This summer we’re all going to learn some theatre terms! Like any field or profession, theatre makes use of a lot of unique terms and vocabulary words that you don’t necessarily hear in the outside world. Your blogger didn’t have any theatre experience until she became an intern at Shakespeare in Action, so she’ll be learning some of these terms for the first time as well! (And if you happen to find any errors in these Theatre 101 posts, please be kind and let us know at firstname.lastname@example.org!)
We’re going to start with an acting term: “blocking.” Blocking describes how an actor moves around the stage during a performance. The term was inspired by the 19th century director W.S. Gilbert, who used wooden blocks on a miniature stage to work out where his actors should be during a performance.
Directors usually decide on blocking during rehearsals, sometimes with help from the actors or based on the stage directions in the text of the play. Stage directions are things like “enter stage right” or “exit, pursued by a bear” (a strange piece of direction from The Winter’s Tale), notations in the text of the play that tell us where and when characters enter and leave. Sometimes stage directions can be very minimalist, as in most Shakespeare plays, meaning that there aren’t many directions. Sometimes, however, playwrights have a definite vision of where they want all their characters to be, and write in stage directions accordingly.
Directors will also work with lighting and set designers to figure out where actors should stand and move during the play. Good lighting is essential so that the audience can see properly, and if actors need to do anything complicated with props – like pretend to cook, for example – set designers will take that into account when they design the set and find the props.
Live theatre may seem spontaneous, but actually each performance has been carefully planned out and blocked (in traditional productions). Actors will move the same way from performance to performance – scratching their head at the same point of the play each night, or falling to their knees in a certain scene. Stage managers will make sure that actors follow the proper blocking, since directors are not always there to observe performances. It’s important to have a plan that everyone follows, otherwise actors would be running into each other or the sets as they moved about!
All of the areas of the stage have names so that everyone knows where they are supposed to be:
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