Tuesday, March 6, 2012
Behind the Scenes: The Various Parts of a Performance Theater
No two theaters are exactly alike, but all have wings, dressing rooms and seating for the audience. Here’s an overview of the standard parts of a theater and the terminology used to direct most dance performances.
The size, style, and shape of a stage can vary drastically from theater to theater. But all stages have wings, a floor for performances and a stage apron, as well as additional features like catwalks and orchestra pits for the more technical aspects of a ballet.
Stage directions are listed according to the dancer’s view of the stage; it’s his or her left (based on facing the audience) as opposed to that of the audience’s. There are five basic stage directions.
Stage Left - Dancer’s Left.
Stage Right - Dancer's Right.
Center stage - Center of the Stage.
The next two directions refer to how far forward a dancer is on the stage:
Up Stage: A dancer standing far at the back of the stage, against the backdrop, is very far up stage.
Down stage: A dancer standing at the edge of the stage, right near the audience, is very far down stage.
The stage is flanked on both sides by what are called “wings.” Wings are curtained-off exits from the stage that allow a performer to go off stage and rest without being seen by the audience. The wings are usually made from a five or six-foot wide black curtain that stretches to the ceiling of the theater.
Most stages have three equally divided wings per side, though some have more. The wings are normally named for their stage direction. For example, a wing on the dancer’s left, close to the backdrop, would be the upstage left wing; a middle wing to the dancer’s right is the center right wing.
The flooring of a stage varies wildly depending on the facility and whether or not it is used solely for dance performances.
Standard performing arts facilities have wooden or concrete flooring, which can be used for both plays and music recitals. Dancers can opt to use this floor, but may need to take additional precautions, such as rosin tips or overlays, to counter the slippery surface.
Rosin and suede tips on pointe shoes can help prevent slipping, though the wood floor will always make dancers more prone to falls. Because of this concern, many directors choose to use an overlay, thin flooring mats that can be rolled out like carpet over a wooden or concrete stage. They have rubber backing to prevent slipping and are usually sealed to the base flooring with heavy duty duct tape to ensure the safety of the dancers. Sometimes theaters provide the rolls of overlay flooring, but it is more often stored and supplied by the performing artists.
Marley flooring is made from layers of foam and coated rubber, designed to provide cushioning for a dancer while at the same time maintaining a slip-free surface. Marley was originally used on the decks of Navy ships due to its waterproof surface and long term durability.
Raked stages, while not common in the United States, can be found in many of the oldest and most celebrated theaters in Europe. Raked stages were originally designed to give the audience a better perspective by slanting the entire stage slightly downward toward the viewers. Unfortunately, this improvement for the audience, often results in a slight loss of balance for dancers, particularly for turns.
A standard stage can be rectangular or round, thrust into the audience or small and withdrawn. However, as long as a stage has a curtain, it will also have an apron. The apron of a stage is the small part that is left uncovered after the curtain comes down, which allows performers to stand in front of the curtains for bows and the aptly named “curtain call”.
The Prompt Box
The prompt box is usually tucked into the left corner of downstage. This little alcove is where the stage manager sits, curtained off from audience view, making it easy to access backstage and see all activity onstage. It is here where the manager uses a headset intercom to communicate with all crew members.
The Orchestra Pit
In most theaters, there is a recessed, half circle area between the stage and the front row of the audience called the orchestra pit. The orchestra pit is designed to fit all members of the orchestra accompanying the performance. Its recessed dimensions serve two functions: First, to allow the conductor to see the performers and adjust tempi accordingly; secondly, to disguise the orchestra members themselves. With the instruments, conductor, and musicians all moving around constantly, the orchestra pit allows the performance to go on without distraction for either dancer or audience member.
High above the stage is a platform made of wooden planks from which a range of technical aspects can be controlled. This platform, due to its narrow size, is called the catwalk. Dancers rarely — if ever — go on the catwalk, as there is no need.
From the catwalk, crew members and stage hands can drop effects such as fake snow or rain, glitter or banners, or other mobile backdrop features. Any problems in the rigging of a backdrop can also be adjusted from the catwalk — although this is usually avoided, as the backdrops are rigged with controls set in the wings.
The dressing room is where a dancer dons their costume, makeup, hair pieces, and gets ready for a show. There can be anywhere from one to twenty dressing rooms, depending on the size of a theater. In larger venues, lead dancers are usually awarded their own private dressing room, while smaller ones force dancers into more cluttered spaces.
The Green Room
Though there is debate over the origin of its name, the green room’s purpose has always been the same: To serve as a place where performers can relax and eat while taking breaks during a show or rehearsal.
While some green rooms are indeed painted green, most are simply plain rooms with couches, refrigerators, and tables where performers can chat and relax. But green rooms are also regarded with some level of supernatural superstition, thanks to their somewhat contradictory history of serving not only as areas of recuperation, but also of conflict. The most famous example occurred in 1735 when actor Charles Macklin fought with another actor over a wig in the green room, murdering him on the spot. Thus, the superstition.
The cyclorama is a curved sheet of thick material or plastic that covers the entire back of the stage and serves as the intermediary between backstage and on-stage. It can be projected upon, decorated, lit, or simply left as is to create the backdrop of a production.
The cyclorama is usually laid flat, but can, in specific pieces, be curved or draped differently to represent a variety of backdrops and atmospheric tones.
The house refers specifically to the area in which the audience sits. This is also the origin of the term “full house,” used to describe a performance with high audience attendance.
Seating capacity varies between theaters: some seat as few as 100 audience members; others can seat several thousand. However, regardless of their size, every theater maintains a standardized set of seating sections: orchestra, boxes, mezzanine, and balcony.
Orchestra seating is the closest section to the stage. It resides right behind the orchestra pit, sometimes coming as close as just a few feet to the apron of the stag and often in one cluster of six to ten rows of seats. The orchestra seats tend to be the best for those hard of hearing or who want to see the dancers at very close range.
Boxed seats are available in less than half of theaters in the United States, but are more common in older European theaters. Boxes are private enclaves located on the sides and just in front of the stage, allowing viewers to watch the performance with privacy and the ability to speak quietly with their company. For this reason, boxed seats are usually the most expensive, although the view they provide is often skewed due to their attachment to either side of the theater.
Mezzanine seating is located right behind the orchestra seats and is the most common, sought after seat in the ballet. The farther back you are seated in this section, the higher your view (due to the slight slope of the house floor).
Mezzanine seats can be in one section that spans the width of the theater or divided into several sections with aisles in-between each. The most common setup is a three-way division, with one section of mezzanine seats on the left side of the theater, one in the center, and one on the right.
While only slightly more common than box seats, if available, balcony seats are among the most popular. The balcony seats are located above floor level and usually stretch from the back of the theater to the middle of the mezzanine, overshadowing many mezzanine seats.
Balcony seats are normally divided into as few sections as possible due to the smaller space. Ballet patrons sitting in the balcony frequently bring opera glasses with them to get a clearer view of the dancers, as many balconies are constructed a great distance away from the stage.
Due to the relatively small amount of seats available in the balcony section, tickets are often more expensive, though they may not necessarily offer the best view.