What is Block Notation?
Blocking is the term for where actors are standing and what business they are doing for every moment they are on stage. Blocking notation is the documentation of the blocking. In a rehearsal room, the director will explain the action to the actors and the stage manager will take it down. The blocking is recorded in the prompt script, or prompt book. This notation becomes exceedingly important for several tasks on the show.
In long running professional productions, it is not the director’s job to train replacement performers and understudies. In the United States, this task is part of the stage management team’s responsibilities. The notation must be complete enough that new actors will be able to recreate the original direction.
In a similar vein, it is important to understand that the prompt script is owned by the producer. The producer can (with the payment of royalties to the original artistic staff), recreate a production. This might be for a national tour, production in a foreign country, or a revival production. In any case, the producer will use the original prompt book to recreate the staging.
A more immediate need of the blocking notation deals with the design team. Scenic, Costume, and especially Lighting designers may need to ask detailed questions about staging that the stage manager will only be able to answer with the aid of the blocking notation in the prompt book. A member of the stage management team is always in the room while directors are working with actors. Design team members are rarely present. Scenic designers may ask for details of how many people stand on a table to determine how strong it needs to be. Costume designers may ask for details of what type of action occurs in a particular costume. Lighting designers are regularly asking the stage management team where on stage a particular moment happens so that lighting can be adjusted correctly.
Preparing a script
Stage managers prepare a prompt script to take blocking notation in a specific way. First step is to photo copy the script single sided. This allows the stage manager to create more white space around the text to make notations. It also allows the original script to remain unmarked. On the blank back of each page of the copy the stage manager will copy the ground plan. This allows stage managers to lay out their book so they see one page of text and one page of ground plan. The side with the ground plan looks like this:
Notice how the plan is small at the top of the page allowing room underneath the plan for the stage manager to take notes. Traditionally, it is set up to the text will be on the right side page, and the picture will be on the left side page. Some stage managers find it easier, especially if they are right handed, to put the ground plan on the right hand page because it makes diagraming the blocking easier.
Every stage manager develops their own system of symbols to make the taking of blocking notation easier. These symbols create a kind of short hand. As they are unique to each individual stage manager, it is vital that a key be provided at the front of the script. Each character must have a symbol so that notes can be taken quickly. This is often the first letter or the initials of the character with a box drawn around the initials to denote that it is a character. Complicated sets may number all the doors or entrances/exits so that they can be noted quickly. Below is a key for a production of Box and Cox. Notice how there is a quick sketch of a stage showing Stage Left (SL), Stage Right (SR), Down Center (DC) etc.
Each production will need to add or delete symbols from the above to be efficient for that show.
Coordinating Words and Actions
Once the script and initial key are prepared, it is time to observe rehearsals and take the blocking notation. Each place there is action in the text it is marked with a number. On the opposite page, each number coordinates with a written description of the action. The description is usually done with the symbols prepared above. The last step is to translate the descriptions into a visual representation on the ground plan at the top of the page.
On the ground plan, each character symbol is shown at their spot at the top of the page (or just off the stage if they will enter on the page). Then there moves are marked with arrows which can often who a clearer idea of the path the actors take than just the description. Each move is marked with a number the corresponds to the markings in the text. If a character doesn’t move with a number, then that number is just skipped for that character. Even if a character doesn’t more on a particular page (but appears on stage), they should be noted on the ground plan at the top of the page. This allows the stage manager to quickly know at a glance that everyone is where they are supposed to be during rehearsal.
A prepared page of Box and Cox might look like this: