The Right Direction

I’ve posted about stage directions that are best cut. What should be left?

Whatever is necessary. This will vary from play to play. Some are more visual than others – indeed, that’s true of moments within a play. The important thing is they earn their keep. Basic directions clearly, but anything more needs to serve a purpose.

Some examples:-

  • Tells the part of the story that can’t be put into words. At the end of the first scene of Christopher Hampton’s The Philanthropist  a disappointed writer puts a gun to his mouth, presses the trigger and shoots himself. At the end of the play the disappointed puts a gun to his mouth, presses the trigger and…lights a cigarette. Read the second the second act of Noises Off to see this done for a whole act.
  • Replaces words. Theatre is a visual medium so actions are often more effective than words. Imagine X handing Y a document. Y reads it through and looks at X. A long pause. X proffers a pen. Y doesn’t take it at first. Eventually he snatches, signs and tosses it to X . You could have a dialogue along the lines of  – ‘I don’t want to sign this’ –  ‘Tough, you have to.’ – but silence conveys more menace.
  • Has a subtext. The character means something by his action which he isn’t saying. Here’s Harold Pinter in The  Caretaker. Ashton has invited Davies, a tramp, back to his brother’s room.Ashton: Sit down.
    (He has to find a chair as there isn’t one)
    Davies: Sit down? … I haven’t had a good sit down…
    I haven’t had a proper sit down…
    (He doesn’t sit down)

    The stage direction indicates that Davies doesn’t want to accept that he is the inferior in the relationship

  • Shows character. In the cherry Orchard one character has squeaky shoes. Why? So you’ll remember who he is  when he reappears after his first brief appearance.

The Wrong Direction

Theatre readers and literary managers constantly complain about the stage directions in new plays sent to them for reading. there are too many of them.

Perhaps it’s the influence of Samuel French, who publish plays heavy with stage directions. But these are intended for amateurs who lack experience or confidence.

Some don’ts:-

  • Professional actors won’t stand still just because you haven’t told them to move. Trust them to do what comes naturally.
  • Directors don’t need your help blocking the play. If you have directions like ‘X moves downstage left’. cut it.
  • Don’t choreograph fights. That’s the Fight Director’s job. He will also know whether the actors are right or left handed.
  • Don’t state the obvious. If X says ‘have a seat’, Y will sit down. It doesn’t need a stage direction.

Some do’s:-

  • Stick to what’s essential. I read a play in which a character picked up the post and put it on a table, where they lay unopened and unmentioned for the rest of the play.
  • See some recently written plays and read the scripts to see what came from the writer and what from the performance team – but not the acting edition. Some companies sell discounted scripts as an alternative to the glossy programme.

What, then, are good stage directions? That’s for another blog.