Stage Directions or ‘Blocking’: (aka how to survive your first staging rehearsals)
SHOW UP FULLY PREPARED. This means different things to different people, but at a base line:
1) be able to sing your music from memory
2) understand what every word means and how to pronounce it (both what you’re saying and what the people on stage with you are saying…it is a classic singer mistake only to know what you say and to stare cluelessly/check out while other people sing.)
3) know who you’re talking to and what you want from them
4) know the background and overall dramatic arc of your character (i.e. know the given circumstances…if you’re a peasant or a queen that will change how you move and speak, where you’re coming from, what just happened, and where you’re going to, what will happen next…)
5) know how your music line relates with the instrumentation and other voices. (i.e. are you the soloist, or an accompanying line? Is there a smooth carpet of accompanying sound underneath you “a la bel canto arpeggios” or is the orchestra a character telling you something? Which lines can you get your cues from? Where are you cuing someone else?)
6) Find a full score and mark the orchestral rehearsal numbers. (Many conductors go by these in rehearsals, and it will help you to understand quickly where they are).
7)Arrive at a minimum ten minutes before rehearsal, so that you can review your score just before staging, and are warmed up and ready to start with a pencil in hand at the stroke of rehearsal time.
Definition of ‘Blocking’: In your first staging rehearsals, often the director will talk through the scene before you stage it and tell you his idea for where your character and where you are on the stage in this scene when you say/sing something.
Note*: The rehearsal room will usually have the stage dimensions taped out in masking tape, with numbers marking the distance (in the US in feet) from center running across the front of the stage for reference when blocking. 0 is at center stage, and then the numbers go outward (generally 2, 4, 6, 8, etc. to stage left and 2, 4, 6, 8, etc. right). When you receive your blocking, make sure you note where exactly on stage you are so that you can always be there. The director might be planning a special light or projection that needs you in that specific spot, or you might block another character if you do the blocking at a different space on stage.
Etymology of ‘Blocking’: Both "blocking" and "block" were applied to stage and theater from as early as 1961. The term derives from the practice of 19th-century theatre directors such as Sir W. S. Gilbert who worked out the staging of a scene on a miniature stage using blocks to represent each of the actors.
It is expected that you write these down in your score/script. So show up memorized, but for the first rehearsal you are expected to have your score and a pencil (and post it notes) and be able to refer to your score & written in blocking while singing, but get your eyes off the page as much as you can. Once ‘blocking’ is given, it is expected that you will be able to perform the scene with blocking from memory for the next rehearsal and will always do this given ‘blocking’ unless the director decides to revise it.
The Stage Manager is also supposed to write down all stage directions in their master book, known as the "Prompt Book". If there is any disagreement about where an actor is supposed to move, or how, the prompt book is the final word. If the director does not like the movement, or changes his mind, the prompt book will be revised. Therefore if you forget something or have a question after staging, ask the stage manager and they should know.
Hint 1: For roles that you anticipate doing several times, write your stage directions into your score on post it notes. When that show is over, you can take out the post it notes and have a clean copy for the next time you do the role and have a different director/stage directions.
Hint 1.25: If you anticipate doing the show with the same team again, go into a Kinko’s and get your score copied and put it in a binder. Write down your blocking in the copied score and save it, so that when you do the show again with the same team, you can refer to your notes.
Hint 1.5: If you are doing more than one role, covering, etc., consider having separate copies for each role so they stay distinct from each other.
Hint 1.75: Come up with a system that is specific enough to remember exactly when you move and where. One suggested method is to draw a straight, vertical line through the beat/measure on the page, and mark above it with a number: i.e. (3) and then in the margin, write (3): and the stage directions so you know EXACTLY where that action takes place. Often times there isn’t enough room above the music to write in specifics and it gets confusing when you look back and see stage directions written above an entire system rather than the specific chord/beat/word the director asked something to be on.
Hint 2: Once you receive blocking, add the studying and practice of your blocking to the study of your score. In your practice, mentally visualize the blocking or even better, get up and walk it.
Hint 3: Review your blocking before each rehearsal: extra good times are right before bed when your mind assimilates information in sleep, and right before the next rehearsal of that scene as a quick reminder.
Hint 4: For some directors, ‘blocking’ is non-negotiable, for others it is just a starting point for conversation. You must assess the situation as you go. In general, when there is a shorter rehearsal period, directors resort to telling you your blocking with little discussion in an effort to save time. When there is more rehearsal time, there is more time for discovering things together and group discussion. The director, however, always has the final say. Regardless, you must always try the “blocking” given to your best ability before you can try to have a discussion of changing it.
