Earliest Theatre Spaces
The earliest theatre spaces for theatre as we know it today were the theatres of Ancient Greece. These were originally built as ceremonial spaces for religious activities, so they were usually large enough to seat nearly everyone in the surrounding city and nearby rural areas. Thus, they usually seat several thousand people. They were built in the open air, in a hillside location to give the seating area a natural upward slope for better viewing and to create an acoustically supportive environment for the ceremonies and then they proved ideal for the theatre productions that developed out of the religious celebrations. We will discuss this more thoroughly when we explore the history of theatre in later lessons.
Modern Theatre Spaces
In the remainder of this section on theatre spaces, we will explore the kinds of theatres a modern audience might encounter when viewing a play today. There are four primary types of theatres, and some lesser used theatre spaces that we will examine.
Proscenium Arch Stage
The first type of theatre space we will examine is called the Proscenium Arch stage. It is not the oldest form of theatre space, but it is one of the most often used type of space in the modern theatre. The proscenium arch stage is also sometimes called the fourth-wall stage, because it relies on a theatrical convention called the “fourth wall.” This is the idea that the stage can form three walls of a room, but in order for the audience to watch what happens on stage, the fourth wall has to be non-existent, and just imagined by the actors and the audience. It is also sometimes referred to as the picture frame stage. This is because the proscenium arch appears to surround the performing space much the same way that a picture frame surrounds the artwork it holds. In class, we will view images of several examples of all of the stage spaces we will discuss. When you see a Proscenium Stage, you will easily notice the way that the arch forms a frame around where the actors will perform.
In this type of theatre, we will also notice that the audience all faces the stage from the same direction, as noted in the diagram below.
In addition, the area where the audience sits is usually sloped upwards away from the stage. This helps to provide clearer sight lines, the ability to see the action on the stage without obstructions. This sloped seating is called Raked seating.
Another characteristic of the proscenium theatre space is the use of a raised stage. By elevating the stage over the floor level, sight lines are improved even more. Since the action of the play and the actors themselves are at a slightly higher level than the audience, the audience does not have to try and look around the head of the person in front. The area directly at the front of the seating area, between the front edge of the stage and the first row of seats is called the orchestra. The name orchestra comes from the ancient Greek theatre, but it is also usually where the musicians sit (when used) for a modern play. The musicians often sit in a pit or other lowered area in front of the stage, and thus that space has come to be called the orchestra pit.
Many proscenium arch stages will also have an area above the stage itself that is almost twice the height of the stage to the lowest teaser (more about these in the Set/Scenery section of this supplement). This is an area that uses mechanical rigging to allow scenery elements to be suspended above the stage and then lowered down when needed or raised out of sight when not needed. This area is called the fly space or fly loft.
The areas on the stage floor that form the backstage or offstage areas behind any scenery pieces or curtains also have names. The area behind the scenery is usually just referred to as backstage, but the areas to either sides of the performing area where actors wait to enter or to where they exit is referred to as the wings.
The next type of stage space is also the oldest. It is the Thrust Stage. The major characteristic of this sort of stage is the fact that the audience is seated on three sides of the stage, or nearly all of the way around the playing space. In this diagram, we see the basic arrangement of the audience seating. Since the audience sits to the sides of the playing space, there are very limited wings, if any at all. The backstage space is usually fairly small, and entrances and exits by the actors is sometimes from the audience seating area.
Those audience members who are seated on the side can usually see at least some of the other audience members across the performing area.
Since there are audience members on three sides of the stage, there is usually less elevation of the actual performance space.
The thrust stage has been used throughout theatre history. It was used in ancient Greek and Roman theatres, as well as the Medieval platform stage and wagon stages. Wagon stages were a means used in the Middle Ages of bringing theatre to the very rural areas. A scene would be loaded on a wagon and moved to a location where it would be set up and the wagon used as a performance space. Thrust stages were also quite common early in the Renaissance until the development of the proscenium stage.
Arena (Theatre in the Round) Stage
This next type of theatre space is relatively new to theatre performance, but it has been around since ancient Greece and Roman times where it was often used for other types of events. It is the Arena Stage, also known as Theatre in the Round. In this theatre arrangement, the audience sits on all sides of the playing space. As a result, the actors make their entrances from aisles in the audience area and usually are very close to the audience.
