When he was editing Mike Smith’s What Manner of Man, Nathan was tripped-up by an author’s note: “Stage directions are minimal, but more are implied, I hope, by the dialogue.” To Nathan, this seemed to translate into “I couldn’t be bothered to write directions.” Not so. In this case, the script contained as many directions as I’d expect to find in a piece for a serious adult theatre company. Clearly, this depends on what you are writing, how you write, and for whom you are writing. If you’re writing a bedroom farce, then some gags rely on specific locations or movements (if someone’s already hiding behind the curtains, the next person has to be instructed to get into the wardrobe). If you’re writing for kids, then it may make sense to say things about mood and expression that you would not need to say for adults. (On the other hand, you can argue that even for kids, directions of manner are part of the process of developing the production between director and actors. More of that another time.)
Back in 2011, Bob Heather and I were at the NODA South-East Regional Conference, where actor and director Paul Doust gave a presentation. Actually, not so much a presentation as a short directing workshop, as he got some of the delegates up on the stage illustrating his points by developing a performance from a text.
Paul was asked what he did about directions in the script and said that he tended to ignore them. (At least, he ignored those that weren’t essential.) He reminded us that Shakespeare gives very few directions (they have their entrances and exits but Shakespeare never actually tells his actors to strut and fret), and that where some action was needed, it was implicit in the speech. (Paul’s example came from Lear trying to revive the dying Cordelia: “Unbutton here.”)
This is not a plea for everyone to adopt a specific approach to stage directions; just food for thought.