“In the universe – just like in music, or architecture, or relationships – the absence, the space between, is just as important as the observable, tangible things.”
— Dear Galileo by Claire Willett
One of the questions I continually run up against when I’m writing a play is this: “Who am I writing for when I write stage directions?”
In my first plays I erred on the side of spelling out absolutely everything down to the tiniest vocal nuance, though I see that now as a symptom of my own insecurity: “But if I don’t write ‘Angrily,’ then how will the actor know?” (Well, Self, that’s really a problem you should have solved when you wrote the line.) I did a staged reading in Portland in 2009 for the inaugural Fertile Ground Festival of New Work, wherein I had the following conversation with my director Jessica mere minutes after placing a completed script in her hands:
“So how do you want to handle stage directions?”
“Oh, don’t worry about it. Generally at the first rehearsal I just have the actors go through and cross them out.”
“Cross them out? Cross them out?”
“But . . . but . . .”
“It gives the actors more room to play around and make their own choices.”
“But I just wrote them. This script is like an HOUR old.”
“Claire. You have to trust me. You have to trust your actors. It’s gonna be okay.”
I really love the part of the writing process where I put a bunch of smart, opinionated actors in my living room, feed them, give them wine and coffee and a copy of the script, and let them go to town. But like many playwrights, I’m also haunted by the ghost named The Play In My Head, and letting go of that is often painful. It involves a tremendous yielding of control. It means letting other people in. It means I am not the only one breathing life into this story, that a whole bunch of other people’s minds, hearts, and bodies are now inextricably involved in the equation. And I need to step back, to let them breathe and stretch and move around inside this thing I built for them to inhabit.
So I’ve been thinking a lot lately, with the play I’m working on now, about negative space, both inside the story (which is about family and astrophysics, two places where the space between objects often turns out to be pretty important) and in how I’m writing it. I write write write, and then I cut cut cut, like that Coco Chanel mantra about always taking off one piece of jewelry before you leave the house. (Of course, just taking off a ring doesn’t help if you’re also wearing a stack of bangle bracelets, chandelier earrings, five necklaces and a diamond tiara.)
I wrote Dear Galileo during my recent residency at the beautiful I-Park Artists’ Colony in East Haddam, Connecticut, where I was privileged to spend a month living with some incredibly brilliant artists. I’m going to give them a brief shout-out here because they completely deserve your attention: Ed Bisese (painter, Maryland); Jung-Ki Beak (installation artist, South Korea); Bruno Cançado (visual artist, Brazil); Cameron Hockenson (environmental artist/sculptor, California); Linda Molenaar (sculptor/performance artist, The Netherlands); and Brett Sroka (composer/jazz trombone player, Brooklyn). I fell in love with them all. Especially Cameron.
Cameron and I used to stay up until two in the morning, drinking wine and talking about art and life and politics and relationships and family and religion and the world. On the surface you’d think our art forms had absolutely nothing in common. While I was writing in my studio (“writing” being an activity that encompassed such tasks as drinking endless pots of coffee, listening to my iTunes playlist of Songs About Outer Space, looking up “Higgs Boson” and “How do creationists explain dinosaurs?” on the Internet, and desperately trying to avoid being distracted by Facebook), he was out in a field on a ladder hammering planks of wood together and creating this.
But the more we talked about our art, the more we realized that we were doing the same thing with different tools. We had a conversation one night that I found so interesting and inspiring that I worked it into the play. It was early in the process, so I was knee-deep in research and fragments of scenes and bits of dialogue, trying to turn a kitchen counter full of raw ingredients into a reasonably edible dinner, and Cameron was asking me about my writing process. He asked me, “What’s the hardest part of writing a play?”
“Cutting it,” I told him. “I write like I talk, so everything is too long.” I told him about how I usually finish a whole draft, have a panic attack about how long it is and how bored the audience is going to be by intermission, curse my lack of talent, contemplate throwing myself down a well, and then finally suck it up, get out my red pen and start chopping. I told him I’m constantly at war with my tendency to say everything, to spell it all out JUST SO NOBODY MISSES ANYTHING IMPORTANT, and then I have to go back over and over and over to prune stuff out and leave room for the actors to, you know, act.
He looked thoughtful. “It’s funny, that’s kind of what I’m doing right now,” he said. “I have this design for my sculpture and I really like it, but I always have to make sure I’m thinking about the empty space. I don’t want it to be –”
“Yeah, cluttered. The space between is really important. I have to look at it like I’m sculpting the emptiness too. It’s just as important as the stuff you can see.”
The more we talked about working with empty space in our projects, the more we realized that, actually, that’s what everyone was doing.
Bruno was working on one project where he submerged white paper into water with ink in it to create watermarked lines; it was the whiteness – whether there was more or less of it, how far it extended, how distinct the line that separated it from the gray – that defined the visual impact of each space. And Brett was working on an electronic music composition where he recorded pieces on the trombone and keyboard and then digitally manipulated them, looping, reversing, reshaping, distorting, and layering the sounds to create a composition. In music, it’s the space between that gives us rhythm.
Everyone had a different medium – what I was doing with words, Cameron was doing with nails and lumber, Bruno was doing with paper and ink, and Brett was doing with a trombone. But everything we created was defined by the space between.
So as I find myself buried in notes, research and revisions for the second of what will no doubt be many, many drafts, that’s what I’m thinking about. I’m thinking about the reading I did at our Open Studios event at the end of our residency, where I performed an excerpt of my play while standing inside Cameron’s sculpture. I’m thinking about my empty space inside his.
I’m thinking about white paper and black ink, about the notes of a trombone floating through the air down the garden path and into my writing studio.
I’m thinking about a big wooden arch made of wooden planks assembled with a pattern that seems random, but is in fact anything but; where the negative space is perfectly considered and there’s just enough of it.
I want to write a play like Cameron builds a sculpture, where someone can stand inside it and create something that’s completely their own.
Actors, writers, designers, directors, what do you love/hate about stage directions? What do they mean to you and how do you use them? How do you get inspired in your theatre work by artists working in other media?