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Backstage Organization and Design for Theatre

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Theatre
Wordcount: 4673 words Published: 8th Feb 2020

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A Study of stage management and design

Theatre is an art form that thrives off of a collaborative process. The process uses an ensemble of live performers to showcase an experience to a group of audience members. There are several elements that are used to put a theatre performance together. Several different departments work together, so there is no one department that has the heaviest load than another. These elements include properties (props), scenic entities, sound, lighting, staging, costumes, choreography, linguistics, music, etc. Many of these elements have their origins in Ancient Athens. Athens was part of the performance culture of ancient Greece. These performances were a way the ancient Greeks celebrated religious festivals, athletic competitions, weddings, political ceremonies and other large banquets. Throughout the years, historians have determined that participation for these festivals were mandatory and a major part of your citizenship. Aristotle claims that the origins of theatre can be found in the festivals that were to honor the God Dionysus. These performances were given in an auditorium that was in semi-circle that was cut into hillsides. They were able to hold the seating for about 10,000 to 20,000 citizens.

There were three main types of theatre that was seen in Ancient Greece. As contestants in the City of Dionysia competition, playwrights were required to present four related plays which traditionally consisted of three tragedies and one satyr. This competition was the most celebrated of all the festivals to stage dramas.

The first is the tragedy. The origins of the tragedy remain unclear. However, by the 5th century BCE the form was institutionalized in competitions that were in ceremonies that were held in honor of Dionysus — the God of wine and fertility. This is a category of drama that is written about the human suffering that creates pleasing reactions from the audience members. Athenian tragedy is the oldest surviving form of tragic drama. This is a form of “dance-drama” that created an important part of the artistic culture of the city-state. However, there are no tragedies that have survived from the 6th century BCE. Only 32 works out of the thousands that were performed during the 5th century BCE have survived until today.

The second form is comedy. This form of drama is entertainment that consists of jokes that are aimed to make the audience laugh. Aristotle defined comedy as “a representation of laughable people that involves some kind of blunder or ugliness that does not cause pain or disaster.” In Ancient Greece, these plays had a happy ending. Athenian comedy is traditionally divided into three genres: Old Comedy, Middle Comedy, and New Comedy. The only examples we see today of Old Comedy are the eleven surviving plays of Aristophanes. There are little to no examples of Middle Comedy. They are mostly lost to us. We only have short pieces of works by the authors such as Athenaeus of Naucratis. New Comedy has more examples, but is defined by the substantial papyrus fragments of Menander.

The final form is Satyr. This is the Greek form of a tragicomedy. Many historians think of this form as the ancient form of our modern Burlesque. It featured characters and plots such as satyrs. Greek Myths, mock drunkenness, sexuality, pranks, gags and merriment. Satyr finds its origins in the rural and agricultural rituals that were dedicated to Dionysus. This form eventually made its way to Athens to be seen in its most famous form. Satyrs were creatures that were loyal to Dionysus as his loyal woodland companions. They often engaged in drunken debauchery and mischief with him. The plots of these dramas were typically concerned with the happenings of the Gods and their involvement in the human world. They were also backed by the chorus of Satyrs.

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The stage these were performed on consisted of a dancing floor — the orchestra — and a scene-building area — the skene. Since the most important part of these performances were the words that the actors were speaking, the stage had to have good acoustics and the actors had to have a clear delivery on their lines. This was paramount because the actors — that were always men — wore masks that were appropriate to their characters that they represented. Each actor may also have played several different parts in each play.

In Ancient Rome, theatre developed and expanded more. The theatre craft in Ancient Rome consisted of a diverse art form. There were festival performances — like we saw in Ancient Greece — street theatre, dancing nude and acrobatics. There was also a form of theatre that showcased elaborate tragedies, such as the ones Seneca wrote, and comedies, such as those of Plautus.

The Hellenization of Roman in the 3rd century BCE had a large impact on how the Roman society viewed and took in the theatrical arts. It encouraged development of the Latin literature to be adapted for the stage.

