Tag Archives: stage

Ten Tips for Writing Stage Directions

1. Direct the actors

Stage directions are not the same as TV and film directions.  The latter tend to be written from the point of view of the camera.  They say what the audience should see and therefore what the director should shoot.  Stage directions, by contrast, direct the actors.  So, where a TV script would say “we see two men sitting at a card table”, a stage script should say “Dom and Kev are sitting at the card table”.

2. Direction before action

Imagine that Helen has a long speech.  Then we find the direction “Derek, who has been dozing throughout Helen’s speech, finally begins to snore.”  That direction tells Derek what he should have been doing for the past half a page.  It’s better to tell the actor before the action – it makes rehearsals so much easier.

3. Direct the immediate

“Tarquin enters.  He is a tall, thin man with a droopy moustache.”  The actor playing Tarquin is unable to change his height and build as he enters the stage.  Thus they are matters for casting.  If those characteristics are essential to the role, then they should form part of a character profile, either at the start of the script or (better, in my view) in production notes.  Even growing a stick-on moustache takes time.

4. Don’t direct the audience

Some shows – particularly British pantomimes – have audience involvement. However, in general, members of the audience do not have copies of the script.  Consequently, they are notoriously bad at following stage directions.  By all means direct the actors to interact with the audience, but saying what the audience will do in response will only lull the actor into a false sense of security.

5. Set the scene

The director and actors need to know the features of their environment, but only as far as it is essential to what follows.  Thus it is good practice to start a scene with a brief scene-setting direction:
A country road.  A Tree.  Evening.

6. Knock, knock…

Who’s there?  The complement to the scene-setting direction is the “at rise” direction, to say who’s on stage when the curtain goes up.  The play always goes better when the right actors are on stage at the right time

7. Remember that all the world’s a stage…

Exit Stage LeftAnd all the men and women merely players;  They have their exits and their entrances…
And it’s the writer’s job to make sure that the people speaking have been told that they should be on the stage.  If you look at Shakespeare’s directions, aside from the special effects (all those alarums and excursions) they are almost completely limited to entrances and exits, which should tell you something about their importance.  Furthermore, lights go out, milk goes off, but actors exit.

8. Value terseness

Especially in early readings, excessive directions get in the way of the flow of the script.
Don’t give unnecessary details: “Charles picks up his favourite evening newspaper, the Oswestry Herald and Argus” can become “Charles picks up a newspaper.”
Don’t be tempted to put options into a direction: “Cynthia grabs a blunt instrument.  This might be a poker or a candle holder or an ornament.”  If you want to discuss the options, do so in production notes; for the direction, the blunt instrument is enough.
“John has spent five weeks teaching inorganic chemistry to teenagers.”  Better to restrict your directions to things the actors can convey to the audience.
(I love the way that ‘Value terseness’ is the longest tip.)
Even essential directions should be stated as briefly as possible.  But…

9. Don’t abbreviate unnecessarily

Experienced actors will understand what you mean by DSL or USC, but not all actors are experienced, and going through two levels of translation – from ‘DSL’ to ‘Downstage Left’ and from ‘Downstage Left’ to ‘over there’ will cause some to slow down.  And if you think you will save significant quantities of ink by writing DSL, then you are doing too much blocking, usurping the director’s job.

10. Don’t get your up and down back to front

Exit Stage Right“The living room of Pullover House.  There is a table centre with a sofa and cocktail cabinet backstage.”
Whilst I’m sure the actors will be very grateful for this little luxury, the audience will not be able to appreciate the cocktail cabinet or sofa, as they will be out of sight behind the set.  Use Upstage and Downstage, Stage Left and Stage Right.

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Video Is Not A Human Right

I don’t really like videos of stage shows; they rarely do justice to the production.  A small part of this is dislike of my own performances.  I once gave a presentation which was recorded.  I seemed to have developed a pattern of movement rather like a simple box step – you know the one: right foot crosses over the left; left foot back; right foot back; step forward with the left and then repeat the whole sequence.  It was a bit like that; back across and forward, back across and forward.  I had my hands in my pockets and was leaning back slightly so that my legs seemed to reach my destination ahead of me.  I skimmed through the video on fast-forward and the movement seemed to be that of Charlie Chaplin’s tramp.

A live performance brings out the remarkable abilities of the human eye to focus on detail.  You can focus on the character speaking, or the various reactions to the speech, or anything else.  With a video, those decisions are made for you by the cameraman or video director.  That’s absolutely fine in a movie; the whole thing is planned to show you particular perspectives and there is no opportunity to see anything else, but in a stage play, there’s a whole show going on, not just the director’s cut.

Thus from my personal perspective, I prefer to see movies made as movies, rather than recordings of stage shows.  The two things can, of course, be connected.  Vagabond Alley Productions in Seattle staged Damian Trasler’s Love in the Time of Zombies and had fun making a trailer video as part of their promotional activity…

Other people go further and turn stage shows into movies.  The art-forms are different.  You can do things in a film that you couldn’t do on the stage; the most obvious being location shots, compared to the constraints of a stage set.  And, of course, you don’t have to build a set – provided that you can find a location to do the job.  Sometimes stage plays are used as short projects to develop the video-maker’s art.  Hideto Shimizu recently took this approach with Dog Day, a video production of The Doctor, a sketch by Gary Diamond and Ray Lawrence, taken off the stage and filmed in a realistic location.

You could never justify such a realistic set for a two-minute stage sketch…

Nevertheless, videos of stage shows can be useful – to the actors (my presentation style has improved), to the people back-stage who never got to see the performance, and to the people who couldn’t get to the show.  An example of the last case is the ex-pat group in Rabat who video their performances to reassure their friends and families back home that they are making an important contribution to international cultural exchange by staging comedy sketch shows.  There is, however, another issue with making videos of stage shows: just because you have a camera, it doesn’t mean that you have the right to make a video of anything you choose.

A video of a stage play (like a video of any other artistic work) is, in copyright terms, a derivative.  It could not exist without the work of the original artist – in this case, the playwright.  Under copyright law, the original artist has the right to determine what is done with his work.  In order to make a video of a stage play, you need the permission of the playwright.  (The playwright has the right to refuse permission, the right to set conditions and the right to charge fees.)  Taking the two examples above, Hideto Shimizu needed permission to make his film because it is a derivative of The Doctor.  Vagabond Alley didn’t need permission for their trailer because whilst it hints at the content of Love in the Time of Zombies, it doesn’t itself make significant use of Damian Trasler’s work.

For videos of live performances, Lazy Bee Scripts tries to make this process easy: our stage play performance rights automatically include the right to make one (and only one) video of a show.  However, if you want to make additional videos or additional copies of the original, then we will charge you a per copy licence fee.  Even then, there are limitations.  Licence to make a video is not the same as licence to display that video on the Internet, on cable television or at a public screening.  To do any of those things, you need specific permission, and you need to start by asking for it.

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”.