Hint 5: Sometimes the director gives motivation for your blocking, and sometimes she/he does not. i.e. The director says “move here, say this, then move there, and do this, then etc.” until the scene is ‘fully staged/blocked’. Then you run it and see how it goes. You, however, must always come up with a motivation or reason for every move you make on stage. Sometimes this is open to discussion, and sometimes it is not. You must assess this with each director.
Note* Time taken to speak about motivation in addition to the nuts and bolts of where you are when on stage often again has to do with the length of rehearsal period and a desire or need to save time and money. The more time spent discussing where you move and why, the less time practicing it, and perfecting it with lights and orchestra and all the other parts of an opera.
Note* Also, speaking about intention or motivation (or lack thereof) is sometimes a matter of the personality or background of the director. Opera involves all the art forms (or at least most of them), and different directors have different backgrounds or specialties from which they come to the whole performance. Those backgrounds/specialties each have different languages to talk about the same thing: producing dynamic performances with specificity and intent. In gross generalization directors with acting backgrounds may be more interested in speaking about your character’s motivation or “what you want” in each scene from moment to moment. A director with a dance or visual arts background may speak more about the quality, timing, and shape of your movement and the pictures made on stage. A director with a musical background may speak more about the quality of your attention to the music: the line, the declamation of text, the way your part fits with the orchestra, etc. Some directors use a mix or all or none of the above. Be prepared to respond to all these different languages, and if you encounter one that doesn’t work for you, to translate it to one that does.
Note* One of the biggest reasons for being exact with your stage blocking is because of lighting. Lights cannot move to adjust if you move to a new place on stage (unless it’s a follow spot). Learn quickly how to “find your light”, i.e. feel the light and heat on your face and never be in darkness. You can think you’re in the light, but if it’s not hitting your face, then generally, that’s not good.
Note* Also be aware of when you are casting a shadow on your colleagues in a scene by blocking their light. Adjust accordingly and directors and lighting designers will love you forever.
Note* Covering - Covering a role means being prepared to go on if the person cast in the role is unable to do so. This is perhaps one of the hardest jobs in the business. You are expected to be just as prepared as the person cast in the role, even though that person receives almost all of the staging and coaching time. Most rehearsals, you will sit and observe. This is not the time to space out or be on your phone. Make extensive notes in your score, and if at all possible get up and quietly walk through the blocking/talk/sing under your breath in the back of the room (don’t distract the rehearsal, but it’s important that you get this into your body). Careers have been made by covers going on last minute, and careers have been greatly hurt by covers not being prepared when called upon.
Stage Right or SR - the actor’s right as he faces the audience
Stage Left or SL - the actor’s left as he faces the audience
Center Stage or C - In the middle of the stage
Downstage or DS - near to the audience
Upstage or US - away from the audience
*Note: This originated from the old theaters where the stage floor was sloped toward the audience. This ensured that actors could be seen from anywhere in the audience, and not blocked by an actor in front of them. So closer to the audience was down the stage. Nowadays, instead of the stage being sloped, most theaters themselves are sloped i.e. the audience is in stadium seating, which produces the same effect (actors can be seen by everyone in the audience).
Below - same as Downstage
Above - same as Upstage
The acting area on stage is divided into nine locations and directions from playwrights and directors are usually given for those locations.
Abbreviations are used regularly. Learn them so that you can take notes quickly.
French: le milieu
French: Côté Jardin
French: Côté Cour
French: l’avant scène
Generally, the downstage area is stronger than the upstage area, because it is nearer the
audience. In cultures where people read left to right, Stage right is stronger than stage left because the audience is conditioned to look from left to right in reading and carries this habit into all observations. [Audience left being stage right.] (This is the reverse in cultures where audiences read right to left)
Because of the strength of downstage and stage right, important scenes will often be played there.
*Note: The Netherlands, Portugal and Germany use the opposite; i.e. Stage Left = Stage Right. The directions are seen from the director's and audience's perspective, NOT the actors.
Other terms commonly used regarding stage areas:
Onstage (German: auf der Bühne/French: sur la scène/Italian: in scena ) - the acting area within the set, visible to the audience.
Offstage - the parts of the stage not enclosed by the set, not visible to the audience.
Backstage - the area behind the set.
The Fly Space (French: L’étoile) - the area above the stage. Always be aware of incoming and outgoing objects, drops, lights, etc.
Wings (German: Flügel/French: Les Coulisses/Italian: La quinta) - the offstage areas to the right and left of the acting area.
