Friday, April 17, 2009

When is specific too specific?

I might be getting a little lost in my rewrites. On the one hand I’m trying to lose all the fat from the dialogue and stage directions; on the other, I’m trying to be specific and clear, so that it won’t be open to too many interpretations.

It seems the balance between a) captivating audiences, b) conveying the author’s intentions and c) not taking over the director’s job can only be achieved with a lifetime of fasting and meditation. Right now, I feel like there’s a conflict of interest between the two hemispheres of my brain – and they’re about to go to court over it.

Three of Michael’s rules seem especially relevant to my current dilemma:

12) Be specific; if something in the play matters to you, feel free to describe it in intricate detail - an accent, a prop, a set, a light cue, a costume, a speech pattern, anything.

13) Don't specify everything; leave enough room so that a production team can keep its job. Once the director picks up your play, consider yourself dead - the play is the living work, not you. Don't direct from beyond the grave.

14) Specifically forbid directors in your text from doing anything stupid and dumb that you hate. If something is really important, write a few guidelines right into the stage directions. God knows you're more brilliant than them.

I’ll give you one example of the many passages in my play I’m trying to rewrite and don’t know if I should go for more or for less. This is a moment when Benny is surprised to find Ruth in a compromising position, and Ruth tries to sound dignified and unapologetic:

(shaking his head in disappointment)

(distant and polite)

Am I playing director here by instructing the actor to make a specific gesture? And the actress to assume a certain air? If I remove the parentheticals, will the punctuation in their lines be enough to make it clear that Benny is surprised, and Ruth is not? (And what about the other emotions described in the parentheticals? Should they be left entirely at the discretion of the director?)

Perhaps the underlying concern in my present worries is Michael’s rule #14. If I include an unnecessary or excessive stage direction, the director can always choose to ignore it, and even contradict it, to imprint his own voice in his production (and I think he should; he’s an artist, too). But if an important aspect of my play is subtly insinuated in between the lines, am I not running the risk that it will go unnoticed by less…attentive directors?

In other words: should we try to bullet-proof our plays against bad direction?


  1. The struggle you're describing is one you will always have...but it's a good struggle. And yes, I think Michael's rules there are good ones to bounce between.

    In the instance of your parentheticals, I think you trust that the punctuation (question mark, then period) does the work for you...or, if it doesn't on the first read, it will by the time the actors have had a few rehearsals. In this instance, it's actually the ACTOR'S job you're doing, not the director's, by the way.

    These are good questions.

  2. So your answer to my question at the end is "no"?