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.
- 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.