The Downside of Directions

Rehearsal of Miss Glossop's Weekend Break. Photo by Sue ArdernThe role of director as we know it today is a relatively recent invention in the theatre.  Nevertheless it’s an important job, and a different job from that of the author.  The director helps the actors to develop a coherent interpretation of the author’s work.   If you are writing, you don’t need to do the director’s job (or the actor’s).  You don’t need to tell the actor how to say the lines.  You don’t need to direct every move.

Nevertheless, where you are giving stage directions, you do need to be clear.  To that end, I try to discourage abbreviation in directions.  If something happens Down-stage Left, then it’s better to say it that way than to abbreviate it to DSL (just because some companies include novices who won’t know how to interpret the abbreviations – and may even struggle with upstage and down).  You’re not going to save very much of your typing time or the printer’s ink by abbreviating Upstage to US – and if you find you are typing it so much that the time saving becomes significant, then you are probably doing the director’s job and blocking all the moves in the show.

Whilst arguing against the writer doing the director’s job, Peter Ayre told me a tale told to him by a festival adjudicator about a company who had been using a script from “French’s Acting Editions”.
A digression here: based on their long history, Samuel French have taken a different approach to stage directions.  Peter John Cooper tells me that their Acting Editions used to be based on the “Prompt’s Copy” for the original production.  This included any changes made to the author’s text by the director, plus the blocking of every move.  For a long-running production, the Prompt’s Copy was the definitive text, used to resolve any disputes and used by the Deputy Stage Manager to rehearse any actor joining the cast to take over a role.  Turning this into a published text assumes that the original production was definitive, that any new production will have the same set design and that there is no role for interpretation by the new director.  In my view, this is a dangerous set of assumptions.  At worst it leads to the sort of ossification for which (before the copyright ran out) Gilbert and Sullivan productions used to be famous.  There’s a 1948 Flanders and Swan parody “In the D’Oyly Carte” where Donald Swan’s lyric suggests that every move was the same as it had been for the last fifty years:-

One that with tender passion fired
(Turn, pace, hand over heart),
Woe to the day that we were hired
By D’Oyly Carte!

(A brief exchange with my contact, Steve, suggests that these days Samuel French rely on the author’s directions rather than the prompt copy in their Acting Editions.)

Anyway, back to Peter Ayre’s story: the adjudicator was puzzled as to why the production opened with an actress crouched beneath a table.  Upon querying this he was told that “the book says mother is sitting below the table”.

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One thought on “The Downside of Directions

  1. I wish I had penny for every production of Shakespeare where the Director electrified the audience with their stunningly original interpretation of Hamlet set in the future, or Romeo and Juliet in Harlem, or a 50’s greaser version of Midsummer Night’s Dream… Oh brother. At a certain point “interpretation” just becomes self-indulgent wankery. Excuse me, boring, self-indulgent wankery. If the playwright does their job properly, little “interpretation” should be required. The story and character should speak for themselves. Dated writing will always go the way of the dinosaur. Timeless themes, characters and stories don’t require a director’s “vision”.

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