Stage directions: threat or menace?


In an interview with the Los Angeles Female Playwrights Initiative, Steven Epperson, Literary Manager for Impact Theatre talks about things that turn him off when reading a play. One of those things is too many stage directions. Among other things, he says “Having line after line after line after line of stage directions interrupts the flow and rhythm that I’m trying to discern from a playwright’s writing.” Further down, in the comments, he suggests as an exercise removing all stage directions except entrances and exits.

I consider myself somewhat spare in stage directions to begin with. Nevertheless, I tried Steven’s suggestion in a few places in one of my plays. What I discovered is that having too many stage directions can also interfere with my editing process.

Spoiler alert: If you’re doing blind reading for a competition that had a Nov. 30 deadline, you might not want to continue reading.

Still here? Let’s continue…

I’ve just completed some major editing on my alternate history play My Visit to America. The play concerns a modern-day bureaucrat, Jochi, and his attempts to set up trade between Mongolian-empire-run London and American-Indian-run Miami.

As part of the exercise, I took the following passage just after the climax of the play. Jochi has just assaulted a waiter. Jochi’s close friend Batu, horrified, goes to comfort the waiter. Jochi pulls Batu away. They struggle.

    (BATU breaks away from JOCHI.)

        BATU
    (To JOCHI, meaning forever.)
Good bye.

    (BATU exits.)

I thought I was being respectful to the actor by not telling them how to deliver the line, only the character’s motivation. But look what happens when I take that direction away:

    (BATU breaks away from JOCHI.)

        BATU
Good bye.

    (BATU exits.)

“Good bye” becomes vague. Oh, an actor would probably get it, but it still seems inadequate. I immediately replaced it:

    (BATU breaks away from JOCHI.)

        BATU
You…you…

    (BATU exits.)

Much better. It makes it clear Batu is so angry that he can barely speak. We can be pretty sure he’s never coming back without him even saying “Good bye.” I let that edit percolate for a few days. Then it hit me I could do even better. After a couple of edits, I wound up with the following. It’s going to require some explanation, as it involves the English of the world of the play.

    (BATU breaks away from JOCHI.)

        BATU
Thou have…you have…the clerk has…the bureaucrat has…Genghis Khan’s shield!

    (BATU exits.)

Okay, what just happened there? The English of My Visit to America has three politeness levels, similar to modern Korean:

  1. “Thou have”: Batu is using his customary address to Jochi as a close friend. (For you non-Elizabethans out there, yes, thou is informal, not formal. For you Elizabethans, “thou have” is the correct conjugation in the English of the world of the play.)
  2. “You have”: Batu realizes that he no longer can consider Jochi a friend, and drops back to a politeness level for someone with whom one has some level of familiarity but to whom one is not yet close. (At this point in the play, the audience will have already been exposed to five changes in politeness level between characters as their relationships change, so it is reasonable to expect them to get this.)
  3. “The clerk has”: Batu realizes that he doesn’t even want to have that level of familiarity, and drops back to the form of address for somebody one has just met, third person by title.
  4. “The bureaucrat has”: Batu realizes he wants to get even further away from Jochi than that. He’s already at the most distant politeness level the play’s English affords. So he tries genericizing Jochi’s title. It’s not even clear in the world of the play that Jochi would recognize this as distancing, but it’s the only tool Batu has and he takes it.
  5. “Genghis Khan’s shield!”: Batu realizes there is no way he can address Jochi that will distance the two of them sufficiently, so he resorts to what has been established in the world of the play as a curse, whereupon the only way he has to distance himself further is to do so physically. Thus, he is compelled to leave.

So there you have it, a meaty exit line for the actor playing Batu that I never would have discovered had I not gotten that stage direction out of the way.

I decided to tackle a more complicated passage where I would expect to need stage directions. One of my fears with replacing stage directions with dialog would be that I would be weighing the dialog down too much or that the actions would be unclear to the actors.

In this earlier scene Orda, a trader on the Silk Road and close friend of Jochi’s, explains the need for his new business, a credit reporting agency.

Here’s the two versions, which I’ve put side by side:

[Update: Dec. 6, 2011: Stage direction added back to beginning of Latest Edit based on Melissa’s below. Still, I’m doing it at the beginning rather than breaking up the dialog with it.]

Previous version:       

ORDA
All right. Let’s say these two empty glasses belong to – let’s call them A. Now, let’s fill these three other glasses. The first one belongs to B, the second one to C, and the third one to D.
(Filling glasses B, C, and D to approximately the same level, with just a tiny bit of room to pour more)
Let’s say A borrowed money from somebody else, B.
(Pouring about a quarter of B’s water into A’s first glass)
Then A goes to C and asks to borrow more money.
(Pouring about half of C’s water into A’s second glass)
Don’t you think C should wish to know that A has already borrowed money from B?
        JOCHI
Perhaps A’s business is too large to be supported by borrowing from B or C alone. A has two glasses, after all. shouldn’t it be natural for A to borrow from both B and C?

