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The Playwrights Forum > General > Question & Answer > Are stage directions part of the script (2)?

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Are stage directions part of the script (2)?  Rate Topic 
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 Posted: Mon Nov 27th, 2006 09:29 am
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Poet
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Mana: 
Nancy has started another thread asking if anyone has ever had a legal tussle with a director over stage directions. I'd like to open that a tad, if I may, because I would genuinely like to see if others have the same view I do on how, why and where to write stage directions in the first place.

'The taxidermist throws the stuffed black parrot from the kitchen window stage left'. ?

Unless it is absolutely critical to the plot that a stuffed black parrot is used - because it is referred to earlier or later in dialogue as such a prop - then surely there is no need to say 'stuffed black parrot'? It can be any stuffed animal of any colour, so my direction might read...

'The taxidermist throws a stuffed animal from the kitchen window stage left'. ?

Unless it is critical that the animal is thrown from the kitchen window - maybe because dialogue later stresses that the kitchen window was broken by that act and that's why the wind blew the gas out on the cooker and that's why the flat caught fire but the stuffed animal did not burn - it's maybe not necessary to specify which window? So my direction might read...

'The taxidermist throws a stuffed animal from the window stage left'. ?

But it may not be possible to specify to a director or set designer where the window actually is on any set because of the geophysical constraints of stage? So my direction might read...

'The taxidermist throws a stuffed animal from a window'. ?

And even then, only if there's a plotline which has to have (for instance) a stuffed animal being brought back into the apartment by someone with an exchange such as 'Which of you bastards threw this out the window just then? It hit me on the bloody head!"  "It's stuffed - so it must be his!"

If there's no such plotline, then I wouldn't have a direction here at all!

With no plotline, isn't this effectively a bit of business - and isn't creating that the job of the director and cast?

OK - the Einhorn scenario. What if Director No1 runs a production where, at this point, he has the taxidermist climbing a set of stepladders centre stage to throw a stuffed black parrot out of the skylight above. Silently, John goes through a whole comedy routine; he can't get the stepladders out of the cupboard because they're caught on the handle and he tears his trousers trying to free them, starts to climb the ladders which split apart and he falls (losing his slippers) and eventually he climbs to the top, his hat is blown away by the wind, he ejects the bird and then slides down the ladder and leaves his shirt hanging from the skylight - and so ends up centre stage in just his underwear. Blackout.

This goes down a storm, the show is a success and Director No1's blocking routine is discussed on the internet, and then Director No2 copies this movement by movement in a subsequent production. Director No1 and set designer No 1 attempt to sue No2.

Do I care? No.

I believe directors should have the freedom to direct, that directions should always be as minimal as necessary to plot and props, and directors should own their blocking in such circumstances. Am I alone in that view?

And if a director were to be directing one of my works, appropriately acquired for production, and their own self-generated and unique blocking is copied by another, then provided it is absolutely unique, such as the routine described above, they should have rights over it. (And yes, Nancy, before you jump at me, if I wrote 'Exit' and an appropriately employed director subsequently tried to claim a blocking copyright over 'Exit left' I'd be furious. And I'd be happy for them to try and sue me!) 

I would only have written the suggested stepladder routine as a direction if it was critical for the taxidermist to end up semi-naked at that point because of the specific props and plot - maybe because he later complains to his landlord in dialogue about 'the faulty bloody skylight and those knackered stepladders - it's your fault I was standing there naked when the vicar's wife entered the shop'.

Every now and then I come across a script with huge paragraphs of directions, down to almost minute detail, and always think 'Why?'

I'd welcome any feedback, if only to ensure that I'm not leaving my scripts too 'open'!

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 Posted: Mon Nov 27th, 2006 03:53 pm
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in media res
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Mana: 
I would highly recommend, to add a little humor into this discussion, that one and all should rent the movie, "Bullets Over Broadway," starring John Cusack and Chaz Palminteri. It is all about the writing and production of a Broadway play set in the 1920's.

