a bit, trying Bernard’s after shave, getting some in his eye, and covering his face with a towel while he tries to get the after shave out of his eye.

Actually, it says he covers his head with a towel, and how that is supposed to help his eye, I don’t quite know.

It also makes no sense to me that he goes to wash his face, because the audience can’t see into the bathroom, and they’re going to wonder what’s happened to him.  I’m also unfamiliar with after shave that comes in a spray bottle, but — that’s neither here nor there.

My actor has played the role before, in a production that was apparently very faithful to the 2008 Broadway staging with Mark Rylance, and the “strutting” was more detailed than that, which the script thankfully does not describe for us.  My actor says the shtick worked some nights and fell flat on others — which doesn’t particularly surprise me.

I had no intention of using these particular stage directions.  I made another suggestion, which ended up with Robert having his face buried in a newspaper, addressing the essential need of the scene — to have Gretchen not realize he isn’t Bernard.  I thought what my actor did with it was creative, truthful, and very humorous, but he’s uncomfortable with it.  Fine, I said.  Let’s look for something else to do, and if we don’t find it — quite honestly, I don’t care if all you do is come out of the bedroom, sit down, and read the newspaper.  That will be perfectly sufficient.

Now, as it happens, I have a copy of the original 1967 script (in such pristine condition that I am the one who has broken the spine), and so I decided to check out the original and see if the stage directions are the same.

They aren’t.

Guess what they are?

Robert comes out of the bedroom, sits down, and reads the newspaper.

Same script, albeit different translations — which just means that the “translator” of the new version has edited the original to make it a little more contemporary, a little shorter, and in a case or two, a little funnier.  I’m not sure that it is a genuinely new translation, because the original translator is dead and most of the lines are identical.  Where there are changes, there is no way that someone could interpret the words that differently.  No, I think they decided to revive the play and just needed it cleaned up a bit, and the estates of Marc Camoletti and Beverley Cross agreed.

So it is clear from this example that the stage directions in question were NOT written by the playwright, but were, indeed (as I have always argued most stage directions are) the product of the Broadway production stage manager’s script, which is the one which goes to the printer.  You simply can’t argue that they are the playwright’s intention, because they aren’t.  No, they are actions that were probably created by Mark Rylance and are tailor-made for him — and difficult for another actor to pull off as successfully.

So do I feel any obligation to use these stage directions?

Nyet.

The other reason I don’t want to use them is because they just don’t make sense to me.  Of all the things in this fabulous apartment that Robert wants to explore — the bathroom?  Which the audience can’t see?

And with all due respect to Rylance, I’m not sure that I agree with all of what I’ve seen of his performance.  I think Robert is a little more interesting than his portrayal.  So why would I want to be hemmed in by these actions?

Now, Rylance is a fine actor, and I didn’t see the Broadway production, and it is entirely possible that his interpretation is entirely valid.  I don’t happen to share it, and I’m not sure that my actor does, either.  That may be Rylance’s truth, but if it isn’t my Robert’s truth, then it has no place in this production.

Simple as that.

 

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Backseat Directors, Part I

One of my readers has asked me to talk about backseat directors, and since I am all about giving you what you want, here it is!

Backseat directors are typically other actors in the show who decide, for any of a variety of reasons, that they need to give advice to other actors in the show.

The most frequent reasons?

  1. The director is a novice or otherwise incompetent.  This happens especially in community theater.  Someone is directing their first show, which can be very overwhelming, and they are doing the best they can, but they are living in a blur and can’t see/fix everything.  Or the director is just clueless and the experienced actors want to save the show because, after all, they are in it and they don’t want to be embarrassed in front of their friends come performance time.  This can be a good thing.  Not always, but often.
  2. They are mentoring a newbie.  Sometimes (again, especially in community theater), an actor is doing his first or second show and is really a fish out of water.  An experienced actor sees this and wants to help them, especially if the director is not spending enough time helping the newbie.  This is often good.  “Here’s how to time your entrance.”  “Don’t be afraid to touch me if you feel that’s what your character would do.”  “Just remember to not turn upstage, but to always turn downstage.”
  3. They think they have a lot to offer other actors.  This can be a good thing or a not so good thing.  Mostly a not-so-good thing.One of my students, a woman who had never acted before taking my class, was cast in a show at the local community theater.  The lead actor in the show had a business performing one-man shows based on historical characters (like Mark Twain) at venues around the country (libraries, etc.).

    Actually, he was the inspiration for my post, “The Difference Between Acting and Impersonating,” which is the single most popular post I’ve ever written.  (I’m still puzzled about that.)  I forget the details now, but he gave my student advice that was in direct contradiction to what I had told her mattered in acting, and so she asked me about what he’d said to her.

    It was this conversation with her that made me understand that what I was doing in acting class was really different and effective.  If it hadn’t been, she would never have questioned what he was telling her.

    But the bottom line was that his advice wasn’t useful.  He thought it was, because he’d made a living as an impersonator, and he mistakenly thought he was acting, not impersonating.  But all he was doing was encouraging a fellow actor to go down the wrong road.  Fortunately, she figured this out herself and was just confirming it with me.

