On the use of Acting Directions

This article is chiefly about writing for the theatre.  You might think it has limited relev­ance to writing for the screen and are free to skip on to other sections if you wish. I’ve included it here because I believe that the role of a dram­atist shares many simil­ar­ities with that of a screenwriter.

A script is, at a basic level, a set of instruc­tions to the actors, director, tech­ni­cians and set-builders. A good set of instruc­tions is clear, uncon­fusing and allows for some compet­ence on behalf of the reader. Some writers pepper their scripts with detailed instruc­tions to the actors, elab­orate descrip­tions of sets and char­ac­ters and even asides to the reader. Others confine them­selves to the barest neces­sities; indic­ating only simple actions, exits and entrances and a nominal descrip­tion of the setting.

In the era of box sets and proscenium arches, stage and set direc­tions were more plen­tiful and detailed. Then there was a rever­sion to a more epic style of present­a­tion with minimal stage props and no curtains to mark scene changes and the number of stage direc­tions dimin­ished accord­ingly. Some of this can be attrib­uted to vogue and some to the indi­vidual style of playwrights.

There are no rules that dictate the quality and quantity of stage direc­tions but there are under­lying factors worth consid­ering. A dram­atist who embel­lishes his text with highly detailed instruc­tions can be viewed in two ways: as a perfec­tionist who has a precise vision of what he wants or as an insecure indi­vidual who has no faith in the abil­ities of his cast or director to inter­pret his work.

If he has built a repu­ta­tion he is more likely to be regarded as belonging in the first category but more usually these are seen as the hall­marks of a beginner who hasn’t yet developed suffi­cient confid­ence in his writing. Excessive stage direc­tions won’t, of course, hide the merit of a genu­inely good play any more than they will compensate for the faults of a bad one.

In the ideal world, a dram­atist is on hand to collab­orate with the director and designer on the first produc­tion of a new piece.  Hope­fully, this collab­or­a­tion is built on mutual trust. It’s assumed that everyone concerned likes and admires the writing to some degree or they wouldn’t become involved (unfor­tu­nately this isn’t always the case).

When the writer is actively parti­cip­ating, she contrib­utes to the rehearsal process. In her absence, the text must stand or fall according to its merits or demerits. But, in either case, she must accept she will have only limited control over the inter­pret­a­tion of her work.

Set descrip­tions and tech­nical direc­tions aren’t really that prob­lem­atic except in terms of the feas­ib­ility of mounting a produc­tion. Basic stage-craft should tell you that actors need time to change costumes, that sets are expensive to build, lighting-rigs tricky to operate etcetera; and that this affects the chances of getting a play produced.

Direc­tions to actors cost nothing to include but they may justi­fi­ably irritate a director who can see them as a usurp­a­tion of his role and some will even instruct actors to delete them from a text before rehearsals begin.

Acting direc­tions in the script

The Acting Direc­tion in Paren­theses is the most commonly found. An adverb or adjective in brackets instructing the actor on how to deliver a line. The only justi­fic­a­tion for this is when the intended sub-text contra­dicts the actual text: e.g. “I hate you” delivered lovingly or a line which is meant to be sarcastic, ironic etc.

But this is a very grey area and can easily lead the writer to annotate with all kinds of inflec­tions; in effect, dictating sub-text as well as text.  The ques­tion it begs is whether an actor who is incap­able of finding a contra­dictory sub-text for himself (ie. irony) will be any better off being specific­ally told what is required. And if he is capable, won’t it kill the spon­taneity of finding that inflec­tion for himself?

The best strategy, I think, is to present the actor with a “problem” through the dialogue which he is forced to solve himself by examining the context, the choice of words and the general thrust of the scene. If he still fails to solve it, even with the help of a director, then no amount of paren­thet­ical direc­tion will help.

The Pause is another ubiquitous direc­tion that crops up in a number of forms: a “beat”, a “silence” or a simple ellipses ( … ). This is trickier to prescribe. Some writers will eschew any such direc­tion and trust wholly in the actors to find natural breaks in the action. If it is felt neces­sary to indicate these breaks, they should be used consist­ently or hier­arch­ic­ally (if different types of caesura are required) so that a clear “vocab­u­lary” is estab­lished distin­guishing, for example, a “pause” from a “silence”.

