"All The World’s A Stage": Knowing Your Acting Space

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  • Christopher Pence

All the world’s a stage,

and all the men and women are merely players;

They have their exits and entrances;

And one man in his time plays many parts”

 – “As You Like It,”

William Shakespeare

Be honest. There’s not a theatre person in the world who has never heard this iconic quote. Shakespeare’s eternal words resonate in the hearts and souls of anyone who ever had the yearning for a life onstage. We’re all just actors, performing our separate roles for each other’s wandering eyes, knowing that society expects of us certain actions and mannerisms that we must obey, or forever be cast into a life of obscurity. Kinda heavy for a quote that we use so openly, huh? Actually, if you think about it, anywhere in the world can be a stage, if you know how to perform in your space! There is a virtually endless number of places in which to perform, so why not try them all, and see what suits you best?

Alright friends, it’s time for some Theatre 101! Firstly, we’re going to look at the different types of stages on which an actor may perform, then we’re going to talk about how you can learn to know your acting space. Click on the links provided for diagrams of each type of stage.

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The most recognizable type of stage in today’s world is known as the Proscenium Arch Stage, the most popular and traditional style of staging. The proscenium arch allows for larger productions, and adds a feeling of grandeur to the production. With a larger stage and more distance between the audience and the action, the actors have an entire world of stage with which to work. The stage is framed to create a window for the audience, known as the “Fourth Wall.” Historically, these stages were used to amplify the voices of the actors. Now, with newer technology like microphones, the stages allow for larger casts, more elaborate set designs, and plenty of room for movement. Most popular Broadway musicals are performed on proscenium arch stages.

A popular variation of the Proscenium Arch Stage is the Thrust Stage, which provides an extended apron where actors can provide a more immersive, intimate experience for the audience. The audience is surrounded by action on three sides, allowing each member of the audience to have a different experience no matter where they are sitting. Thrust stages are work particularly well for Shakespeare productions, as Shakespeare’s Globe Theater in London is a thrust stage, and one of the most famous stages in all the world.

The Traverse Stage is a more modern approach to staging. The actors are surrounded on two sides by the audience, creating an intimate set perfect for more advanced choreography and lighting design. Though this type of staging limits the set design capabilities, it also prevents the actors from needing to fear about putting their back to the audience. This staging is used typically for more shows requiring more elaborate dancing.

Theatre In The Round has been around since before Medieval Times, and is the basis for modern stadium seating. The stage is surrounded on all sides by audience members, creating the ultimate feeling of immersion into the action onstage. This allows the least amount of restraint in movement, as blocking is not based around large sets or structures. Actors must work a little more to be sure that all of the audience is included in the action, but with a little bit of tag teaming, this setup can provide a very personal theatre experience.

Cabaret staging was popular in the times of the classic Cabaret night clubs, and provides great intimacy to a venue. Actors have a stage with which to work, and an open space full of tables and chairs at which the audience sits. Drinks and food can sometimes be served during performances, allowing theatres to gain more from producing a show. The cabaret stage limits the size of the audience, making the venue seem fuller than it would for larger productions. A great layout for smaller theatre groups, this staging does not work well with larger scale productions. One great exception to this is the classic musical Cabaret (Gee, who’d have guessed?). Set in late 1930’s Poland, “Cabaret” tells the story of a young starlet chasing her dreams as a performer amidst the backdrop of impending war. This production is performed almost exclusively in a cabaret setting, as this staging makes the audience feel that they are right in the middle of 1930’s Poland.

Now, that we’ve discussed the different types of stages, let’s talk about your place on the stage. The stage is where all of the action takes place. “Wait a second, what about the shows that involve the actors going into the audience? What about the shows that have actors coming through the aisles? What about the shows that don’t even have a stage, like outdoor performances and audience-interactive shows?” This is where Bill’s eternal quote comes into play: “ALL THE WORLD’S A STAGE!” No matter if you’re actually on or near a stage, if you are performing, YOU NEED TO BE IN CHARACTER! The audience understands (usually) that you are an actor, performing a specific role in a designated performance. However, they didn’t come to see YOUR personality, they came to see your CHARACTER’S personality! Dropping character once your lines end or when the lights go down is a great way to remind the audience that this whole thing is fake. That’s not what you need to do. You need to convince the audience that everything that is happening onstage is real, authentic, and spontaneous, not that you’re reading lines out of a book. Your audience can read, and they wouldn’t spend the price of a ticket to hear you read a script. They want a performance, and it’s up to you to give it to them.

