The Basics of Stage Directions for Actors

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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. In the example above, the stage has been divided into 15 zones.

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

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Most published plays have stage directions written within the text, 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.