Saturday, March 13, 2010

Collaboration: Stage Directions

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?


dinah said...

This makes me think of a talk Sarah Ruhl gave recently, where she was asked for words of advice for actors handling her stylized, poetic language. She said that she prefers that actors speak her words "non-adverbially." That is, that the text itself is the point and contains everything that needs to be conveyed in that moment, and the actor's job is basically not to let all that "action" and "emotion" business get in the way of the words. That the actor's job is to make the words audible and understandable, but not to interpret them, because that's the audience's job. This obviously rules out the paraphrase, except when she's involved in the production.

On the other hand, her stage directions are so sweepingly metaphorical that they beg to be ignored on a literal level and reinvented in such a way that their intention is rendered as clearly as possible in the context of the priorities and limitations of that particular production.

So what I'm saying is, I think you're asking two very separate questions, especially because stage directions in published scripts almost always come from the SM's prompt book and not the playwright (Ruhl obviously being an exception). And likewise, there are published scripts that aren't authoritative on the wording of the text, ordering of scenes, inclusions of whole plot elements, etc., especially if the play went through a series of workshops and productions before settling: the version that gets printed is not necessarily the playwright's choice. But still, that leaves a small universe of acceptable variations on the text, and you have to be privy to inside information about past performances to know your options if you want to stay true to the playwright's intentions.

Personally, I'm the kind of writer and director who abhors paraphrase, and has full faith that the words were written that way for a reason, and it's the job of that production to make them "work." But that's because I'm drawn to poetic texts, stylized plays where the wording defines the theatrical world, and scripts filled with subtle inter-textual references that are easily botched through paraphrase. I'm sure there are plays and productions for which it's entirely appropriate to paraphrase, but those productions are probably interested in something other than an authentic* presentation of an existing, scripted play.

Them's my two cents. Stage directions almost always beg to be ignored, but don't botch a writer's words.

*I use the word authentic loosely, not as a synonym for "reflective of seminal production" or "in the correct period or style or mood." I mean authentic in the sense that the production is rooted in the text and works out from there, rather than superimposing an idea on a text 'cause it sort of fits and the text is an excuse to do this other thing you've been wanting to do, like a play on stilts with live bears or something.

Scott Walters said...

I strongly advise AGAINST crossing out stage directions, both in my classes and in my play analysis book. It isn't that you have to follow the directions, but that the playwright is giving you information -- it is something that he or she thought important enough to put into the script, so give it some credence. Not only to I not cross them out, but I do an exercise in which the analyst makes a list of ALL of the stage directions for each character, and then looks for patterns. You'd be surprised how much information comes jumping out when you do this. Suddenly, you notice, for instance, that the stage directions say "interrupts" a whole lot, or they are constantly moving around and poking into things. This exercise is particularly interesting when characters are contrasted with each other. Crossing out the stage directions removes a chunk of what little explicit information there is in a script to guide you. Again, you don't have to follow it -- indeed sometimes you CAN'T (for instance, Williams' stage directions for the set of "The Glass Menagerie," with the series of scrims rising, may not be practiable in, say, an arena stage, but it tells you something about what he visualized). But the playwright put it there for a reason, not out of a love of typing, for god's sake. This is particularly true of published editions of the play, as opposed to Samuel French "acting editions." In manuscript, why not assume the playwright doesn't just like wasting his or her time, but wrote it for a reason? And if you;re a playwright, don't be afraid to tell the director what is important. We need all the help we can get.

CultureFuture said...

Dinah: It sounds to me like Sarah Ruhl is very much from the David Mamet style of actor's training -- I think I remember David Mamet writing in his book On Acting something about actors always getting in the way of the play with their "acting."

I come from a very opposite view on the role of text within the production; for me, text is just one element that gets dropped into the test tube to create the production. It seems to me that for the majority of the 20th Century, the idea is that the playwright creates the play, and everyone else's role is to animate that play into being.

For me, and from the training I come from, the play is the result that comes out at the end, not the intention that was created at the beginning in the mind of a single person. It gets hashed out in every moment of debate between all of the people involved.

So unless you're doing a "definitive" production, I do think you need to respect the author's original intention, but you can also have your own intentions with the work. You will be judged on those intentions, and whether they coexist with the text you've selected, but you don't need to set your only objective in being animating the playwright's intentions. Although there is also a lot of use in tackling a play through the playwright's eyes, deeply and fully.

Kate Foy said...

Mmm .. agree, 'We need all the help we can get.' However, there's a fair old leap along the continuum from a director or actor's making a moment/scene ... whatever is being altered ... to 'pissing on your play.' Considered decisions should be part and parcel of every moment of rehearsals. Yes, I've altered stage directions, but no, I'd never cross them out. As Scott says, they're chock full of valuable information.