These tend to best be used with very intimate plays since the audience is close to the actors. In this case, “Intimate” refers to plays with a very small aesthetic distance – with strong audience emotional engagement. In addition, since the audience is on all sides, there can’t be any large pieces of scenery. It would block the view of the some of the audience.
Part of the effect of the arena theatre arrangement is that the audience can not only see the action of the play up close, it can usually see at least part of the rest of the audience as it reacts to the action. This shared experience with other audience members in a more direct way, leads to a “closer” feeling and feedback between the audience and the actors.
Black Box Theatre/Stage
A type of theatre space that was originally associated with experimental theatre has become more widely accepted because of its versatility. This is the Black Box Theatre/Stage. It is named this because it is usually in a room that is painted black in order to help the lighting of the performance space to stand out and to make the walls of the space seem to disappear in comparison to the lighted performing area.
What makes a black box such a versatile space is that it normally has seating that is modular or individual chairs that can be arranged to allow any sort of performance arrangement. The seating can be arranged in a proscenium style, a thrust style, or even an arena style. The stage, or performing area, itself is usually at the ground level or placed on a very low platform. This versatility in a small performance area means that the audience gets a very close experience that can be quite intense and personal.
These are often quite small spaces that are used for plays of varying types but are not useful for very large productions or musicals with large casts. The preforming area is often quite limited, so smaller casts are best suited to this kind of stage.
Another types of theatre space that has been developed as an experimental type of space is called the Found Space. This refers to any performance space that is used for the production of a play that is not normally used to perform plays. That is, they are a temporary location that reverts to its original use following the performances. These types of spaces are often used for avant-garde productions of a small and focused interest to a limited potential audience, and for performance art productions.
Types of Created and Found Spaces
Non-theatre buildings – barns, churches, garages, warehouses, etc.
These are usually site-specific spaces where the production is adapted to the specifics of the location, incorporating the uniqueness of the space into the production in some way
These are spaces that use production-specific arrangements of the space (i.e. café tables for audience to sit at, church pews, etc. to fit the themes of the play)
Street Theatre – parks, hospitals, jails, bus stations
Street theatre can consist of “Standard” plays (regular plays) performed in the open, such as Shakespeare in the Park
It can also be neighborhood theatre – special plays located in and about the community where they are performed
It can also include what is known as Guerilla theatre. These are highly political plays or controversial plays that are meant to be taken to the audience and “get in the face” of the public
There is also a more recent phenomenon of the “Flash” play, similar to flash music performances or other coordinated but seemingly spontaneous events
A relatively new type of theatre space is another development of the experimental and avant-garde movements of the latter half of the 20th century. These two types are usually thought of as a way to use an existing space by adapting additional ideas into the production’s use of the space.
The first type is the Multifocus space. This involves a simultaneous use of more than one playing area that each stage a separate production moment that happens in real time with the other scenes. This is an attempt to mirror how we often function in real life – with divided attention and deciding what to focus on at a given moment. In this sort of production, no single element is more important than any other. Instead, it is left up to the audience to decide what to focus on.
This use of a theatre space is not very common. The audience is often somewhat overwhelmed by the simultaneous demands on its attention. There is always a sense that something is being missed in those places where a viewer’s attention is not focused.
Uses variety of media simultaneously with live performance
Video, dance, slides, light show, etc.
This type of theatre space use is growing in popularity. As audiences are more and more familiar with the special effects and Computer-Generated Imagery of movies, the demand for more interactive media and multiple types of media that is integrated into a production is increasing.
A significant part of the visual world the audience sees involves the setting of a play. The scenery in which the action takes place, where the actors create characters that inhabit the world of the play, is created by the scene designer, with input and approval by the director, and is built by the technical director and the technical crews.
When we think about what the audience sees when watching a play, we think about all of the things that are on stage, other than the actors themselves. The elements that go together to create the visual environment include the following: Scenery, Costumes, Lighting, and Props. This part of this supplement will just focus on the scenery elements and the others will be discussed in later supplements.
If you recall that when we discussed the Director, we noted that the director will select the style the play will use. That is a major consideration for the scenery designer, because the style of the play impacts many of the choices and design ideas that the designer will bring to the director to help unify the overall visual impact for the audience.