Direc­tions that describe a Dramatic Moment with no dialogue or essen­tial action are more the province of Film than theatre scripts but they do occur. There is a case for including such descrip­tions but it wise to restrict prescriptive adject­ives to the minimum. A reader might be impressed by a chunk of prose inserted into the text but an actor is more likely to be inhib­ited. (Actors really don’t like to be told in advance about “the desired effect” because it kills their creativity stone dead).

Finally, there are less intrusive and possibly more useful typo­graphic indic­ators. Some of these are pretty well-accepted conven­tions (ie: italics for emphasis, CAPITALS for extremes of emotion and/or volume) and some of them are invented by writers to mimic the vagaries of speech.

Writers like Howard Brenton space out their dialogue in a “verse form”; leaving blank spaces on the page which are open to wide inter­pret­a­tion. Caryl Churchill uses a slash-mark for over-lapping dialogue while David Mamet employs ellipses and small case lettering. Again, there is room for exper­i­ment­a­tion as long as the conven­tion is both helpful and clear.

David Clough ©1995

Subtext and signposting

Hey,” said the director, hearing the reac­tions of a first night audi­ence to my play, “They’re laughing! They think it’s funny.” The fact that he was surprised tells you all you need to know. He was a terrible director.

Of course, it was funny. I had worked very hard to make it funny, creating a subtext for the actors to discover and use. The one thing I had never done was say it was funny. I thought that was obvious but then I had never expected to be stuck with such a bad director directing my work.

I read some­where an inter­view with a writer who said that writing a script was four times as hard as writing a novel because it required four times as much decision making. That might be true or not but what is true is that it is a qual­it­at­ively different task requiring a much more concen­trated effort.

Because I started out as an actor, I think of scriptwriting as spending time in an imaginary rehearsal room. Here is where you get to test and explore your story, seeking the truth of each moment and setting a course that you hope your director and actors will follow.

I’ve always regarded this as a delicate process and the standard advice I’ve given to students is not to micro-manage. Avoid the use, for example, of over explicit acting direc­tions. “Bury the treasure” has been my maxim; trust in the sens­it­ivity and judge­ment of the artists who inter­pret your work to discover your inten­tions and make them their own.

Hard exper­i­ence has led me to think that I may have been overly optim­istic about that. Here is Alex Epstein again:

… Your script will, if you’re incred­ibly lucky, run a gauntlet of a dozen readers, devel­op­ment assist­ants, devel­op­ment execs, execs, agents’ assist­ants, managers’ assist­ants and actors. All of them are trying to get through a huge stack of bad scripts. They will not give your script the benefit of the doubt … If a line is not blaz­ingly obvious, they’ll just be confused … Confu­sion is your enemy. Most readers never recover from it, because they will almost never take the time to figure out what went wrong …”

Here’s the problem.

If you’re an estab­lished writer, when they look at your script, readers will assume that it works. However puzzled they are, they will give you the benefit of the doubt.

If you’re unknown to them, they will not only not give you the benefit of that doubt, they will be more disposed to assume that it doesn’t work.

Harsh but true, I’m afraid.

Sign­posting

Sign­posting is some­thing that writers used to do in the good old days. Bernard Shaw, J.B. Priestley, Arthur Pinero were perpet­rators; Rattigan and Coward have done it too. Screen­writers like William Goldman and Paddy Chayevsky often do it.

It means addressing the reader directly as an entity and either button­holing them or tipping them the wink that this is a signi­ficant moment and, by golly, you better pay attention.

CANDIDA. Good-bye. (She takes his face in her hands; and as he divines her inten­tion and bends his knee, she kisses his fore­head. Then he flies out into the night. She turns to Morell, holding out her arms to him.) Ah, James! (They embrace. But they do not know the secret in the poet’s heart.)

Bernard Shaw, Candida

Paddy Chayefsky used fewer words but he also liked to throw in the occa­sional phrase to indicate how he wanted a reader to react to a moment:

DIANA sits in her chair, pulling the bath­robe around her, alone in her artic desolation.

Paddy Chayefsky, Network

Is there such a thing as being too subtle?  I never used to think so but I have changed my mind.

After multiple occa­sions where readers have misun­der­stood or completely missed my inten­tions, I’ve revised my opinion on sign­posting. Even if you take them out at a later stage, they can be useful in guiding some readers; partic­u­larly those who have never seen the inside of a rehearsal room.

David Clough, 2018

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