Staying in character in your space requires an understanding of your space, knowing where you can and cannot be seen by your audience, and how you need to move in order to make your movements as authentic as possible. In most cases you will get the chance to see the space during rehearsals, though there is a chance that this will change throughout the process. Sets are built and moved, audience setups can change, actors can make different choices onstage. These things happen, and it’s normal. You as a performer need to be on your feet at all times, and be ready for changes, especially changes that occur during a performance. If something changes, you need to be ready to stay in character and move according to changes that occur.

Knowing your space can be accomplished very easily, with a little bit of forethought and respect for the stage. This is one of the many things that every actor should do during that seemingly endless wait between call and curtain up. No matter how many times you have seen the space, you need to first check the stage for changes as soon as you enter the building. This will typically prove to be fruitless, but ten seconds of forethought can prove to be very valuable. Checking right away will allow you to think about changes you need to make according to staging modifications, and will budget you the maximum time possible to make these decisions.

When learning about your space, you need to be aware of sightlines, meaning where the audience can see you. If you can see them, they can see you! Even in the dark, the audience can see you! It may be dark, but seeing the outline of an actor doing the moonwalk after a serious scene can do great damage to your performance. Backstage isn’t even always a completely safe place from the audience’s eyes! Peeking around the curtain, sneaking between set pieces, or even walking onstage with the curtain down can often be seen by the audience (Remember the beginning of “Footloose,” when you can only see the actors’ feet?). Shadows, reflections, and even curtain movements can easily give you away, and draw the audience’s attention away from the important action. You need to be aware at all times that the audience may be able to see you, and knowing your stage can help you to know the sightlines.

Be aware also of the level of your voice. Some stages, such as proscenium arches, can amplify sounds, making even a whisper seem like a shout. Some more intimate staging setups, like the Cabaret setup, can lead actors’ voices to become a distraction to the audience, who may not be able to hear over your talking. You know how you ask the audience to be quiet during your production, so as not to draw attention away from the action? You need to be mindful of your voice too! No matter what type of stage, you need to be aware that the audience can also hear you at almost every minute. Save the chitchat for the dressing rooms, where closed doors do a great deal to muffle the sound. Be aware, though, that even closed doors can’t cut off all sound. Best to save it all for after the curtain has dropped. If the audience isn’t talking, neither should you.

During some audience interactive shows, there is a requirement for you to be in character from the second you enter the building to the second you leave. This is a frequent experience of mine, as I perform “Joey & Gina’s Italian Comedy Wedding,” an improv show that encompasses an entire wedding, from the “guests’” (audience) arrival, to the wedding ceremony, to dinner, to the reception, and finally, the goodbyes as the “guests” wish the couple a fond farewell while they head for the door. This show is completely audience immersive, and involves sharing dinner, drinks, and dances with the audience. For this reason, when I walk into the building, I come completely dressed for my character, and act completely in character to everyone I meet, including the staff. ALL of the staff, including servers, bussers, cooks, and hosts, become part of the show, and we want them to be as interested (and shocked) by the show as our audience is. The only time I drop character is if I’m in a private dressing room with only the cast. Otherwise, I speak, move, and act completely in character, no matter how much some audience members may try to get me to break character.

The wedding shows take place in restaurants and country clubs, and have vastly different staging requirements, none of which I will see until about an hour or two before showtime. This is why I ALWAYS come early when performing these shows. I help setup, and I get to scope out the layout of the area, the audience’s tables, and the dance floor. This allows me to plan ahead and be ready for my various actions during the show. Sometimes, things change at the last minute. I always plan ahead for this eventuality too, and try to scope out a second area to perform certain actions, just in case my first doesn’t work out. Sometimes, the second area is funnier than the first! Above all, I keep cool, stay in character, and know my layout so that I can always be ready to give the audience an original experience.

Bill really knew what he was talking about back in the 16th Century, didn’t he? His plays have been performed in every country in the world, in just about every staging imaginable (I’d think “Much Ado About Nothing,” or “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” would be great in a cabaret setting). His actors, and subsequently, the actors who still perform his works, were always ready for their cues, and ready to give his work the greatest interpretation the audience had ever seen. No matter whose work you’re performing, and no matter how the stage is set up, you want to give the audience a performance experience they’ll never forget, and to do that, you need to know the stage from front to back. (TIP: An easy way to remember upstage versus downstage is that older stages use to be slanted down toward the audience, so downstage is closer to the audience, and upstage is farther away). You need to know the stage as much as you need to know your character, your lines, and your costumes.

So, the next time you accept a role, be sure to take that first few minutes before you start getting into character to check out where it is you’ll be performing. It goes a long way to making you look more professional as an actor. Said Shakespeare in “As You Like It,” Act II, Scene IV, “I like this place and willingly could waste my time in it.” There isn’t an actor in the world who has never thought that about the stage, and, hopefully, there will never be one.