Pursued By A Bear: “How can I use stage directions to keep a bad director from ruining my play?”

Pursued By A Bear is our new advice column with playwright Adam Taylor.  He’ll tackle your playwriting questions – from practical issues to existential dilemmas – relying on nothing but his bare wits, brute strength, and questionable personal experiences.    

“How smart should I assume my director will be when I’m writing a play? How much detail is it necessary to put into stage directions, how clear should it be where I want the emphasis to be in a line of dialogue, etc? I don’t want to spell everything out for them, but I want to make sure my writing isn’t misinterpreted.” – Anonymous

I’ve often asked myself this, and have come to the inescapable conclusion that the safest option is to assume that everyone is a moron. I’m not just talking about directors in the theatre either, this assumption has literally become the mantra by which I live my entire life.

Everyone is a moron.

Me. You. Everyone.

If you’re that desperate to know whether your director is a moron (my money’s on yes), then I guess there are a few ways you could attempt to find out.

Before agreeing to work with anyone, you could ask them to fax over their qualifications, that is, if you feel a D in GCSE maths and a ten metre backstroke badge will give you a better idea of their suitability to direct your play.

You could get them in a headlock and forcibly submit them to an IQ test.

You could imprison them in a giant maze and time how long it takes them to find their way out.

You could submit them to a series of rigorous interviews and humiliating challenges on live television and then get members of the general public to phone in and vote for the smartest candidate.

But my guess is you probably don’t have the time or the budget to do most of these things. And I doubt any of them would work anyway.

You’ve probably heard the saying “Everything is open to interpretation.” In my opinion this is just a polite way of saying that everything is open to misinterpretation. No matter how hard you try to safeguard against this, the genuine stupidity inherent in the human race will inevitably find a way through.

As I outlined above, I strongly believe that everyone is a moron. I’d like to qualify this by saying that most people are not morons all of the time.

I will humbly offer myself as an example. There are certain things I’m quite good at; frying an egg, typing without looking at the keys and belittling strangers on the internet.

And there are other things at which I’m an outright moron; making small talk, watching sports and running a bath at a temperature in which a human being can survive.

Am I the right person to fry you up a nice full English on a Sunday morning or insult you for no reason while hiding behind the anonymity offered by thousands of miles of fibre optic cable? I’ll have a good go.

Am I the right person to engage with in harmless conversation about the cricket or run you a soothing bath? Definitely not.

Before I lose track of the point entirely, we were discussing how much detail you should put into your stage directions to prevent a director from butchering your massively intellectual masterpiece.

The answer is, as much or as little as you want. In all likelihood it won’t make a blind bit of difference so just do whatever the hell you like.

If it makes you feel warm and fuzzy to inflate your play to the thickness of a Charles Dickens novel with descriptions of the furniture, go for it.

On the other hand, if you feel like the dialogue is the important part and you couldn’t give less of a crap about what colour the rug is, feel free to keep the stage directions as sparse as the helpful advice in this column.

This is the part where any playwright worth his salt would give an example to back up his point, probably involving a famous actor who performed in (and of course loved) one of his productions. This has never happened to me so I’ll tell a barely relevant anecdote involving a hack of a director whose name I can’t even remember.

It’s not that interesting so I’ll get straight to the point. Basically I questioned the director as to why the lead actor kept ignoring my stage direction, which clearly stated in plain English that he should “imperiously stride across the stage and vehemently slap his oppressor in the face.”

The director replied, “I never really read the bits in italics.”

The lesson you need to learn is that there’s no point agonising over stage directions. Seventy-five percent of the cast and crew in any production skim-reads them at best. The other twenty-five percent read them just to see if they’re any good, and discover they usually aren’t (in subsequent productions these people join their peers in the seventy-five percent). Therefore, what you need to do is concentrate on writing the best play you can.

If the play has an engaging story with unique and memorable characters no one will even notice what colour the rug is.

And remember, although everyone is a moron in some respect, it’s definitely for the best if you try to work with directors who are not morons at directing plays. Always try to see one of their productions or get the recommendation of someone you trust who has worked with them

If you’ve written a good play, a good director will be able to bring your vision to life and strengthen it in ways you never even considered. They’ll do this with a combination of wacky rehearsal rituals, bizarre improvisational exercises and swathes of illegible post-it-notes that might as well be voodoo for all you know. All that will matter is that the end result will be so much more than you imagined.

A bad director, on the other hand, will use much of the same voodoo but somehow stage a production that makes you want to change your name and move to Alaska.

Unfortunately the nature of working in theatre means that often you won’t get a say in who the director is. When a moron is thrust upon you by some errant producer all you can do is try to limit the damage by diplomatically pointing out the areas where you feel the production could be improved.

And when that doesn’t work, you’re forced to resort to childish sulking and blatant name-calling. On the bright side, at least someone saw enough value in your work to take the time to ruin it.

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