The script, the set, and stage directions

This post was re-written, with new information, on 1/31/17

Most published scripts include some information besides the dialogue itself. It could be as simple as “Enter Ophelia” or more detailed, like the character “picks up the knife and crosses 3 steps DS to sofa, then sits down.” Generally, this information is collectively known as “stage directions.”

There has been some controversy over the years, however, as to whether this additional information was put there by the playwright – and is therefore part of the script – or whether it was put there by the stage manager as a record of the first production of the play. To further confuse things, the term “stage directions” is usually applied to anything besides the dialogue, which means that it can refer to material put there by the author as well as by the original stage manager. But mostly there is no cut-and-dried way to tell the difference.

When I was training as a set designer, we were always taught that the bulk of the stage directions – especially complex blocking – was put there by the original stage manager as a record of the first production, but that things like entrances and exits were usually put there by the playwright to cue us in as to what happens next, or to show a character’s motivation. We were expected to have a good idea of which was which by careful study of the script and the story, and, mostly, we ignored complex blocking notations as well as detailed descriptions about the set and furniture placement.

But, having listened to a number of arguments about this over the years, I decided to write a note to Samuel French – one of the major and oldest play publishers – to ask if they had any historical references that could clarify why so many scripts have all this additional material.

And I received a very nice response from Garrett Anderson, which I’m quoting with his permission:

“Most older plays were published for the sake of replicating productions which is why scripts were often copied from stage managers’ or directors’ prompt books. The scripts were used less for being read or taught, and more as tools for regional theaters or touring houses to reproduce a play. I believe there was even a point in time in which Samuel French offered rental set pieces and makeup kits along with scripts to help theatres outside of New York and London produce these shows.

“There was a point within the past 35-ish years in which writers took back stage directions as a way to express themselves and add some tone to their plays. Again, I believe this to be a result of scripts being read, taught, and regarded as literature as opposed to just being used for production. That being said, there are playwrights today who do both. Some of them are fully aware that their plays are being produced by smaller community theatres strictly for the sake of performance and feel the need to dictate blocking and set pieces and other production based directions in their scripts.”

So what does all this mean? It means there’s no clear-cut answer. However, the FAQs page on Samuel French’s web site offers a good response to “Do we have to follow the stage directions?”

“You are not bound to the stage directions but take care not to alter the author’s intent. There are exceptions to this and in the case where stage directions must be followed explicitly, you will be asked to sign an additional rider to your licensing agreement which explains the requirement.”

Dramatists Play Service is another major publisher of plays. Their web site goes on to say:

“Stage directions are hard guidelines rather than strict rules. A certain amount of flexibility is allowed because theatres and set designs vary from production to production. It may not be possible, for instance, for a character to enter stage left, even if that’s indicated by a stage direction, if the physical limitations of space or design prevent it. Any stage directions that are crucial to the plot of the play or illustrate something about a character should certainly be followed.”

That middle sentence makes a lot of sense to directors and designers: it may not be possible, for instance, to go by the entrances and exits if the physical stage, or the design, prevents it. A play done on a thrust stage, or in the round, will have differences in how space is used as compared to the same play done on a proscenium stage. A set built for a few hundred dollars will have limitations compared to the same set built for several thousand. Yet the story itself – the thoughts and motivations of the characters as they encounter conflicts and try to resolve them – can be exactly the same.

Not being locked into the stage directions in the script, or the set as drawn, frees us to be creative and to focus on the story and the characters instead of on “detailed instructions.” As a set designer, I’ve often had to remind directors that so-and-so can’t (for instance) slam that door because we’re doing the play in the round and agreed that we didn’t need doors. So the director and I (and often the actor) can work together to find another way for the character to express himself, based on the character’s motivation. It often results in a richer, more compelling characterization and a more interesting production.