Stage Directions and the 17%

05.10.12 | 18 Comments

CATEGORIES #2amt, #2femt, artistic home, dramaturgy, new play development, new plays, newplay, playwrights, storytelling, theatrical ecosystem, Uncategorized

I’m currently writing a play called The Secret of the Biological Clock, about a former girl detective who is turning 37 and wants to solve the mystery of what makes a family. I have spent the past two months flipping out about stage directions.

Stage directions.

The play itself is a mystery with overtones of spy movies. There are daring escapes and bomb plots. I’ve reread a bunch of Nancy Drew mysteries and I wanted to incorporate all the various outlandish plot points into this play, keeping it in balance with the very real aspects of someone not dealing with aging and wondering if she really wants to have a kid.

You would think this play would have me running off blithely into the land of the impossible stage directions. It has to – right?

Except I’m terrified of them.

It seems silly to say terrified – but I have spent the past month or so double and triple guessing something as simple as “The figure escapes out the attic window.”

This is not something that a rational person would be flipping out about. This isn’t something that I would have flipped out about when I started out as a playwright. I went through some really amazing training during my time at DePaul University, mostly with the excellent Carlos Murillo, who while not a fan of stage directions in general, did like assignments that included impossible ones.

This is new found fear is born of a bunch of various messages that I have internalized since graduation.

Some of these messages are pretty explicit. I’ve been told that my writing isn’t dramatic. That was a comment from a concerned (and otherwise pretty cool individual) that kept me from writing anything for three years. I’ve been told that I “can’t do that on stage,” and shouldn’t I be writing a screenplay or novel instead.

But most of the messages aren’t that direct. As a female playwright, the odds are already against me getting produced. They’re even worse in Miami, which has a hyper-masculine theatre culture and artistically prefers what I’ve called “plays where people throw chairs.” 1970s Steppenwolf is idolized by many of our artistic directors, and while we share a tendency to romanticize Chicago theatre – the Chicago Theatre I’m romanticizing is a completely different genre.

I’ve been part of conversations among playwrights that I love and respect on how Sarah Ruhl is too cutesy and trying too hard. Even worse, I’ve seen local productions of truly amazing women’s plays get trashed for being too whimsical. I think Deborah Zoe Laufer’s End Days is a delightful script with the amazing choice of having the characters of Jesus and Stephen Hawking played by the same actor. But Florida Stage’s production wasn’t well received by many local artists and Florida Stage’s audience. It wasn’t nominated for the Best New Work Carbonell the year it won the Steinberg Award. I’ve heard that whimsical plays are clever, but that a much more straightforward play can really get at the gut of the human experience.

It took a reading of In Common Hours for two of the smartest dramaturgical minds I know to get the play. It’s a delicate, domestic comedy and the charm of the play only landed for them in the hearing of it, and not on the page.

As playwright, you want everything to land on the page – so I worked to fit into the mold. I could write smaller, more straight forward, more realistic, more traditionally structured. I would write something that would be respectable. I boxed myself in and wrote a traditionally structured, five character play.

If I followed all the rules, then I would be a real playwright.

Except I was a real playwright all along and the play where I only partly followed the rules is the play that has been produced.

I’ve only now found the courage to go back to telling the types of stories that I was completely comfortable telling in college. I graduated seven years ago. And even now, I don’t have the ease of writing those stories that I had back then. Instead I flip out about stage directions.

It took flipping out about stage directions for me to realize how much I have internalized all the various messages I’ve heard and witnessed over the past seven years. And it’s even sadder that I felt the need for permission from others to embrace something that used to be instinctual to my process.

For those of us who work in this field – what are the messages we’re sending out about the value of women’s stories and storytelling? There’s been a lot of wonderful mobilization around gender parity since the Guthrie, but in addition to fighting for more women’s stories, what are we saying about those stories themselves? And what messages are we sending to women playwrights, intentionally and unintentionally?

And to the folks (admittedly all male) who have told me over the past week or so that if people don’t understand my play, they shouldn’t be directing it, I would like to say thank you. It’s unfortunate that I needed to hear that from multiple sources for this greater realization to sink in. Just because I work in this community doesn’t mean I have to let it define me as an artist. I can define myself on my own terms.