If you have been involved with theatre on an intimate level, you will have a ball.


in media res

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 Posted: Mon Nov 27th, 2006 04:34 pm
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deepakmorris
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Mana: 
I tend to follow the "Fresh Fish" approach as referred to by Seth Godin (an internet marketing Guru. I recommend you follow his blog if you intend to sell your wares over the internet) but actually a pretty old story:
http://sethgodin.typepad.com/seths_blog/2006/04/fresh_fish_here.html

I don't particularly care if a director replaces my stuffed fish with a stuffed parrot or changes the orientation of the stage, having people enter from the right (the OTHER right, even) where I may have indicated that they enter from the left, or drop down from the skies, as long as she doesn't change the dialogue.

IMHO, the dialogue dictates what happens on stage. God forgive the director who tries to have a character enter from a door while another character intones, "How did you drop down from the ceiling like that?", for no one else will.

Hmm. Just realised I may be shooting my mouth into my foot here, seeing how this post is in relation to another post that I haven't yet read. Okay, I'll leave this as it is and go check out that post.

Deepak

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 Posted: Mon Nov 27th, 2006 04:44 pm
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bkahn
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Mana: 
In my opinion, a play cannot be divided into segments as you have suggested. Following your reasoning, directors would own the direction they contributed, actors would own the character choices they made, etc. This is almost impossible to enforce. It would mean that the stage manager's notes must include the names of the people who originated every idea, including blocking, movement, even emotional choices. If I did not indicate that the character cries at a certain moment, but the actor did that, it worked and I kept it...what then? Does the actor "own" that choice? Then, after the initial production, there would be registration of the unique contributions of all to the play. With every subsequent production, this would have to be repeated. In your scenario, director 1 may be suing director 2, but in the meantime, the production would probably be halted or cancelled. As the playwright, I would certainly care about that. 

Every production, in order to limit liability, would have to require releases from all involved. Contracts would have to include the disclaimer that any production elements used by the participants--actors, director, designers-- are exclusively theirs and that the producer is not liable for any violations committed by the participants. Every idea that comes up in rehearsal would have to be checked against all the registered versions of the play to be certain that it did not come close to anything already developed. The resulting inhibitions on creativity would be enormous.

Published plays usually include  the credits of the original production, sometimes of later productions. I assume that some of the stage directions are a result of the contributions of those individuals.

 

 

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 Posted: Mon Nov 27th, 2006 04:59 pm
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Edd
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Mana: 
When I see unnecessary stage directions (especially stage right or left, etc.) I know I've got the work of an amateur in my hands. Don't feel badly or attacked.  My scripts were at a time loaded with them.   Those direction-filled scripts from Samuel French are strictly for little theatres and nobody follows them anyway.  Don't confuse stage directions with notes on necessary action to further the plot.  (Throws the parrot out a window.) is all that is necessary.  Don't insult the director.

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 Posted: Mon Nov 27th, 2006 07:54 pm
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Poet
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Mana: 
Deepak - thanks, I'd forgotten about 'fresh fish' (although it came to me as a British pub sign - Good Food Served Here!) (and maybe the Vegas Version is 'Loose Slots'?)

Barbara - I take your points on board, and I'd genuinely thought of them beforehand (especially the one about multiple registrations of creative 'ownership' slowing the progress of a play). But surely the important point is one of copying en masse?

Yes (for example) the West End version of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang had a flying car, and repeating same in an off-West-End show might not breach the director/set designer's copyright - especially as it's the theme of the bloody musical! But what if there were (for instance) fifty directed blocking 'events/effects' in the musical and every single one was copied, to the metre and with associated pyrotechnics/lighting, in a subsequent show?

If you had been the person to originate the fifty, wouldn't that hack you off as much as if someone directly plagiarised your characters/dialogue/plot as a writer?

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 Posted: Wed Nov 29th, 2006 12:27 pm
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Sam Stone
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Mana: 
This is a great thread.

I agree that the directions belong to the director except those few that forward the script such as entrances/exits and necessary actions.

