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.


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).


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.

John Cleese on Creativity

Both of the following videos are well worth watching.  After you’ve seen them, read my comments below — just a few things I’d like to highlight about what he says.

And then there is the longer 1971 talk:

Cleese notes that being creative requires a certain mood:  a willingness to play like a child, exploring ideas not for any immediate practical purpose, but just for enjoyment.  Kids do things for their own sake, without expectations of results.  When you’re playing, nothing is wrong.

Cleese talks about open and closed modes, which is directly related to the concept of trial and error that I have mentioned.  In the open mode, you are deciding what to try.  You go to closed mode to try it, and back to open mode to evaluate its success.  Creativity is a matter of toggling between the two positions, although acting requires that you keep one avenue “open” even while you are trying something in closed mode, and I’ll talk about this in the future.

Space and time, his first two requirements, are essentially about giving yourself permission to play, to be creative without the need to solve problems.  Cleese suggests it takes a half hour to get yourself into open mode for starters, a time frame I concur with.  This half hour is why I suggest that two hour rehearsals are really too short.  Cleese’s audience is made up of businesspeople, and 90 minutes is probably as long as that group will find profitable, but acting is slightly different.  I believe that 2½ hours is the minimum time to maximize the benefit for an actor.  Three is great, if you can manage it, and a ten minute pause in the middle of a 3 to 4 hour rehearsal will not break the spell.  Nor will a lunch break in the middle of a longer stretch.

However, while the entire rehearsal should be about “play” on some level, small segments of it can and should be set aside as “let’s just experiment with this one thing” time, giving the actors the freedom to explore while knowing that the production is still basically on track.  This is a particularly useful approach in community theater, where actors are often results-oriented.

Cleese’s third requirement (also “time”) is what I have referred to as the “subconscious effect” (he calls it the unconscious, but we’re talking about the same thing.)  Creative ideas sometimes need to marinate for a while before they can really germinate.

Cleese uses the word confidence for the fourth requirement, but I use the word courage.  I want a stronger word than confidence to convey the importance of this.  If you are particularly wedded to the idea that there is a Right, then you need courage, not confidence, to break out of that pattern.

To play is to experiment.  To play well, you need to have the courage to fail.  Courage to make mistakes.  A willingness to be open to anything that may happen.  But mostly, as Cleese points out, courage to sit with the discomfort — the absolute anxiety — of uncertainty until you absolutely have to make a decision.

If you can remember that when you’re playing, nothing is wrong, and that you have the ability to evaluate the success or failure of what you’ve tried after the fact, then it is easier to be courageous.  While it feels better to make decisions, if you trust the process and wait until you really have to make decisions to make them (and the more you do this, the later you’ll be able to wait), you’ll find it is worth the wait.  Which will then make it easier to wait the next time.  Once you have experienced the benefit of waiting, you can start to move from courage to confidence.

It’s interesting that Cleese suggests that humor is that fastest way to get into the open mode.  Perhaps this is why I laugh so readily during rehearsals, and try so hard to get my cast to laugh, too.  Laughter is relaxing.  At the very least, don’t take yourself or what you’re doing (even if it’s Medea) too seriously.  It’s not nuclear war.

And lastly, Cleese says this about the Subconscious Effect:  “This is the extraordinary thing about creativity:  If just you keep your mind resting against the subject in a friendly but persistent way, sooner or later you will get a reward from your unconscious.”

It may not come in this rehearsal, or the next.  It may show up in the shower on Friday.  But it will come.  Trust it, and it will come.

To read What is Creativity?, go here.  To read What If I’m Not Creative?, go here.  To read How on Earth Can I Be Creative as an Actor?, 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.

What Is Creativity?

creativityI’m going to shut up for this post.

I know.  Can I even find it possible?

I’m going to let others speak.  And then I’ll pick up the train of thought next time.

“It is a commonplace among artists that masterpieces are made in passing, not by the focused attempt to create one.  That very attempt often skewers the spontaneous internal process, the inspired hunch or ‘fine madness’, that makes great art a happy accident that seems inevitable only in retrospect.”Julia Cameron, Chicago Tribune, 1986.