There are only ten dramas that survived the fall of the Roman Empire. Nine of them are credited to Seneca.

Post Classical Theatre took place between the 15th century and the 19th century. One of the earliest forms of professional theatre is commedia dell’arte. This art form originated from Italy and quickly spread across the European countries in the 16th century. This form stayed popular until the mid-18th century.

Another popular art form that we still see today is the melodrama. This is a dramatic work in which the plot takes greater importance over the characterization. The characters that are scene in these works are often two-dimensional and simplistic. During this period, there was a movement to move away from the Ancient Greek Dramas and the Renaissance and to move more towards a naturalistic ideology. This movement followed closely behind the Industrial revolution.

In England, there was a standstill in the theatrical world between 1642 and 1660. This was due to the Puritan Interregnum. The people of the Puritan faith saw theatre and all of its relatives as sinful. It was not until King Charles II reclaimed the throne in 1660 that theatre began being an artistic revolution again.

The traditional stage as we know it today began during this period. The new theatre house became a place of refinement. The stage was situated in the front, with seating (stadium style) sat facing it. This new setup allowed actors to have space and a place to set up for their next appearance. Also, now that the seating was no longer surrounding the stage, the seating became prioritized. There are several seats that are better than others in this new seating arrangement. The king would always have the best vantage point in the house. He would sit in the very middle of the house. This is the seat that many scenic designers design around, as you can see the complete stage and everything that happens on it. In the theatre world, this seat is still called “The King’s Seat”. One of the most influential set designers during this time was Philippe Jacques de Loutherbourg. He utilized the stage floor space for all of his scenic aspects. He created a form of mechanical theatre called “Eidophusikon”. This form of mechanical theatre consisted of a miniature theatre that allowed for the experiment to try to find the perfect illusion of moving skies. With the moving scenic element, along with a sound element, this allowed the sets for plays to feel more realistic.

However, due to the controversy that the theatre has gone through in the past several decades, designers and theatre makers debated what should and should not be allowed to be shown and presented on stage. One of the figures at the forefront of this controversy was Jeremy Collier. Collier was a preacher and wrote a paper called A Short View of the Immorality and Profaneness of the English Stage. The arguments in his paper were sided with by mainly the non-theatre goers and the rest of the Puritan population that resided in London. We still see this argument in the world today.

It was not until the 17th century that we see women being introduced to the life on stage. The first women that we saw on stage were seen as celebrities. We finally see the rise of women on stage due to the newer ideas that were rising such as individualism. King Charles II did not like the idea that young men played women, so he partitioned women to play women on stage. However, like every change, there were critics of this notion. They claimed that women acting on stage was unladylike. Although in some societies actors were still seen below other social classes, women were looked down upon even more.

Once women found themselves playing themselves onstage, playwrights were given more leeway on their plots. We see this in the way of women dressing like men, and acting like men.

It was not until the 18th Century we see the rise of the national theatre, which was inspired by Ludvig Holberg. Holberg was a major promoter if the German National Theatre.

In the 19th century, we see movements grow such as: melodrama, realism, romanticism, and naturalism. In 1804 we saw Napoleon Crowned Emperor in France, and two years later in 1806, we see the Holy Roman Empire fall. In 1812, the War of 1812 broke out and caused trading tension between The United States, France, ad Great Britain. It was not until after the Industrial Revolution that we saw Romanticism grow exponentially.

The term, however, was misleading. There was no “Romantic Movement” during this time. The writers of this period also did not call themselves Romantics. It was not until August Wilhelm von Schlegel’s Vienna lectures (1808-1809) was there a notion of the romantic qualities of the art that was being done. In 1812, the Drury Lane theatre was built. In 1816, Frankenstein was written. Also, in this year, Barber of Seville was composed by Gioachino Rossini. This opera remains one of

 the most frequently performed comic operas. Also, the Chestnut Street Theatre in Philadelphia installed a gas lighting system and a gas generator on the grounds. It was not until 1822 when we saw gas lighting installed at the Opera in Paris.

