Playwrights and directors agree on a lot of things about producing a play, but there is one thing they often disagree about: STAGE DIRECTIONS. As a playwright I don’t understand why. When I write, I see more than talking. I see action. The mise-en-scene. What can happen when someone says, “I love you” on stage? Can a director really know what was in the playwright’s mind—who wrote the play– with just those words? “I love you” can elicit a response from the extreme of an embrace to a slap in the face. And everything in between. How can you direct (or act) in a play without knowing the response of characters to the words as the playwright intended? That is why stage directions are just as important as dialogue.
A column in the November/December issues of The Dramatist, the journal of the Dramatists Guild of America, addresses the issue of stage directions. The writer, John Patrick Bray, Assistant Professor of the Department of Theatre and Film Studies at the University of Georgia, states that in his basic dramatic course students told him they cross out every stage direction “because stage directions didn’t matter.” Where did they learn this? In high school!
Although there are a variety of opinions about stage directions among playwrights, most feel that stage directions are just as important as dialogue. Stage directions reveal a major component of the inner life of characters that is lost if stage directions are ignored. How a character responds to “I love you,” can tell us even more than what they say. As Edward Albee has said, plays are literature and what is expressed on the page needs to be expressed directly on the stage. Just as a pianist can botch a piece of written music, so can an actor spoil a play by making choices not specified by the text. The Dramatists Guild of America states, “Stage directions are part of an author’s play, much like the title or dialogue itself.”
Importantly where there are many earnest opinions about this issue, a spirit of collaboration must exist with all involved in a production regarding stage directions.
For more discussion about this important topic, please read the full article “Stage Directions: Do Playwrights More than Dialogue?” in The Dramatist.