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Mark Corrington's
American Miniature Theater

Blocking&
Stage Direction

Spencer Tracy
"Know your lines and
don't bump into the furniture."

Spencer Tracy
(1900 - 1967), American actor

One of the initially confusing aspects of stagecraft is blocking and stage direction. Knowing this information will not make you an actor or a director. It will help you know which way you are going.


Compared to legitimate theaters, vaudeville and burlesque stages were quite shallow. A common excuse was that most the touring acts required less space. Vaudevillians and strippers not only cared for their own props and costumes, they also had to lug them around themselves. That was why most of their gear could be packed into a trunk or two for easy transport to the next play date on the circuit. Those entertainers then used whatever scenery/props that particular theater had to fill in the gaps.

One tale tells of a hoofer whose act consisted of dancing atop a card table... reinforced, naturally. There were some stages on the vaudeville circuit, however, too small for his only prop.

Vaudeville/burlesque stages were also small because their tightwad owners wanted more room for paying customers than their paid performers. Show business is, after all, a business first and an artistic/expressionistic medium second.


The theater depicted below is generously large by vaudeville/burlesque standards. Instead, many were similar to today's comedy clubs and striptease bars, with a minimal exposed apron and a solid back wall. Everything behind the proscenium arch was gone. Consider this diagram to be of a medium-sized theater that allowed complicated production numbers and skits.

Acting the art of doing the unnatural yet making it appear natural. Some believe that speaking one's dialogue in a believable manner is sufficient. With the exceptions of radio dramas and voiceovers, that is not true. Acting is a physical as well as vocal art form, involving maneuvering through a structured artificial environment in a smooth seamless manner.

Blocking

Blocking is the preplanning of all the physical activity on a stage. In that way, the actors are constantly in their correct places at the right times during a production. Actors and props that are out of place can be disastrous for a production.

In one drama, the "killer" was supposed to open the desk drawer and pull out a revolver in order to shoot another character. However, the actor portraying the killer missed his "mark" and was not be next to the desk in order to retrieve the gun. What did he do? Try to cover his error by saying, "Excuse me but I've got to go over there so I can fetch my weapon and slay you."

The play ground to a screeching halt.

"Hitting One's Marks" means to be at the right location at the right time. Marks were originally chalk marks on the stage floor signifying the placement of actors or major props. Today, chalk has been replaced by colored tape, with different colors signifying different things or people.

Tape marks remain relevant in movies and television. It is important for an actor to move to and stop on his marks with precision because of those mediums' technological aspects (lighting, microphone placement, camera lens adjustment, special effects, etc.).

Another part of blocking is to position the actors so that, when they move, they have their backs to the audience as little as possible. Part of that dates back to pre-microphone days. Actors are heard better when they face the audience rather than when they have their heads amid the curtains. Plus, the human face is more expressive than the back of the head.

Finally, theatrical actors have to not look at the audience or acknowledge their presence while playing to them, establishing an invisible Fourth Wall. This helps establish a suspension of disbelief, giving the audience a sense that they are witnessing reality. Correct blocking assists in maintaining that Fourth Wall whose line the actors dare not cross.


Vaudevillians and burlesque entertainers were not hampered with a Fourth Wall. They performed directly at the audience and sometimes included them in on the act. But an error in blocking could throw a routine's timing off, transforming a comic gem into a boring skit.


Stage Direction

Stage direction is based upon the performer facing the audience with his/her back to the rear wall. No matter how the entertainer turns, Stage Right (SR) will always be to the audience's left and Stage Left (SL) will always be to the audience's right.

In complicated productions, a director may make the notations of SR1, SR2, SR3, etc. SR1 stands for the first Stage Right area nearest the proscenium (Downstage). SR2 stands for the second Stage Right area which would be behind SR1. SR3 (Stage Right 3) would be behind SR2 and so forth. Unless it is an elaborate production with multiple exits and numerous on stage performers, the unnumbered abbreviation of SR or SL is sufficient.

When directed to exit the set Stage Left, one know-it-all actor wanted to know if he should exit at Stage Left via Position 1, Stage Left via Position 2, Stage Left via Position 3 or what.

The director enlightened him by stating that the actor should exit Stage Left through the only door on that side of the set.

Another concept that is difficult to comprehend nowadays is that of Upstage and Downstage. Today, stage surfaces are flat while the audience's seats are tiered. In the past, the reverse was true. The rear end of the stage was raised or "raked" so the audience could clearly see what was going on in the back. Actors literally had to walk up to the back wall and down to the apron.

