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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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!

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!

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

AACTFest 2015 Workshops

AACT stands for American Association of Community Theatre.  This terrific national organization holds two biennial gatherings (AACTFest) on alternate years.  In even years, it’s an international festival (this past June, in Florida), wherein amateur companies from all over the world are invited to bring their productions.  In odd years, it’s national, with select companies performing (usually about a dozen plays are staged at each festival).

In addition, workshops are given each year, aimed at various types of artists.  I am pleased and excited to announce that the AACT has selected me to give two of them at the 2015 Festival, which will be held in Grand Rapids, Michigan, from June 23 to June 28.  There are many reasons to attend the festival outside of my two workshops, but if you do come to the Festival, I hope you’ll stop by one of my workshops and say hi!

Playing the Verbs:  

The most-visited posts on my blog and the search terms used to get to them are about acting beats and how to play verbs.  Beats and Verbs are rehearsal concepts that many community theater actors don’t know how to use.  This workshop introduces the “how” in clear and simple terms, and gives actors a new way to think about their characters, one which lends greater dramatic impact and believability to their performances.

Great acting happens when you play the verbs, not the adjectives and adverbs.  How do you move from playing “I’m angry”, “My character is a silly person”, and “She is making me impatient in this scene” to something that is verb-based and much more compelling to watch?  We’ll examine how to choose the strongest verbs and then make the tricky leap to how to rehearse differently to take advantage of your great choices.  This is a hands-on, practical workshop — come prepared to play!

Blocking:  Creating a More Interesting Visual Presentation

Not every community theater director knows how to block a play to maximize dramatic impact and comedic effect and, even more importantly, to simply hold the audience’s attention.  Blocking the play is a creative opportunity too many directors miss, but it’s not that hard.  Blocking the play well is the single easiest and most impactful thing a director can do to improve the production.  There are some basic guidelines any director can use to create a more interesting visual presentation, and I share them all in this workshop.

The easiest way to improve the quality of a production is through good, creative blocking.  The stage directions in the script are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to blocking a play.   All comedy is physical, and most dramatic moments usually are physical as well.  We’ll discuss the difference between movement and activities; how to mine the script for hidden opportunities to add movement; how to heighten dramatic impact with your blocking; why blocking is not just for blocking rehearsals; and how to help your actors discover better performances through movement.

While the first workshop is primarily aimed at actors and the second at directors, the truth is that both artists can probably learn something from each of them.  Directors who understand acting verbs can help actors to a better performance, and actors who understand the principles of blocking will find that it helps to unlock their own creativity, not to mention speeds the blocking process.

I am so honored to be given this opportunity.  Stay tuned for more information about when my workshops will be held, as well as more information about AACTFest 2015!