Themes in Multi-Authored Works of Art
Theatrical productions are works of art with multiple authors. Playwrights make scripts, directors oversee productions, designers make sets, lighting, costumes, etc., and actors act on stage. Great productions hold together, with all of the pieces working in concert to bring a wonderful experience to the audience. Directors often get advice to have a theme for a production. Some like to describe themes in terms of emotions or concepts, but I prefer them in terms of cause and effect (e.g., I think the theme of the film The Perfect Storm is "greed leads to death.").
In theater and film, the director is in charge of overseeing the whole. It is his or her job to make sure stuff works together (to varying degrees the producer does some of this too). In theater, there is one element the director has just about no control over: the dialogue in the script.
Contracts for playwrights usually specify that a director may not change a single word of dialogue without the permission of the playwright. Contracts in film are not like this-- once a screenplay is bought anybody can completely rewrite it, if they like.
The good thing about this, for playwrights, anyway, is that their work is protected. The bad thing is that the playwright does not know what directors are going to come up with, and sometimes a change in dialog might be appropriate.
For reasons that are not clear to me, directors are allowed to ignore stage directions. This limits the playwright because it encourages things to be done with dialog that might be better done with action. For example, if you want the character to nod instead of say yes, the director has no obligation to have the actor nod. It's a stage direction, after all. So to play it safe, the playwright has a motivation to make scripts wordy. An extreme example would be a silent play. In a play with no dialog at all, what protection does the playwright have?
As a playwright, it's a little bothersome that the only tools I can use to communicate with the director and actors are the keys on a keyboard. This is a severe restriction. There are things that are difficult to express with a keyboard. For example, most languages have a commonly used word for the English "so-so." In everyday English, however, we don't use "so-so." Rather, we say something like "eeeh," and tilt our heads, with a slight disgust expression. Notice how long it took me to describe that. There is no elegant way to put that in a script. Another example: in America and Canada, the way we say "I don't know" has a specific cadence that is recognizable without the words. You can hum "I don't know" and people will understand. How am I supposed to put this in a script?
Talking over each other is another challenge. In real life, people talk over each other all the time, but in scripts it's a challenge to indicate this. I have my own convention, but it's not perfect and I had to make it up myself.
I read an article by playwright Edward Albee (2009). I quote:
...since a playwright must be able to "hear" his or her characters, what the character says and how the character says it must be precisely "notated." I use the composers' term intentionally, for a playwright must be able to hear as a composer hears, as precisely, and indicate it all, as a composer puts it down on paper. There are durational differences between a quarter note and a dotted quarter note, for example...We playwrights should hear these distinctions as precisely as a composer does, and use them as precisely. We should hear the durational differences between periods, semicolons, commas, three dots, and dashes, for example, as well as emphasis markings such as underlining, capitalization, italicization, and whatever else we can think up to render our dialogue as precise and "spoken" as our ears will let us.This is interesting, because he's trying to use punctuation to indicate pauses and such. Note, however, that he does not say how long a dash is in term of time, nor, indeed, whether a semicolon is a longer pause than a dash. Not only does he think that playwrights should use these notations, but that directors and actors should follow them exactly. How they are supposed to do this without knowing how long a period lasts, I don't know. Albee continues:
Now, no director will pay the attention they should to our specifics. Somehow our knowing what we want can inhibit their "interpretation" (read "distortion," if you like) of our work. And some actors feel preciseness can inhibit their creativity, too. (The answer here may be puppets.)
I think Albee goes a bit far here (he sounds like Mamet, who says similar things in his Black and White book). One of the wonderful things about theater is that different productions will have different themes. If each production were exactly the same, it makes it more like watching a movie. And if a particular director is going for a particular theme, it might work better or worse with the dialog exactly as the playwright imagined it. Playwrights are not always directors, and can fall into a trap of thinking that the words are all there is to a play.
Film suffers because scripts are rarely re-made. In theater, because it's so local, scripts are re-done all the time. In television and film, people even get freaked out when different actors play the same role. Coming from a theater perspective, I don't get bothered by this at all.
When I wrote Medea: The Fury (with a co-author) I didn't indicate in the script that there should be dance sequences. The director, Montica Pes, put in a ton of them. They were wonderful. A playwright friend of mind said that he would have not been pleased with dance numbers being added to the script. I didn't mind at all. I don't want to put dance numbers in the script, because other directors and producers reading the script in the future might not want them in and reject the script.
The best situation, I my opinion, is when the writer is working with the production to make the best work of art on stage (or film) as possible. The predefined roles of writer and director have limitations that I believe can keep certain productions from fulfilling their potential.
Albee, E. (2009). Dialog. The Dramatist. Sept/Oct 9-10.