Legs - tall black curtains parallel to the stage, hanging just off to the sides of the stage, which block the audience’s view of offstage. The space between the curtains where you can enter or exit is often referred to as L 1, 2, 3, etc. for the the sections on the left side of the stage. And R 1, 2, 3, etc. for the sections on the right side of the stage. L 1 would be the section closest to downstage, then L 2 would be the next closest, and so on). A good rule of thumb is if you can see the audience, they can see you.
Out front - the auditorium where the audience sits; often referred to as the ‘house.’
Proscenium - The proscenium arch is the vertical frame around the stage.
Vomitory (Voms) - An auditorium entrance or exit up through banked seating from below. Often abbreviated to Vom.
The House (French: La Salle) - Where the audience sits.
apply to the actor as he faces the audience.
There are five 5 basic positions.
One Quarter - the body is a quarter turn away from the audience. This position is most frequently used when two actors ‘share’ a scene. It places each of their bodies so that the audience can easily see them. Positioning of the actor’s feet defines the turn - the upstage foot is parallel to the stage and the downstage foot is turned toward the audience at a 45 degree angle. The upstage shoulder is turned slightly toward stage center.
Full Front - the actor directly faces the audience. (Often used for soliloquys or asides to the audience or powerful, private moments)
Profile or Half - two actors face each other with the upstage foot slightly facing center stage. This position is used for intense scenes (quarreling, accusatory).
Three Quarter - the actor turns away from the audience to see three-quarters of his back; only one-quarter of the actor’s face. This position is used for an actor to ‘give’a scene (become less important to the flow of the scene), or turn all attention to another actor upstage who ‘takes’ the scene (become more important to the flow of the scene.)
Full Back - the actor stands with his back to the audience. This position is used only on special occasions.
Cheat Out - Directors may ask you to “cheat out” meaning, to turn your body towards the audience so that they can see more of you, even though it may not feel “natural” in the course of the scene.
Notes: The one quarter, three quarter, and profile positions can be turned toward the right or
In all positions, the body and head should follow the angle of the feet.
symbol ‘X’ - movements from one stage area to another.
Straight Cross - Generally, the actor takes the shortest, most direct route to his new
Curved Cross - used when the actor must show indecision, indirectness, casualness, grace, or ease.
Counter-Cross - actors adjust to each other’s cross. If one actor finds himself in the direct
line as another, they ‘counter’ their position by moving a little and then re-adjusting their
position after the cross. This keeps the stage balanced for the audience and avoids actors
from running into each other during the scene.
Cross Below - Cross downstage of an object or person.
Cross Above - Cross upstage of an object or person.
Notes: Always begin the cross with the foot nearest the destination. This keeps the body turned
toward the audience.
If an actor must cross while speaking/singing, walk in front of the other characters.
If an actor needs to cross while others are speaking/singing, cross behind these actors.
Cross with caution so as not to distract the audience from the other characters - do not
‘steal’ attention away from the speaker.
The moving figure dominates - if two actors cross stage together, the one with more
lines should take the upstage position, a short step ahead of the other actor.
*Note: There is a great app available, a little expensive around $38, called TheatreWords which has EVERY THEATER WORD you could imagine complete with diagrams of what it’s talking about, translated to almost every language imaginable. A great resource if you plan on an international career, but below are a few important words in the three main western European opera languages to get you started.
(German) A rehearsal on the stage where a show is to be performed, with a basic set laid out, so the director and designer can work on any staging issues to do with the size of the scenery, before it is built.
(German but also used internationally) The first rehearsal where the singers sing with the orchestra and do not do any blocking. Sometimes it is on the stage where a show it to be performed and sometimes in a large room that can fit an orchestra. Sitz = to sit. Chairs are provided as well as music stands for your scores to make notes, but generally singers stand when it is their turn to sing and watch the conductor. Tradition calls for this as a dressier event than a normal rehearsal.
(German but also used internationally) A rehearsal on the stage where a show is to be performed, using all the costumes and sets, with orchestra. A chance to try things out in action and see if the blocking can work effectively with the music-making or any adjustments need to be made. Wandel = to walk.
Note*: In Germany “Stage Left” and “Stage Right” do not exist. When the director says “Left” he means from the audience perspective i.e. the actor’s right.
Le Metteur en Scène
La Fosse D’Orchestre
The orchestra pit
The Green Room/Dressing Rooms
The lighting booth
A light wash/area
Directive de mise en scène
Il Direttore d’Orchestra
La Fossa d’Orchestra
Direttive del regista