By Bess Rowen


In my essay “Undigested Reading: Rethinking Stage Directions through Affect,” published in the September 2018 issue of Theatre Journal, I coin the term “affective stage directions” to define stage directions that do more than simply describe the visual picture onstage, as found in plays by Tennessee Williams, Sarah Ruhl, Branden Jacobs- Jenkins, and Eugene O’Neill, to name a few. Affective stage directions use metaphors, abstract pictures, and alternate scenarios to engage the imaginations and bodies of the theatre-makers who will enact these words onstage. For example, in Ruhl’s play The Clean House (2004) when, “For a moment, Lane and Virginia experience a primal moment during which they are seven and nine years old, inside the mind, respectively. They are mad. Then they return quite naturally to language, as adults do,” there is no silent shorthand by which these actors could conjure this exact sentence in the minds of audiences. And yet there are many ways in which two actors could create a scene that feels like this.1 One of the major points I make in this piece is that these sections of text are more reliant upon the bodily experiences and understandings of actors than the dialogue, and therefore performances of such stage directions are heavily influenced by cultural context, geographic location, and bodily norms of the time. One of the examples I use to illustrate how affective stage directions can shift in meaning and signification over time is that of the New York Neo-Futurists’s production of The Complete & Condensed Stage Directions of Eugene O’Neill, volume 1: Early Plays/Lost Plays in 2011. It was conceived and adapted by Neo-Futurist Christopher Andrew Loar, who has generously provided access to the following video clips of the piece. O’Neill is a playwright world-renowned for his detailed and lengthy stage directions, and Loar was curious to see what would happen if the stage directions were removed from their surrounding dialogue. The result has given birth to two volumes of The Complete & Condensed, which has moved chronologically through O’Neill’s early work.


Connor Sampson, Kyra Sims, Joey Rizzolo, Nicole Hill, Jill Beckman, and Colin Summers (l-r) in Too Much Light Makes the Baby Go Blind (2016). (Photo: © Hunter Canning.)

CLIP: Too Much Light Makes the Baby Go Blind, by the New York Neo-Futurists (2009)

This clip above gives us insight into how The Complete & Condensed came about aspart of the Neos’ genre-defying weekend show called Too Much Light Makes the Baby Go Blind in 2009. The New York Neo-Futurists is the New York branch of Neo-Futurism, which was founded in Chicago by Greg Allen in 1988. Allen’s initial show premiered that year and was called Too Much Light Makes the Baby Go Blind and consisted of thirty short plays to be performed in sixty minutes. The Neos, as their name suggests, follow the tenets of Italian Futurism, meaning that they are interested in plays that reflect the immediacy of the contemporary moment, hence resulting in short plays that do not require an extended time to produce. To this end, the Neos play themselves at what-ever time and in whatever location the show is taking place, and they are really doing whatever they are performing onstage. For example, they are well-known for using real alcohol onstage during their plays, as opposed to substituting it with a non-alcoholic beverage. In both the Chicago and New York versions of Too Much Light, after being presented with a “menu” of thirty play titles that correspond to a series of numbered papers clipped to a clothes line onstage, the audience yells out a number for a play it would like to see performed. Anything that happens after the play title of that number is read out is to be considered as the play, which does not end until the actor says, “Curtain.” At this point, the show stops until an audience member calls out another number for a new play. This kind of improvised variety show has been performed every weekend on Saturday and Sunday in New York since 1995, although in 2017 the name was changed to The Infinite Wrench, but the concept remains the same. In 2009, Loar decided to perform O’Neill’s stage directions from a single scene in Long Day’s Journey into Night for Too Much Light, and this sketch became so popular that in 2009 it was selected for the Best of TML, a yearly re-performance of the most popular short plays from the previous twelve months. This concept was reworked and later became The Complete & Condensed.

What is immediately obvious in this short piece is that performing what the stage directions suggest in a manner they do not suggest is hilariously funny. Why is this? Everything being performed here is technically a performance of O’Neill’s stage directions, but the affective aspects of the performance are not; they are not performing the stage directions in the tonal or emotional register the context of the play suggests. This disconnect reveals the importance of affective information in stage directions.

Danny Burnam, Lauren Sharpe, Cara Francis, Erica Livingston, and Brendan Donaldson (l-r) in The Complete & Condensed Stage Directions of Eugene O’Neill, volume 1: Early Plays/Lost Plays (2011). (Photo: © Anton Nickel.)


CLIP: The Complete & Condensed Stage Directions of Eugene O’Neill, Volume 1: Early Plays/Lost Plays (2011)

This clip comes from the initial run of The Complete & Condensed at the Kraine Theater in New York City. For the extended version of his idea, called a “Primetime” by the Neos, Loar created a ninety-minute show that began with O’Neill’s earliest works. The video clip shown here is from one of O’Neill’s few comedies, Now I Ask You (1916). In addition to the kinds of comedy effects that come from literally performing stage directions not meant literally, this piece reveals a more complicated form of critique of gender roles. Director Loar makes clear in his program note that the minute detail that O’Neill has provided in his stage directions strikes him as absurd and over-controlling.

I respectfully argue that the Neos’ creative approach shows just how much room for performance is allowed by these exorbitant stage directions, which often fail to describe people or events that could be prescriptively transferred from page to stage. My es-say expands on the idea that the information given and gleaned from many detailed stage directions actually comes in the form of affective prompts, not prescribed stage pictures. The above clip shows the actors commenting on O’Neill’s stereotypical ideas of masculinity and femininity through Brendan Donaldson’s performance of the stagedirection “Tom gives a great show of manliness” and from practically every aspect of Erica Livingston’s brilliant performance as Leonora, which highlights the absurdity of the character’s flightiness and other stereotypes of bohemian and pretentious woman-hood as imagined by O’Neill. Livingston is particularly talented at allowing her face to convey the tone of the original play, while pushing the embodied requests of the stage directions to their physical limit. The understanding of, and associations with, these gendered stereotypes in New York City in 2011 are quite different from those that O’Neill was operating under when this play premiered in 1916, and the tone that the performers take in enacting these stage directions allows for them to comment on old-fashioned ideas of gender that still persist in our society.

In my essay, I use the example of Lucy’s entrance from this section of The Complete & Condensed to further analyze how affective stage directions leave room for the affective information to change in meaning over time. O’Neill’s tone in describing these women not only tells us something about the women, but also about his feelings regarding them, and the words he has used to convey these sentiments can either be played in line with his assumptions or against them.

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1 Sarah Ruhl, The Clean House, in The Clean House and Other Plays (New York: Theatre Communica-tions Group, 2006), 30.