    But if you’re lucky enough to have an experienced actor take you under his wing and to speak on your behalf to the director in a way that you wouldn’t be courageous enough to, that can be a very good thing.

    If you’re in this position, just look at what the actor in question is doing.  If it’s believable, then the advise is probably good.  If it isn’t believable — smile, say thank you, and do what you think is right.

  4. They have ulterior motives.  This is a nice way of saying that they want to control what you are doing, often to the benefit of their own performance, although sometimes it is just ego on their part.

Before I expand my thoughts on this last point, let me say this:  I love the theater.  And I love the people that create theater.  But the nature of the beast is that theater attracts, among others, some creative types who are insecure, who need lots of stroking, who boost their own self-esteem by stepping on other’s, and who aren’t particularly self-aware.  This is okay — we’re all on the same journey as people, and we all learn what we need to about being human in our own way, on our own schedule.

So it’s important to remember that the people who resort to some immature behaviors are nevertheless doing the best they can with the cards they’ve been dealt.  To cut them some slack, and actively hope that one day, they will learn to love themselves just as they are, to make the most of their peculiar and individual talents, and to not see the rest of us as a threat to their existence.

But in the meantime, we’ve got to deal with the way they are playing their hand.

I’ll go into more detail on this last group next time.

 

 

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!

Authorial Intent in Casting

My favorite show on Broadway right now is “Hamilton:  The Musical”, which my cousin happens to be in.  Not that her presence sways me, I’d be madly in love with the show anyway.  So I am very much on the alert for articles about it.  Here’s an article that speaks to something directors ought to be concerned with:

http://www.hesherman.com/2015/12/03/what-does-hamilton-tell-us-about-race-in-casting/

Is the Director the Boss?

director-clipart-directorAt AACTFest2015, I gave a seminar on Blocking which was attended by both actors and directors.  One of the directors stayed after the seminar was over.  She said (quite firmly!) that when she directs, it’s her show, and her actors have to do what she wants them to.  Then she said, “but I encourage them to be creative and offer ideas during rehearsals.”

You can’t really have it both ways.

Any time (in life) we offer contradictory instructions to those around us (and yes, this is a very human thing to do and a good thing to keep in mind when you’re acting), one of those instructions will be followed and one won’t.  And guess which one wins?

The one that is most negative.

No one wants to be punished or yelled at, least of all actors who are inclined to have fragile egos.  So we take the conservative route and listen to the negative rule; in this case, “what I say, goes.”

As a director, you can only expect creativity and daring from your actors if you give them the space to be creative and daring.  That means letting them explore and suggest, and if you decide to not go with their idea, letting them down in the easiest way possible.

The more space you give them, the more they will offer you.  This means that the precedent you set in the first two weeks of rehearsal determines how creative they will be in the rest of the rehearsal period.  Exploration is like a snowball rolling downhill.  It’s small at first, but give it some time, and it becomes huge.

As a director, this means actively encouraging the actors’ input until they start responding and praising the input, even if it doesn’t work.  Do that enough early, and they start to feel comfortable that their ideas will be thoughtfully considered.

And “thoughtfully considered” is the key.

I often work with inexperienced actors, and I encourage them to offer any ideas they have despite their inexperience.  (The newbies often think that I am giving that freedom only to those with plays under their belt, but I work hard to make sure everyone knows that the invitation applies across the board.)

I do this for several reasons:  one, everyone in a production needs to be “equal”, even the actor with four lines.  Two, because I trust that human instincts are good, and so the idea from someone who has only done one play may be just as good as the idea from someone who’s done ten.  Three, because that’s how you learn, and I want every actor to leave my production with more skills than she entered it with.

Because what I’m doing in the first weeks of rehearsal is blocking, it’s an easy time to invite actors to participate:

“You look uncomfortable there.  Are you?  What would make you feel better?”

“No, that isn’t working, because we need to get her to the couch on that line.  Anyone have any ideas?”

“We’ve ended up with everyone on one side of the stage.  Let’s figure out how to get you more balanced.”

“Joe, you’re blocking Sally from this side of the audience.  Can we find a reason for you to move somewhere else?”

As I look back at these comments, I realize that I use the word “I” as infrequently as possible.  Putting on a play is a “we” activity, and I use that pronoun repeatedly to make sure the cast understands that we are all in this together and that good ideas can come from anywhere, not just me.

I’ve done shows where an actor offers an idea that I know won’t work, and in the interest of saving time, I’m tempted to say so and move on to something that will.  Instead, I say, “Sure, let’s try it.”  When it doesn’t work, I try to tweak the idea to find a way to make it work.  I give it up only when I’ve exhausted its possibilities.  And I always explain why it doesn’t work, so they understand why we can’t use it.

Occasionally, the tweaking is successful and results in a pretty good idea, which in and of itself is a good reason for trying even bad ideas.  Or it buys me enough time to think of a better one.  But even when it isn’t successful, the effort I’ve put toward it shows that I respect the actor who offered the idea and consider him a full partner in this venture.  That one act is often all it takes to get the entire cast to realize that I mean what I say, and that they should pipe up every time they have something they want to try.

