As a playwright, I don’t have absolute control over my works. Any act of writing is a collaboration between the writer and the imagination of the reader but the playwright is certainly the most vulnerable when it comes to relinquishing ownership. It defines us. We write the words for someone else to play with.
I’m asked about this all the time. I’m asked about it with incredulity at opening nights when my passivity is most apparent. How can I let go of my words? With joy. And yet, as much as I relish the relinquishing of control that my role entails, I also spend a lot of time thinking about how best to communicate my intentions to the cast and creative through the written word. My hope is to inspire imagination rather than limit it. I love scripts that convey what the playwright is emotively and intellectually on about without having to state ‘this is how you do my play right.’ It is something I’m geekishly obsessed with and this post has been percolating in my mind for years. So, at last, here are some thoughts on communication from beyond the page. Be warned, this is the nerdiest thing I have ever written and I enjoyed every minute of it.
Stage directions are the most obvious way to convey your intentions and, while they have their use in terms of clarifying intention, they have a tendency to be the most bland and prescriptive form of communication.
This is not always the case. There is an art to the good stage direction and when done well they are the things in the script that have the director and designer salivating.
Topping my list of ‘stage directions I have loved’ is one from Carol Churchill’s Mouthful of Birds.
The beauty of this is that it is emotive rather than prescriptive. It makes you smirk. It makes you go ‘can’t wait to get to that bit’. It opens your skull and prods your brain. In fifty different productions of this play, you would see fifty different fruit ballets.
There are the poetic stage directions, written to conjure up an empathic response:
- Enter Ophelia, her heart is a clock. (Hamlet Machine, Heiner Muller)
- He vomits into himself.(Dublin by Lamplight, Michael West)
There are the impossible stage directions that seem to be a throwdown; a delicious sort of ‘deal with that, fucker’ challenge for the director:
- The carpet smoulders and the curtains are on fire. The fire waltzes softly through the theatre, greeting the audience and shaking each of their hands. The actors are all on fire. The audience is all on fire. And the theatre burns down. The end.(THRILLING DRAWING ROOM MURDER MYSTERY AT HIGH SPEEDS, Adam Hadley)
I will come back to ‘demanding the impossible’ a bit later so hold that thought. For now, just turn over in your mind’s eye how deliciously unrealisable this is. I promise to expand on it in the punctuation section. Oh yes: there will be an entire section on punctuation and I am bloody excited about it.
There are also times, when the prescriptive can be beautifully eloquent in a way that says more than “do it like this.” The most famous example being from Beckett’s Waiting for Godot:
Looking at this, you don’t simply get a sense of who is wearing whose hat. Before you even get into the details of it, you have a feeling of excessive activity. Activity that feels meaningful, almost ritualised to the characters but to the audience will contain a pitiable absurdity and an existential hollowness. Which pretty much sums up the play right there. In a stage direction about hats. What a gift such a piece of writing is to anyone reading for clues.
Character descriptions similarly provide a beautiful chance for the playwright to express what matters to them most. “An attractive, blonde woman in her late-twenties” feels like a wasted opportunity when compared to some of the exquisite descriptions out there.
Patricia Cornelius’ Love specifies “the three characters are tough. Life has been hard and unkind and it shows in their eyes and mouth and jaws.” Instantly, I know those people. I know their eyes and mouthes and jaws because I have seen them before. I know these characters more intimately than I know the attractive, blonde woman in her late-twenties before I read a single line of dialogue.
Steven Berkoff’s The Fall of the House of Usher, contains a casting note recommending that the actors who play Roderick and Madeleine Usher ideally should have fucked in real life. This is ridiculous but also helpful because we go “oh that’s the kind of chemistry/familiarity you want. On it.”
David Harrower’s Knives in Hens, is less prescriptive but still speaks volumes:
It is so simple and yet the Young Woman’s lack of name screams at you louder than a polite note from the playwright could. Whilst all three characters are repeatedly referred to by their roles in the world – miller, ploughman and woman/wife – hers is an inescapable identity. She is never named for the audience, although her name is a deeply valued possession. It’s revelation to the miller and the tenderness with which he responds make it the most important word in the play although it is not in it.
You won’t know all this simply by looking at the description but it places a question in your mind before you’ve read a single line of dialogue: why is it only she who is nameless? That question provides an excellent framework for a first read.
My all time favourite character descriptions come from Edward Bond’s Saved, a play that smashed the censorship laws in Britain when it was first staged in 1965. If you haven’t read it, get on that. If you have my copy, I want it back.
