Wednesday, March 07, 2012

Theatre Critic as Referee in the Stage Direction Skirmish

It was only a few weeks ago that I posted about the question of loyalty to published stage directions

The subject was interesting enough to attract a number of comments to the post.

With this fresh in my mind, I happened upon Brendan Kiley's review of Seattle Repertory Theatre's production of John Logan's Red.  

It is not often that stage directions are quoted in a review, but neither is it uncommon, especially for a well-known play.  But Kiley, in just a couple of sentences, seems to encapsulate a large part of the argument about the obligation a director, or an actor, has to the playwright's written instructions:

Some moments painfully flatten Red's characters, as when Ken, an orphan, recounts the death of his parents. He kneels downstage and speaks his painful childhood memory with the hot, false anguish of television melodrama. The fault lies partly with the playwright, whose direction to Ken at the beginning of the scene says "reliving it." The rest of the fault lies with director Richard E. T. White for not ignoring the playwright. 

This brings up another interesting dimension to the discussion.  Namely, to what extent is the critic/reviewer obligated to referee this tug-of-war between director and playwright?


Ian Thal said...

Well, to be fair, Red is a pretty flawed play. The strongest element is the dialogue that Logan pieces together from Rothko's own writings or the memoirs of his contemporaries. The weakest elements are what Logan invented himself notably everything related the character of Ken.

So while ethically speaking I don't believe a director should be free ignore the playwright's intent without permission, aesthetically speaking the play needs a lot of help. I'm not even clear that the flaws can be addressed by a strong director.

The critic's job is primarily one of judging the aesthetics; ethics are addressed by Guild contracts.

Thomas Garvey said...

You know, all I'd really agree with is the idea that, in early productions of a play, a director is "ethically" bound to honor an author's INTENT. Intent ONLY, I should add.

How can anyone who has actually put up a play imagine that stage directions from the playwright can be followed to the letter? Even a dutiful director is constantly being asked to patch together solutions for the inevitable gaps between newfound theatrical space, uneven actor ability, etc., and authorial declaration. Trust me, a director is doing no author any favor by dragging an actor through an action that he or she can't pull off.

Then there are cases like this one. Art, I'm not sure "refereeing" is the proper word here. The critic in this case, like most audience members, I'd bet, is begging the director to simply ignore the playwright and make the show better, something that has happened countless times in the past and will happen countless times in the future (just as the opposite has also happened). The critic here is essentially demanding that the director act - well, like a critic.

I also want to point out something interesting about the case of "Red" - what I call the bifurcation of critical discussion. By now it's clear that critical opinion of the play has separated into two distinct planes. The more sophisticated writers and commenters all sniff at "Red" these days - and yet simultaneously, another whole lower tier of critical chatter is still genuflecting to it energetically. You could make the same observation about the critical response to Diane Paulus, Bruce Norris, and any number of other theatrical figures.

Ian Thal said...

Certainly, ethics are not an exact science (thank you, Aristotle.) There is certainly the ethical responsibility of the director to honor authorial intent as near as it can be; but there is also the ethical responsibility of the critic to warn the public about an aesthetically flawed show and by extension, encourage hire standards.

My earlier discussion on the issue, however was predicated on that of a thoughtless director who views the playwright with resentment.

Art said...

Thanks for the comments, Ian and Tom,

I think, Tom, your clarification about INTENT is right.

And, I agree with you about, Red, Ian. It is very flawed dramatically.

In fact, to take both of your comments, and this specific example as a jumping off point.

My opinion is that the character of Ken is dramatically inert and the addition of the backstory about his horrible experience is almost assuredly there fill in the blank canvas, so to speak.

However, this is something that happened to Ken quite a few years ago. Ken seems like a well-adjusted young man and he is retelling this story to Rothko not in any heat of passion.

My hunch is that the stage direction "Reliving it" is Logan's attempt to add some type of suspense/action to the proceedings.

In a film, (Logan is a screenwriter), we would be able to follow the young Ken through that incident, feeling the suspense. There could be close-ups contrasting red and whites and blacks.

On stage, the actor can tell the story, but why would he suddenly be "reliving" it?

However, a director can handle this, right? An isolation of the actor, a lighting change that puts him into a completely separate world?

Also, I think when these discussions happen, there should be a distinction between stage directions and what is called "actor-proofing."

Thomas Garvey said...

Well, maybe - but actually, on second thought I'm not sure there's ANY way to make that Ken monologue work. It didn't work on Broadway really either. It's pretty bad.

Mike said...

Does anyone even know if the stage direction "reliving it" was actually put there by John Logan? Granted, it's less arbitrary than "crosses upstage", but one can never actually be sure when a stage direction is in a text if it was the author's or from the book of the initial production's stage manager. Unless you are a dramaturg, in which case part of your job is to know.

Anyhow, "reliving it" doesn't even feel like a stage direction to me as "crosses up stage" actually would, more like a directorial note from the author. While I do think if say, Samuel Beckett tells you to do something you should generally do it (or the Samuel Beckett estate will come to get you! Ooga booga!) when a play wright includes directions equivalent to "actor emotes here, dramatically" that they are on some level trying to serve as the director. And that's not there job. So, just ignore it.

In the case of the Ken character, it's possible Logan felt the need to compensate for putting in such an undeveloped figure, so he figured "insert dramatic backstory here" rather than just leaving him in a pure state of audience surrogate or finding a way dramatically to make him a human being without subtracting from the play being about Rothko. In the process of doing so, maybe he adds that stage direction so the actor playing Ken knows "hey this is your chance to hopefully turn this guy into something maybe real, good luck!"

< /my two cents >

Thomas Garvey said...

"Reliving it" reminds me of what used to be called "wrylies" back when I was trying to crack the screenwriting trade. (Inexperienced screenwriters often like to add emotional cues prior to their dialogue, most notoriously the note "wryly".) Logan of course is a screenwriter more than a playwright. Which leads to the interesting question - would Paula Vogel defend the use of screenwriting affectations in a script for the stage?