My fourth full-length play My Visit to America (MVTA) is in revision. (My third play, The Beginning of Grammar, is also in revision, but it is not the subject of this post.) Last month, I took the opening nine pages — about 10 minutes — of Act II of MVTA to my playwriting group’s scene night to be read by actors. The comments were mostly negative. This week, I took the revised scene to the same group to be read. This time the comments were mostly positive, and people who were at both readings agreed the new version was a major improvement over the previous version.
Here’s the interesting part. I only changed one line of dialog, by having one character interrupt another’s expository sentence. But I don’t think that explains the improved comments. I think it was the other thing I changed: a stage direction.
In the original version, I open the act with the description that they are in the private room of a pub in London. Three of the characters proceed to sing an old English drinking song. Following this song, the dialog begins and they each drink a glass of ale which is in front of them.
In the revised version, I open the act with the description that they are in the private room of a pub in London. Three of the characters proceed to sing an old English drinking song. Following this song, the dialog begins and they each drink a glass of ale which is in front of them, their first drink of the evening.
Note the minor difference between the last two paragraphs. Actually, the new instruction appears before the song and reads as follows (and which I asked the actors to follow, and the person reading stage directions that night to not read aloud):
As they have not yet begun to drink, the performance is reasonably on key and on meter, if not particularly virtuoso, and primarily charged with the spirit of anticipation of an enjoyable evening of fellowship and ale.
This was not a devious trick I was playing on my fellow playwrights. This was a critical change that made the difference between a sloppy mess and a reasonable scene that I can proceed to work with for future rewrites. Because without this instruction, the actors started the scene as if they were already drunk.
I hope you can see the problem here. If they start the act drunk, there is no place for them to go as the act — performed as a single scene — progresses. Also, when the dialog does not support a state of drunkenness, the audience is confused.
So, was it the actors’ fault that they, on the first reading, assumed a state of drunkenness at the beginning of the act? No, it was quite reasonable to assume that if they were singing a drinking song that they had probably already downed several glasses of ale. Reasonable and, unfortunately, wrong.
Just as three different actors assumed on a separate reading in a class I was taking when they read the original first three pages of the act — resulting in another drunken rendition of the song.
If two different groups of actors make the same conclusion when I give them the same pages of the script, I must assume that the issue is in my script. So I added the clarifying stage direction, and the problem was solved. No drunken singing, and the scene worked as intended or in that general direction.
As I’ve probably mentioned before, I try to keep a light hand in the stage directions department. But sometimes you just have to spell it out.