That's why directors are called directors... to create something that is their personal artistic statement.  You have to trust them - sometimes they create something much better than you imagined and some times they strike out.

In the other thread I said that the author could include a statement in the copywright that the "directions" must be followed... this would certainly result in far fewer productions.

I'm pleased when I find that a play of mine was chosen for production.  If I'm consulted regarding the directions or technical needs of the production, I'm delighted but it isn't a necessity.

Directions??? who cares?  It's a production and you get paid.

Sam

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 Posted: Wed Nov 29th, 2006 09:09 pm
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*elana*
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Mana: 
Poet: Perhaps I am beating bkahn's already well-articulated point into the ground, but don't think the situation will ever be as black and white as you have laid it out to be. I understand your example of the director "copying" all 50 of the stage directions...but even here we have a question of degrees. Is it alright for a director to "copy" 48 of the stage directions, but not ok for them to "copy" 50? What about 35? 30? Where do you draw the line?

Perhaps I am just young and idealistic, but my first reaction to the scenario you laid out is...WHY? I can conceive of two reasons that one might "steal" aspects from the show (feel free to respond if you can think of more). I can sort of understand someone stealing a script instead of paying money for the rights to it. But why would anyone "steal" an entire show? To make money? I find it hard to believe that anybody that concerned with making a buck would have chosen to go into theatre, of all fields.

Secondly, perhaps they "steal" from another show because they believe the action in the other show was meaningful and integral to their production of the show. Perhaps I am being dense, but I think as a director I'd be flattered by that. My job as a director is to bring a show to life. That's what I get paid for. If I came up with something that brought the show to life in a way other people found useful, then I know I've done my job well. I watch a lot of theatre, and that the plays I write and produce are heavily influenced by the shows that I see. I am influenced by the world around me; we all are. I don't see a problem with that. Again, I understand that this is largely a question of degrees but I don't think you can extricate any sort of talk of a director's copywright from a discussion of the more minute components of the director's work.

Furthermore, I find it hard to believe that someone who copies a show as you described would reach any form of success. Or if they did, it would be short-lived. I know that I would not want to work with someone who took all of the creativity and flexibility out of the "creative" process. I think that to try to impose a copywright on a production of theatre would do nothing but create a bunch of limitations on future productions, and be ultimately stultifying to the directorial process.

As a director, I go into my productions with the full knowledge (and acceptance) that my work is inherently ephemeral; indeed that is part of the beauty of theatre. Playwriting is the only aspect of it that is to a large degree lasting. In my opinion, losing the joy and excitement in the process of collaborating to create theatre is punishment enough for the "copyright infringement" that you describe.

That said, I would MUCH rather have someone borrow...hell, STEAL ideas from my production than live in a world where my OWN creative process was limited by legalities and formalities.

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 Posted: Wed Nov 29th, 2006 09:18 pm
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*elana*
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Mana: 
Poet wrote:
But what if there were (for instance) fifty directed blocking 'events/effects' in the musical and every single one was copied, to the metre and with associated pyrotechnics/lighting, in a subsequent show?


Ack! One more point before I run away! Every play has thousands of variations that would make such an exact copying impossible, from the angle that the lights are hung at (even a small degree of difference can alter the 'feel' of the play, even if imperceptibly). Pace changes from night to night, even in the same production. If there are pyrotechnics involved, would the copyright cover a certain volume of fire, or the use of fire in general? Would it cover all blue light or only turquoise blue wash number 195 on a parnell light? Again, even in such "blatant" copywright infringements, there is a question of degree.

Also, I should state that my intention is by no means to attack you, Poet, only to engage in this fascinating debate! I'm more than happy to hear your response to my claims.

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 Posted: Thu Nov 30th, 2006 12:47 pm
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Poet
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Mana: 
Elana - no apology needed, no attack felt! The whole issue of SD's seems to have such a widely disparate opinion, I was curious to see what th extremes were!

This has been a very enlightening thread - thanks all!

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