        ORDA
It is true that by A borrowing from B and C, the risk should be spread between them.
(ORDA pours enough water from A’s second glass into B’s glass, such that B’s glass now contains a bit more water than D’s glass)
But what if A were to immediately take the money that they borrowed from C and use it to repay B? Plus interest, of course.

        JOCHI
But why should A do such a thing?

        ORDA
Here’s the ingenious part. A, with a good payment record from B, now goes to D and borrows an even larger amount of money,
(Pouring about three-quarters of D’s water into A’s first glass)
pays the debt to C
(ORDA pours enough water from A’s first glass into C’s glass, such that C’s glass now contains about the same amount as B’s glass)
then goes back to B and borrows an even larger amount of money.
(Pouring all of B’s water into A’s second glass, perhaps to overflowing)

        JOCHI
What strange behaviour. I cannot image what productive purpose it should serve.

        BATU
It seems A has found a way to gradually move everyone else’s money into his own glasses.

Latest edit:        

(During the following, Orda pours water into and between the glasses to match the dialog.)

ORDA
All right. Let’s say these two empty glasses belong to – let’s call them A. Now, let’s fill these three other glasses. The first one belongs to B, the second one to C, and the third one to D. Let’s say A borrowed money from B. Then A goes to C and asks to borrow more money. Don’t you think C should wish to know that A has already borrowed money from B?

        JOCHI
Perhaps A’s business is too large to be supported by borrowing from B or C alone. A has two glasses, after all. Shouldn’t it be natural for A to borrow from both B and C?

        ORDA
It is true that by A borrowing from B and C, the risk should be spread between them. But what if A were to immediately take the money that they borrowed from C and use it to repay B? Plus interest, of course.

        JOCHI
But why should A do such a thing?

        ORDA
Here’s the ingenious part. A, with a good payment record from B, now goes to D and borrows an even larger amount of money…pays the debt to C…then goes back to B and borrows an even larger amount of money.

        JOCHI
What strange behaviour. I cannot image what productive purpose it should serve.

        BATU
It seems A has found a way to pour everyone else’s money into his own glasses. At least that portion that thou have managed not to spill onto the table.

See the difference? If I’ve done my job as a playwright, rather than weighing the dialog down, I’ve injected some humor. In another passage, I might be able to add conflict. And the director and cast get to play around to discover the best execution of this section.

I tried this in a few other places. Sometimes I ended up with an edit and sometimes I didn’t. Just for devil’s advocacy, here’s one where I kept the stage directions:

        TALKS WITH STRANGERS
Who should have imagined we both read at Cambridge? I wonder whether we knew anyone in common.
    (Making up a name)
Hulagu, son of Algernon and N’Quia.

        JOCHI
No.

        TALKS WITH STRANGERS
    (Making up another name)
Temujin, son of Beauregard and Hua.

        JOCHI
No.

        TALKS WITH STRANGERS
Orda, son of Temur and Doquz?

    (Pause.)

        JOCHI
No.

        TALKS WITH STRANGERS
But it rang a bell.

        JOCHI
This is all useless. There are a lot of people who crossed my path at Cambridge. I’m barely in touch with any of them.

Why do I keep the “(Making up a/another name)”?

The characters, at Talks With Strangers firm suggestion, have just progressed from addressing each other in the third person by title to addressing each other by “you.” Talks With Strangers then suggests they drink chocolate to celebrate proceeding to “you.” Upon arrival of the chocolate, Jochi sings a drinking song which explains Britain’s current rule by Mongolia. They drink, and Talks With Strangers launches the above dialog. Very shortly after this dialog, Talks With Strangers will overtly launch an interrogation into the facts of Jochi’s visit in order to find out the truth of how much danger Jochi’s visits pose to America.

The directions “(Making up a/another name)” signal to the actor that the interrogation actually begins with these two lines. Talks With Strangers is already aware, via an investigator’s report that arrived with the chocolate, that Jochi knows Orda and owes him a great deal of money, although the audience is not yet aware of this. With the above dialog, Talks With Strangers is trying to set a baseline to tell when Jochi is telling the truth, a lie detector as it were.

A skilled actor might be able to telegraph to a portion of the audience that the first two names are bogus, or at least that an interrogation is beginning, without being so obvious that it would communicate to Jochi that this is a ruse. I’ve certainly enjoyed the experience as an audience member when an actor’s delivery has communicated such subliminal messages to me several lines before the situation is revealed in dialog, and I would love to have audiences have that experience with this set of lines.

In the end, I’m not sold on eliminating all, or nearly all, stage directions. Some stage directions are absolutely necessary. But I’ve learned a valuable lesson that excess stage directions can keep me from doing my best work as a playwright and that a great exercise for later drafts is to discover precisely which directions are unneeded.

