Aspects of Theatre: Set, Stage & Crew

Instructor: Sunday Moulton

Sunday recently earned a PhD in Anthropology and has taught college courses in Anthropology, English, and high school ACT/SAT Prep.

This lesson introduces lesser known aspects of theatrical productions, including the vocabulary for stage components and directions, sets, and an overview of the crew and their functions.

The Making of a Hit

Have you ever attended a Broadway musical, dreamed of performing in or directing a show, or maybe even found your niche in building sets and running the sound and lights? If so, you may already be aware that a stage production is more than the stars that entertain audiences. The show is a cooperative effort of performers, directors, and behind-the-scenes crew members who give their all to deliver the amazing productions we love. In this lesson, we look at the different roles of crew members, the set of the show, and the components of the stage.

Proscenium arch of the Metz Opera House
Proscenium arch of the Metz Opera House

The World is a Stage

First, let's look at the stage, the place where all the action happens. Even the most basic stage will be divided into sections, visible or not, to make direction easier and determine precisely where set pieces belong; this is called stage direction. The very middle part of the stage, where the majority of all performer's actions occur, is called center stage. From this point, any area closer to the audience is called downstage while movement away from the audience is called upstage.

Now, here is where the stage directions get tricky because they are named from the perspective of a performer facing the audience. To the actor's left, what the audience sees on their right side, is called stage left but also called house right. To the actor's right is called stage right and house left.

Other parts of the stage possess their own names apart from stage direction. First, is the proscenium arch which is the entire part of the stage, usually framed by the curtains, that is visible to the audience. The apron is the very front of the stage that the audience can still see with the curtains drawn. Finally, we have the wings, which are unseen areas to the left and right of the proscenium arch used for entrances, exits, and to create a sense of the world beyond the staged scene.

Parts of the Stage and Directions
Diagram of Stage

The Stage Is Set

On the stage, crews construct a set, the complete assembly of stationary and moveable objects used to create the illusion of the performance occurring in a particular place. This also includes all the props, short for properties, which are all the objects the actors will handle and use during the scene. Often, a performance requires multiple sets to tell the story, each representing a different location in the action.

The first concern for a set is hiding the off-stage areas from the audience. Crews use masking, designed scenery, or a neutral material for this function. Next are flats, painted pieces of wood used to define a place such as the walls of a room or a row of buildings in a street scene. One of the most common and interesting uses of flats is a box set, the construction of a room from three flats with the fourth wall of the room missing, allowing the audience to look in on the actors.

Crews use a number of tools to organize where the set pieces go and move them into position. First, they make a ground plan, a scale model of each scene with the location of flats and props marked. This assists the stage crew to know where to place everything and allows the technical crew to avoid obstacles when placing or changing light and sound equipment. Finally, to change scenes quickly, they construct wagons, wheeled platforms under flats so they can roll away. They also construct revolves, turntables on the stage floor that display different flats for different scenes when turned.

Flats used to mimic a city
Constructed set of a cityscape

There Are No Small Parts

At last, we come to the people who make it all possible, the crew. While the term covers all the people behind the scenes, many different jobs comprise the crew, each performing a specialized a vital role. Rather than list each of the dozens of jobs, they can be simplified into categories by their job function.

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