Take The Stage | Blocking

By Ian Kendall - Tuesday, July 23, 2019

Right, it’s time to delve a wee bit into some theatrical theory, because that’s the world into which we are heading. It’s actually quite interesting, extremely useful, and it’s really easy to spot people who haven’t thought about it much.

Blocking is a term used to describe physical placement on a stage. In its simplest form, it’s thinking about upstage, downstage, stage left and stage right, but also concerns where to put your table, where to place helpers, how people get to the stage and the like. After that it can get a bit more complicated…

As far as terminology goes; upstage is the back of the stage, and downstage is the front (factoid: the term ‘to upstage’ someone comes from this; mischievous actors would position themselves towards the rear of the stage in such a way that anyone speaking to them would have to be facing them, and so have their back to the audience – a no no – facing the ‘upstage’ area. The hapless actor will have been ‘upstaged’). Stages left and right refer to the performer’s point of view – so stage left is known as house right from the stalls. It can be confusing at first, but if you think that it’s the left from the stage, you’ll be fine.

Keeping things simple for now; for most of the show you will be standing downstage, centre. Let’s say that you will have a small table, and a stand for your props case. Where do they go? The important thing to remember when you are setting your stage is that you should avoid – wherever possible – turning your back on the audience. If you have to move upstage, walk backwards (it’s not as bad as you think – as long as you are talking at the same time). So, you want your props to be accessible while still facing forward. Now, I’m left handed, so I like to have my case stage left because I’m more likely to reach in with my left hand, while standing to the right of the case. If you are right handed, you might find it more comfortable to have your case stage right.

One aspect of blocking that slips by most people is where you should place your helpers on stage; I imagine most of the people reading this will be occidental, and will read from left to right. That means that the audience will register what is happening on stage from stage right to stage left. With that in mind, if you are using one helper, and they are standing to your right (that is, you are on stage left), then the audience will see them, then you. This can very subtly alter how you are perceived on the stage, as you will be in the ‘weaker’ position. For the most part, it’s not a deal breaker, but it’s worth mentioning.

If you are doing a ‘chair test’ type routine where you have four or five chairs in a row on stage, this brings up another problem; you really want to avoid standing in front of the chairs wherever possible. For most performers, the best place to stand would be at the stage left end of the row, looking along the group. If you have to interact with the people at the stage right end of the row, you can step forward briefly, but then return to the rest position. If you have to move to the other end, walk behind them (assuming the mechanics of the routine permit this, obviously). Again, video is your friend. Record your rehearsals, and as you watch it back, make notes of any time that you are interrupting the view of the helpers for the audience. Are you turning your back? Can everyone see what is going on? So, knowing all this, let’s apply it to our new routine. Does it need a table? Will you be going to your case for props, or can you work from your pockets? Does it require a helper? If you are using an egg bag, for example, it will just be you and a helper and working from your pockets (a very nice way to be). In that case, you would both be downstage centre, and whether you are to the left or right would depend on your handling, but it won’t be massively important there because you will be standing closely next to each other (the difference is much more apparent when you are at opposite sides of the stage). If you are using something like Dean’s Box, you would need two helpers, either side of a table, so everything is more likely to be downstage centre again, but with the table, behind which you will be standing. If you are doing a cards across presentation, it’s more fun to have the spectators as far apart as possible, with you moving between the two. By now you should be beginning to recognise how different routines require different blocking; we’ll return to this in a bit more detail later, but next time I want to talk about being noisy.

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