Writer's Agony / Director's Ignorance

A white man with died red hair and tattoos puts marks out a wooden floor with masking tape behind him his a blue sky with fluffy white clouds and trees

I recently began wrapping up my Developing Your Creative Practice award from the Arts Council which has allowed me to meet and connect with so many wonderfully creative people around the North East. My unofficial aim for the award was to rebuild my confidence in my skills as a director, learn how to begin to connect with community stories and see my own practice through new lenses. I had the opportunity to work on a text that was already written with two actors, as well as having workshops from five different artists in different disciplines and begin to put some ideas together for a “Corner Shop Show”. The learning from this period is so vast I suspect it will be several blog posts long so what I want to focus on is the way different art disciplines made me look at my practice as both a director and a writer in new ways.

The Stage Direction Dichotomy

As a writer, I agonise over stage directions. Throughout my Masters, my tutor would emphasise those stage directions should be short, to the point and only when strictly necessary. Without this turning into a boring academic essay, I would say that this desire for fewer stage directions is a phenomenon that comes in cycles. Shakespeare pretty much only included exits, whereas George Bernard Shaw was practically novelistic in his approach to direction (yes, his plays were made to be read as well as produced). So yes, as a writer I agonise, cutting and cutting until I feel the bare minimum of direction is included to make sense of the text.

However, as a director, the first thing I do is disregard all the stage directions. I have read the play at least four times for meaning, plot, characterisation etc before I even take in the stage directions. And working on a text this past week, I discovered that most actors seem to do it too. Why? When I am the writer agonising and getting ticked off knowing directors do this, do I so easily disregard them? During my training, I was often encouraged to disregard stage directions to find new meanings and shapes and creativity within a text – which perhaps with old texts is fine. However, this exploratory week has made me come to realise that if I am not tied to serving the writer’s vision (i.e., the first production of a new play) that I should be holding the stage directions with the same weight as the rest of the text as parameters which I create the play.

A messy working table, a3 paper with a list of questions, a pack of a3 paper, hand sanitiser and face masks, a script Realidad by Denise Despeyroux and a chair

A Musical Intervention

The event that triggered these reflections was working with a songwriter for the day. We talked about creating shows with music, and particularly how this songwriter approaches their work when creating a score. We surprised one another because our starting places with the script is so different. As I explained above plot comes first for me. However, as the songwriter explained, for them the stage directions are the first thing they look at because it is the entrances, exits and actions that allow them to judge the rhythm of the piece. Mind=Blown.

Personally, integrating lighting, sound, music into my work has always felt somewhat strange to me, and I’ve always felt like I somehow just don’t “get it”. But this conversation sparked self-reflection: What if in disregarding stage directions I am disregarding the blueprints for how to connect with those elements that are more about feel than meaning?

Green paper on a table stacked with yellow paper, masking tape roll, a small boz od stamps, dairy milk, the hands of a brown person place a further yellow sheet on top

I have yet to explore this reflection in practice and work out how to incorporate the rhythm of the stage directions into my work, but I am hopefully going to be working on some new work that will allow me to explore how I score the rhythm of the text through the stage directions.

Healing the Rift

Writers agonise over every word that they put on the page – or at least they do if they have the resources (time, finance etc) to be able to. And that includes every line of stage direction. However, I wonder how many new playwrights realise going in how easily the rhythm of t

heir text can be dismissed by the person in charge of realising their vision? For too long, I have honed my practice in the ways I was taught and did not examine the juxtapositions between the two halves of my practice. Instead of developing them together, I have rigidly tried to keep them separate from fear of stepping on anyone’s toes. As a writer, I don’t want a director to feel as though I am doing their job, but as a director, I don’t want a writer to feel I think “they’re no good” if I am pushing for changes. Ultimately, the whole creative team wants the same thing – to tell a great story/create a brilliant show. And I think, maybe, that means allowing the whole of my creativity into a room, regardless of my ‘role’.

This feels like quite a personal, and bare reflection, and so I hope you will treat me kindly in the comments as you tell me your thoughts, feelings and reflections on Stage Directions, whatever your discipline.

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