Tuesday, February 07, 2012

Paula Vogel and Her Student Both Miss The Real Answer

The New York Times covered Paula Vogel's playwriting boot camp that was recently held at Second Stage Theatre.  She holds these informal training seminars around the country, "usually at theaters that are producing her work."

While I don't always agree with her, Vogel can often be a very invigorating champion of the craft and profession, and has also served as a voice against the tendency for theaters to over-develop plays.

Near the end of the article is this exchange with a theater director:.
She encouraged her writers, in their scripts, to consider leaving half a page blank to underscore the importance of wordlessness to directors and actors.
Such a heavy authorial hand drew heated complaints, however, from Nicholas Gray, a young theater director who had been invited by an associate. Mr. Gray railed against lengthy stage directions, saying he crossed them out in scripts before he would begin rehearsals with his actors.
“It’s the playwright being tyrannical over all of the other artists who will ever work on the play,” Mr. Gray said, adding that even “Long Day’s Journey Into Night” would not escape his pen.
His conviction drew out Ms. Vogel’s steely side for a moment — “that idea causes me a great deal of pain,” she said of his editing — before she regained her professorial posture. She said that Eugene O’Neill wrote “Long Day’s Journey” as “a valentine to his wife” and that pauses in the stage action were a way to “slow down the sensation of time.”
“Theater is one of the few places where the rush of time slows down,” she said.
Of course, they are both a "no go" on this boot camp task. I guess I'll sound overly pedantic, but Eugene O'Neill expressly instructed that the play never be produced at all.  I'm glad I get to see it, believe me, but let's remember that we're trampling on the old man's wishes.

He was asked about it by his publisher near the end, and he emphatically reiterated his wishes in a letter:
 "No, I do not want Long Day's Journey Into Night," [It was in a safe at the publisher's headquarters.] he wrote "That, as you know, is to be published twenty-five years after my death—but never produced as a play."
While I really respect the argument Vogel and the student are having, Eugene O'Neill presents some interesting tangents when used as an example, especially when talking about Long Day's Journey.

Maybe, though, it was brought up and just not reported.


Ian Thal said...

I don't have an opinion on either the plays or the pedagogy of Paula Vogel, but I find Nicholas Gray's attitudes disturbing. Assuming the playwright has mastered the craft (and yes, I do realize that that might be a big "if") every stage direction is there for a reason: Costuming may represent unspoken social relations between characters, props and their movement may contain symbolism or have some causal importance to the story that only becomes apparent in the end.

If Gray doesn't want to acknowledge that, rather than vandalizing scripts and imagining he's engaged in a revolutionary act, he should be working on plays that better fit his aesthetic.

John said...

Indeed, directors need to suck it up and appreciate that there's more to the playwright's vision than just what the characters say to one another. They should at least be read and considered, then the director can decide what to keep and reject.

Then there's an apocryphal tale about a director that was so opposed to stage directions that he had an intern cross all of them out before rehearsal so neither he nor his cast could see them. Throughout the rehearsal process, one problematic question came up - one character simply disappeared from the action midway through the play and they couldn't figure out why. Apparently the original unsoiled script had been lost or discarded, so finally they had to contact the playwright to ask him what happened to that character. As it turns out, another character shot that character dead. (Man, I want that story to be true)

Stage directions matter.

Ian Thal said...

I'd also add that a director with a strong personal style would certainly be able to express that style even within the constraints of a script with highly detailed stage directions. It's not called "tyranny" it's called "a challenge."

Good luck in your directorial career, Mr. Gray. Now that playwrights and their estates are aware of the contempt in which you hold them, you'll largely be limited to works in the public domain.

Ian Thal said...

Wrote a little response: http://ianthal.blogspot.com/2012/02/its-playwright-being-tyrannical.html

C.D. Thomas said...

... but, Mr. Thal, most playwrights nowadays don't get the luxury of defending their stage directions by contract. They're lucky even to get paid. If they do regularly defend the right, how many cases have you heard go to court, outside the Beckett estate?

The choice to delete stage directions is now a truism -- I've heard it so many times that I know directors and designers are now *taught* to consider stage directions as something that might inform upon first read, but are largely disposable.

The motive, as far as I can determine, is to provide work for directors and designers. The issue of said creatives having a royalty interest in their added work might also be an underlying reason -- it has been defended as quantifiable intellectual property.

In any case, no emerging or mid-level playwright can make a stink about preserving stage directions, unless he or she is willing to go to court -- and earn a reputation for being difficult among the class of directors who are most influential in championing a work. Who can take that risk?

Ian Thal said...

Unless they signed some contract with the producers that say otherwise the designers own their designs no matter how detailed the playwright's stage directions might be.

The point is that an ethical production honors the wishes of the playwright if they are alive or their estate still owns copyright. A strong directors and designers know how to exercise their own creativity ethically.

Thomas Garvey said...

I remember that's what the late David Wheeler taught in his directing class, when I took it years ago: "Forget the stage directions!" He too claimed to cross them out, although I'm not sure he would have done that with a brand new play. There's still, I believe, a loose consensus that the first professional productions of a new play should reflect the author's physical visualization of the work. But after that, well, the "collaborators" take over. And isn't this, after all, something of a gray area? I mean if stage directions MUST be followed for a production to have any integrity, then how does a reading have any theatrical reality at all? (Because reading a stage direction is nothing like seeing it enacted.) Yet we usually get quite a good idea of how a script is going to play from a staged reading, regardless. But then I admit I've rarely followed stage directions myself when directing. So . . . you and Paula can gnash your teeth all you want, but until you're Beckett, you're probably shit outta luck, amigo.

Ian Thal said...

However, if there is a line (even an ill-defined line) between directorial license with a script and being cavalier with a script, Gray definitely announced that he intends to cross that line whenever given the opportunity.

Scott Walters said...

As the co-author of Introduction to Play Analysis, and as a professor, I teach that the stage directions are absolutely crucial to understanding the play. I even have my students create a list of the stage directions for a character in the play to see whether a pattern develops (most of the time, one does). Stage directions are indications of what the playwright thought was important for the reader, and artist, to know about a moment. You don't have to do each one as written, but you have to understand why it is there. GB Shaw wrote long stage directions in his published scripts so that readers could imagine things. August Wilson writes historical background that won't be communicated in the staging, but that is crucial to understanding. I don't know where Gray was trained, but his teachers should be hauled off to the woodshed.

Ian Thal said...


More that once, I have been informed by dramaturgs that stage directions interfere with either the creative work (or "work of discovery") of the other theatre artists-- and that I should excise them from the play. I'm even told that historical or cultural context should be left to the production dramaturg to research!

Can you hazard to guess the source of this current pedagogy?