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The Stages
Picture frame stage: A configuration in which the spectators
watch the action of the play through a rectangular opening;
synonym for proscenium-arch stage.
Orchestra pit: The space between the stage and the auditorium,
usually below stage level, that holds the orchestra.
Mike: To place one or more microphones in proximity to a sound
source (instrument, voice).
Mix: To blend the electronic signals created by several sound
Balance: To adjust the loudness levels of individual signals while
mixing, to achieve an appropriate blend.
Sound mixer: An electronic device used to adjust the loudness
and tone levels of several sources, such as microphones and tape
Lighting grid: A network of pipes from which lighting
instruments are hung.
Hanging position: A location where lighting instruments are
Dead hang: To suspend without means of raising or lowering.
Ratchet winch: A device, used for hoisting, with a crank attached
to a drum; one end of a rope or cable is attached to the drum, the
other end to the load; turning the crank moves the load; a ratchet
gear prevents the drum from spinning backward.
Theatrical performing spaces have undergone an interesting evolution since about 1960.
Influenced by a number of experimental theatre movements as well as economic pressure
to make theatres usable for dance groups, symphony concerts, and esoterica such as car,
home, and boat shows, companies are changing the shapes of theatres and playing spaces.
Probably the most dominate trend in this evolution is the reduction of the physical and
psychological barriers that separate the audience from the production. The New York
production of Cats was indicative of this change. The set, a stylized representation of an
incredibly cluttered junkyard, did not just sedately sit behind the proscenium arch. It
negated the concept of the picture frame stage by placing elements of the set not only on
the stage and apron but also in and on the orchestra pit, up the walls of the auditorium,
around the balcony rail, and up into the ceiling of the auditorium. The actors made
entrances through the house, touched members of the audience, and talked directly to
them. This exciting new style of theatre doesn't let the audience simply sit and observe
but directly involves them in the production.
Innovative productions like Cats have been happening with increasing regularity
throughout the country, and the theatre spaces being designed today are reflecting these
production trends. Although an ingenious production concept and large budget can
radically alter the appearance of almost any stage-auditorium relationship, it is still true
that there are three primary stage configurations -- proscenium, thrust, and arena -- that
dominate the world of theatre.
The proscenium stage is also known as the picture-frame stage, because the spectators
observe the action of the play through the frame of the proscenium arch. Although there
is debate among theatre artists regarding the appropriateness of using this aloof stage,
which forcefully separates the audience from the action, the fact remains that the
proscenium stage and its machinery have, for 300 years, been the dominant mode of
presentation. The reason is simple: Like the alligator and the shark, which have survived
virtually unchanged through the eons, designs that work needn't be tinkered with.
Proscenium Arch
The proscenium arch, which gives this type of stage its name, is a direct descendant of
the proskenium and skene of the Greek theatres. This arch, which separates the stage
from the auditorium, can vary greatly in both height and width. The average theatre (with
300 to 500 seats), generally has a proscenium arch that is eighteen to twenty-two feet
high and thirty-six to forty feet wide.
The playing area behind, or upstage, of the proscenium arch is referred to as the stage. A
stage floor is a working surface that serves a number of diverse functions. For the actors,
it must provide a firm, resilient, nonskid (but not too sticky) surface that facilitates
movement. For scenic purposes, a stage floor needs to be paintable. It should also be
reasonably resistant to splintering and gouging caused by heavy stage wagons and other
scenic pieces, and it should slightly muffle the sound of footfalls and shifting scenery.
Although many directors choose to move the action of their productions forward onto the
apron to bring the play closer to the audience, the primary playing area for most
proscenium productions still remains the stage.
The spaces on either side of the stage are called the wings. Wings are primarily used for
storage. During a multiscene production, all sorts of scenic elements, props, and other
equipment are stored in the wings until they are needed on stage.
The apron, or forestage, is an extension of the stage from the proscenium arch toward the
audience. It stretches across the proscenium arch to the walls of the auditorium and can
vary in depth from a narrow sliver only three or four feet deep to as much as ten or fifteen
feet. It generally extends for five to fifteen feet beyond either end of the proscenium arch.
