Upstage/Downstage: Why?

One of the first lessons that I teach young performers is how to take direction and move across stage. When I say young performers, I am typically referring to elementary school students. However, anyone who is new to the rehearsal process, regardless of age, needs to be able to recognize basic theatrical lingo in order to take direction. At a minimum, all actors should understand and recognize the terms, “stage right,” “stage left,” “downstage” and “upstage.” The terms “stage right” and “stage left” are pretty self explanatory. It refers to the actor’s right or left as they are standing on the stage and facing the audience.

The terms “Upstage” and “Downstage,” on the other hand, require a bit more clarification. In the early days of theater, stages used to be “raked” or built to slope toward the audience. The lowest side of the stage was the side closest to the audience and the highest side of the stage was furthest away from the audience. Thus, when actors were directed to move away from the audience, they were literally walking up an incline, or, in other words, they walked “upstage.” Similarly, to move toward the audience the actor would proceed down an incline or, “downstage” as it came to be known.

While it’s true that most theaters today are not built with a raked stage, actors, directors, dancers and anyone who makes their living on stage recognize that “upstage” implies moving away from the audience and “downstage” implies that you move closer to the audience.

Now, imagine the stage floor in a traditional, rectangular, proscenium stage and, in your mind, divide the stage floor into a giant tick tack toe board. Focus only on the playing area where actors will be seen by the audience — don’t worry about any part of the stage that is “off stage.” The center square of that tick tack toe board is center stage, while the squares to the immediate right and left of center are “stage right” and “stage left.” The squares directly above and below center stage are “upstage” and “downstage.” The four squares on the diagonal to center stage are “upstage right,” “upstage left,” “downstage right,” and “downstage left.”

If you are a teacher, I am certain that if you invite your group on stage and ask them to gather together “center stage” — they will know where that is. That is usually how I begin a class on stage direction. Get everyone to identify center stage and go from there.

I tell my students that center stage is generally recognized as the most prominent position on stage. Whatever is happening center stage is what the audience should be looking at or focusing on over anything else that is happening. I also advise my students that, in rehearsals, when you are working on a scene for the first time and it’s your turn to come on stage, enter with confidence and take the center position. This tells the director that you are eager, you are ready and you’ve got something to say! Let the director direct you where to go if he/she does not want you to be center stage. Always, always, always follow the director but, when it doubt, be brave and take center stage!

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Apr 20, 2012