Charles Kemble was the first theatrical manager to use time appropriate sets and costumes on the stage in England.

In 1831, Victor Hugo wrote The Hunchback of Notre Dame. Hugo had strayed from his earlier works and created even more of a following after this novel was published. This fame followed the story until today’s modern society. Also, in this time, the box set became popular. This was a realistically detailed roofed set that had three walls. This is where the term “fourth-wall” comes from. This Box Set did not have a wall in front in order to allow the audience to see. It was introduced in London in Madame Vestris’ production of The Conquering Game by William Bayle Bernard. We see this stage set up still used today.

In the waterways of the southern and midwestern parts of the United States, Show Boats were gaining popularity. These boats brought entertainment to the river frontiers.

In 1843, England passed a Theatre Regulation Act. Due to this Act, drinking and smoking were permitted in the music halls, although these acts were prohibited in legitimate theatres. Tavern owners, therefore, often annexed buildings adjoining their premises as music halls.

In 1852, the United States saw their first production of Uncle Tom’s Cabin.

Melodrama is sentimental drama with an improbable plot that concerns the unfavorable events suffered by the virtuous at the hands of the villainous but ends happily with virtue triumphant. This form of theatre featured stock characters (which we see in commedia dell’arte) such as the noble hero, the heroine, and the self-absorbed villain.

Towards the end of the 19th century, six men (Charles Frohman, Al Hayman, A.L. Erlanger, Mac Klaw, Samuel Nidlinger and Frederick Zimmerman) formed the Theatrical Syndicate. The Theatrical Syndicate basically gained complete control over the American theatre scene. These six men realised to gain control of a city, and thus create a monopoly, they had to gain control of all the theatres that were on the path to the major touring city. This caused them to own most of the theatrical real estate across America. During the years of 1908 and 1909, the Syndicate did not have enough productions to fill their numerous theatres and the company saw their monopoly break.

As we move forward into the 20th century, we see many of the trends of the past century carry on.

Throughout history, there has been a trend of having theatre be broken into genres. There are 5 main ones. They are Drama, Musical Theatre, Comedy, Tragedy and Improvisational Theatre. [1]/[2]

According to Merriam Webster Dictionary, drama is “a composition in verse or prose intended to portray life or character or to tell a story usually involving conflicts and emotions through action and dialogue and typically designed for theatrical performance.” The word “drama” comes from the Greek Word “δράση” meaning “action”. Often, the dramatic works is combined with music and dance, we see this in Operas. These dramas usually have an underscore under the serious and most important moments of the plot to emphasis the importance of the subtext and clues the audience is hearing.

Musical Theatre is one of the most well-known genres of theatre due to the popularization of Broadway. However, Broadway was not the first enterprise to on the combination of music and dialogue. The Ancient Greeks had musical elements in their works, as mentioned in the paragraph above. Athenian tragedies incorporated a form of “dance-drama” that had the chorus sing actor responses or songs to further the audience understanding of the plot.

Modernly referred to as “Broadway”, Broadway Theatre is a group of 41 professional theatres that line the streets of the Theatre District and Lincoln Center in Midtown Manhattan, NYC. The majority of these theatres produce musicals.

Many of the producers that work on Broadway and the owners of the 41 theatres are members of “The Broadway League”. This organization promotes theatre on Broadway as a whole. It also negotiates with theatrical unions and co-administers the Tony Awards. [3]

One of the positions that are seen throughout the performance arts is a Stage Management. Stage Management is a department of its own that is defined as the system of coordination and organization of a theatrical production. It relies on communication of all other design departments such as scenic, sound, lighting, staging and properties. To be efficient, stage managers must have a general understanding of all of these departments to ensure a smoothly run production.

The title of “Stage Manager” did not evolve until the 1700s, however, the role itself can be seen described as far back as Ancient Greece. Historically, the playwrights were in charge of backstage organization and other production elements. The first named stage technician we have record of is Sophocles. He was supported due to his position as an artist, playwright and musician.