Orchestra Pit
Many proscenium theatres have an orchestra pit, which is almost always placed between
the apron and the audience. It is used to hold the pit band, or orchestra, during
performances that need live music. To hold an orchestra, the pit obviously needs to be
fairly large. Most pits extend the full width of the proscenium and are roughly eight to
twelve feet across. The depth of the pit varies, but a good pit is deep enough so that the
orchestra won't interfere with the spectators' view of the stage.
Obviously, the size of the orchestra pit imposes a formidable gulf between the audience
and stage when it is not in use. Various solutions have been adopted to remedy this
situation. In some theatres, the orchestra pit is hidden beneath removable floor panels
under the apron; when the pit is needed for a production, the floor panels are removed. In
other theatres, the pit is placed beneath the auditorium floor. When not in use it is
covered with removable panels, and auditorium seats are placed on top. This method has
the obvious advantage that additional tickets can be sold when the pit isn't being used.
In some theatres, the entire forestage area (apron, orchestra pit, front of the auditorium) is
composed of one or more hydraulic lifts. With their great lifting power, it is possible to
raise or lower whole sections of the stage. When more than one lift is used, they are able
to shape the forestage into a variety of configurations
Bally's Hotel in Las Vegas has created what may be the ultimate answer to the orchestra
pit: There isn't any. The orchestra plays in a room in the basement of the hotel while
watching the production on closed-circuit television. Each section of the orchestra is
miked, and the sound is mixed and balanced with that of the singers before it is
amplified and sent into the auditorium. Although this solution works well in the high-tech
atmosphere of Las Vegas, it is doubtful that every musical director would feel
comfortable working in this remote and seemingly disconnected manner.
The shape of the typical proscenium theatre auditorium, or house, is roughly rectangular,
with the proscenium arch located on one of the narrow ends of the rectangle. Normally,
each seat is approximately perpendicular to the proscenium arch. To reduce the reflection
of sound waves in an auditorium, none of its finished surfaces (walls, ceiling, floor)
should be parallel with any others. Thus, the side walls of most auditoriums angle out
from the proscenium arch in the shape of a slightly opened fan. The rear wall of the
auditorium is almost always curved, and the ceiling generally slopes down toward the
rear of the house.
The floor of the auditorium is raked, or inclined, from the stage to the rear of the house.
Angling of the house floor improves not only the acoustics of the theatre but also the
spectators' view of the stage, by elevating each successive row.
The lighting control booth is generally located at the back of the auditorium. It normally
has one or more large windows to provide the light-board operator(s) with an
unobstructed view of the stage. Although a sound booth with a large window (which can
be opened) is usually located in a similar back-of-house location, the sound operator
frequently runs the sound mixer from a position in the auditorium so that he or she can
hear what the audience is hearing and balance all the sound sources accordingly. The
resulting sound "picture" has a focal point, usually the voice of the actor or singer.
The thrust stage isn't a new development. Medieval audiences gathered on three sides of
the pageant wagons and platform stages to watch passion plays, and research indicates
that the Globe Theatre also had a thrust stage. The thrust stage was rediscovered by
directors who wanted to move the action of the play out of what they felt were the
artificial and limiting confines of the proscenium stage. Whatever the reasons, the midtwentieth century saw the birth of a large number of thrust stage theatres in the United
The stage of the thrust theatre projects into, and is surrounded on three sides by, the
audience, so tall flats, drops, and vertical masking cannot be used where they would
interfere with the spectators' view of the stage. But on the fourth, or upstage, side of the
stage, drops and flats can be placed to help visually describe the play's location. Although
entrances are frequently made through openings in the upstage wall, the house is also
used for this purpose.
The lighting grid in a thrust theatre is usually suspended over the entire stage and
auditorium space, so instruments can be hung wherever necessary to effectively light the
playing area. Lighting grids vary in complexity from designs that hide the lighting
instruments from the spectators' view to simple pipe grids from which the lights are hung
in full view.
Access to the simpler pipe grids is usually from a rolling ladder placed on the stage. The
more complex grids frequently have walkways above the pipes to allow electricians to
adjust the lighting instruments from above. In addition to the grid, there are usually some
additional hanging positions above the house, either open pipes or some type of
semiconcealed location.
Some thrust theatres retain a vestigial proscenium arch on the upstage wall as well as a
small backstage area. Although battens are frequently dead hung above this backstage
space, some theatres have installed ratchet winches, rope sets, or counterweight sets so
the battens can be raised and lowered.
