A couple of weeks ago, the New York Times ran this article about Paula Vogel's playwriting "book camp." Read through it--it's all interesting--but near the bottom is a quote from someone described as a "young theater director." He said playwrights who write lengthy stage directions were being "tyrannical" over all the artists who will be working on the script afterwards, and he just crosses them out.
Then today on Facebook I noticed Andy Accioli posted this. More fuel for the fire, perhaps. Or not.
I happen to be one of those playwrights who write long, lengthy, detailed stage directions. I love to read Eugene O'Neill's or Tennessee Williams' stage directions as much as I like to read the dialogue. (Note for another post: scripts are not just dialogue.)
For me, O'Neill's or Williams' stage directions are an art form in themselves, but I am someone who loves the written word as much as the spoken word. I don't think, however, that their directions, or mine, are the kind that tell directors and actors specifically what to do. My intent is to tell directors and actors and all the other theater artists who will be working on a production specifically what's in my head. They are meant as a suggestion, and in the spirit of collaboration I would be highly insulted if one of my collaborators didn't at least consider my suggestions.
When you know that August Wilson started his career as a poet, as did Williams who also was a short story writer, you start to understand the foundation for their writing styles. I've been a writer my entire life, and I've actually wondered if I should go against my background and instincts and write minimal directions. But I've come to the conclusion that that is just not me. It would go against a lifetime of work and growth. I am who I am, and I'm the writer that I am for a reason.
To give you a sense of how I write, here are the opening stage directions, some dialogue, and more directions from the play I'm currently working on, A Perfect Day for Pictures. I'd be interested to hear opinions, including those from "young theater directors."
TOM: an old friend of PHILLIP’s
PHILLIP: a photographer, life partner to ANNY
ANNY: PHILLIP’s life partner
The time is the present. Winter, during the Great Recession. With global warming. And rampant unemployment and dissatisfaction with the government. And fear. The place is an artist’s loft somewhere in Boston, Massachusetts. It is large and drafty and chilly. A steam radiator is the only source of heat and it does not always work. Sometimes, when it works, it clangs. There is exposed brick and wide, plank flooring, a few small rugs, incongruous in their size, are scattered about. But, most importantly, there is a scrim that also acts as an entire wall of windows upstage. Over the course of time, over the course of an hour or two, a day, a week or a month or a lifetime, the light that flows through the windows colors the ambiance of the loft. And, because PHILLIP is a photographer, light is important to him in the same way that air is important to a bird or water to a fish. He is older and an American so this means he is a struggling photographer. He is struggling compared to ANNY, who is not older or an American or an artist. The loft is divided into spaces: Work, kitchen, bedroom, and living areas, almost the same way that Phillip still divides the world into space and time framed by a 35 mm format. Large, framed photographs of ANNY are placed around the loft, leaning against walls, and hung. There are at least two digital picture frames that throughout the course of the play display PHILLIP’s images in a loop: children, journalism, fine art. Other than the pictures, there are no other adornments. It is sparse because of their economic condition, not because of choice. There is an impressive stack of library books on the floor next to the couch. An equally impressive stack of empty six packs of beer is in the kitchen. It is early morning. We can barely see PHILLIP standing near the windows. From his silhouette, we see he is on the phone. The bed/mattress on the floor is a pile of blankets, like a beaver den.
(Projected on the scrim is video footage of Lt. John Pike pepper-spraying seated protesters at UC-Davis.)
(Off.) Don’t hang up. Please! Don’t hang up! Don’t! What are you doing? Why are you doing this? Why are you acting like this? Why? Why? We were friends. We are friends. Aren’t we, Phillip? We were best friends. Remember? You were my best friend. Just talk. Why won’t you talk? Why won’t you say something? Phillip?
(PHILLIP hangs up.
Two hours pass.
The coffee maker turns on. A beat, then the covers on the bed move. ANNY appears from under the dome of blankets. Her head pops up like a prairie dog peering out of its hole.)
Coffee. (Beat) Gee, I wonder what coffee tastes like. (Beat) I wonder if I’m going to get served coffee in bed. (Beat. ANNY makes a crying noise.) I guess not.
(ANNY emerges from the warmth and comfort of the bed. She is dressed in a hodge-podge of warm clothes, including hat and gloves. ANNY is one of those rare and curious individuals who awakes every morning in a good mood. She goes to the “kitchen” and takes the only two mugs they own. She pours coffee. She goes to the window, opens it, and retrieves on a rope a net bag with foodstuffs including a carton of milk. She waves happily to a neighbor. She pours milk into the mugs, leaving the groceries on the counter. She crosses to PHILLIP with the mugs.)