Ian Thal said...

Part of why I write for theatre is that I enjoy the layer of interpretation a text receives once the actors, director, and designers get involved.

I use staged readings in order to figure out whether the dialogue is something the actors can work with-- so that if I am fortunate enough to have a fully staged production, the actors will not be tempted to paraphrase. That is certainly one place where collaboration takes place even if I remain the primary author.

As far as directions to actors, I try to stick to essential movements and gestures that are help tell the story (probably comes from my background in physical theatre) and let the actors determine the rest. I might go into greater detail if the role is particularly physical, that is, incorporating mime or slapstick.

The more elaborate directions, though, are usually aimed at the director and designers, and generally have to do with how to present complex narrative actions in a manner that would be clear to an audience, and would likely be mysterious if one were relying on the dialogue alone-- but I tend to incorporate staging ideas that I came upon from having been a puppeteer.

But even in those cases, I like to provide more than one option in order to give the director some freedom.

RVCBard said...

Why not take it on a case by case basis?

In my own work, sometimes the stage directions mean a lot, sometimes a little. It varies from play to play - scene to scene, even - so more than a solid answer to the question, I think what's most useful (as has been stated and hinted at here) is a careful reading of the text.

It seems that the clamor to decide once and for all what to do with stage directions, as well as the memorize vs. paraphrase element, is almost an attempt to circumvent that.

CultureFuture said...

Yeah, you're right RVCBard, that's probably always the best way to go about it. I just get my dander up when I see the absolute statements on behalf of the stage directions/playwright's intent, but you're right that the emphasis should be on Ian Thal's last word: "freedom."

Ian Thal said...

Still, I think that the author's intentions, especially if they are either alive or have left clear instructions for how the play is to be performed, is important-- even if one is fighting against those intentions.

The point is that if the playwright is alive, the director can presumingly call or send an email and ask "is it important to do things this way? I would like to try this instead, with your permission."

On the other hand the cultural context of the Elizabethian/Jacobean era or Classical Athens is so radically different from our own, that we have no choice but make radical adaptations just so the play can speak to our context.

Manda said...

It seems that this notion of wiping clean a play's stage directionss stems from an almost fearful attitude that is ultimately counter creative. I have seen on two occasions directors (both from similar directorial backgrounds) look at a playwright's stage direction as if it were an affront to their creative freedom. On one of these ocassions I did nothing as the director was highly regarded and experienced. The mutation that arose from a script that was wiped clean of stage direction was disturbing to say the least. This was an important event in my life and served to fuel my resolve on this issue oncce and for all. I am not a fan of playwrights who will not consider changing a syllable of their text, but I worry more for directors who dismissively wipe clean an aspect of an artist work as if it has no bearing on the whole. What motivates such action? Most of us respect and value the creative input of others into a production, but it should be remembered that the words (even stage directions) in that script are a playwright's creative input, deserving equal if not more respect. I personally write only essenial stage directions as I am excited to see how others interpret my work. I also believe that a great story cannot be owned by any one person. Oh and yes, it makes it easier to stand my ground in negotiations! As for paraphrasing, if my plays are still being performed in 100 years time then I'm all for it!

Anonymous said...

Actually, the stage direction "Exit pursued by a bear is not necessary to the plot. The Clown enters and narrates the story of the death of Antigonus in the jaws of the bear. But the only reason we know that Shakespeare (or someone in the playhouse) wanted the bear actually to appear on stage is the survival of this stage direction.

I have worked with a director on a staged reading of a play of mine and found the process usefully collaborative. She had ideas. I came up with ideas in the rehearsal process that I had not had when I wrote the text. We didn't exactly compromise; we just jointly discovered the best way to do things. I changed the manuscript to incorporate improvements, but did not change it for things that were just responses to the exigencies of a staged reading. I was interested that, in the end, we found it unnecessary to read out any of the stage directions so well had the staging and the text merged.
--Edmund Miller
edmund “dot” miller “at sign” liu “dot” edu

Ian Thal said...

Having for the first time worked with a dramaturg since this article was originally posted. I certainly have come to understand the extent to which some stage directions can be overly proscriptive and even be patronizing as talking down to the producing company when they become overly detailed, however, description is often necessary. Sometimes specific props are as essential a part of the story as the dialogue. When characters fight, there are specific character traits and narrative elements that a fight director needs for choreographing, et cetera. If the writer wants to incorporate these elements, he or she should do so-- just in the most economical manner.