The style considerations include whether the play will be Realistic or Abstract, and
whether it will have a Historical feel or deal with Fantasy or be Symbolic in some way.
The Scene Designer is considered the principal assistant to the Director for visual design, and even if there are other designers for Costumes and Lighting and Props, it is the scene designer who is generally responsible to the Director for the entire visual world of the play.
When we look at the scenery of a play, we are observing the world in which the play’s reality exists. It might be very thoroughly realized and appear to be a complete scene with all of the details fit in, or it might be merely a suggested setting that draws on the imagination of the audience members to fill in the details. In class, we will some examples to illustrate the variety of sets an audience might encounter. It might be very detailed and look as if it is really a part of a specific location like a room of a house. It might be a very minimalist set that suggests a location like a stylized tree that might be practically any place in the world. Or it might be totally non-realistic and abstract, for example it might use color and geometric shapes to suggest a possible symbolic meaning or one that is not meant to be realistic at the very least. It offers plenty of ideas to the audience’s imaginations. The design of the set that the audience sees will normally add to the impact of the play that the audience experiences.
Objectives of scene design
The scene designer has several objectives to achieve with the design for the play. We will talk about each of these in more detail in class. They include the following:
Help set tone (mood) & style
Establish locale & period (the “where” and “when” of the play)
Develop design concept to match Director’s concept
Provide central image or metaphor (this may be subtle or overt)
Ensure scenery coordinated with other production elements (must all work together)
Solve practical design problems (make sure needs of actors are met and all working set pieces function properly)
Elements of Scene Design
Designing for the stage involves quite a few technical skills, but it is not like designing an actual building or house. Instead, it is a design to “suggest” a world, to “reflect” the reality of the play so the audience can understand how that reality exists and works. It is also a creative art – in that it uses many of the same tools and techniques as the visual artist uses. In fact, the basic design elements are the same as an artistic painter would use. Again, we will examine these a little more closely in class.
Line (the shape of objects)
Mass (the apparent weight of objects)
Composition (the grouping of objects)
Texture (the way the objects reflect light and/or might feel to the touch)
Color (understanding the way color affects human emotions is critical)
It’s important to understand that the design for a scene or for an entire play will likely differ from production to production. That’s why if you see a play twice, produced by a different director and group of designers, that the set will look different. The set will be reflective of the Director’s concept.
Scene Design Process
The scene designer usually creates the scene, in consultation with the Director using 4 basic steps: Sketch, Rendering, Model, Construction.
The sketch is usually just a fairly quick pencil drawing that may be essentially a ground plan or an isometric view, but it may include additional views of areas of particular interest.
The rendering is a little more detailed and involved in terms of time to produce. It is a colorized drawing to give the director a sense of the intended colors, and usually includes a scale-sized person to indicate relative size.
The model of a set design is usually only used at very large theatres or where sight-line issues might exist in a particular scene design. The model is usually constructed of mat board or craft paper or other materials that mimic the actual materials to be used in constructing the set. It is intended to give the director a feel for the mass and impact of the elements in a particular scene.
Of course, the final step in any scene design process is the construction of the set for the actors to occupy. Even at this stage, the director may need to make changes that result in rebuilding some portions of the set. However, the preceding steps usually eliminate the need for many changes and costs associated with them in the construction of the actual set. That’s why the design process starts with the relatively inexpensive sketch before moving into the more costly and time-consuming steps.
There are two basic tools that scene designers and directors use to work with the set, in terms of placement and blocking. The first is the stage area designations (used for “blocking” the actors’ movements) mentioned in the supplement on the Director.
The other basic tool that is used both in blocking and scene design is the ground plan, which is sometimes called the stage plan or floor plan. This is a bird’s-eye view of the stage showing the location of major elements of the set such as walls and scenery. It will also show the location of doors, windows, staircases, and platforms.
Materials & Devices of Scene Design
The scene designer has several elements and devices that can be used to create and/or enhance the scenery for the stage. This is not an exhaustive list, but these are several devices and materials that are frequently used by scene designers that you should be familiar with. They are used frequently in creating sets, and thus you are likely to encounter them when you view a play.
The first item to be discussed is known as a flat. This is a very versatile piece of scenery hardware. It is a framed and covered “wall” that can be used to simulate solid objects on stage.
