Writing Stage Directions

Writing Stage Directions for Theater

“Exit, pursued by a bear” from Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale is likely the most famous stage direction in the history of recorded theater. Today, scholars continue to argue about how the original 1611 production pulled it off.  Some point to the proximity of Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre to London’s bear-baiting pits, while others theorize that Shakespeare employed a polar bear cub owned by James I. Still others insist that an actor dressed as a bear would simply run across the stage– an interpretation widely favored by modern productions. But regardless of what really happened opening night, the ambiguity of Shakespeare’s most memorable stage direction strikes right at the heart of a debate as old as plays themselves: What is a good stage direction? Though this guide won’t come down one way or another on the Bard, it will give you a list of important factors to consider when crafting your own.

Less Is More

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If you’ve ever Googled “writing advice”, you’ve likely come across several iterations of the age old adage, “less is more.” Though its application extends well beyond writing stage directions, that’s essentially what Smiley’s getting at. Instead, think of your script as a blueprint and you as the architect.  While you want to include all the necessities – where structural supports go, the windows, the doors – you still need to leave a lot of room for interpretation. While you might have some opinions about what the wallpaper in the kitchen is going to be, you’re not going to specify that in your plans is because it’s not your job.  In playwriting, the same holds true – especially for stage directions.

See, theatre involves many different artists performing various roles, both onstage and behind the curtains. While you as a playwright provide the script, the director and actors – along with talented costume, lighting, and sound teams – are responsible for bringing your work to life.  In doing so, they’re all going to bring their own unique interpretations to your work. (Remember, they’re artists too.) The key is leaving enough space for them to create by taking a less is more approach in your stage directions.

If your stage directions are too detailed or rigid, you run the risk of turning a collaborative, creative process into rote Ikea assembly – which never goes well.  Detailing the fabric of a couch in your stage directions, for example, is going to irk the set designer – especially if these details have no bearing on the plot. At best, they’ll disregard your instructions, and at worst, they’ll be angry that you made them comb the city for a specific couch that adds little value to the production.  Worse still for the playwright, overwrought stage directions will likely turn off readers early on in the process, ensuring your script never makes it beyond an intern’s recycling bin. But there are other ways you can stave off the recycling bin than simply keeping your stage directions brief and to the point.

Embrace Body Language

Body language is how a character communicates beyond dialogue. Normally, body language and dialogue go hand in hand.  If a character is professing her love for the first time, then we as the audience expect the line to be delivered with  some degree of shyness or tension – whichever her character dictates. In moments like these when the desired body language matches the emotion expressed in the dialogue –  or the audience’s general understanding of the character – you don’t need to write separate stage direction. The body language is implied. Moreover, you don’t want to risk stepping on your actors’ toes by telling them how to act.

But in certain instance, there can be a disjunct between a character’s spoken word and their body language. These moments can when a character isn’t faithfully expressing what they really feel, or if they’re acting in a way that goes counter to the audience’s understanding of them.  In our example above, what if our character has a type A personality, but feels oddly self conscious in admitting her love? In this instance, adding a stage direction to show that she mumbles her declaration would give us a very specific into here character – one that couldn’t convey with dialogue alone.  In moments such as these, stage directions are absolutely vital to enriching your play. But they’re not the only tool at your disposal.

Develop Your Voice

While theater has two formats for the play – the British and American standard – there’s a lot of wiggle room within these formats, especially for how stage directions should look.  It all depends on the genre you’re writing in and your own voice. An experimental play for instance may include stage directions that are “impossible” to perform, or may use nontraditional line spacing to provide special emphasis. A naturalistic play on the other hand will likely shy away from anything nontraditional, since naturalism emphasizes the detail of the everyday. As a playwright, you may find yourself drawn to one particular genre or may want to experiment with several. As you do so, notice how your stage directions change to reflect the spirit of the play you’re writing.

With enough time and practice, each writer eventually finds their own voice– and this will shine through in your stage directions. While unfortunately no way to teach voice, writing daily and  reading the work of playwrights you admire is a great way to learn what style you naturally gravitate to. Adopting a particular technique or impersonating a favorite writer’s voice are also great exercises, and might just help you find what’s unique in your own voice.

Do Anything But Write (In the Theatre)

No, I’m not giving you a free pass to procrastinate. But what I am saying, is that if you want to understand how stage directions translate from a script to the stage, the best way to learn is to do to experience it first hand. Find a way to get involved with your local theatre, assisting a director, a stage manager, or a designer in a production. Community or smaller non-profit theatres are often squeezed for help, and working to bring a play to life will give you first-hand experience of what it’s like on the “other side”. If nothing else, you should at least attend a local show.  If you read the script ahead of time, you’ll be able to see how the performance differs from how you imagined it on the page. The more closely you look, the more you’ll see which stage directions are truly essential, which are ignored, and which cause seasoned professionals to roll their eyes.

Given enough practice, writing stage directions will feel like second nature. However, the only way to get there is to read, write, and see as much theatre as possible. Though finding PDFs of plays online is often much more difficult than it should be, magazines like American Theatre frequently publish full-length plays and keep a detailed record on their website. Used book stores are also a great place to source older, classic plays on the cheap. But the bottom line is that since stage directions are such a uniquely theatrical phenomenon, there’s really no work around for mastering their execution except jumping in head first and learning as you go.

Here are some plays that feature more unconventional stage directions:

Eurydice by Sarah Ruhl

The Big Meal by Dan LeFranc

Far Away by Caryl Churchill