Stage directions: help or hindrance

A longstanding debate: Do I follow the stage directions in a script? Did the playwright write them or did the stage manager record them from the first production? What if my scenic design doesn't allow for the exact execution of the playwright's stage directions? Some of the questions I frequently hear from actors and directors, and the list goes on.

Of course, there's no single correct answer to any of these questions, but my typical response is that people should pay attention to what's written in the script. If it's an acting edition published by Samuel French, Dramatist Play Service, etc., chances are the stage directions came from the original production as implemented by the director and recorded by the stage manager. Theplaywright might have edited this version to some extent for publication, but that doesn't necessarily mean that there was full agreement with all of the actors' and director's choices.

If the script comes from a published anthology or collection of a playwright's work, it's more likely that the writer had more of a hand in the editing process and/or made changes and updates to the play based on feedback and production experience. I am more inclined to trust these stage directions as coming directly from the playwright.

I do know this: People are regularly told to ignore the stage directions included in a script, and I find that very disturbing. It's akin to telling a musician to ignore all of the dynamic markings written into a score. Unimaginable, right? Not so much in the theatre. For some reason, other theatre artists think that playwrights don't understand how the physical world of a play can work. I had a director tell me once that she knew more about my play than I did. It's that kind of attitude that creates problematic collaborations stemming from a lack of trust. I watched that same director rehearse a scene in one of my plays for 45 minutes because she couldn't get the blocking to work. She spent that time doing everything but what I had written in the stage directions. When she finally found for herself what I had written, suddenly the scene started to work just fine. Maybe if she had paid attention to what I had written in the first place, she wouldn't have wasted everyone's time.

All that to say, don't start off a process by ignoring the stage directions. Give playwrights the benefit of the doubt. Many of us do know how to craft the physical world of the play, and other theatre artists owe us at least a crack at it by trying out what we've written. Trust goes a long way in any collaboration, particularly between a writer and a director.