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2.2: Navigating the Stage

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    178630

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    As a theatre professional, understanding the stage, its equipment, and its architecture is crucial to the success of your productions. Whether you are a performer, a designer, a technician, or a member of the production team, knowing your way around the stage and being able to identify its various components is essential for ensuring smooth rehearsals and performances. In this chapter, we will explore the various parts of the modern stage. We will also discuss the various pieces of onstage technology, curtains, rigging and fly systems, and other basic automation tools that are used to move scenery and other elements in and out of view. By the end of this chapter, you should have a thorough understanding of the layout and components of a theatre stage and be able to navigate it with confidence.

    Navigate through this picture of the Garvin Theatre at Santa Barbara City College. You will find all pieces of the theatre downstage of the prodcenium detailed below.

    Parts of the Stage

    The Stage

    The stage is the main performance area in a theatre, located behind the proscenium arch (upstage) in a proscenium theatre. It is the space where the action of a play or performance takes place and is typically raised above the audience, allowing for visibility from all parts of the house. The stage is typically equipped with a variety of technical elements, such as lighting, sound, and projection equipment, as well as rigging and fly systems for moving scenery and other elements in and out of view. The stage is also equipped with various pieces of machinery, such as traps, revolves, and slip stages, which are used to create special effects and enable the stage to be transformed into different environments or settings.

    Being able to navigate the stage is equally important. Thus, understanding stage directions is key for a successful performance. Stage directions are how we map the action that is taking place on stage and serve as a tool for actors, directors, and other members of the production team. There are five traditional stage directions, and they are all viewed from the perspective of the actor on stage, not the audience member.

    • Upstage (toward the back of the stage)
    • Downstage (toward the front of the stage)
    • Stage Left (the left side of the stage as viewed by the actor)
    • Stage Right (the right side of the stage as viewed by the actor)
    • Center Stage (the center of the stage).
    A Diagram of Stage Directions.jpg
    Figure \(\PageIndex{2}\): Stage Directions

    Proscenium

    The proscenium is the frame or arch that surrounds the stage in a proscenium theatre. It gets its roots from the skene and proscenium from the Greek and Roman theatres. It serves as the boundary between the stage and the audience and can be adorned with decorative elements such as molding, sculpture, or paint. The proscenium acts as a kind of "window frame" through which the audience views the performance, and its size and shape can have a significant impact on the overall look and feel of the stage. Some designers choose to install a “false proscenium”, a proscenium constructed for one production to further control how the audience views the production.

    Wings

    The wings are the areas to the sides of the stage, located just beyond the proscenium. They are backstage areas for actors and other members of the production team, allowing them to enter and exit the stage without being seen by the audience. The wings also store scenery and other stage elements, provide space for actors to wait offstage or complete costume quick changes, and allow for the movement of actors and elements onto and off the stage. The wings are also used for the placement of technical equipment, such as some lighting and sound equipment, and for the operation of the automation and fly systems, which are used to move scenery and other elements in and out of view.

    Apron

    The apron is the area of the stage that extends forward from the proscenium. It is typically shallower in depth than the main stage and traditionally extends wider than the proscenium. The apron can also be used as a performance space without using the entire stage behind it.

    Orchestra Pit

    The orchestra pit is often located in the same area as the apron, or just downstage of it. The orchestra pit is a depression in the floor of the stage – or a portion of the apron that can lower – where musicians perform during a musical or opera. It is often raised or lowered as needed. Many orchestra pits extend deep under the stage to be able to fit large musical ensembles.

    In some cases, the orchestra may be in a separate room or area of the theatre, rather than in the orchestra pit. This can be the case in larger theatres where the orchestra pit is not large enough to accommodate the full orchestra, or where the orchestra pit is not wanted for a particular production. In these cases, the orchestra may be in a separate room or area of the theatre, such as a balcony or an adjacent room or basement, and the music may be amplified to the stage and the auditorium through speakers. While this arrangement can have some advantages, such as allowing the orchestra to be larger or more flexible, it can also have some drawbacks, such as a loss of intimacy between the musicians and the performers, difficult communication between the performers and conductor, and a reduction in the overall acoustical qualities of the performance.

    Auditorium

    The auditorium is a critical element of theatre architecture, as it is the space where the audience views the performance. The auditorium is typically located below the stage and is divided into various seating areas, such as the orchestra, the mezzanine, and the balcony. The auditorium is typically designed to be comfortable and accommodating, with good sight lines, comfortable seating, and excellent acoustics.

    Additionally, the "front of house" (FOH) is typically located in the back or center of the auditorium and is where the sound board and sound operator are situated. The FOH gets its name because it is located at the "front" of the house, or the main seating area of the theatre, as opposed to the "back" of the house, which refers to the stage and backstage areas. From the FOH, the sound operator can monitor and control the sound levels and balance of the performance, ensuring that the audience is able to hear the performance clearly and enjoy the best possible sound quality. The FOH is the central control point for the sound system in the theatre and is typically equipped with a mixing console and other equipment for controlling the sound.

