I had an interesting discussion last night with Jack Rushton, a fellow playwright at The
Theatre Artists Workshop of Westport (Ct.). We had both presented short plays to the group,
as offerings for possible inclusion in our May show. We talked about many things, but the issue that stands out in my mind is: How much can and should a playwright try to control how his play is delivered? After all, the theater is a collaborative art, and how much should a playwright interfere with the work of the director and the actors? Edward Albee popped up in the conversation, as he indicates in his script how he wants certain lines delivered. And I've heard, but don't know if this is true, that whenever someone tries to get the rights to do "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf" Albee insists on seeing photos of who will be playing the four roles.
Jack told me that he deliberately writes as few stage directions as possible, to leave room for the interpretations of directors and actors. He is intrigued by the idea of their explorations, and how they might find things in his text that work beautifully and that had not been part of his original intention.
I had an acting teacher/director tell me once that the only reason stage directions are printed into scripts is in case a school gets the rights to do a play, and the only one directing is the gym teacher, who, presumably, is grateful for any scrap of directorial hint on offer. She always made us cross out all the stage directions and start fresh with hers. (This was Lois Fern Hamilton whom some of you may remember, a beautiful, brilliant, and wildly erratic woman. Certainly not a comfortable person to work with, but clearly dedicated to the theater.)
When I was working my script of "Shakespeare Rising" in Utah with the incredibly talented Henry Woronicz he pointed out to me that I was slipping subtext into the script. He said that was because I'm an actor, and I was looking at the roles and the scenes from the point of view of how I would act if I were in the play. He had a point. On the other hand, I see no harm in indicating how I want the lines to be read. If anyone has a pencil he/she can just cross them out, and probably will. But I want to at least hint at my vision, how I see the scenes working. Sometimes, when I've assumed a dynamic was obvious, I watched a scene go very wrong, at least in my eyes. Something I meant to accomplish in the scene was not being accomplished, and I could see it was not the writing that had fallen apart, but the interpretation.
Shakespeare was fortunate in many ways, and one of his great good fortunes was being embedded for 20 years in a company of players that had a stable core, men who respected him and whom he knew inside out as players, both their strengths and their weaknesses. He wrote for their voices. Some of the texts even show him referring to the characters they played by their own real names. And then, often, he directed them. Of course, this is Shakespeare. So who are we to tell him he shouldn't direct his own work? For the rest of us, a fresh eye is welcome, and the actors must be free to create. They are not puppets. Still, may we not write in some of our humble suggestions? And not just for the gym teachers of this world.