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Andie Arthur

Andie Arthur is a playwright and theatre administrator in Miami. She is the executive director of the South Florida Theatre League, the co-founder of Lost Girls Theatre, and the Florida Regional Rep of the Dramatists Guild.

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  • Thanks for writing this post. It hits home with me in a number of ways. I don’t have much to add, but I’m betting we’re not the only people dealing with this stuff. I really appreciate your thoughts about it. 

  • Aemckenna

    Your post well describes what I’ve witnessed in the four years since I moved to Miami. I imagine that you’d agree that the problem with the (oh-so-well-phrased) hypermasculine “plays where people throw chairs” isn’t that they’re done — many of them are excellent plays and done very well here.  But they seem to be done to the exclusion of other aesthetics and held up as the sine qua non of what theater is supposed to be.  And aside from the chilling effect this atmosphere has on artists with a different or wider point of view, frankly, it gets a little boring.

  • Catherine Trieschmann

    Andie, I don’t have any great insight. Just want to say thank you for sharing your journey. I wish you great confidence in writing all future stage directions but moreover, I am glad you’re gaining confidence in yourself as a writer. xxo Catherine Trieschmann

  • As a playwright and me knowing my plays that I write are heavy handed to the point that I have designed the stage. I design the world that my players are going to interact from their and I props upon props that connect with the players’ character.  Keep writing and rules are guidelines, and things that either serve to give that artistic endeavor shape and form and serves it in purpose being and drives it that intended end… or they are made to be broken if they restrict and strangle that artistic spirit that is something that doesn’t fit that box. It is like ‘god’… you can’t put rules and stipulations on what ‘god’ is or isn’t…. therein lay those limitations and means of control that strangles the true potential of what can be discovered in knowing such things to be truth. Those that would impose such restrictions with great vigor are those that seek to control it out of their own fear and/or their need to maintain the standard quo of normality..   So do what you think and feel is right for the play.

    Gavion E. Chandler~

    ‘Man is his own devil.’

  • plainkate

    Yes, yes, yes, if they don’t understand your play, they most emphatically should not be directing it, Andie.  Hear, hear.

    As a director, stage directions that advance the action or tell me instructive things like ‘the figure escapes out the window’ are wonderful.  Stage directions that say adverbial stuff like “she speaks wistfully” waste my time and offer taut snares to actors.

    Paula Vogel, Anne Bogart and Sarah Ruhl talked about the question of stage directions at a public conversation in New York a few weeks back.  Paula Vogel said she used to proscribe everything in the stage directions; now, she said, “I worry a lot less about where the furniture goes.”  She also said that a playwright should try to trust that, even if she doesn’t get everything she wants in a given production, there will be other productions.

  • Re: “As playwright, you want everything to land on the page”

    I hope I’m misunderstanding this or taking it out of context. If not, I respectfully disagree. I think it’s wonderful, if inconvenient, that your play only made sense when performed. To me, it means that within the magic you did as playwright, you gave the actors and director space to do the magic that actors and directors do, something that is taken from them if the play fully lands on the page.

    Alas, taking this tack may ironically interfere with getting those opportunities to hear the play aloud or see it on its feet. But the alternative is risking plays that are so perfectly formed that the life is sucked out of them.

    A conundrum indeed.

  • A.C. Douglas

    Explicit and detailed stage directions are of the utmost importance for a playwright. They’re a playwright’s sole protection against directors.


    • Reiner Torheit

      Great, so let’s not stage the plays, right?  Just in case a director makes a contribution. Let’s read them on the radio, huh? 

    • What does that even mean?

  • Reiner Torheit

    In the good old days, playwrights were not authors, they were playwrights – they were expected to stage their plays too.

    Unless you plan staging the play yourself, I suggest you leave it to a professional. Including the stage directions.

  • Faulkner

    A.C. Douglas has obviously had some of his/her work ruined by an incompetent director. But the heavy-handed playwright who deigns to write down every stage direction is bound to be disappointed. Plays are written to be performed, and in my opinion good playwrights will leave something to the imagination of those tasked with honoring their work. I have seen perhaps the most famous stage direction of all time, “Exit pursued by Bear,” interpreted in myriad ways, some successful, some not, some surprisingly comic and delightful, others spine-tinglingly terrifying (in a good way). One used a bear puppet that rose to a height of 19 feet. Another a guy in a bear suit. Another shadows projected on the scrim, depicting a violent death.

