Coming to Terms with Stage Directions: Tips for Newbie Theater Actors

New to theater? Delivering lines and performing stage directions while rehearsing onstage at the same time sure sounded easier said than done, don’t you think? Later, terms like upstage, center stage, and downstage came into the picture and added to the complication. If you’re having a hard time keeping up, here are tips for beginners to conquer stage directions.

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A Beginner Theater Actor’s Guide to Conquering Stage Directions

First and foremost, a playwright includes stage directions to make the written material understandable. Plays are written mostly in dialogues, so imagine reading a script without stage directions at all—no descriptions, no indications of movement or emotion, no telling which characters are involved in the scene, nothing. Note that plays are not novels, so narrators are normally out of the question. 

When a written play is finally being rehearsed for a performance, stage directions guide actors’ movements on the stage, such as entering and exiting the stage, interacting with coactors, using stage props and sets, and delivering emotions in lines. Movements like these add tension, humor, or emotion to a scene, engage the audience’s attention, and make a character come alive. 

Up versus down

To better understand the nature behind these sometimes confusing terms, let’s go back to the Renaissance period. During the Renaissance, when theaters were becoming more prevalent, stages were slightly inclined. The highest point of the stage is the back of the stage, sloping down toward the audience. Stages were inclined so that audiences could see the action even if they were on an even plane (usually standing). 

Stage Directions
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That means during this period, actors who were told to walk to the back of the stage would walk upstage, or up the incline. The terminology survives today. If the script says you move upstage, you move toward the back of the stage. Similarly, if you’re told to walk downstage, you move to the front of the stage close to the audience.

Left versus right

Stage directions are written from the perspective of the actor facing the audience. An actor who turns to his/her right is moving stage right, while an actor who turns to his/her left is moving stage left. So stage right and stage left are the actor’s right and left, not the audience’s. Pretty easy.

Stage Directions
(Dallas, TX – 11.30.2009) — The last dress rehearsal for the Dallas Theatre Center’s production of A Christmas Caroll, at the Kalita Theatre, in Dallas, TX, on Sunday, November 29, 2009.

Now let’s try audience view. If you’re part of the audience, you would be facing the stage. That means the actor’s stage right is audience left or house left and the actor’s stage left is audience right or house right.

Center stage

As you can probably guess, center stage is simply the middle of the stage. When you’re standing center stage, you’re at the center of all the action: between right and left and up and down. But then there’s also right-center, left-center, upstage-center, downstage-center, downstage right-center, and so on. Before you get dizzy, simply think back to the basics.

Stage Directions
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If you know where center stage is and where stage right and left are, you can figure out that the area that occupies the area between center stage and stage right is right-center stage, and the area between center stage and stage left is left-center. Downstage right-center would be the downstage area between center stage and stage right, and so on.

Stage Directions: Abbreviations

Playwrights and directors sometimes make use of abbreviations to save time. Luckily, these are pretty straightforward.

  • U is upstage.
  • C is center stage.
  • D is downstage.
  • L is stage left.
  • LC is left center.
  • R is stage right.
  • RC is right center.
  • UR is upstage right.
  • URC is upstage right center.
  • UC is upstage center
  • UL is upstage left.
  • ULC is upstage left center
  • DR is downstage right.
  • DRC is downstage right center.
  • DC is downstage center.
  • DLC is downstage left center.
  • DL is downstage left.

This is easy to practice at home, so challenge yourself and do your homework! Good luck!

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