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!

Actor’s Etiquette: Cheating, Part 1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This is when they become Wanderers.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

More on this in a future post . . .


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

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

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

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

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

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

So what are these three habits, in brief?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Next up:  Cat’s Paws and Wanderlust

Stage Directions Aren’t Always Right — An Example

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

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

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

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

File (Going to the door)  Well –

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

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

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

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

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

Lizzie (Helping him to get it said)  Kentucky?

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

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

Lizzie (Her hopes dashed)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Stage Directions You Should Pay Attention To

There is, of course, an exception to every rule.  So there are stage directions that I wouldn’t think about ignoring.

godot3_p1250709Samuel Beckett’s plays are a good example.  Waiting for Godot specifies a single tree in a barren landscape.  To populate the set with some scrub brush as well would be to damage Beckett’s intention.

To have Hamm stand or Clov sit in Endgame would similarly harm the play.

In Equus and in Christopher Schario’s A Christmas Carol, the playwright calls for the actors to be on stage at all times, seated on benches at the sides when they are not part of the action.  This is a choice that should be honored in the production.

Thornton Wilder makes no such request for Our Town, but productions of his play have been staged this way, and I don’t see it as problematic.

Schario’s play calls for a fiddler on stage, who plays music at various points throughout the night.  When I directed the play, there was no fiddler available.  We turned four of the actors into a singing quartet who fulfilled Schario’s intention faithfully, I think.  However, striking the musical component entirely would have lessened the play.

Our townNoel Coward’s estate insists that his plays be staged with complete fidelity to the stage directions, including the smoking.  I’m not sure that every cigarette in Coward’s oeuvre must stand lest his plays be harmed.  (A red pen to some of his dialogue would strengthen the plays, but alas, we must draw the line there.)

Full realistic sets for Our Town would completely contradict the playwright’s purpose; however, if you indicated the gardens with something other than arched trellises, I doubt an audience would be disturbed.

In other words, examine the stage directions, playwright’s notes, and dialogue for the playwright’s intention.  Honor the intention.  If you succeed in this goal, then whatever you do will be all right.

How I Use Stage Directions

This is just how I use them.  Since I am a big proponent of NOT using them, I think I should probably help you understand exactly what I mean by that.

When I direct, actors love to say to me, “But it says in the stage directions,” to which my typical response is “So?”  But the truth is that I do use them.  I’m just not a slave to them, that’s all.

The first time I read a script, I skip the stuff in parentheses altogether, unless I’m unclear as to what is going on or if the stage directions are very lengthy, in which case they usually represent physical action that isn’t reflected in the dialogue.  In this latter case, what happens is usually material to the plot, and I need to know what is happening.

But my first reading is to get my visceral reaction to the play and to my character.  What hits me between the eyes when I read it?  What is my experience like?  What is the tone of the piece?  In broad strokes, what seems to jump off the page about my character?  What seems important?  Do any images or sounds come up for me?

The second time I read the play, I read it very closely.  I breeze through the first reading, but I slow down the second time, making sure I get every word and its meaning, and this time I read the stage directions, just as carefully.  I know that they are an amalgam of the playwright and the original production, but I like to know what those who have gone before me thought.

The third time through, I highlight my lines.  The fourth time through, I blacken the stage directions with a Sharpie.  But not before reading them again.  Some I actually leave in.  Here’s my logic:20080912-black-marker

Sometimes what is in those parentheses are unnecessary.  A year ago, I did Alan Ayckbourn’s Woman in Mind.  Virtually every adverb instruction (nervously, indignantly, affectionately) was obvious from the writing, I felt.  And with a good writer, this is usually the case.  When that’s the case, I blacken them out.

When I come across an adverb that surprises me, I stop and consider it.  Clearly, I have had a different reaction to the line than the playwright expected.  So what about his choice?  Is it valid?  Is it more interesting than I what I felt?  Does it change the meaning?  Is it playable?

If, after giving it consideration, my reaction is, “Oh, I see!  Of course!”, then I’ll probably blacken it, too.  I’ve made a reasonable commitment to it in that moment, or at least I am confident that I will remember the playwright’s opinion when I rehearse the scene.  But if I’m not confident that I’ll remember, or I find it an interesting idea and want to try it, I’ll let it stand.  Anything I don’t blacken out is there because I want to revisit it, and so I’ll notice it again every time I read the script.  Once I’ve made a decision to use it or not to use it, I’ll blacken it.  (Note that I’m blackening it out whichever I choose.)