    As a multi-hyphenate, I know that theater is a collaborative art. Certainly, there are playwrights that want to control many aspects of future productions, from set design on down to the written pauses (Beckett, Pinter) – but there are many who aren’t members of that exclusive club, and should probably consider being novelists rather than playwrights.

    More often than not, the sum total of everyone’s creative input is what raises a production above the average to make great theater. I believe it was Bill Ball who said the best rehearsal processes begin with everyone (director, writer, actors) saying “yes.” 

    • Chance Thunderstance

      I don’t disagree with everything that you said, in fact, I think most of it is very understandable. However, by making definitive statements, much like AC did before you, you end up shutting down the conversation and discounting just as many thoughtful playwrights. ” But the heavy-handed playwright who deigns to write down every stage direction is bound to be disappointed.” – What do you say to Tennessee Williams? What would you say to Arthur Miller, especially with regards to Death of A Salesman, perhaps the most identifiable and heavy-handed stage directions in modern American theatre? While I am sure both of them were disappointed by many productions, I think it unwise to imply they have done something wrong as playwrights.  

  • Judith Pratt

    The Great Stage Direction Debate continued. To the directors:”She takes out a gun and shoots him” is an essential stage direction. To the writers: Eugene O’Neill got away with directions like “dully,” but we can’t do that any more.  In between, people are just yapping because they think they know best in an area where no one can tell creativity from bad work and vice versa.

    Andie, an essential part of learning to write plays is learning what advice is useful and what isn’t.  My advice: unless you can respond by understanding what you need to change, ignore the advice.  It’s usually someone else trying to write your play for you.

  • A.C. Douglas

    “Faulkner” wrote: “A.C. Douglas has obviously
    had some of his/her work ruined by an incompetent director.”



    Actually, no. I’m not a playwright but a commentator, and my
    area of interest is opera (mainly the music-dramas of Richard Wagner), not the plays
    of the spoken-word theater, where for the past few decades we’ve seen the pervasive
    rise of the malignancy called Regietheater (director’s theater) wherein the
    most grotesque horrors are perpetrated by directors putting onstage *their* concept
    (Konzept) and vision of the work to hand rather than that of the work’s creator
    (i.e., the composer).


    A number of years ago (2005 to be more exact), I became
    engaged in an extended, knock-down, drag-out, and very nasty online cross-blog
    fight with a theater director who took the adamant position that theater is
    essentially “a collaborative art”, as you put it. Wrote this director:


    === Begin Quote ===

    We make a big mistake in theater by confusing The Script
    with The Play. The Script is the foundation, or the stem cell. Or, as Simon
    Callow writes about it, like a piece of music score where you only have some of
    the notes and you’re not sure what key its in. It’s just words. It’s not the finished
    thing. We have this ridiculous idea of “Serving the Text.” Bullshit!
    The Text serves the Play!

    === End Quote ===


    To which my response was, in part:


    === Begin Quote ===

    _______ declares that serving the creator’s text is a
    “bullshit” notion. Well, I’ve news for directors who think like that.
    As a first principle they should be reminded that the playwright or the opera
    composer is the sole creator of his work, and that the playwright’s text IS the
    play set down in written form on paper, just as the opera composer’s score IS the
    opera set down in written form on paper. Any text or score that isn’t, isn’t
    worth the paper it’s printed on.


    Second, they should be reminded that the creators of plays
    and operas neither need nor require partners or collaborators once the work is
    finished. (I’m aware of the parlous nature of “finished,” but
    sidestep it for the instant purpose as well as exclude all matters relating to
    the “fine tuning” of newly written stage works during rehearsals and
    initial runs, whether stage plays or operas.) What the creators of plays and
    operas need and require are gifted *servants* of which the director is one;
    servants who will faithfully and as free from distortion as possible *translate*
    the creator’s work from its written form on the printed page into its truest,
    most effective concrete physical form onstage so that the work becomes
    apprehensible to an audience in a theater as its creator envisioned it, which
    vision is embedded fully in the text or score itself. When a director steps
    beyond the bounds of faithful translator he steps into territory in which he
    has no proper place nor any business being, and by so doing does a gross disservice
    to the work, the work’s creator, and the theater audience alike. In short, a
    director is doing what he ought to be doing only when he and his work are
    perfectly transparent. The hallmark of a first-rate director is that his work
    be invisible in the final staged production, what’s seen onstage being only the
    properly translated work (i.e., translated from page to stage) of the work’s
    creator exclusively.

