Types of Stage

Drama, just like the other genres, has undergone significant changes in its historical development. This is partly attributable to the fact that stage types have also changed and have thus required different forms of acting. Let us have a look at the various stage forms throughout history (based on Pfister 2001: 41-45):

Greek Classicism

Plays in ancient Greece were staged in amphitheatres, which were marked by a round stage about three quarters surrounded by the audience. Since amphitheatres were very large and could hold great masses of people (up to 25,000), the actors could hardly be seen from far back, and for this reason, acting included speaking in a loud, declamatory voice, wearing masks and symbolical costumes and acting with large gestures.

The chorus was a vital part of ancient drama. It had the function of commenting on the play as well as giving warning and advice to characters. The stage scenery was neutral and was accompanied by the real landscape surrounding the amphitheatre. Plays were performed in broad daylight, which also made it impossible, at least for night scenes, to create an illusion of ‘real life’ on stage. That was not intended anyway. Ancient Greek drama was originally performed on special occasions like religious ceremonies, and it thus had a more ritual, symbolic and also didactic purpose. Another interesting fact to know is that the audience in ancient Greece consisted only of free men, i.e., slaves and women were excluded.

Middle Ages

Medieval pageant in the market place

Medieval plays were primarily performed during religious festivities (mystery plays, morality plays). They were staged on wagons (pageants), which stopped somewhere in the market place and were entirely surrounded by the audience. The close vicinity between actors and audience has to account for a way of acting which combined serious renditions of the topic in question with stand-up comedy and funny or bawdy scenes, depending on the taste of the audience. Actors took into account the everyday experiences of their viewers and there was much more interaction between audience and actors than than nowadays. The lack of clear boundaries again impeded the creation of a realistic illusion, which was also not intended.

Renaissance England

Apron stage

The Elizabethan stage was typically found in public theatres, i.e., plays were no longer performed outside. However, it was still an open-air theatre as the lack of artificial lighting made daylight necessary for performances. An exception was the Blackfriar's theatre which was indoors and lit by candlelight. Theatre groups were now professional and mainly sponsored by wealthy aristocrats. Groups which were not under anybody's patronage were considered disreputable vagabonds.

The most common stage form in Renaissance England was the apron stage which was surrounded by the audience on three sides and there was still a close vicinity between audience and actors. This meant that actors could not possibly ignore their viewers, and theatrical devices such as asides and monologues ad spectatores were an integral part of the communication system. The stage set was reasonably barren while costumes could be very elaborate. Since performances took place in broad daylight, the audience had to imagine scenes set at night, for example, and respective information had to be conveyed rhetorically in the characters’ speeches (word scenery). As there was barely any scenery, scenes could change very quickly with people entering and exiting. The three unities were thus frequently not strictly adhered to in Elizabethan drama. The Elizabethan theatre could hold up to 2,000 people, and the audience was rather heterogeneous, consisting of people from different social backgrounds. Plays of that period thus typically combine various subject matters and modes (e.g., tragic and comical) because they attempted to appeal to as wide an audience as possible.

Restoration Period

Restoration Stage

Theatres of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries were considerably smaller than the Elizabethan theatre (they held around 500 people), and performances took place in closed rooms with artificial lighting. In contrast to modern theatres where the audience sits in the dark, the audience in the Restoration period was seated in a fully illuminated room. One must bear in mind that people of the higher social class were also interested in presenting themselves in public, and attending a play offered just such an opportunity. Because of the lighting arrangements, the division between audience and actors was thus not as clear-cut as today. Plays had the status of a cultural event, and the audience was more homogeneous than in earlier periods, belonging primarily to higher social classes. While the stage was closed in by a decorative frame and the distance between audience and actors was thus enlarged, there was still room for interaction by means of a minor stage jutting out into the auditorium. Furthermore, there was no curtain so that changes of scene had to take place on stage in front of the audience. Restoration plays thus still did not aim at creating a sense of realism but they presented an idealised, highly stylised image of scenery, characters, language and subject matter.

Modern Times

Proscenium stage

The stage of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries is called proscenium stage or picture frame stage because it is shaped in such a way that the audience watches the play as it would regard a picture: The ramp clearly separates actors and audience, and the curtain underlines this division. Furthermore, while the stage is illuminated during the performance, the auditorium remains dark, which also turns the audience into an anonymous mass. Since the audience is thus not disturbed from watching the play and can fully concentrate on the action on stage, it becomes easier to create an illusion of real life in plays. Furthermore, the scenery is now often elaborate and as true-to-life as possible thanks to new technologies and more detailed stage props.

While many modern plays aim at creating the illusion of a story-world ‘as it could be in real life’ and acting conventions follow this dictum accordingly, there have also been a great number of theatrical movements which counter exactly this realism. However, the modern stage form has not been able to fully accommodate to the needs of more experimental plays (e.g., the epic theatre), nor to older plays such as those of ancient Greece or the Elizabethan Age simply because the overall stage conventions diverge too much. For this reason, we find nowadays a wide range of different types of stage alongside the proscenium stage of conventional theatres.


Key-Terms:


Greek classicism
amphitheatre
chorus
mystery play
morality play

apron stage
restoration stage
proscenium stage

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


 Apron Stage