Writing Lessons from Directing Shakespeare
I love writing fiction, but I’ve only been telling stories this way for a few years. I’ve been telling stories as a theatre director for 15 years! I direct professional theatre productions once or twice a year, and I just finished directing Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing. With this last project, more than ever before, I took away some lessons from directing that I’ll apply to my writing.
In directing, I dissect and interpret an established work (in this case, the best of the best: The Bard) with a team of actors. When I write, I put down a story word by word. But it’s all storytelling, and I find there’s a lot to steal when crossing disciplines.
1. Bringing Show vs. Tell to a New Level
Show vs. Tell is a big principle in writing fiction, and it resonated for me in a new way in my most recent rehearsal process. As a director, I work with actors to find ways to show emotion, characterization and conflict on the stage through character behavior. The actors don’t just stand still on stage and say the lines. Actors do stuff. The actions the performers take during or between the lines shows the audience clues about what’s going on. From everything to where a character looks or how they breathe, to the activities that take up a whole scene. How does a scene change if everyone is… playing bocce ball? Dancing? Trying not to disturb a sleeping child?
There’s a bit of a mystery in Much Ado. Beatrice and her cousin Hero are bedfellows every night, but for some reason that Shakespeare doesn’t explicitly state, Beatrice is not roommates with Hero the night before Hero’s wedding. This is problematic, because the evil Don John claims that Hero was hooking up with a man besides her finance. Based on some hints in the text, our interpretation is that Beatrice spent the night with Benedick! It helps explains some of Beatrice’s nervous dialogue in the scene when she helps Hero dress for Hero’s wedding. But there’s no line where Beatrice tells us, “I’m anxious because I slept with Benedick last night and I don’t know if he really likes me.” (and thank goodness, that would be boring—but also the kind of detail I might put into a character’s inner monologue while writing fiction).
So how do we show that Beatrice is thinking about her night with Benedick the morning after? She could wear an article of his clothing into the scene, but that would be noticed by the other women—and that alone doesn’t give us a hint of how Beatrice feels about it. But she could sneakily check for hickies in the mirror when the other women aren’t looking. That shows us that something sexy happened, that Beatrice might be a little paranoid about it, and that she’s pointedly not talking about it.
This “show” moment was so effective, it frequently elicited gasps or giggles from the audience.
I plan to layer this kind of action and behavior into my fiction writing. If a given scene in my manuscript were staged as a play, what could the characters do to show emotion, characterization and conflict? Where are my hickey moments?!
2. Leave Room for Interpretation
Great playwrights—like Billy Shakes—leave us infinite ways to stage their plays, to highlight character actions and motivations. In Much Ado, the relationship between the “evil” brother Don John and his man Conrade is ambiguous. Conrade is clearly loyal to Don John, but Conrade doesn’t just seem like Don John’s employee. Many interpret the text to show Conrade and Don John as lovers—a gay couple, because Conrade is a male character—though Shakespeare doesn’t directly have one of them say, “Hey, Lover.”
I decided to cast Conrade as a woman, partly because there are never enough female roles in Shakespeare plays, and partly to interpret this character in a new way. Shakespeare left me room to do that! So many interesting things came up when a female Conrade goes looking for a kiss, or when it’s a woman who tries to talk Don John out of shaming another woman on her wedding day.
Shakespeare left his text open to interpretation, and as a director, I like to leave the performance open to interpretation for the audience. Like the “what really happened with Beatrice and Benedick” question that we created with some staging and the hickey moment. Or the backstory and complexity for our Don John and Conrade.
I like leaving some things open for my audience to interpret when I’m directing, so I should do the same in writing! If some detail isn’t essential to the plot or character arc, I want to find room to allow the reader to wonder. To draw their own conclusions. I enjoy the occasional mystery and deep thinking as a reader and audience member, and I want my reader to experience that excitement, too.
3. It’s All in the Text
When directing a play, the director’s number one tool is the script. I used the text of Much Ado as my absolute guide. Every discovery we made in rehearsal came from discovering something new in Shakespeare’s text.
There’s a famous scene in Much Ado when the Prince—not the ultimate suitor to Beatrice—says to Beatrice, “Will you have me?” Yup, they’re even talking about finding a husband for Beatrice when he says it. Many productions play this as a joke, probably because it’s easier to transition to Beatrice and Benedick as a couple, if Benedick’s best friend didn’t just really propose. But right there in the text we get the clue that it’s not a joke. Right after the Prince says “Will you have me?” and Beatrice says the equivalent of “hell no,” Beatrice’s uncle says, “Niece, will you look to those things I told you of?”
We examine the text: “those things” is not a normal turn of phrase for this character. Or for any Shakespeare character. If we assume Shakespeare’s word choice was deliberate (and we do assume that), then we know that he chose “those things” for a reason. Since Beatrice leaves right after her uncle makes the vague request, we conclude that these words were meant to give Beatrice an out, to cover something. There wouldn’t be a reason to cover for Beatrice in this way if the Prince’s question were a joke. Her uncle is (badly) attempting to cover a really awkward moment. Our clue, direct from Shakespeare: the proposal was not a joke.
We just talked about leaving room for interpretation? My third lesson for writing was that every word I write has the potential to be interpreted by the reader. Every word matters. So when I’m writing, I can’t be nonchalant about any single sentence, phrase or word. Directing the Bard has given me a great sense of care for each word I write, and I am absolutely humbled by this process of putting a story on paper.
I am a million miles away from ever being like Mr. William Shakespeare, but spending this time with his storytelling, in the active way of directing, has really inspired and informed my other brand of storytelling: writing fiction.
Photos by Traci J. Brooks. Produced by NextStop Theatre Company. Pictured top to bottom: Kari Ginsburg, Mo O'Rourke and Bob Pike, James Finley and Kari Ginsburg.