Directing a Play vs. Writing a Novel – Revisions Edition
In the final stages of a rehearsal process, the cast does “run thrus” of the entire show and the director watches. The director sits quietly the entire time, not doing anything except sitting… and taking down notes. The brain is busy, even if the body and mouth are not.
This strikes me as similar to the revision process in writing fiction. The writer’s fingers may not be as busy typing away, but each “read thru” of the manuscript has the writer’s brain on overload.
Are there techniques to maximize each read/run thru?
As a director, my process is fairly refined—I’ve directed about 20 plays and assistant directed at least that many more. I’ve only written three manuscripts. So let’s see if the directing process can apply to the writing process.
What I do I look for in a run thru of a play, and how might it translate to the writing process?
The easiest thing to spot during a run thru is an error—they are usually glaring, and they must be fixed. A costume change doesn’t happen fast enough. The actor’s face is in the dark. A prop malfunctions. An actor misses a section of text. I take notes on these and move on, my goal being to waste as little brain energy on this as possible
The writing equivalent? Typos! Accidentally using the wrong name for a minor character. Getting a timeline wrong. A character’s eyes changing from blue to brown. These must be noted and fixed, but we mustn’t get distracted by only finding and correcting errors.
The next category I watch for when I’m directing is clarity of story. Are all the main points of the story clear? If an important new character or plot point is introduced, the moment can’t be rushed through. If that’s happening, I’ll ask the actor to “lift” the information with tone, pacing, or behavior. I might ask the design team to light it a certain way, or adjust the soundscape. This doesn’t mean every detail is immediately understood by the audience—that would be boring. The audience should be left to figure some things out as they watch, or even be left at the end with engaging questions. But I need to know how the story I’m directing works, and watch to make sure it’s clear.
AND THIS CANNOT BE DONE ALONE! Clarity is the main reason why I invite guests to view run thrus of the show, throughout the process, to give me feedback. I become too familiar with the story. I might not realize on my own that a plot point isn’t clear. But a trusted, first-time viewer will easily let me know.
In writing, we must also read for clarity. Does the plot and character development make sense? Even more than in a play, it’s going to make sense to you. You made it up! So we MUST get beta readers and critique partners to help you point out where story is confusing.
As a director, this is most important to me. I want the plays I direct to ring true to audiences. I want audiences to think, yes, that’s believable. Or, there was so much truth in that performance. Inauthentic moments take audience members right out of the world of the play, and for me, that breaks the magic of the show.
Plays can be in all sorts of styles, so authenticity won’t look the same for every play, but I think it should still be there.
This is the trickiest to work with the actors—and I think, the most enjoyable! I love the challenge of coaching an actor through a moment that’s particularly emotional, or explosive, or intimate. We must call on personal experiences and think about those little things like… the human experience! Or the meaning of life and love!
The authenticity can come from the big moments, like a major confrontation or finding out a loved one has died. But it’s also in the small moments, the behavior. What would a young man really do in the moment before he sees he crush, when he thinks no one is watching? This is the fun stuff—and I’m not going to give you my answer!
So this must be applied to our writing, too. Do the characters ring true? Do we believe what they’re doing and saying? Are the big moments and small details feeling like the right fit for the characters? Do we ultimately understand why the characters do what they do? Can we relate?
As a director and writer, this work is challenging. We must learn to trust our gut. We have to face it when we’re manipulating our work to fit a certain plan, but sacrificing authenticity. We have to keep working until we find the truth.
4. Pacing and Spacing
This part is more technical than the emotional work of watching for authenticity, but it definitely contributes to a polished whole. Does the pacing of the play move at appropriate ebbs and flows? Are some parts too slow? Or are we rushing where the audience will want a breath to process? For spacing, I want to make sure I’m using the entire stage, not ignoring an entire quadrant or overusing one spot. Am I painting a picture that moves around the physical space in a compelling way?
For pacing in writing, we can read for where we’re spending too much time (aka too many words)—a description, or a particular side plot or character dilemma. Or maybe we’re rushing past some important emotional step and we could use more character introspection to slow it down. The spacing equivalent may be looking at the chapter breaks and scene breaks, making sure it’s all deliberate. Or checking our balance of dialogue versus description versus character inner monologue. Technically, are we utilizing our writing tools in the most effective manner?
5. The big picture
At the end of the rehearsal process, I go back to what I said I want to accomplish at the beginning. (I wrote about this stage here!). Why this play now? Why are we telling this story? What do I want the audience to walk away with? What do I want the audience to enjoy?
I started with answers to all these questions… does it show up in our final product? Sometimes the big picture stuff will change throughout a rehearsal process—that can be part of the fun! But I need to identify it at the end, and I want to make sure my most important takeaways aren’t getting muddled.
For writing, we can also see if we’ve told the story we wanted to tell. Yes, the details will change, and maybe the big picture will change—but I want to be clear what the reader will take away from the story, and if I’m really letting the big picture sing.
Phew! Run thrus and read thrus are a lot of work?! What did I miss? What do you look for when you reread during the revision process?
The pictures here are from the most recent play I directed, STONES IN HIS POCKETS at Keegan Theatre.