There are two integral parts to a play script: the lines, and the stage directions. Whereas the former indicates what the actor is to "say" on stage, the latter indicates what the performer must "do." Often appearing as italics in the script, stage directions are an integral element of live theater, existing entirely to serve the cast and crew as instructions for the live production.
Whereas it is difficult to pinpoint the exact place in theatrical history in which stage directions were first utilized, it is evident that the use of in script directions for actors and directors has been present throughout the course of written theater. However, not all classic playwrights utilized stage directions in the same way.
As the works of William Shakespeare exist through pieced-together scripts of previous productions, many scholars believe that an abundance of stage directions found in Shakespearean scripts were added by other writers throughout history. This confusion over the authenticity of stage directions allows many directors considerable creative flexibility in their interpretation of the script.
Stage directions serve many functions for the cast. When a playwright composes a script, the stage directions serve to express elements of the author's vision that are impossible to reflect simply through lines alone.
Once a director has chosen a particular production, the stage directions afford her the ability to determine the space needed for the play, the types of actors needed, and the necessary props and costumes, as well as those elements that can be modified when needed.
During rehearsal, stage directions serve to provide the performers with the necessary directions for their delivery, both vocal and physical. Director modification will adapt them when necessary, with the stage manager recording changes for future reference.
There are three types of instructions that can be delivered through thorough stage directions: movement, description and delivery.
Stage directions involving movement serve as the most direct form of control over the actors in a production. Giving them exact instructions regarding location and physical movement within the space of the set, stage directions regarding movement are critical.
A specific set of terms exists relating to movement in relationship to the audience viewing the production. "Stage right" refers to actor movements towards the left (the audience's right), with "stage left" referring to movements to the right. "Upstage" refers to movements away from the audience and "downstage" as movements towards the audience.
Stage directions regarding description serve to aid the crew of the production primarily. The director can refer to descriptions in the script to determine what characters should look like, how sets should be oriented, and various other elements of the production before working with the crew. Specific prop and lighting instructions can be found in stage directions, as well as the sound effects and other non-performer aspects.
Working in accordance with the actual spoken lines present in a script, stage directions also provide the ability of informing the performer on how the lines should be delivered. Whether instructing the actor to pause before delivering a line, or to adopt a specific tone when addressing other actors on stage, the directions present in the script and through the director afford the performers with the ability to accurately present the character as originally intended.
Stage directions are crucial to a theatrical production. Without stage directions, every performer is left with the burden of creating characters from scratch, with the director shouldering the responsibility of attempting to make everything fit together. Accurate and thorough stage directions prevent that by providing a blueprint for a production, allowing the cast and crew to focus on a cohesive, consistent and ultimately successful production.