The lighting and sound booths are generally located at the back of the house directly
facing the stage, although nothing stronger than tradition prevents them from being
placed at any location in the auditorium that provides an unobstructed view of the stage.
Again, as in the proscenium theatre, and for the same reasons, the sound operator
frequently chooses to run the mixing board from a position in the house rather than from
the sound booth.
The arena stage is another step in the development of an intimate actor-audience theatre.
The audience surrounds the stage and is much closer to the action of the play than in
either the proscenium or thrust theatres.
The scenery used on an arena stage is extremely minimal. Because the audience
surrounds the stage, designing for the arena theatre provides a challenge to all the
designers. Anything used on an arena stage -- sets, costumes, makeup, props -- must be
carefully selected to clearly specify the period, mood, and feeling of the play.
Additionally, everything must be well constructed, because the audience sits almost on
top of the stage and can see every construction detail.
As in the thrust stage theatre, the space above the arena stage has a lighting grid rather
than a fly loft. The lighting grid frequently covers not only the stage but the auditorium as
The stage manager and the lighting and sound operators need to have a clear view of the
stage. Many arena theatres have an elevated deck running around the perimeter of the
auditorium to provide these people with a variety of potential work locations. Some arena
theatres have a traditional lighting booth and sound-control booth rather than flexible
work stations.
The flexible staging of black box theatres encourages, and demands, ingenuity from the
production-design team. These new design-it-yourself performance spaces are a direct
result of a number of experimental theatre movements that sought to break down the
visual and psychological barriers created by the proscenium stage.
In black box theatres (so named because they are usually painted black and have a simple
rectangular shape), the seating is generally on movable bleacherlike modules that can be
arranged in any number of ways around the playing space. Although the space can be set
up in traditional proscenium, thrust, or arena configurations, it can also be aligned into
excitingly different staging arrangements that support the production concept for
particular productions. This type of theatre is fun to work in, and every production creates
a challenge to the ingenuity of the production design team.
The black box theatre was developed partially as a reaction against the artistic confines of
more formal types of stage space. Consequently, there isn't a great deal of specific stage
equipment associated with it. However, there is a lighting grid, similar to that of the arena
theatre, located above the stage and auditorium space, and there is usually a variety of
additional hanging locations.
Found theatre spaces lend a great deal of credence to the statement that all theatre needs
is "two boards and a passion." These theatres are housed in structures that were originally
designed for some other purpose. Almost every conceivable type. of space has been, or
could be, converted for use as a theatre. In Tucson, Arizona, alone, a supermarket, movie
house, lumberyard, feed store, office building, and restaurant have been converted to
theatrical use, all within the past fifteen years. The Lafayette Square Theatre in New
York City houses five theatres in what used to be a library. The only criteria for
conversion seem to be sufficient square footage in the building to house a stage and its
audience and sufficient nearby parking or public transportation.
Found theatre spaces are frequently converted into black box theatres, but a number of
converting companies have opted for the more traditional arena or thrust stage
configurations. For some producing groups, the appeal of the conversed space lies in the
intimacy of the audience-actor relationship that is inherent in these generally small
theatres. For others, the lower production costs of the smaller, more intimate theatre
forms are an asset.
It can be frustrating trying to tell an actor what direction to move
or telling a technician that "I want the sofa a little further to the
left." "My left?" he asks. "No, that way. Over there." Through the
years, a system of stage directions has evolved to help clear up
these problems.
On the American proscenium and thrust stages, stage directions
are understood to mean that you are standing on the stage and
looking into the auditorium. Stage left is to your left and stage
right is to your right. Upstage is behind you, and downstage is in
front of you. The terms upstage and downstage probably evolved
in the sixteenth or seventeenth century during the era of raked
stages, when you literally went up the slope of the stage in
moving upstage.
Stage directions in Europe are noted in a slightly different
manner. Upstage and downstage are the same, but right and left
are reversed from the American system, being given in reference
to the auditorium rather than the stage.
Stage directions for arena stages cannot use this system, since the
audience surrounds the stage. When this happens, it is much
easier to describe the stage directions by referring to one direction
as north, and then the remaining directions are understood to be
south, east, and west.