Playwriting

Too many or too few

“There is a picture of Van Gogh’s of a billiard-parlor at night. The kitchen now suggests that sort of lurid nocturnal brilliance, the raw colors of childhood’s spectrum. Over the yellow linoleum of the kitchen table hangs an electric bulb with a vivid green glass shade. The poker players – Stanley, Steve, Mitch and Pablo wear colored shirts, solid blues, a purple, a red and white check, a light green and they are men at the peak of their physical manhood, as coarse and directed and powerful as the primary colors. There are vivid slices of watermelon on the table, whiskey bottles and glasses…” A Streetcar Named Desire, Act One, Scene Three.

Do you like playwrights to overload or underload in their stage directions? Which do you prefer?

  • Too many stage directions that spell out every last movement and emotional tone in explicit detail?
  • Too few stage directions that leave the play a blank slate and open to interpretation?

Do you want to see the play fully drawn in your head, or do you want to create the picture for yourself? I talked about interpretation earlier this week in regards to this situation. How for me, leaving the play as a blank slate allows productions to find their own footing. And yet on the same day Craig and I went to see a production of a different play of mine (look for The In-Between coming soon to a Theatrefolk catalogue near you!) in which every beat, pause and silence is clearly laid out. And Craig said to me – “It’s like you’re directing the play. You’re spelling out every time an actor is to stop talking and when they begin again.” Which doesn’t sound like I’m encouraging a production to find their footing, does it.

I had thought I was more of the later kind of writer (blank slate) but maybe I have traits of the former (overload) too. I suppose it depends on the situation. For example, when it comes to the sound of dialogue if there’s a specific quality I’m looking for, and if it’s important to my intention, I spell it out. Otherwise, the interpretation can miss the mark. I find particularly with student actors it’s not enough to say – “there is a pause” because silences can be so daunting on stage. It feels wrong. It is a natural instinct to want to cut a pause short. Which is way it’s necessary to not only impose the pause, but the length of the pause and how the actor should count out the pause. Just to fight past that natural instinct and actually hear the pause.

Which do you prefer? Do you like a blank slate? Or do you like the stage direction overload?

About the author

Lindsay Price

3 Comments

  • Too many directions by the playwright might not be appropriate for the actor.  Why do you have him move a certain direction.  I think it should be the actor’s choice w/ help from the director.

  • I find that most directions interfere with my direction and distract the student actors. I’ve always had the opinion that a director shouldn’t direct their own plays until much time after writing the play. A director can often find things in the play the playwright never realized was there, the hidden qualities.But let me go on record as saying I think the playwright’s words are sacred! When directing A Comedy of Errors this Spring, we only changed one word and that was “niggardly”. Not because it was offensive but because it would be perceived as offensive so rather than fight that fight we just changed it to another word that fit the verse. 

  • As a playwriting instructor, I tell my students only to put in as many stage directions as are absolutely necessary.  Better yet, put the necessary stage directions in the dialogue.  Otherwise, leave the directing for the director.  If you want to write beautifully descriptive stage directions, become a novelist, not a playwright.