Yes, you could look at this as a description of the original actors. You could say “it is ridiculous for Bond to specify the size of the actor’s eye-sockets” and you would be right: it would be ridiculous if an actor were turned down at an audition for being as short as she looked. I take these descriptions as an eloquent explanation of the world, direct from a playwright too skilled to have to write such words: “These people are a bit on the off.” He is saying. “They are a bit wrong. A bit hard to look at and love. These are not your gym-fit, camera-ready actors. These people should reflect the ugliness and sharpness of my play. Find me those people and populate my world with them.”
Formatting as a value judgement (what a nerd)
I love picking up a script and instantly getting a sense of what the playwright values.
It is a beautiful act of faith that debbie tucker green does not explain the empty lines in her forward to Stoning Mary. Perhaps because they are so eloquent they need no interpretation. The instant I look at the script, I know she values silence. Silence that is active and loud. That means as much or more than the lines. It also shows the trust she has in her collaborators (collaborators she will probably never meet, if you are staging the play in Australia). It gives the actor a moment and trusts them to know what that moment is.
debbie tucker green is an expert at this sort of communication. Here in random, she tells us another set of values:
In laying out the words like poetry, she tells us to treat them as such. To value them as music: a percussive score made up of consonants and vowels. Also, at a glance, we know the voice she is writing for and cannot move past a single stanza without confronting the geographic and socio-political placement of the world.
This passage in Martin Crimp’s In the Republic of Happiness, isn’t there to fuck with you. This play is in three acts. Acts One and Three have named characters with lines assigned to them and a plot to follow but as soon as we reach Act Two, we know it is different. Crimp’s formatting tells us that we are stepping out of Plotland and leaving behind Characterville. Now it is about the interplay of voices, constantly agreeing with and supporting each other in an increasingly preposterous series of statements.
I saw the original production in London back in 2013. The director had decided that to allocate lines at any point in the process would go against the playwright’s intention and so the cast of eight had learnt every single line of dialogue in Act Two. They drew lots each night for who would sit in which chair and anyone could say any line. The effect was incredible to watch. I have never seen a cast so in tune with each other. All eight had to focus so hard to ensure that they weren’t just speaking over each other. The performance was perfectly in keeping with what I get from the page: unified, unanimous voices, stripped of character and autonomy.
There are so many more formatting choices I could talk about. I have limited it to the most simple of examples. Particularly worth a mention are plays like Holloway’s Red Sky Morning and Murphet’s Slow Love that use columns. At a glance, we know the playwright is demanding a rhythmic interplay between voices and plots or between voice and action. The examples are endless so I’ll end it here and just say ‘go hunting’.
Now who doesn’t love punctuation? I’m pretty indifferent to it when it comes to the Grammar Nazis (actually I’m indifferent to anyone who declares themselves a Grammar Nazi because language is a used, lived in thing and not a museum piece) but I love it as a malleable tool in theatre. As a writer, I say ‘make it work for you’. As a director, I say ‘bring it’.
I remember working on a monologue from Don Nigro’s Scarecrow and realising that the first two sentences were 97 and 98 words respectively. After that the monologue unravelled into a series of short, choppy bursts, full stops peppering the page like shotgun pellets. Right there in ink was the character’s psychosis. You could feel the breathless drive throughout and the crumbling of her mind. These unstoppable, uncontrollable sentences reeked of urgency and the rhythmic shift into the monologue’s staccato second half bespoke of her resolve. Looking at the text not as words but as a picture told me so much and, when delivered faithfully, it affected your breath and got into your metabolism.
A few years later I directed some extracts of Daniel Keene’s work at Monash University with my First Year students. We loved working on it and a few weeks after we finished I bumped into Daniel at the Malthouse. I told him how the students had initially asked me if he was just too lazy to use punctuation and how, by the end, they were telling me that it was like the words were running straight from the character’s minds into world. It felt intimate to them. Special. Like they were being entrusted with a part of the brain they wouldn’t usually get access to.
Daniel responded that a big part of his decision not to use punctuation in these scripts was that it forces actors (and directors) to make a choice. It is an impossible task. (See, I said I’d come back to it.) You cannot get through a first read without confronting the lack of punctuation, deciding how to tackle it and thus, gaining a sense of ownership over the words. In creating a problem, he gave us a gift.
I love this stuff because, as a writer, it is about being in control whilst being out of control. It is relishing your vulnerability and trusting your collaborators whilst conveying to them what is most important to you. Our collaborators have the potential to be both our superpower and nightmare. As a playwright, take the time to think about how best to communicate in a way that empowers, rather than dictates. Enjoy the challenge.
A massive thank you to Roderick Cairns who was my proof reader and to the many people who contributed favourite stage directions on Facebook. Thanks in particular to Amy Jones for the photo of Godot, David Finnigan for suggesting Adam Hadley’s play and Adam Hadley for letting me quote it. Much appreciated.