I never want an actor to feel that she offered a “bad” idea.  There are ideas that work in the context of what we are trying to do and ideas that don’t (or don’t work as well as we want them to — whenever possible, I will characterize them in this way).  The only ideas I will characterize as “bad” are my own.

“Remember when I said you should do X?  I was wrong.  It doesn’t work at all.  Let’s find something else.”

“Eh — it doesn’t really work, but I have no idea what to do instead.  Let’s do that for now so we can keep moving, and we’ll find something better down the road.”

By admitting my own failures, I make it clear that I don’t have all the answers and that I’m open to suggestions.  And that it’s okay to not have the answers now, that answers will show up eventually.  When it is clear that I am exploring, the actors are more likely to explore.

 

On Auditioning

AuditionI think I’ve written a small bit about auditioning before, but I’m not going back to read it to make sure I don’t repeat myself.  My perspective today may align in some ways — at least I hope it will — with what I have written before.  But I’m going to trust that what I write today is a whole in and of itself, even if it comes with duplicate phrases.

The one thing I think I must have said previously — or if not, I should have — is that Michael Shurtleff’s book “Audition” tells you everything you need to know.  Quite honestly, I think it tells you most everything you need to know about acting, not just auditioning.  Although if all you needed was the theory, higher education of all sorts would soon go out of business.

So I am vaguely contemplating auditioning for a local community theater production.  I’m not sure that I want to commit to everything doing a play means — rehearsals, performances, etc. — but I may just show up for auditions for the pleasure of saying the words I have longed to say since I first encountered the play in my adolescence, and let the future take care of itself.

Reading through the audition sides made me ask myself, what matters most in an audition?  What do I, as a director, look for?  And what do I, as an actor, try to provide?

Understand, there are as many kinds of directors as there are people.  I’m sure there are directors hoping that someone will show up who says the lines in precisely the way they sound in the director’s head.  And they may well cast on that basis.  I won’t say that an actor who does that won’t get my attention.  But it isn’t a given that I will cast that actor, either.

So what do I hope to see at an audition if I’m a director?

  • A moment — just a moment is sufficient — of a real emotional connection with the character.  A moment where all the artifice of the audition process disappears, and the actor is truly connected with what is going on with the character.  The more moments you can provide like this, the better.  But sometimes just a fleeting glimpse of it is sufficient for me to cast someone — for instance, if no one else has come close, or if you are so right in every other respect that the flash of understanding gives me the confidence that I can pull out of you what I need to.
  • An attempt to connect meaningfully with your scene partner.  I recognize that you don’t choose your scene partners at an audition, and your scene partner may have no idea that you are trying to connect with him.  He may be incapable of receiving what you send him, at least in the context of an audition, but I won’t grade you on that.  What matters to me is that I see you, as an actor, reach out to him, open yourself to whatever he may deliver.
  • If it’s a comedy, I’d love to get the sense that you know how to deliver a comic line.  I recently saw a musical comedy performed by a talented troupe of high school students, and was amazed by the fact that everyone with a funny line delivered it with great comic timing.  Very unusual, in my experience, and kudos to the woman running the program.  (Please give me the secret!)In a perfect world, you want a comedian/commedienne to deliver all the punchlines, but you won’t always get them.  Many times, the ingenue/juvenile or leading lady/man need to deliver punchlines, and you can do so successfully even if you aren’t a comedian by nature.  So at an audition, I want to see clear evidence that you know what “funny” means.

It’s nice if you’ve done you homework (if the play isn’t an original) and know something about the play and its characters.  If nothing else, it tells me that you are willing to work.  And while I don’t put a lot of weight on it, yes, reading the lines in a sensible way helps me to get past the rest and to see the first two things that I’m looking for, which are really two of the most important things you can convey in an audition.

The last thing you can bring to the table is sometimes taken care of by any of the things I’ve already mentioned.  It is also the most ephemeral thing to describe.

I’m looking for something unusual.  A creative take that isn’t expected.  A single moment of surprise, something that makes me joyful because whatever you do is so out of the ordinary and yet fits perfectly.  It can be the tiniest moment, but a moment that shows me that you can bring something unique to the play matters.  I want to see that you are a creative artist.  It doesn’t even matter if you make the wrong choice.  Just make an interesting choice.  I’m not going to assume that you have read the play before, or that even if you have, that you have digested it as thoroughly as you will over the course of rehearsals.  So I won’t penalize you for creative choices that aren’t right for the role.  On the contrary, just showing me that you can be creative is key.  I’ll assume that you will make creative choices in rehearsals that make better sense.  I just want to know that you have it in you to dig for the unusual.

Remember, I’ve got mere minutes with you in an audition.  To stand out, you need to do something — even just one thing — that no one else is doing nearly as well.  Stop worrying about doing it “right” and worry about doing it “interestingly”.

If you do all of these things but I don’t cast you, the reason is probably one of balance.  I’ve got to put together an entire cast that makes sense — physically, tonally, etc.  You may be brilliant, but you may also be the odd man out.  In that case, it may kill me to not cast you, but I’ve got no choice.

As an actor, assume it is killing me to not cast you.  Assuming that gives you the strength to keep going in this very difficult profession.