We recently had auditions for the staged reading of my play Books & Bridges at CATCO. One of the scenes we had chosen as a side was a scene that included all 3 characters in a climactic argument. Julia, Dane, Betsy all in full force. It seemed like one of the best scenes to get an idea of character dynamics, but then I realized something… During the first run of the scene, I noticed that Julia had no more lines after the first third of the scene! It felt like a mistake at first, but it turned out to be exactly what was needed. It helped us see and not just hear Julia.
Not only were there no lines for Julia, there were no stage directions in the scene. AT ALL. I don’t write too many stage directions in my plays. I want them to be minimal and necessary. I want them to show behavior and not interpretation. I try to allow for collaboration with the actors and director. If I don’t open the play to them, how can it really be a collaboration? I’ve seen a lot of playwrights try to direct the play through their stage directions, putting in every possible thing to make sure their “ original vision” is crystal clear. I used to think that way; I used to write that way. I used to put parentheticals for tons of lines, insisting an interpretation on an actor.
That’s not to say that I don’t use parenthetical descriptions of line intentions, but they have to be necessary. Sometimes it’s not clear if a line is said by the character as a joke or is supposed to be sarcastic (Because it's so hard to tell if someone's being sarcastic in written text). The distinction between something being said seriously or sarcastically can change the meaning of a single line and could alter the course of a play entirely. There is one line in Books & Bridges in particular that I had to make sure the actors and director knew it was said as a joke or else it had the possibility that they and audience could make the wrong assumptions.
Back to the auditions. There were 3 actresses we were considering for the role of Julia and, honestly, we could have cast any of them and had a great Julia. With Julia having no lines and with no stage directions to dictate action, each actor had to make specific choices. What is Julia doing? How is she interacting with each character? Each choice she makes in movement, stage position creates a new interpretation of her relationships with the other characters.
One actress continually stood between Dane and Betsy, trying to get Dane to stop talking. Another stood behind Dane, staring down Betsy. Another removed herself from the situation almost entirely. These were not the sole choices each actress made; all three continually tried new things based on who their Danes or Betsys were and what choices Dane and Betsy made. It proved to me that the actors have such power and can reveal parts of characters that I hadn’t considered. This was the first time I had heard this particular scene out loud, and it continually shifted in meaning each time a different trio stepped onstage. When one actress turned on Dane and put her hand up to shut him up, the wheels in my head started spinning. Is Julia turning on Dane? What does it mean that she’s siding with Betsy in this moment? When the actress stood behind Dane, it shifted the play entirely. When Julia stepped away from the fight and sat on the edge of the stage, completely distant and removed from Dane and Betsy as their fight continued, there was a massive light that switched on. All three felt right. As Sam Mendes said, "There is no right and wrong, there is only interesting, and less interesting.”
I was so impressed with all the performances and with all the choices the 3 Julia’s made. I’m glad that I had given them the space to make choices and find new moments each and every time they went through the scene. Now, I have to revisit my new play in progress (Woman Studies) and make sure I’ve given the same space for the actors to inhabit.
How about you? What do your stage directions sound/look like? Do they come from character decisions? Are they necessary? Are they essential? Do they show behavior? Do they give clues or do they solve the mysteries?
As always, have fun, fellow theatre-makers. Be excellent to each other.