I went and saw last night's baffling and amazing performance of Radiohole's Whatever, Heaven Allows at PS 122. It had in it, among other things, a hysterical reference for instructions on stage kissing. I googled it this morning, and instead found this great screed on stage directions:
Ignore stage directions?That’s like putting on a blindfold to drive on the interstate.Do you want to be a passenger, in that car or on the stage, with someone blindfolded?
I had a good laugh, considering as almost every show I've ever worked on that started with a script has had, as step one, crossing out all the stage directions -- if not actively crossing out, then basically ignoring them whenever the director felt like it. Of course, plot-important stage directions (Exit, pursued by a bear) can't be ignored ("No, I don't think Hamlet should stab Claudius."), but most stage directions are unnecessary or pithy, like "Turns away, crying." And the director or actor will decide whether or not she is actually going to turn away, crying.
To drop my actor hat and put on my playwright hat, I must confess that I rarely write in stage directions for precisely this reason. Having been an actor, I know that they're going to figure out the physical actions to justify whatever is going on. I put in the stage directions that, like Hamlet stabbing Claudius, are important to the plot, but otherwise I leave that up to the actors.
On the other hand, as a playwright I am also not particularly moved by a director who is taking on my work taking different interpretations, changing a few lines, etc. I cannot understand the kind of mentality that breeds a Samuel Beckett, who (even though dead) still won't allow his work to be produced unless it looks exactly like he intended it. Which means that ever since I saw the Gate Theatre performing the definitive Waiting for Godot (one of my favorite plays; they still use some of the original performers, if I'm not mistaken), I have not had any impetus to see it again. I didn't leap up to see Nathan Lane and Bill Irwin; however great their personal flair, it will be choked by the restrictions placed upon them to represent the work "accurately."
But I wonder about the rest of you. How do you feel about a director tossing out your stage directions? How do you feel about an actor rewording some of your dialogue so that it sounds more natural (I'm a terrible paraphraser, and that's probably why I do a lot less acting than I used to...)? Where's the line between other collaborators taking on the work and making it their own, exercising their rights as de-facto editors of the work, and pissing on your play?
This problem is unique to the current division-of-labor model of theater, after all. Collaborational models, where the playwright is in the room working with the actors -- or where the actors and directors are devising the script together -- can simply talk about it. The playwright/creator can say "This is why I did it this way," and the others can say, "Well, this is why we want to tweak it." But if the playwright isn't in the room, they're not going to call him every time a "Turns away, crying" turns into "Turns away, fighting back tears" or "Faces him, defiantly" (because the director doesn't feel like the actor should break in this moment).
I worked on a play in Southern California that was from a playwright in New York. He would get revisions to the script regularly. And once or twice, something that was changed in rehearsal would, four days later, be changed back, because the director had thought a minor cut was minor but the playwright felt it was not as minor as the director thought. It ultimately was not a major drag on the production, but I can see in other contexts, with higher stakes, it might have been.
Anyways, I kick it over to you. Thoughts?