Types of Stage Layouts and What Theater Actors Need to Know

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The intimate, intricate setup of a thrust stage means that if you’re playing Seymour in “Little Shop of Horrors,” you really can make it feel like you’re “suddenly… standing beside” not only Audrey, but also the audience. Conversely, playing a part in the classic proscenium theater means you have to act big to connect with theater-goers. No matter which stage sees you struttin’ your stuff, here’s how its layout might impact your performance. 


What are the different types of theater stages?

The proscenium stage: The proscenium stage is distinguished by a frame or arch that separates the stage from the rest of the auditorium. It is typically fairly deep and often includes a part known as an apron or forestage that extends out past the arch into the audience. Proscenium stages frequently include a pit for the orchestra in front of the stage and a fly tower up above for maneuvering lighting and scenery. 

The proscenium stage

Theater in the round: With a theater in the round, the stage is located in the center of the room, with the audience seated around it on all four sides. Since there is no obvious front or back to a theater in the round, blocking may involve performers moving around so that every audience member gets a mix of front, side, and rear views. This puts every seat in the house on similar footing. Despite its name, a theater in the round doesn’t actually need to be round, and many such theaters are square or hexagonal in shape. 

Theater-in-the-round performances tend to feel more intimate than some other setups, since actors typically enter and exit from aisles or vomitoriums between the members of the audience. Additionally, sets for theater-in-the-round productions tend to be minimal (or nonexistent) in order to leave the view of the performers unobstructed.

Theater in the round

The thrust stage: The thrust stage protrudes much more prominently than its proscenium counterpart, with the audience seated on three sides of the stage. While normally rectangular, the shape of a thrust stage can also be a semicircle or half of any type of polygon. Similar to a theater in the round, a thrust stage can provide a more intimate performance experience than a typical proscenium stage. However, since a thrust stage does have a consistent backstage area, it allows for sets and props that may be difficult to include in a theater-in-the-round performance. 

The thrust stage

The platform stage: Much like the name suggests, the platform stage is simply a raised platform at the end of a room, with the audience seated facing the stage. These platforms may include additional features such as a backstage area or curtain, but are frequently just the platform with no additional bells and whistles. Platform stages are commonly found in venues that are used for more than just theatrical performances, such as multipurpose buildings, churches, and event halls. 

The platform stageKozlik/Shutterstock

The black-box theater: Also known as a flexible or studio theater, the black-box theater is the simplest version of a stage: It is simply a room—typically painted black, hence the name—that can be set up in a variety of configurations very quickly and easily. The first row of the audience is commonly on the same level as the stage itself, although both the chairs and the stage can be set up in any configuration the creative team prefers. 

Black-box theaters are intended to be blank slates that are infinitely adaptable to any type of performance. It’s not uncommon for performances in black-box theaters to incorporate minimalist sets and props. These spaces can be a great fit for smaller or lower-budget productions. 

Lewisville Grand

Courtesy Lewisville Grand Theater

Open-air theater: An open-air theater or amphitheater can incorporate a thrust stage, a theater in the round, or most other types of setup. Its defining feature is being open to the sky, meaning there is no roof overhead. Open-air theaters are most popular in areas with warm, mild climates, where it’s possible to sit outside for long periods of time. These theaters can range from permanent installations, such as the MUNY in St. Louis and Central Park’s Delacorte Theater, to the pop-up stages for traveling Renaissance fairs. As long as the show is taking place in the open air with nothing between the audience and the sky, anything goes.

Open-air theater

Felix Tchvertkin/Shutterstock

What are the different considerations for actors across stage types?

Theater stage

Greta Gabaglio/Shutterstock

Most actors performing live theater for any length of time wind up performing on at least a few—if not all—of the stage layout types. And while some setups may be more common than others, it’s important that performers know how to deliver a strong performance no matter the venue. Here are a few things to keep in mind.

Where is the audience looking? 

Are audience members all facing the same direction, or do they surround part or all of the stage? For actors performing in theaters in the round, thrust stages, and some black-box theaters, audience members will likely be observing the performance from multiple vantage points, so it’s important to work on making every angle your best one.

How far away is the audience? 

In addition to being aware of where the audience is looking, actors should also consider how close viewers are to the stage—performing in a large amphitheater requires more grandiose emoting than a nuanced performance befitting an intimate black-box theater. The closer the audience is, the more subtle the performance can be; and the further the audience is, the more you may need to amplify your performance (and your voice) so that those in the back of the auditorium can appreciate it.

Where are the sightlines? 

With a more classic proscenium stage or a platform stage, knowing where to look can be a fairly simple process; but it’s more complex when performing on a thrust stage or in the round. In addition to making sure there’s always a clear line of sight to scene partners, actors should consider audience placement to avoid accidental eye contact.

How do stage directions apply?

When you’re reading a script, chances are that it will have some stage directions written in. But how those stage directions apply to your performance may depend on what type of stage layout you’ll be working with. For example, you likely know the difference between “stage left” and “stage right,” but what does that mean in the round? Think ahead to how you’ll move your body around the stage, and work through any potentially tricky staging well before you have to perform for an audience.

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