    === End Quote ===



  • Theatre is in fact a collaborative art.

    Readings and productions before a script is “finished” or “published” contribute to that finished script.  Every play I’ve written and/or worked on has been improved in that process through the contributions of the actors, directors and designers.  So the “creator’s work” is still built from a collaborative effort, the alchemy of all the people in the room working on the text.

    But all right, let’s forget the development process.  The production of a published and finished play is still collaborative.  If the director’s work were truly that of a translator staying invisible, then every production of a given play would look, sound and feel nearly identical.  That wouldn’t be very interesting.

    That said, every director I’ve known and worked with has been able to serve the text at the same time.  A good director wouldn’t think that a ridiculous idea.  Without the text, there’s nothing.  But without the collaborators, there’s only text.

    As a playwright, I use stage directions sparingly.  There’s a difference between telling a story and dictating every aspect of a production.  I include what I feel is necessary to tell the story–a character’s basic description, exits & entrances, specific effects or an idea of what said effects should illustrate.  But I don’t worry about the set design or the furniture, the lighting or the costuming, unless one of those elements has a specific purpose within the story.  (For example, the character of a magician with specific tricks hidden on his person.)  I might say a set needs three doors, but I don’t worry about where they’re placed.  Even in “finished” and “published” scripts of mine, I love to see how a theatre company interprets the words I’ve given them.

    David Cromer’s “Our Town” is very different from Jed Harris’, but both are valid interpretations of Wilder’s script.  Same goes for Cromer’s direction of Neil Simon, which was very different from Gene Saks’ original productions.  John Doyle does Sondheim differently from Harold Prince, and that’s all right.

    Anthony Page’s “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” was different from Alan Schneider’s original, as was the Mike Nichols film and the recent Steppenwolf production directed by Pam McKinnon with Albee’s blessing.  The main difference in each came from how the directors and the casts interpreted the script.  (Albee’s known for revoking or refusing performance rights, so he must have been all right with each production and their variations.)

    Are there bad productions of great scripts?  Of course.  But the script survives.  Not every director is Cromer or Doyle or McKinnon or Falls or whomever.  But every good director is an interpreter, not a translator.  And every good director makes the playwright look good, too.

  • For those of us who work in this field – what are the messages we’re sending out about the value of women’s stories and storytelling? There’s been a lot of wonderful mobilization around gender parity since the Guthrie, but in addition to fighting for more women’s stories, what are we saying about those stories themselves? And what messages are we sending to women playwrights, intentionally and unintentionally?

    These are some huge questions, so I hope I can do them justice by answering them more or less coherently.

    For instance, let’s take a look at what we’re seeing in the responses to this very post. Look how many times you were given advice about stage directions or choosing a director despite not mentioning that you needed help with that. 

    Without trying to extrapolate a larger trend from this small sample, I’d hazard a guess that, by and large, people are encouraged to treat women’s stories and storytelling as novelties or as works in progress rather than as rigorous artistic endeavors worthy of deeper engagement. In a way, it sort of infantilizes us by subtly deeming us not quite ready for the grown-up conversations about our work.

    I think that people are socialized to tell women what to do and how to do it even before they have a solid grasp on what is really going on with our work. I think that people are trained to see our work as anomalies in our chosen art form rather than inheritors of a culture and a tradition that we’ve always been a part of (albeit a neglected part). Yet, despite this tendency to disconnect our work from the larger history, our work is still interpreted and evaluated according to a paradigm that may or may not fit what our work actually is.

    I hope that makes sense.

  • Andie —

    Ignore them all.  Write the stories you’re passionate about, the truths you know the world needs to hear right now.

    Then tell the nay-sayers to go f*ck themselves.

  • Great post, thanks so much for sharing and the information!