The Basics of Stage Directions for Actors

Every play has some degree of stage direction written into the script. Stage directions serve many functions, but their primary one is to help actors situate themselves on stage, called blocking. During rehearsal, a grid will be overlaid on the stage, dividing it into nine or 15 zones, depending on size.

Notations in the script from the playwright, set aside with brackets, tell the actors where to sit, stand, move about, and enter and exit. The directions are written from the perspective of the actor facing downstage, or toward the audience. The rear of the stage, called upstage, is behind the actor's back. An actor who turns to his right is moving stage right. An actor who turns left is moving stage left. 

Stage directions also can be used to tell an actor how to shape his or her performance. These notes may describe how the character behaves physically or mentally and are used by the playwright to guide the play's emotional tone. Some scripts also contain notations on lighting, music, and sound effects.

Stage Direction Abbreviations

Actors rehearsing on stage
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From the rear of the stage to the audience, there are three zones, upstage, center stage, and downstage. These are each divided into three or five sections. If just three sections, there will be a left and right in each. In the center stage zone, right or left may be referred to simply as stage right and stage left, with only the very middle of the stage being referred to as center stage

If the stage has been divided into 15 zones instead of nine, there will be a "left center" and "right center" in each section, for five possible locations in each.  

When you see stage directions in published plays, they are often in abbreviated form. Here's what they mean:

  • C: Center
  • D: Downstage
  • DR: Downstage right
  • DRC: Downstage right center
  • DC: Downstage center
  • DLC: Downstage left center
  • DL: Downstage left
  • R: Right
  • RC: Right center
  • L: Left
  • LC: Left center
  • U: Upstage
  • UR: Upstage right
  • URC: Upstage right center
  • UC: Upstage center
  • ULC: Upstage left center
  • UL: Upstage left

Tips for Actors and Playwrights

Actors rehearsing on stage
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Whether you're an actor, writer, or director, knowing how to use stage directions effectively will help you improve your craft. Here are some tips.

  • Make it short and sweet. Edward Albee was notorious for using vague stage directions in his scripts (he used "not amused" in one play). The best stage directions are clear and concise and can be interpreted easily.
  • Consider motivation. A script may tell an actor to walk quickly downstage center and little else. That's where a director and actor must work together to interpret this guidance in a manner that would seem appropriate for the character.
  • Practice makes perfect. It takes time for a character's habits, sensibilities, and gestures become natural, which means lots of rehearsal time, alone and with other actors. It also means being willing to try different approaches when you hit a roadblock.
  • Directions are suggestions, not commands. Stage directions are the playwright's chance to shape physical and emotional space through effective blocking. But directors and actors don't have to be faithful to stage directions if they think a different interpretation would be more effective.