The same thing goes for physical movement.  If the business suggested is inherent in the dialogue –   “(lifting his glass)  Here’s to us, darling!” – I’ll strike the “lifting his glass.”  It’s just unnecessary and is cluttering the page, which makes it hard for me to find my lines.  If it’s a physical cross – “crosses to table” – I’ll strike it.  These kinds of movements are entirely flexible and may be different in each production.  “Sits down” may seem obvious, especially if I’ve been invited to sit down, but I want the freedom to sit down when I want to.  Perhaps I’ve been invited to sit, but have reasons of my own to delay sitting.  I’ll sit eventually, but I’ll discover in the course of rehearsals exactly the right moment to sit.

(Bear in mind, too, that actions in the script don’t necessarily happen at the exact moment indicated.  The convention of writing often requires that the movements be noted before or after a line, when in fact they happened in the middle of the line in the original production.  But many actors are determined to do it at the exact moment the words show up in the script!)

Physical action or business which isn’t clearly indicated in the dialogue (such as an ironic lifting of a glass in a silent toast, unaccompanied by the words, “Here’s to us, darling!”) is worth considering.  I may or may not use it, because I may or may not end up coming to the conclusion that it is in character or that it’s an ironic moment.  Or I may find something better to do.

But if it’s worth trying, and I think it is original enough that I might not think of it myself, I’ll leave it be, to remind myself to try it on for size.  If I think it’s an option that will readily occur to me during rehearsals, I’ll strike it.

Any action that is essential to the plotline but isn’t indicated in the dialogue gets to stay in my script.  Descriptions of fight sequences or other complicated physical bits get to stay.  I may or may not use what is suggested, but the stage directions help remind me of what’s important, and give me a base to work from.  A lot of the stage directions in a farce like the Farndale Avenue series stay in, because the script would be incomprehensible without it, there is no need to start from scratch on everything, and it is the cleverness of the authors in coming up with all those sight gags that makes the plays work.

But everything else is pretty much gone after the fourth reading.

salt shaker TooFarNorth textIf you can take the stage directions with a grain of salt, then there is no need to blacken them.  I do it both to clarify what is spoken and what isn’t, as well as to force myself to work a little harder, on the theory that if I have to dig, sometimes I’ll come up with gold.

Every once in a while, I’ll be deep into rehearsals and a scene isn’t working.  So I go back to my script to find how the original production solved it.  Only to find I blackened it out.

But not to worry!  Because most of the actors have left their stage directions untouched, I always have access to them if I need them!

Blocking the Play

[This is a purely introductory piece on blocking — I have much more useful stuff to say about it down the road.  But I’ve got to start somewhere, and I’m still traveling, so this and the next two posts will fill in the gap until I can get back to my Rehearsing series.]

How you go about this depends at least in part on your director.table reading

There are directors who like to sit around a table with the script, working on relationships and script analysis, until the actors have their lines memorized.  Only then will he allow them on the set.

There are directors who like to begin with blocking, perhaps preceding blocking with a single read-through.

The directors who begin with blocking may come into rehearsals having pre-blocked the entire show, and will tell you where to stand and when to move.

Or they may let you make your own decisions about blocking and suggest changes either in their role as traffic cop or because they think they have a better or more interesting choice they’d like to try.  But first, they want to see where your instincts take you.

blockingIn this last group, there are directors who, once they’ve settled on something that works, will stick with it for the rest of the rehearsal period.  And then there are directors like me, who will continue to tweak the blocking as rehearsals unfold and we learn more about the characters and the play.

And then there is yet another group of directors, who will allow the actors to wander as they will for a few weeks and then put some structure to it.  The wandering is all part of the exploration of the play, and if you explore efficiently, you will have a pretty good sense of what works at the end of this initial period.  But this approach is best used with experienced actors who are all very comfortable with creating their own blocking.

How long blocking takes depends in part on how physical the play is, and of course two different productions of the same play may end up being very different in this regard.  Farces or very episodic plays (The 39 Steps, A Christmas Carol) take the longest time to block.  In a community theater rehearsal of a blocking heavy play, eight to ten pages may be as far as you can go in one night.

A word about the movement in the stage directions of a script:  Sometimes the movements are the playwright’s vision; sometimes they are from the original production.  Either way, you should view them as suggestions and not mandates, especially if your set is configured differently than either the original production’s set or the one the playwright had in his mind’s eye when he was writing (and who knows WHAT that looked like!)  Your job as an actor is to find and use movements that are organic to your own interpretation of the character and the play.  Honor the dialogue given to you by the playwright both in terms of your characterization and your physicality, and the result will be “right” – whatever THAT means!

The only exception to this is when the playwright describes movements that are essential to the plot and not revealed clearly through the dialogue (such as in Frederick Knott’s Wait Until Dark).

To read Learning the Blocking Part I, go here.  To read Part II, go here.