Thursday, February 26, 2015

Sarah Ruhl's Stage Directions

Dead Man's Cell Phone Production Poster (Designed by: Linda Nichols)

Sarah Ruhl is the second most performed playwright in the United States -- second only to the Bard his own self. This is the last weekend that it will be performed in Colorado Springs at the Springs Ensemble Theatre.

In other words: this is the last weekend I'll be playing Jean.

I cannot tell you how much I love doing this play. If I could, I would perform it every day. A lot of that love is due to Sarah Ruhl's writing style, which, as a writer, I sooooo appreciate.

One of the coolest things Ruhl does as a playwright is her stage directions. They're almost like poetry themselves. And, while specific, they still let the director, designers, and performers go to town creatively.

This is where there's a big ol' difference between writing for the stage versus writing for movies versus writing novels.

Movies tend to break things out simply: Character A and Character B fight. (And there you have about twenty minutes of any Transformer  movie.)

Novels (short stories, etc.), of course, will spell all of that out: Character A hurls a chair at Character B. The chair cracks in half over Character B's head, carving a gash across B's forehead. And on and on -- perhaps with Character A is drinking a gin and tonic.

This is how Sarah Ruhl chooses to present a fight scene in Dead Man's Cell Phone:

A struggle for the gun. 
Perhaps an extended fight sequence
with some crawling and hair pulling. 

That magical word 'perhaps' leaves everything open but she's also managed to convey exactly what this particular scene needs. Sure, you can do an extended fight scene and both Character A and Character B can be drop dead serious about what's going on -- that's definitely one way to go. But the other is to follow that 'perhaps' and you get something far more in tune with what the rest of the text suggests: this is a kinda ridiculous situation -- but there's a gun so you better take it kinda seriously. Somewhere in between is the sweet spot...and the writing in the stage directions hits that note just perfectly.

Something else that happens in Ruhl's writing -- and is noticeable in the above passage -- is that she breaks lines the same way poet's do.

A struggle for the gun. This is very straightforward. And it's its own paragraph/line/sentence. Note there's a period.

Perhaps an extended fight sequence This fragment is left hanging. But it's a singular thought too. This is like a line of poetry -- a piece that is it's own thing but is still connected to the next line...which is kind of a turn.

An 'extended fight sequence' call to mind something very serious. Then Ruhl changes the tone with the next line:

with some crawling and hair pulling. She finishes the thought with something unexpected -- which is how the fight sequence should work.

We know from the rest of the play that at least one of these characters should just not be involved in a fight sequence. Because it's ridiculous. Absurd. And the stage directions are written in a way that reflects this. It could be written like this:

A struggle for the gun. Perhaps an extended fight sequence with some crawling and pulling.

Reading it that way feels different. (At least to me.) To me, this way feels more throwaway.

I once heard an interview with Ruhl and she said that one of the most frustrating things about watching performances was that the director/actors/designers were so busy trying to put their own stamp on a piece that they didn't worry about 'birthing' the story. She already wrote everything down. The story is there...and she left enough flexibility to give the director/actors/designers to come up with something really creative. So why not just tell the story?

Our director said that if we have any questions, to look to the script first. Everything is there. And it is. We've taken Ruhl's notes and tried to make magic. I think we've done pretty good too. Here's a review from Broadway World Denver. If you're in Colorado Springs this weekend -- you can snag tickets (hopefully) at 719-357-3080.

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