Understanding Stage Directions

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If you’d like to work in the theatre, then it’s imperative to know your stage left from your stage right – and your upstage from your downstage, too, for that matter. The good thing is, once you’ve grasped the basics, it’s pretty straightforward.


What are stage directions?

Written by the playwright, stage directions are the unspoken lines that appear in italics between dialogue in a script. They provide instructions on what a character looks like, how and where they should move, and any actions they need to take, such as swigging a drink or breaking into a dance. Along with dialogue, they help an actor to develop an understanding of their character.

Stage directions in dramas also provide a blueprint for lighting, sound, costumes, and production design. They might include descriptions of the set or what the characters are wearing, plus details of any sound effects or props that appear on stage. Depending on how they are written, stage directions can also give further insight into the playwright’s overall vision or intended tone, which is useful to the director of a production.

What is the difference between stage and screen directions?

The principle is the same, but there are a few key differences in how the information is presented in the script. In a screenplay, directions are referred to as ‘action’ and don’t appear in italics, while character and location details are woven into the body of the script.

In a play, on the other hand, page one includes a short description of each character and details about the story’s setting. On top of that, screenwriters seed crucial information about the world of the story throughout the script, such as descriptions of the landscape in which a scene takes place, as well as information about how hostile or friendly it is. Playwrights, for the most part, describe their vision for the stage – in other words, what the audience will see and how it should be positioned.

Stage directions can require some seriously imaginative interpretation, such as in the 1964 play The Royal Hunt of the Sun, which includes the tricky-to-execute direction ‘They cross the Andes.’

In a play, directions may also include specific instructions on where an actor or prop should be positioned or from which side of the stage they should enter or leave, such as ‘Henry exits stage left’ or ‘There’s a telephone positioned centre stage’. Unlike a film, a play usually takes place within a contained and clearly defined space. Standard terms have been devised so that actors and directors understand the various positions within that space.

Stage Positions

A stage is usually divided into nine separate areas, like this diagram: 

Stage directions diagram

Credit: Wasatch Jr. Fine Arts

Stage right or left refers to the actor’s right or left if they are facing towards the audience. Upstage is the farthest away from the audience, and downstage is nearest. 

These can also be abbreviated in a script as follows:

C: Centre stage

D: Downstage

R: Stage right

L: Stage left

DR: Downstage right

DC: Downstage centre

DL: Downstage left

U: Upstage

UR: Upstage right

UC: Upstage centre

UL: Upstage left​

Understanding these terms is vital for actors interpreting a script. It’s also incredibly important for others on the team, like stage management and lighting, so they know where to position items within the space. It would get pretty tedious if every time someone moved a chair onto the stage, they had to ask, “Do you mean my left or your left?”

Different types of stage direction

Stage directions convey a number of different objectives within a script.

Action: This could be as simple as ‘John enters the room’. But equally, it could be a dramatic moment like the following lines from Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire:

Blanche turns wildly and scratches at the Matron. The heavy woman pinions her arms. Blanche cries out hoarsely and slips to her knees.

Description: This could be of the character (what they’re wearing, their physical qualities) or of the set (the backdrop, the items on stage), like this evocative description from the opening scene of Arthur Miller’s A View from the Bridge:

The street and house front of a tenement building. The front is skeletal entirely. The main acting area is the living room–dining room of Eddies apartment. It is a worker’s flat, clean, sparse, homely. There is a rocker down front; a round dining table at center, with chairs; and a portable phonograph.

Directions could also be used to describe a very specific colour palette like Federico Garcia Lorca does in his most famous play, Blood Wedding:

(Interior of the cave-house where the Bride lives. At the back, a cross of large pink flowers. The doors, curved archways, with lace hangings with pink ties. For the walls, a hard white material, curved fans, blue vases and small mirrors.)

MAID: Enter... (Very affable, full of hypocritical humility. The Bridegroom and his Mother enter. The Mother is wearing plain black, with a lace mantilla. The Bridegroom wears black corduroy with a large gold chain.)

Sounds: Stage directions also include details of any sounds that should be heard, like the line A distant foghorn blows from the same opening scene of A View from the Bridge.

Performance directions: These are instructions on how the writer would like a particular line to be delivered, and they appear in brackets before the dialogue. Directions might include ‘angrily’ or ‘laughing’, or sometimes a simultaneous action like ‘smoking and sobbing’.

Do all writers use stage directions?

Actor reading script

LightField Studios/Shutterstock

It’s rare to have a play that has no directions at all, but there are certainly playwrights who use them sparingly. Take this opening scene from Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing. Its only directions are this first functional line:

Enter Leonato, Governor of Messina, Hero his daughter, and Beatrice his niece, with a Messenger.

LEONATO: (with a letter) I learn in this letter that Don Pedro of Aragon comes this night to Messina.

This was likely because Shakespeare directed his own plays, so he could convey his intentions during rehearsals rather than commit them to paper. But his plays, continually revived centuries after they were written, also allow today’s directors plenty of artistic licence.

Even today, there’s a lively debate about the use of stage directions, with some playwrights and theatremakers believing they are too prescriptive and risk hindering the creativity of directors, actors, and other creatives involved in bringing the text to life.

Whether you love them or loathe them, getting a good handle on stage directions will give you the confidence to act like a pro when you land your first theatre gig.

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