Flats are wooden or metal frames that are covered with muslin, canvas, or thin plywood. They can be painted to look like walls or other objects. When joined together, they can create a wall or set of walls on stage.
The next device we will look at is a very common element in the theatre. It is known as a wagon. The stage wagon has a very long theatrical history. There is evidence that the ancient Greeks used wheeled devices to help create special effects, to make the “gods” move without appearing to walk. In today’s theatre, any wheeled device for moving scenery, as a part of the scenery, or for making scene changes quicker is known as a wagon. They can be large or small, manually moved or moved by motors. Watch this video on You Tube to see a set of motorized wagons being tested.
Another tool for making the movement of scenic elements easier and faster is the fly loft. These have been mentioned before when looking at stage spaces. They are the area above the stage where scenery elements (drops) can be suspended and flown into (lowered) and flown out (raised) of the scene.
The next element we will look at is not necessarily a scenery design element, but they are used quite extensively in theatre, and it is good to understand what they are and how to refer to them. Most theatres use these in some fashion. We are talking about the various kinds of curtains that are used in the theatre. In class, we will view images of these curtains and the usual placement on a typical stage.
The Grand Drape (often called the Main Curtain or sometimes the Act Curtain) is at the front of a Proscenium Stage and usually has a color that is appropriate for the auditorium’s decorations.
The teaser is a very short curtain immediately behind the Main that masks the sightline, hiding the machinery from the audience’s view, of the fly loft and/or the ceiling of the stage. At both sides of the teaser, hanging down the entire height of the stage is the tormentor. These curtains mask the sight lines into the wings.
Similar to the teaser and tormentors are borders and legs. They provide additional masking of the lighting rails and other elements above the stage and allow for additional masking of the wings. In some theatres, there may also be a tab on either side of the stage to create a fully masking curtain for the wings.
At the back of the stage there may be a backdrop which is a scenery element suspended from the fly loft rigging, or there may be a cyclorama (or cyc, for short) that is a full width curtain that allows for lighting effects to create a “sky” or other sort of light-created background for the scene.
Another type of curtain, often called a traveler, is normally on a pulley system that allows it to open and close, like the main curtain but across the stage space – often at the middle of the stage (from front to back) or at the rear of the stage in place of a cyclorama.
A special type of curtain can be used to help create certain types of special effects on stage. This is a curtain known as a scrim. It is an open-weaved curtain that is opaque when lit from the front but allows actors or objects to be seen through it when lit from behind. It is often used in dream sequences or when a character is thinking about the past. However, it can also be used for a variety of other effects as well.
Some additional things that the scene designer might be responsible for include the visual Special Effects that may employ various tools used to create the sense of a real event or sound. For example, flying characters/birds/etc. on wires. Another special effect tool is the use of Projections which might include anything from small images to full scenes. They may be simple lighting effects (such as suggesting clouds, trees, or windows) or they may be images projected onto a set piece. They can also be projected on a screen or a scrim from in front or from behind, depending on the needs of the effect.
In addition to all of the other scenery elements that the scene designer is responsible for, he or she is also responsible for the scene props (by designing and having built or by being found).
There are three categories of props (properties): scene props, hand props, and costume props. The scene designer is only responsible for the first of these.
Scenery props are moveable physical elements of the scene that are not permanent “built-in” parts of the scenery. They are usually used to “dress” the set to make it look more realistic, but these props are NOT used by the actors as part of the action of the play.
Hand props are moveable props that may be part of the scene or carried on stage by a character. These props are used by the characters in the course of the action.
Costume props are props carried by a single character as part of the costume that conveys some piece of information about the character.
Scene Designer’s helpers
The scene designer is not alone in the creation of the set and the other elements of the scenery. In fact, the designer usually only creates the idea and the initial sets of drawings in conjunction with the director. Those ideas and drawings are then turned over to the Scene Designer’s primary assistant, the Technical Director. The technical director is the person who makes the designer’s ideas come to life by overseeing the construction crews. The Property Designer/Builder will also assist the Scene Designer for the scene props but may also work directly with the director for creating and building hand props.
The crews who are tasked with the actual construction and painting of a set are made up of two primary types of skilled craftsman. These are the Scene charge artists (the builders) and the Paint charge artists (who paint what the scene charge artists build).