Theatre Thursday: Simplify stage directions

When it comes to stage directions in scripts, shorter is better. Here’s why.

I was inspired by a random moment in a recent Matt Baume Sewers of Paris podcast in which his guest, writer David Strugar, discussed how his post-COVID remote work job creating audio captions for the blind for TV shows taught him how to pare down his stage directions.

It was a necessity, because the program and audio continue on while he has to sneak in the explanatory audio quickly, so he can’t really be too elaborate about things. Scene settings and character descriptions happen quickly but with detail in the quiet spaces between dialogue (and the film’s own narration, if it exists.)

Obviously, some films are going to allow for a lot more narration for the visually impaired, particularly those with long sequences where a lot happens without much dialogue. Imagine how much narration the opening sequence of 2001: A Space Odyssey would have, since that film goes almost half an hour before the first line of dialogue is even spoken, and about an equal length of time at the end.

Combined with other silences in the film, there are about 88 minutes with no dialogue at all, but in those silent moments, a lot happens.

On the other hand, if you’re doing a film by a director who prefers a lot of dialogue and intricate wordplay, like Aaron Sorkin, of The West Wing and The Social Network fame, where most of his scenes are all dialogue, so jamming those descriptions in can be difficult.

As for writing stage directions (also known as action), it also differs between stage and TV/film. In the latter, you have to let the creative team and actors know what the camera is supposed to be looking at — although never with specific shots, unless you’re the auteur who has also already been hired to direct it.

Trust your dialogue and your story to guide your director and cinematographer. Don’t use the action to do their job for them.

When it comes to stage, less is always more. Again, let your dialogue lead your actors and directors to the emotional truth of a scene, and try to avoid giving specific emotions as parentheticals unless they are so unusual but necessary for the scene that they might be counterintuitive — for example, your villain laughing hysterically after being shot by the hero.

Shakespeare and other playwrights of his era were masters at this, and Shakespeare rarely used anything beyond the following actions: Character(s) enters/enter, character(s) exit/exeunt, Character A kills Character B, and Character B dies. Beyond that, the only things he’ll really indicate is if they come in with a prop, like when Hamlet enters reading a book — although since a prominent line in that scene is Ophelia asking him, “What do you read, my lord?” again, the playwright has hidden the direction in the dialogue.

Shakespeare’s one big deviation is also the funniest and most enigmatic stage direction in the history of theatre: referring to the character Antigonus in The Winter’s Tale: “Exit, pursued by a bear.”

That’s all he gives us and it’s up for the director to figure it out — although considering how frequently bears figured in Elizabethan “entertainment,” there was probably a real bear on that stage.

At the other end of the spectrum are some 20th century playwrights who can just go on and on in their stage directions. To examples that stand out are Eugene O’Neill and George Bernard Shaw.

O’Neill could go on and on and on setting his scenes. The opening description in his first successful play, The Emperor Jones, goes on for 500 words. I remember from experience that the opening of Long Day’s Journey into Night takes just over three pages in the published script just describing the living room of the Tyrone family’s summer house, down to the titles of individual books on the shelves, as well as the appearance of the first two characters in incredible detail.

It’s all way too much, and most of it is going to get jettisoned anyway, based on the director’s vision, the reality of what kind of space they work with, and the costume-designer’s budget — not to mention that the actors cast are going to instantly define a lot of the characters’ physical attributes.

Shaw could be just as bad, although he also tended to toss things into stage directions that could neither be shown on stage nor really had anything to do with what was happening in the play. One in particular I remember a theatre teacher telling me about in college was a final bit of action along the lines of, “He leaves, and they never do learn his secret.”

And the audience is supposed to get this, how? It might be something the actors should know, but if the author has done their job with the dialogue, then they’ll know.

Ultimately, though, most stage directors are going to immediately and completely ignore most existing stage directions, focus on the dialogue, and then create the blocking and so on themselves. So if you want to save yourself some time going in, use as few actions as possible.

“The Smith’s mid-century modern living room, a Tuesday morning.” You really don’t need much else than that, and if a later direction says “they sit to eat breakfast,” this lets the production team know that there should be some kind of dining table there. Or maybe not — maybe this family is big on TV trays, or eating standing, party style.

They’re all choices, and they can all illuminate character. You’ll often learn more about your own characters by not being as specific, but through letting the actors inhabit them and then make discoveries of their own.

Sometimes, you’ll be wonderfully surprised.

Image source: Thomas Bragg (printmaker), (CC BY-SA 4.0), via Wikimedia Commons

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