“You don’t have to be a believer to recognize a moment of grace.  By grace I mean those precious, rare times when exactly what you were expecting gives way to something utterly different, when patterns of thought and behavior we have grown accustomed to and at times despaired of, suddenly cede to something new and marvelous.  It may be the moment when a warrior unexpectedly lays down his weapon, when the sternest disciplinarian breaks into a smile, when an ideologue admits error, when a criminal seeks forgiveness, or when an addict hits bottom and finally sees a future.  Grace is the proof that hope is not groundless.”Andrew Stillman, “Untier of Knots”, 12/17/13.

“I don’t just use bad writing excerpts as prompts for workshops.  I also produce a tremendous amount of bad writing myself.   In fact, if some poor graduate student were assigned to do an audit of my entire literary output over the past twenty years, this person—before killing themselves—would find that about 70 percent of what I write is dreck.

“And I know I’m not alone.  If you go visit the archives of your favorite writer, as I did with Kurt Vonnegut several years ago, you will find a treasure trove of unpublished work.  And, if you’re anything like me, you will be heartened by this discovery.  It’s a great relief to realize that all those published writers we idolize aren’t cranking out epic prose every day at the keyboard.  Sometimes, they’re stinking it up, just like we do. …..My basic theory is that most pieces of failed writing—whether stories, poems, or novels—are usually attempts to tell a story that the author simply wasn’t ready to tell yet.

“This is why so much of my bad poetry is clogged with overwrought language, because I’m stonewalling basically, trying to sound profound and beautiful rather than telling the truth. …..My own belief is that writing is too intimate and arduous an activity ever to perfect.  We need to stop viewing our task as the production of transcendent work. Instead, we should emphasize the process as a gradual reduction of our (necessary and inevitable) imperfections.

“I realize how frustrating it can feel to produce weak work.  Believe me.  But I’ve also come to accept that bad writing doesn’t just mark a creative dead end.  It’s a necessary station on the path to good writing.”Steve Almond, Blog Post on AWP Website, Feb. 2014.

“Fine writing is never one to one, never a matter of devising the exact number of events necessary to fill a story, then penciling dialogue.  Creativity is five to one, perhaps ten or twenty to one.  The craft demands the invention of far more material than you can possibly use, then the astute selection from this quantity of quality events, moments of originality that are true to character and true to world.  When actors compliment each other, for example, they often say, “I like your choices.”  They know that if a colleague has arrived at a beautiful moment, it’s because in rehearsal the actor tried it twenty different ways, then chose the one perfect moment.  The same is true for us.

“Finally, it’s important to realize that whatever inspires the writing need not stay in the writing.  A Premise is not precious.  As long as it contributes to the growth of story, keep it, but should the telling take a left turn, abandon the original inspiration to follow the evolving story.  The problem is not to start writing, but to keep writing and renewing inspiration.  We rarely know where we’re going:  writing is discovery.”Robert McKee, Story, 1997.

A few thoughts from John Cleese:

“…the most creative professionals always played with a problem for much longer before they tried to resolve it.  Because they were prepared to tolerate that slight discomfort and anxiety that we all experience when we haven’t solved a problem.”

“Now, the people I find it hardest to be creative with are the people who need, all the time, to project an image of themselves as decisive.  And they feel that, to create this image, they need to decide everything very quickly, and with a great show of confidence.  Well, this behaviour, I suggest sincerely, is the most effective way of strangling creativity at birth.”

“And if while you’re pondering, somebody accuses you of indecision, say:  ‘Look, babycakes, I don’t have to decide until Tuesday, and I’m not chickening out of my creative discomfort by taking a snap decision before then, that’s too easy.‘  So, to summarise, the third factor that facilitates creativity is time.  Giving your mind as long as possible to come up with something original.”

And I’ll leave the final words to Thomas Edison:

“Negative results are just what I want.  They’re just as valuable to me as positive results.  I can never find the thing that does the job best until I find the ones that don’t.” 

To read What If I’m Not Creative?, go here.  To read How On Earth Can I Be Creative As an Actor?, go here.  To read John Cleese on Creativity, go here.