If you’re curious, you can view the first ten pages of each act of My Visit to America

(Apologies to Monty Python for the post title)

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10 Responses to “Stage directions: threat or menace?”

  1. Steven Says:

    Interesting reading. Thanks for sharing your experience.

  2. Judith Pratt Says:

    Have just learned that I need to *add* clear directions between every scene in one of my plays–where and when we are, and what is going on before the dialogue starts. I think it’s script-specific; this is a very episodic play. Because I have been an actor and a director, I actually tend to be too sparing with stage directions. But I agree–sometimes you can make the words do the job for you!

  3. chasbelov Says:

    You make a good point that stage directions have to be right for the play. My guess is that stage directions at the beginning of a scene or act probably don’t interfere with the flow of dialog, since it’s a break anyway. But I’m neither a director nor actor nor literary manager, so their/your mileage may vary. (I did act in two plays in my teens, but that was a long time ago.)

  4. Melissa Says:

    There are stage directions and there are stage directions.

    Where Steve wasn’t specific enough is in specifying the difference between narrative stage directions, which are essential, and non-narrative stage directions, which are not. Narrative stage directions contain essential components of the storytelling– “Making up a name,” “Titus kills Saturninus,” “During the following, he changes out of his uniform and into his street clothes” and the like.

    Steve’s referring to non-narrative stage directions, and you’d be amazed at how many we see from inexperienced playwrights. Experienced writers tend not to do this. Examples include, “She looks up at him, frowns, wrinkles her nose, and then pats him on the cheek,” “He pauses. He tilts his head sideways, considering her. He puts his hands on his hips, purses his lips and sighs,” and “In the bedroom there is a large, ebony four-poster bed with a brocaded red sateen coverlet and four overstuffed black pillows edged in gold. Next to the bed is a cherrywood nightstand with a red and gold leaded glass lamp.” (None of which are ever mentioned in the play, of course)

    These examples are playwrights telling the actors how to act and the designers how to design. If it’s important to the play that the bedroom be sumptuous, say that and let the designer do her job. Obviously if it’s important to your concept of the character that there be pill bottles on the nightstand or a framed picture of Rutherford B. Hayes on the wall, you need to include that, but don’t act, direct, or design the play in the stage directions.

  5. chasbelov Says:

    Ouch. I couldn’t imagine someone actually writing those things, but you and Steven would certainly know. Thanks for the clarification, Melissa. I might actually need to put back some of the stage directions that I took out. Nevertheless, it does seem to get in the way of my editing, as I discovered. So perhaps I take them out, edit, and add them back as appropriate.

    Thanks for commenting.

  6. Steven Says:

    Yes 100% to Melissa’s clarification, and apologies for not being more specific. Narrative stage directions = good. Non-narrative stage directions = not so much. Thanks for the assist, Melissa!

  7. chasbelov Says:

    Melissa and Steven, based on your comments, I’ve added back a stage direction to the longer passage. You’ll notice it’s much shorter and doesn’t break up the dialog anymore. There’s another place in the play I’ve just added back one stage direction as an introductory direction for a monologue and following dialog that, again, I edited for the better as a result of taking out several intra-monologue stage directions. Thanks again.

  8. John Says:

    Another thing to keep in check is physical aspects of the character. I did an original play where my character was supposed to have a goatee according to the script. Of course that idea was thrown out. Also, I auditioned for a character that per the script was slightly overweight. The actor who got the part was close to 40 percent BMI.

  9. chasbelov Says:

    Good point. Keeping it to what’s required by the dialog or the point of the play. Sorry you didn’t get the part; yes, 40% BMI is probably more than slightly over. But was it essential that the character only be slightly over?

    For My Visit to America, the American Indian character could be male or female, a choice I made to make the play castable. I also said they were probably the youngest of the characters; it’s not absolutely necessary, but it gives their antagonist one more reason to envy them.

    Han Ong’s play Bachelor Rat requires that the main character not be white, although it’s never mentioned in the script. But he may have had a mission to provide more opportunities to actors of color.

    Still, it makes sense to examine what exactly is required and not to get too descriptive about it.

    Thanks for adding that to the mix.

  10. John Ferreira Says:

    The audition I was referring to was 25 or so years ago. I’ve gotten over it :-).

    I should add also that the character was described as slightly balding. The guy who got the part was noticable bald.

    But, to answer your question: I don’t think waist size (or amount of hair), was important for the character. Then again, I only read a portion of the script. There could have been lines along the line of “Are you putting on weight?”, “Is your hairline receding?”. In that case, then yes, being slightly overweight and balding would be appropriate.

    To change topic, my experience with that audition taught me a reality of getting cast in a play. The actor who got the role copied my every line reading and stage movement during the audition.

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