    Offstage

    This specific area of the theatre is located outside of the main performance space, or "offstage" from the perspective of the audience. It includes the wings, the fly loft, the backstage area, and other spaces that are used for the preparation and operation of the performance but are not visible to the audience.

    The Curtains

    Most modern proscenium theatres are full of curtains, also known as stage drapes. Each one plays a role in the theatre, but most are used for masking the backstage areas or otherwise controlling the audience’s view of the stage.

    Grand Drape

    The grand drape is the downstage-most curtain in a proscenium theatre, just behind the proscenium arch, and is typically used to block the audience’s view of the stage before or after a performance. The Grand drape is typically made of heavy, ornately decorated fabric to fit into the style of the theatre architecture. Although there are many styles of grand drapes, most can both open in the middle, and fly up out of view. It is often used to create a sense of closure at the end of the performance – “…and, curtain.”

    Legs & Borders

    Legs and borders (Tormentors and Teasers in England) are types of stage curtains that are used to mask the wings, overhead lights, and other offstage areas in a proscenium theatre. Legs are tall, narrow curtains that are hung on either side of the stage, upstage of the proscenium. They are typically made of a black, opaque fabric, like Duvetyn, and are used to mask the wings. Borders are like legs but are shorter and wider; they are hung above the stage blocking the audience’s view of the lights and scenery suspended in the fly gallery. Many theatres use multiple sets of legs and borders in one theater depending on the depth of the stage to ensure the offstage areas are out of view.

    Travelers

    A traveler is another type of stage curtain that is used to mask the stage from the audience's view. Travelers are typically made of heavy, opaque fabric, and are used to create a change of scenery or to cover the stage during scene transitions. They cover either the width and height of the stage blocking the wall in the back of the theatre, or any scenery behind the traveler; they can also make the stage seem shallower if needed. Travelers have a split in the middle and are hung on a track above the stage. They can travel across the stage as they open and close horizontally, (thus, called “travelers”) either manually or by means of a motorized system. There are typically two travelers in a theatre, one upstage (“back traveler”) and one mid-stage (“mid traveler”), and they are used in combination with other curtains, such as legs and borders, to create a variety of stage configurations within the standard proscenium space.

    Cyclorama

    A cyclorama, also known as a ‘cyc’ (pr. sahyk) in Greek, is a large, (often curved) curtain or wall that is used to create a seamless, wraparound background for a stage setting. A cyclorama is typically made of smooth white fabric and is hung at the back of the stage or on a separate support structure. It is used to create a variety of visual effects, such as a sky, a horizon, or an abstract background, and can be lit from the front or the back to create a variety of moods and atmospheres. Many theaters often conflate 'sky drops' and 'cycs', despite the two being distinct from one another. While a ‘cyc’ is a large, curved backdrop encircling the back of the stage, a sky drop is a single planar drop located far upstage with no curve. Still, it is important to know that most theatre practitioners use these terms interchangeably despite their differences.

    Many designers use cyc and sky drops to create a sky or sunset. For example, by lighting the drop from the front with warm, orange and red tones, and by adding clouds or other atmospheric effects, a designer can create the illusion of a setting sun. In this way, a cyc or sky drop can be used to create a sense of time and place, and to enhance the overall visual impact of the performance.

    Scrim

    A scrim is a knit, translucent curtain, which often come in white and black varieties. It is typically made of a lightweight, sheer fabric, often in a shark’s tooth knit pattern (see gallery below) and is hung on a pipe above the stage. One of the key features of a scrim is its translucency, while still providing some level of visual obstruction. This allows it to be used in several creative ways, such as creating the illusion of fog or mist, or allowing actors to appear and disappear on stage. When a scrim is lit from the front, the audience cannot see through it. However, when light is visible on the upstage side of the scrim, the curtain becomes transparent, and the audience can see the performers and scenery on the other side. Scrims can create a sense of depth and distance, establish mood and atmosphere, and even be used as a projection surface.

    theatre-terms-english.jpg
    Figure \(\PageIndex{2}\): Stage Curtains, Image Credit Show Tex

    Fly Systems

    In most modern theatres, especially in a proscenium theatre, most (if not all) of the above drapery hang on battens. Battens are pipes that hang from line sets above the stage that make up both counterweight fly systems and automated fly systems. Fly systems are devices that are used to hoist drapes, scenery, and sometimes people over the stage. Most fly galleries are large enough to store a backdrop the size of the proscenium opening above the stage and out of view of the audience. When used well, designers can create magical and sometimes seamless transitions from scene to scene. See the video below to watch a scene transition in SBCC’s production of The Music Man that uses fly systems and a trap lift to make for an engaging scene change.

