What Is Actors' Blocking?

by Chip Marsden

In theater, an actor only has to truly memorize two things: lines and blocking. The rest is analysis and experimentation. Lines are what an actor says on stage; blocking is where and how an actor moves onstage. Blocking is largely determined by the director and practiced and refined by actors during the rehearsal process.

Justified Movement

The importance of good blocking cannot be overstated. The greatest script in the world will suffer when staged if its blocking is sloppy. One function of blocking is to create movement that both advances the storyline and is justified by the script. A good director will never have an actor crossing the stage, standing up, sitting down or making any other movement without their characters having a reason to do so in the scene. As an actor, learning to feel when a movement does not fit well with the script or character, and being able to explain why this is the case will make you a more valuable asset to the rehearsal process.

Visual Composition

Another function of blocking is creating aesthetically pleasing visual compositions on stage. Ideally, every scene and individual blocking move should look good from every angle in the theater. If a scene is blocked in such a way that a character is visible to the center and right side of the house, but obscured to those sitting on the left, that is bad blocking. As an actor or director, try to be aware of blocking decisions that could be problematic and be able to constructively explain why.

Upstage and Downstage

In most modern plays, blocking directions are broken down into upstage, downstage, stage left, stage right and center. Downstage and upstage refer to distance from the audience. When you are downstage, you are on the part of the stage closest to the audience. When you are upstage, you are at the rear of the stage, a greater distance from the audience. These terms come from the old "raked" stages, which were actually slanted down from back to front. Therefore, walking to the back of the stage actually required walking up a slope.

Stage Right and Stage Left

Stage left and stage right are determined by the actor's perspective, and not the audience's perspective. Therefore, for an actor onstage looking out to where the audience would sit, everything on the left is stage left, and everything on the right is stage right. Center is the same from either perspective. Most blocking will be given to actors in the form of combinations of upstage, downstage, stage left, stage right and center. If an actor gets directions to move downstage left, he would know to go to the left side of the front part of the stage. A cross to upstage right would require moving to the right side of the back of the stage, and a move to upstage center means moving to the center of the back of the stage.

Recording Blocking

Most actors and directors choose to record blocking directions right on the pages of their script or prompt book. That way, they can visually associate certain movements with specific cues in the play. Because blocking changes frequently in rehearsal, pencil is preferred to pen for recording purposes due to the ability to erase old blocking and record new blocking.

About the Author

Based in Virginia, Chip Marsden has been a writer for more than eight years. He has covered film, politics and culture for regional newspapers and online publications. Marsden holds a B.A. in theater arts with a concentration in performance.

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