Studying The Script
( Originally Published 1938 )
THE DIRECTOR, after giving thought to his audience, his stage, and his potential acting material, has selected a play for presentation. He now has to choose his cast, work out the form for his production, and put the play into rehearsal. We shall devote several chapters to plans and methods of production and then return to the many problems connected with casting and getting the actors to act.
The director's first task, after he has selected his play, is a careful study of the script.
The printed play and the play acted on the stage are two very different things. Reading the printed play, without a director's imagination for seeing the acted play, may deceive the reader as to the staging potentialities of the play and may even catch the director unaware.
As he reads, the reader visualizes the action and hears in his imagination the voices of the characters; but he is often swept forward and does not allow time for a complete visualization, or, it may be, details are passed unnoticed or are hurried over without critical attention. He "gets" the play through reading, and, perhaps, his impression, through his reading, is both strong and correct.
When, however, the play is acted, details are important; the member of the audience cannot slight speeches, he cannot conveniently forget the presence of certain characters who are on the stage during a scene (as he has forgotten about them in his reading) ; for now the actual presence of life, the actual living of the action, thwarts any imaginative contributions and oversights such as the reader can give.
Again, the printed book or play often contains comments of the author, which give the reader a quick clue to the understanding of a character, which explain a relationship, and which set a mood. As he reads, the reader accepts this help from the author without remark or criticism.
But on the stage, the author cannot comment. The author must speak through his actors and his stage, and that which was made clear through comment must now be made clear in some other way.
The director, then, having selected a play for production, is under obligation to study the script carefully.
First, it is wise that he study it for a thorough under-standing of the play; he should study the characters, causes of thought, motives of action, until the ideas involved in the play are all comprehended, until the meaning of the play and its parts are clear. This point needs no comment.
But the study should go beyond the sort of study we once were accustomed to make in our school reading of a piece of literature. The director searches for the central idea of the play, the idea around which he expects to build the acted play, the idea which he hopes to reveal to his audience in the acted play.
Within every play worth the time and effort he must spend on production, he can discover this central idea that, above all others, is the one around which the author has written his play. The idea may be to give the audience an experience of loneliness; or to express, clearly, a series of dramatic situations that, when taken together, reveal an interesting story; or to create for the audience the atmosphere of some bygone period of history; or to present, dramatically, the behavior of some fellow human being.
When the director has discovered this central idea, he once again applies himself to his study. Now, he pays attention to details. He remembers that he was affected in a certain way by a certain passage; but he also remembers that he was affected through reading and that the writer made use of the writer's art to give him the impression which he gained. He, in turn, has to give this impression to the audience through the arts of the stage. And this step in his study carries him into the problem of translation, the problem of restatement in stage terms.
Frequently during rehearsals a director is heard to say, "That scene was all right when I read it, but it isn't so good when I see it on the stage"; or, "That idea doesn't seem so interesting when spoken by the actors"; or, "I'd forgotten that this character is on the stage in this scene; he's in the way"; or, "I'd never really thought of the meaning of that line before."
Our director hasn't got down to bedrock and reconstructed the play (in the matter of significant details) in stage terms. During this step in his study, he becomes an interpreter and a creator. He is not an imitator now, for (unless he has seen the play given and is trying to imitate a professional presentation, which we hope he is not) he has only the script to imitate. He tries to bring the book to life; to take some meaning which he grasped in one way and make that meaning clear in another way through acting; even to discover the hidden meaning which lies behind the printed page and bring it out in the open, on the stage.
For example, when he reads Totheroh's Distant Drums he finishes his reading with the idea that Eunice, the wife of the captain of the immigrant party, is a disturbing factor among her traveling companions; the other members of the wagon train on their way to Oregon are, more or less, a unit. Now this "outsideness" of Eunice is one of the ideas of the play. In the study of the play this is perceived; and in a further study, a way in which to translate and make clear this idea to the audience is sought.
The position of the wagons—a circle, half of which is shown on the stage—may give him a clue for his new expression. He builds on it. In several of the scenes in which Eunice appears, the director conceives of the characters as moving toward the formation of a circle and sometimes actually forming one. The situation of the wagons and the campfire in the center make this logical. And the movement of Eunice he often sees as tending to break this circle; or, he visualizes her as standing alone, completely outside the circle.
So, he seeks to translate an idea into visual terms of the stage. He cannot be too obvious, of course; he cannot tell the audience what he is doing. Rather, he has to give them a visual impression that corresponds to the impression he gained when reading.
This study leads him from the writer's art to the actor's, from print to players. He is now conceiving the play as something other than written words and is restating the play in new terms. This brings him to the question of the plan of the production and the principles upon which this plan may be built.
Before he starts to work on his plan of the production, this study of the script sometimes leads to one other question: Should he or should he not cut or adapt the play for his audience or his cast of players?
The director should respect the text of the author; but when respect becomes an unreasonable passion for every word and stage direction in the play, the acted play, as presented by amateurs, is likely to suffer.
The actual playing time of an amateur performance should not run over an hour and three quarters. There are, frequently, long speeches that the amateur will find difficulty in delivering. There may be small scenes or allusions to people or things, which will mean nothing to his particular audience. There may be objectionable matter that will offend his audience. So, at times, cutting or changing becomes advisable. When advisable, these changes should be made with great care and only after such a study of the script as reveals to the director the central idea of the play and a clear concept of the characters. Then long speeches may be broken up or shortened, lines or scenes omitted, unfamiliar references and objectionable speeches blue-penciled; and if the play is from a past period, all allusions to customs and objects that carry no meaning to this generation may be cut profitably.