Maybe you’re about to audition for your very first play. Maybe you’ve just signed up to be part of a stage crew. Or maybe you’re sitting in the audience at your cousin’s dance recital and are curious about your surroundings. Knowing what and where things are in a theater will make your life easier as an actor, a stagehand, and as an audience member.
You probably already know that a stage is the place where the action of a play happens. But do you know where stage left is? Or what a catwalk is? Have you ever heard of a black box theater? Here’s a handy guide to some basic stage directions, the most common parts of a theater, and different types of theater spaces.
Some basic stage directions
How does an actor know where to move on stage? Here’s how…
The area that’s exactly in the middle of the acting area on the stage.
The area of the stage that’s closer to the audience. When an actor “moves downstage,” it means that he moves closer to the audience.
The area of the stage that’s farthest away from the audience. When an actor “moves upstage,” it means that she moves away from the audience.
The areas of the stage that are to the actor’s left and right. When an actor moves “stage left,” it means that he moves to his left.
Parts of a theater that are on or near the stage
Every part of a theater has a specific name. Here are some important parts to know about…
The physical surroundings where the action of a play takes place. The set is designed and built by technicians to best represent the play’s location. For example, if a play’s action happens in a kitchen, the set might include a door, a table and chairs, a sink, a refrigerator, and an oven.
The area behind the set or off the stage that’s not seen by the audience.
The area of the stage that’s just in front of the curtain.
Pit (or orchestra pit)
The area where musicians sit during a performance. The pit is just off the stage, in a low area between the front of the stage and the audience.
The area that frames the stage. And yes, it sometimes looks like a giant picture frame.
The area behind the set that actors and technicians use to move from stage left to right without being seen by the audience.
A hidden door that’s built into the stage floor (or sometimes the stage wall). It allows actors to make surprising and dramatic entrances and exits from hidden places underneath or behind the stage.
The areas just off stage left or stage right, not seen by the audience. The actors wait here immediately before they go onstage.
Parts of a theater that are most definitely off the stage
Not all the “action” happens on the actual stage. Here are some other important places…
The seating area of a theater. When you’re in the audience and watching a show, you’re sitting in the house. Sometimes, the audience itself is called the house. When someone asks, “How big is the house tonight?” they’re asking how many people are in the audience.
House left/house right:
The area in the house that’s to the audience’s left or right.
Back of House (BOH):
The part of the theater that is not open to the public and is used by technicians or actors. For example, backstage areas are back-of-house areas.
Front of House (FOH):
The part of the theater that is used by the audience. For example, a theater’s lobby, box office, and refreshment stand are front-of-house areas.
The seating area that is closest to the stage in the main part of the house.
The upper part of the house. It sometimes overhangs the main part of the house. Large theaters often have more than one balcony.
The lowest balcony in a theater, or the first few rows of a balcony.
The area or room from where technicians control the lights and sound for a show. The booth is usually at the back of the theater and is usually soundproof. It lets technicians see the performance without being in the theater.
A narrow metal bridge or walkway that’s usually very close to the ceiling and above the stage and audience. Technicians use the catwalk to reach and adjust the lights and other equipment.
A backstage room where the actors dress and apply makeup before they go onstage.
A backstage room where the actors wait before they go onstage. Actors sometimes relax in the green room before or after the show.
A supporting structure that hangs near the ceiling, above the stage or house. Lights and scenery are attached to the grid. When a lighting technician “hangs” a light, it means that he attaches a light to the grid. Some more information on theatrical lights can be found at our Gear article on the ellipsoidal reflector spotlight.
Types of theater spaces
Theaters come in all sizes and shapes. Here are a few…
Arena (or theater in the round): A space in which the audience sits around all sides of the stage. There’s no stage curtain and the set is generally very simple. If you’ve watched a football game in a stadium, you have an idea of what theater in the round looks like.
Black box: A simple and plain performance space. A black box theater is often just a room that has black walls, a flat floor (instead of a raised stage), and easily moveable theater seats.
Proscenium: A space in which the audience sits in front of the stage.
Thrust: A stage that is surrounded on three sides by the audience. A thrust stage is sometimes part of a proscenium space.
Now that you have an idea of where things are, you can walk into pretty much any theater with confidence. Break a leg and enjoy the show!