    Counterweight System

    Of the two main types of fly systems, the counterweight system is the most basic and has been used for centuries. The counterweight system is – as its name suggests – a lineset with a batten attached to an equal amount of counterweight (iron bricks) on the offstage side. A stagehand pulls a rope that raises and lowers the counterweight. Much like a teeter-totter, when the weight goes down, the batten goes up, and vice-a-versa.

    There are two main downsides to this system that are easily solved by the newer technology of the automated fly system.

    1. Every time you need to add scenery to a batten, you also need to add weight. This can get very cumbersome, and sometimes dangerous, when you are adding heavy scenery to a batten because it can’t be moved until both sides are balanced. Because of the heights of some scenery, this can make loading weight very difficult.
    2. In order to move a lineset in or out, you need a stagehand to pull the rope. While that in itself is not a problem, it can get tricky to complete a scene transition where 10 linesets need to move simultaneously. In this scenario, you would need 10 stagehands working at the same time, which can really affect a production’s budget.

    Motorized Flying Systems

    Like the counterweight system, motorized flying systems generally control battens that run the width of the stage (although they are very versatile and can lift a single or multiple points across the stage). Early motorized systems were simply a motor attached to the lift lines or head-blocks of an existing counterweight system, thus making a set moveable without the need for an additional stagehand. Sometimes these early systems made it so weight did not need to be added when changing scenery.

    In contemporary construction and remodels, however, most theatres install packaged-hoist systems. A packaged-hoist system is a motorized winch attached to a cable drum that has enough wire rope to lift a single batten. A theatre can have anywhere from one, to hundreds of automated linesets. These can be connected to a central computer, which knows where every batten is in the theatre at any time and can coordinate very complex scene changes at the press of a button. No longer do theatres need to reweight counterweights when hanging scenery or coordinate multiple stagehands for complex fly cues.

    Automated linesets do come with their own downside, which in some cases could outweigh their benefits. The chief weakness of these systems is that they run on computers. If the computer is not working for any reason, the show stops. No scenery (or performers) can fly in or out if any part of the system fails, or worse, shows the notorious ‘blue screen of death.’

    The video below gives you a backstage view of performer flying at The Theatre Group at SBCC’s production of David Lindsay-Abaire’s Ripcord. In the play, the characters have a bet that they can scare each other, so they go tandem skydiving. The director wanted to wow the audience with some spectacle to engage them in this ‘scary’ act to further the story. A motorized lineset was the perfect solution to this challenge. *

    *Performer flying should only be created and performed by qualified and trained personnel, with proper ANSI-rated equipment and a comprehensive risk analysis. If you are wondering whether you are a qualified person… you probably are not.

    Stage Equipment

    Many theatres have built-in stage equipment to facilitate simple and awe-inspiring scene changes and make the theatre more versatile in the events it can accommodate. Most of what we use today date back to the Japanese Kabuki theatre of the 1600’s, but some date back even further to the Greek amphitheaters in 550 BCE. We will look at three such systems: traps, revolves, and slip stages (wagons). Some theatres even have all three devices built into one synchronized stage, like the Munich Opera House or London’s National Theatre.

    Traps

    A trap, in its simplest form, is a hole in the stage that can be covered with a flooring panel when not in use. They allow people or scenery to move from below the stage-to-stage level. Traps can also be used in more creative ways, such as to create the illusion of actors rising from or disappearing into the stage – think the Wicked Witch melting in The Wizard of Oz – or to allow for the rapid and dramatic transformation of stage settings. Traps can also be fitted with elevators or other lifting mechanisms to allow for the smooth and seamless movement of scenery or other stage elements. Watch the video below of a custom fabricated trap lift we created for the Theatre Group at Santa Barbara City College.

    Revolve

    A revolve is a circular platform that rotates on a central axis. Some theatres have them built-in to their architecture, but it is more common to use one that is custom built for a specific performance. They allow for the rapid and seamless transformation of stage settings, or for the movement of actors or other stage elements. Often, two or three sets are built on one revolve, and as it spins, it can easily display a new scene very quickly and magically. See the video and interactive game below of a revolve stage I designed for The Theatre Group at SBCC’s production of Harvey, by Mary Chase.

    Slip Stage

    A slip stage is a platform on wheels (or a built-in track in a theatre) that can roll across the stage with the use of motors, appearing to move magically. Slip stage platforms usually carry actors or scenery to aid in scene transitions. It is most often used to create multiple performance areas on a single stage, to transform stage settings quickly, and/or to move large scenic elements or performers with ease. At The Theatre Group At SBCC, we used a slip stage to automate the movement of a train in Ken Ludwig’s adaptation of Agatha Christie’s play Murder on the Orient Express. With the press of a button, the entire train could ‘magically’ slide from stage right to stage left and back again, as though the audience was watching a real train roll across the stage. See the video and interactive game below of the slip stage for Murder on the Orient Express.

    Chapter Glossary

    This page titled 2.2: Navigating the Stage is shared under a CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Ben Crop.