Drummers practice rudiments. Pianists practice scales. Ballet dancers practice their exercises. Dramatic storytellers need lessons and rudiments, too. We're here to provide a few.
Playwrights speak to actors through their scripts. Knowing how playwrights do that can help actors understand the story and their characters more thoroughly.
Tools playwrights use, of course, include word choices, stage directions, and punctuation.
Take the script of the musical Chicago. After a very brief introduction by the Master of Ceremonies, Velma steps out to sing the opening number, “All That Jazz.” Within the first few bars of the song, lyricist Fred Ebb has chosen some very specific words to give us the setting. She sings, “Come on, Babe, why don’t we paint the town? And all that jazz.”
Who in 2021 understands the very 1920s phrase “paint the town”? It means to go drinking and dancing, of course, all while Prohibition was in place. And jazz, as used in 1920s Chicago, had a broader, racier meaning than just a type of music that many today think of as old and staid.
In the next verse, Velma says, “I’m gonna rouge my knees and roll my stockings down.” Who would put rouge on their knees, and why? Nobody did that in the 1970s when Chicago was written much less in 2021. And who wears stockings anymore to even know what rolling them down could mean? A 1920s woman revealing and accentuating her knees with color was considered to have loose morals, and it was very much a 1920s fad.
At this point, the setting for Chicago is nearly 100 years in the past. The words, especially as paired with John Kander’s music, help us to get there and know what kind of characters are inhabiting this story.
Just after the Master of Ceremony speaks at the top of the play, the script has a spate of stage directions:
(He walks off. A solo trumpet plays, the BANDLEADER counts off the overture. The Scrim rises. We see an onstage ORCHESTRA on a platform suspended from a second level. They are seated above a Center Drum. The LIGHTS come up. The Doors of the Center Drum open, an elevator comes up and VELMA KELLY enters. She walks forward to the audience. The Drum Doors close.)
Most of that was written, of course, by the stage manager of the original Broadway production. How can you tell which parts of stage directions come from the playwright? Look for the essential movements. “He walks off. VELMA KELLY enters.” The playwright might also have included, “She walks forward to the audience,” to help us understand the presentational style they intended for this musical.
You can also look for stage directions that indicate emotion. Check out the notes in parentheses before these lines:
ROXIE. (Nervously.) Yeah, I’m ready.
BILLY. (Gentle for the first time.) Hey, don’t be scared, Roxie. It’ll be all right. I’ve been around a long time, and believe me, you got nothin’ to worry about.
Original stage managers often insert notes about line readings for their own reference so when they rehearse replacement cast members, they can quickly give them the sense of the scene as the director has set it. But, those two parenthetical stage directions may just as well have come from the playwrights because “nervously” and “gentle for the first time” note a change of attitude for both characters, so they could have been indicators inserted by the playwrights to help actors understand that the shift in the scene.
Punctuation also communicates. Look at this line of Billy’s:
BILLY. That’s all! Then I say— “But we can’t do that, gentlemen. You may take her life as the State demands, but it won’t bring Casely back.” That’s always news to them. And then I go into my final statement, winding up ... “We can’t give her happiness. But we can give her another chance.” And that’s all for you.
In that one line, the writers use an exclamation point, a dash, quotation marks, periods, commas, and an ellipsis (three consecutive dots). Each one indicates a pause, but each is a different kind of pause. Each also indicates inflection. For example, a dash often indicates a more absolute stop or a change of direction while an ellipsis usually indicates a gentler pause, a softer segue.
Applying punctuation to the reading of a script is like singing the rests and articulation marks in a piece of music. It gives your actors a sense of the rhythm for this character’s speech. And there’s almost always a reason for any pause, whether comma, period, dash, or question mark.
Listening to the playwright often takes a little detective work, but it can be very useful to really hearing what she or he intended.
Script citations: Chicago, published by Samuel French, Inc., 1976. Book by Fred Ebb and Bob Fosse, Music by John Kander, Lyrics by Fred Ebb. Based on the Play "Chicago" by Maurine Dallas Watkins