Raked stages caused all sorts of technical problems. The legs on furniture had to be cut to match the degree of the rake. Once done, that piece of furniture could not be rotated on the stage, otherwise it would become unstable. In action scenes or dance numbers, entertainers could easily stumble, causing them to twist an ankle or Break A Leg, the root of that superstitious blessing.

Vaudeville and burlesque theater owners eliminated the need for raked stages by making them so shallow, there wasn't any room behind the performer.

The term Center Stage literally mean to be in the center of the stage. In early indoor theaters, the center section of the stage had the best lighting and thusly was usually the focus of the action. When lighting went from burning oil lamps to more controllable electricity, uniform and selective illumination was possible, allowing all parts of the stage to be utilized equally. Today, when an actor takes Center Stage, that means he or she is the deliberate focus of the audience's attention, regardless of the actor's physical location on the stage.

Today, to Upstage means to grab and hog the audience's attention. That colloquialism also dates back to the times of raked stages. When an actor did something overtly flashy on a stage's upper back end, to stay in character the other actors would have to turn towards that actor. That meant turn their backs on the audience. Unless called for in the script, the back of an actor's head equates to bad blocking.

Stagecraft is overloaded with terms
that lost their original meanings
eons ago.


Two of the more obscure theatrical terms that confound the unwary are Prompt Side and Opposite Prompt.

The Prompt Side (PS) is usually located Stage Left against the proscenium arch. This is where the Prompter sits, the person with the play's script open before him so he can whisper lines to forgetful actors. Not all theaters are designed the same, however. In many, the Prompt Side is located on Stage Right while in vast opera houses, a Prompter's/Conductor's Box is recessed into the apron.

In vaudeville/burlesque houses, the stage manager sat at the Prompter's table. Rather than having each act's dialogue at his fingertips, that stage manager is more concerned with timing, lighting and cues to the stagehands. It was also up to those stage managers to give terrible acts "The Hook," sometimes literally dragging them off stage.

The Opposite Prompt (OS) is on the opposite side of the Prompt Side. A stagehand typically mans that post because the Opposite Prompt is where the main curtain ropes are and also, in many instances, the main light boards and the lines for flying scenery.

In case anyone noticed, the Prompt Side of The American Miniature Theater is on Stage Right. That is because that was its position in one of those old playhouses I loved.

Besides, I like the idea that
The American Miniature Theater
is a little contrary
like its creator.

There is a subtle difference between being Backstage and Offstage.

Backstage refers to being completely out of the audience's perception of the ongoing production. The audience is not supposed to see, hear or be aware of anyone backstage.

Offstage typically refers to someone outside of the audience's visible perception but who can still be heard. Examples include when an actor is shouting from another "room" or when an offstage announcer is introducing an act.

Another popular theater term is "Waiting In The Wings," derived from actors, standing between the Wing Drops or Wing Curtains, eagerly awaiting their cues to go onstage and into the limelight.

Today, "Waiting In The Wings" means anything new or innovative that is on the verge of being introduced.


One set of definitions that are rarely used today are Olio Left, Olio Right and Olio Center. Those terms were used almost exclusively by olio comedy teams to describe the opening of their acts.

Traditionally, one comic would enter from the Olio Left, be it a direct entrance onto the apron or by squeezing around the Stage Left end of the main curtain. The other member of the team would do the same from the Olio Right. The two would meet at the Olio Center, pretending to bump into each other by chance, and the routine would begin. Whether the two comics exited together depended upon the conclusion of their act.

Olio Left, Olio Right & Olio Center are only used in conjunction with vaudeville, burlesque and some British variety/revue shows comedy skits. While considered jargon not worthy of dictionary definitions, they do appear on occasional in some typed comedy routines' margin notes, often as
OL, OR & OC.

The Cat & the Canary

"Don't these big empty houses scare you?"
- Nydia Westman
"Not me. I was in vaudeville."
- Bob Hope

The Cat and the Canary - (1939)

Whatever happened to those grand old vaudeville and burlesque theaters? Many were righteously bulldozed into oblivion. Such structures were badly constructed by today's standards, especially those built before the advent of the electric light, insulation and indoor plumbing. They weren't nicknamed "Drafty Old Barns" for nothing. Others burned to the ground, thanks in part to oil lamps, canvas drops and musty curtains. Theaters in today's grade schools are luxurious compared to the bulk of those 1900's edifices.

Some, however, were sturdy enough to survive. You may have been in one of them... and never known it.

When vaudeville/burlesque theaters were converted into nickelodeons, movie screens replaced the main curtains or olio/advertising drops. Little of the backstage was touched, though, for to clear away all the old junk was a waste of time, labor and especially money. Some converted vaudeville/burlesque theaters still had remnants of their old glories when I was a young adult in the 1970's. A few may even have those forgotten vestiges today.



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