Not all stages are created equal. Though they come in various shapes and sizes, they can still be categorized by two factors: the orientation and atmosphere. Orientation takes into consideration how the audience is arranged as they face the players: proscenium, thrust, and in-the-round. Atmosphere considers the space between the players and the audience: most commonly, an intimate black box or an outdoor setting. Each type of stage has its own advantages and disadvantages. Though it is the duty of the director to ensure that each audience member’s experience is about the same, it is the actor’s job to be able to navigate them all to deliver the best performance possible. Let’s take a look at each one’s pros and cons and develop a strategy for success.
This is the most common and familiar stage. All the action is set within a proscenium arch, and the audience watches from the front.
All the action can be positioned so that the entire audience can fully see the players. Every facial and gesture is visible. Also, with all the focus and attention from one angle, ambient distractions are minimized.
There is usually a sizable gap between actor and audience, and certainly between those seated in the front and back rows. Consequently, it is easy for an audience to not feel included in the experience that is happening on stage. You can help draw them in by delivering some lines (when appropriate) out into the house. If you are referencing an object or idea, place it out over the audience. You’re not breaking the fourth wall, just pushing it out it to include everyone in the room.
A thrust stage, well, thrusts, out into the audience which is situated on three of the four sides of the stage.
The experience is significantly more immersive for the audience. Audience members are seldom very far from the stage.
Inevitably, your back will be facing onlookers at several points throughout the performance. This will feel awkward if most of your experience has been on proscenium stages. It is important to not treat it like a proscenium stage. Your director should take the angles into consideration when planning the blocking, but you can still make sure you play to the three sides of the house. The director should also understand that the vomitoria (passageways to enter to exit through the audience) are strong positions here. Since you are visible to most everyone while emerging from the “vom,” deliver with the power that that position offers you. Don’t rush past it to get on stage. When you are on stage, stay light on your feet and keep your head on a swivel (so to speak).
The audience completely surrounds the stage and players.
The least common of the three primary orientations, making it a unique, energetic experience for actors and audience members alike. For the audience, it feels like the action is happening in a crowd of onlookers. Part of the experience is being able to see the reactions of the other audience members.
Your back will be facing even more audience members while in the round. Make a moment with a section of the audience, and move on to another section to give them a moment, also. Because they may only see you face-to-face a quarter of the time, they feel special when they get to see you. Make that moment count.
A smaller space in which the stage and seating can be arranged in whatever fashion works best for the performance. Any of the three orientations above can be represented in a black box.
Highly intimate. The audience will often only be three or four rows deep. You can employ a nuanced performance, like you may give on camera, that wouldn’t read in a larger space. The audience can detect every smirk and eye roll, allowing you to give a more natural performance.
Highly intimate. Actors tend to be more reserved, so as to not overpower the space, but they sacrifice some basic habits that are meant to include the audience. Projection and diction is still important. Speaking outward through the audience is still important. Don’t drop the basics just because the audience is so close.
The play is outside, obviously. Often the venue for Shakespeare or other classical works.
The old-school environment necessitates and rewards crisp diction and spit-inducing projection, which is why it is a fitting venue for classical plays. Often a more relaxed environment for the audience, as they may eat lunch and lie down.
Perhaps “obstacles” would be the better word, but there are many. Ambient noise from the surrounding area (cars, planes, children playing), distance from the audience, natural elements (heat, cold, wind). Playing outdoors is a much more physically-demanding experience and requires a powerful actor. Rise to the challenge by stressing your diction and projection throughout the rehearsal process, especially if you rehearse indoors. Drink more water if it’s hot. Keep active if it’s cold. Allow the heightened obstacles to challenge you to heighten your prowess on stage. If you can master the outdoor stage, you can master any stage.
That, my friend, covers pretty much any stage on which you will find yourself. As an actor, your adaptability is your greatest strength. Play to the advantages of each space, mitigate the disadvantages, and pour all of your energies into the one thing they all have in common—the audience, eager to enjoy.
What stage difficulties have you encountered, and how did you overcome them? Share in the comments below!