What directors wish playwrights knew

The industry
Leah Cooper, Michelle Hensley, Jamil Jude, Peter Moore, Joel Sass

For many playwrights, the chance to work with a director comes very late in the process of creating a new play—if it comes at all. We decided to survey some of our regular collaborators to hear their thoughts on new work and what they’d like playwrights to know. Leah Cooper, Michelle Hensley, Jamil Jude, Peter Moore, and Joel Sass all responded with some great advice for playwrights.

What do you love to see in a new play?

Michelle Hensley (artistic director, Ten Thousand Things Theater): I love to see a big story that wrestles with big human questions with lots of characters from all classes and walks of life. I love to see a “make-believe” world with lots of room for the theatrical imagination, a tale set in another time and place rather than an attempt to naturalistically re-create the world as films do. It’s why we are drawn to Shakespeare, to the Greeks, to Brecht, and even to some American musicals—because those were plays written with the playwright knowing that people from all classes would be in the audience, not just people who sit on cushions of wealth.

Joel Sass (freelance director): As a freelance director/producer, I’m always looking for plays with fabulous characters: individuals who are complicated, contradictory, and have distinct voices and who are in the midst of some dramatic conflict, crisis, revelation that commands my attention. Why should I care about him/her/them/this issue? Are they doing/saying anything that provokes emotion/empathy in me? Is there anything about the play that is uniquely theatrical and can only be realized by putting it onstage?

Leah Cooper (freelance director): I think I get most excited about characters who are uniquely, specifically themselves (as opposed to archetypes, stereotypes, or the playwright themselves), and who care passionately about something (even when—maybe even better yet—when they show their passion in unexpected ways). I also get excited when theatricality (or magic, to put it more bluntly) is a part of the storytelling.

Peter Moore (freelance director): I like crisp, well-written dialogue, an interesting plot/story and characters who are not living everyday lives.

Jamil Jude (freelance director; co-producer, New Griots Festival): I love to see complicated, f’d up characters. Show me immoral characters who deserve our empathy. I enjoy the journey of creating a production so much more when the script is filled with complex and intriguing characters!

What is your biggest pet peeve that you encounter in a script?

Hensley: I do not like plays that are just about upper middle class people. “Rich people being mean to each other.” Who cares? Really!

Cooper: Biggest pet peeve is a play that really wants to be a TV show or movie. Second biggest pet peeve is when it’s clear the playwright doesn’t love and respect his/her characters.

Moore: Bad grammar, bad spelling, and bad punctuation—inexcusable.

What type of format works best for you?

Hensley: For me the most important thing is a synopsis, three to five sentences tops. If there’s any chance of me taking the time to read your script, I have to be able to read a synopsis to give me a very quick idea if it’s worth the investment of my time. If there’s not a synopsis, quite frankly, I don’t bother. I’m so sorry, but I just don’t have the time—and, quite honestly, most contemporary scripts are small stories that would not be of interest to our very large, diverse audiences.

Sass: This is so subjective, and I suspect literary managers might be more zealous about this, because they absorb and comb through so much text on a daily basis. I prefer character names formatted on the left side versus centered on the page—especially if the lines of dialogue are short and staccato—with double-spaces separating dialogue for each character. At least 12 pt size, and a font that is completely neutral (e.g. a play about gutter punks does not benefit thematically when formatted in a grunge font.) My preferences stem mostly from observing where I’ve seen actors struggle in a reading situation.

Cooper: Many formats work—just something that makes it easy for actors to read out loud.

Moore: Double-spacing is always helpful; the easier to read, the better.

Jude: I think plays should be written however the playwright wants. The way the words are arranged on the page can tell a lot about the play! I enjoy seeing plays with unique line break structure or those that play with the setting of the words on the page.

What advice would you give to a writer about creating effective stage directions?

Hensley: As a director, I really don’t like having things spelled out for me. Even though Ten Thousand Things has very limited technical resources, since all our set pieces have to be things the actors can carry and that can fit in a van, I don’t mind settings that are wildly imaginative. I like being challenged to do a lot with a little. But we also don’t have lighting, so writing that is imagining black outs and crossfades—well, that won’t happen.

Ten Thousand Things embraces scripts that call on actors to be very physical, as movement is essential to creating strong story telling. If it’s a play that involves people sitting around and talking—if it’s a play that calls for SOFAS!—that won’t work.

Sass: Avoid littering/footnoting every single line of dialogue with stage directions that specify inflection and tone of voice. This may arise from a wish to be specific, but it telegraphs a novice distrust on the part of the writer, and is every bit as distracting to reading a play as someone sitting next to you in the cinema whispering endless commentary on the obvious. Only specify/clarify the non-obvious—subtle ironies, inflections that reveal subtext, colloquialisms or regional tics that influence the rhythm of the lines, etc. If your writing is expressive and truthful, readers/directors/actors will do the rest.

Don’t neglect the opportunity to describe the world in which the play unfolds. It can be a joy to read the stage directions of Tennessee Williams, William Inge, Lorraine Hansberry, etc., because at the top of the play they describe the world their characters inhabit with such vivid and poetic detail. Even plays that are more abstracted, dreamlike, or balls-to-the-wall surreal can benefit from the playwright painting a description of the world in which the play unfolds: what it looks/sounds like, how people appear/disappear within it, etc.

Cooper: Directors all feel differently about this. I love stage directions, and I read all of them and think about them a lot. My favorites are the ones that give me clues/backstory about the character and their stories that the dialogue might not tell me, and that give me a richer understanding of the world of the play. Stage directions regarding movement can be useful too, though I read them more in terms of what they tell me about motivation, tone, action, etc., and of course I’m likely to stage it differently in terms of specific movement and composition.

Moore: I prefer minimal stage directions, just objective statements (setting, events that happen, etc). Keep away from describing character’s feelings or personalities.

Jude: I love to see stage directions that are full of imagery. It helps me understand the world the playwright sees in their head. Those little gems, that the audience never sees, are like little secrets we share with the playwright. They help keep the playwright’s imagination constantly present in the room, even if they aren’t there themselves.

While I love imaginative stage directions, I do not like stage directions that are too explicit. Instead of providing insight into the world, overall explicit stage directions can limit the creativity of the design collaborators and close down the possibilities of the play. Be clear and evocative, but shy away from being too prescriptive.


Photo of Kira Obolensky and Michelle Hensley copyright Heidi Bohnenkamp, 2014.

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