Sophocles is one of the three recorded dramatists from Ancient Greece known for his tragedies. He wrote about 120 plays in his lifetime, but we only have seven completed today.

In the Middle Ages, there is record of a position called the Conducteurs De Secrets. This role oversaw the “box office” and the prompter. The prompter sat at the edge of the stage, unseen from the audience view, and fed lines to the actors.

During the Elizabethan theatrical period, the modern role of stage management was divided into two different titles: Book Keeper and Stage Keeper. The Book Keeper was responsible for the script, licensing, feeding lines to actor, and cueing effects. The Stage Keeper was responsible for the upkeep of the theatre and security.

It was not until Shakespeare and Moliere when the role of “Stage Manager” became a distinct and necessary role. This role was often left to theatrical apprentices. However, it was not until the 18th century when the term Stage Manager was coined. This person was hired outside of the playwright and acting circles and was hired to direct and manage the stage and all production elements. However, as the production scale grew and expanded, the duties of the Stage Manager was broken into Stage Manager and Director.

It is said that Preston Sturges was employed by Isadora Duncan to be an Assistant Stage Manager at 16 years of age in 1913, but was not long employed, because he would cue thunder and then the lightning, instead of the other way around.

Stage Management today has evolved and varies from production to production. However, there is a main list of responsibilities that does not change with productions. Stage Management is in charge of creating a rehearsal schedule, knowing the set inside and out as soon as it is finalized, in charge of props, prompting actors during rehearsals, making sure the rehearsal space is safe and up to industry standard (including the need for breaks), creating a rehearsal report after every rehearsal and calling the show. [4]

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Stage Management organization starts backstage, but ends in their Prompt Book. The Stage Management Prompt Book is the “bible” of stage managers. It contains their call script, checklists, light and sound cues, schedules, emergency contacts, rehearsal reports, performance reports, emergency announcements, design plots and health information. This book contains all information to make the show run. The first record of a Prompt Book is in the with the Prompter in the Middle Ages. In the 19th century, Stage Management Prompt Books began to be published, since the spectacle of theatre evolved drastically. These Prompt Books were published to show how techniques were used and how they have changed over years of technological growth. [5]

Although the roles and positions on theatre are generally universal, the role of Stage Manager changes between the United States and the United Kingdom.

In the United States, larger shows require more than one stage manager. This means that there is a Production Stage Manager, and then 2 Assistant Stage Managers. When creating the program, this allows for productions to have a Production Stage Manager, a Stage Manager, and an Assistant Stage Manager. The Production Stage Manager represents the Performers.

In the United Kingdom, the stage management team structure all depends on the size and length of the show. Unlike the United States, they have a Stage Manager, a Deputy Stage Manager, and an Assistant Stage Manager. In experimental theatre (fringe theatre) there is often only one person who does the work of all three roles listed above. However, as you get to more well-established theatre companies and troupes, the more people are hired as Assistant Stage Managers. The Deputy Stage Manager has many of the same jobs that we see in the United States Stage Manager, while running backstage during shows like the United States Assistant Stage Manager.

Since women have been allowed on stage, the industry has grown in the number of men and women working both on and off the stage, however, the technical theatre side has remained a male dominated industry. Stage Managers are hired for a variety of reasons. Assistant Stage Managers were not just hired by the Stage Manager, but also the casting director because they were the understudies. They were required to be at every rehearsal, so if needed they could jump into a cast role at a moment’s notice. [6]

 Due to the intricate relationship Stage Managers have with all departments of a production, organization and design find themselves on the top of the stage manager list of duties.

 Once a show is put up, the Stage Manager is responsible for setting up all the props and presetting for the show every performance. Presetting and stage managing are an art form in themselves.

 In present day, Stage Managers do not only call cues from a booth above the audience, they are responsible for making sure that the designers’ designs are executed the way that they were planned. There are many people out there that say that one Tech Week begins, the show is handed over to the Stage Manager, in some ways that is true. Stage Managers know the production inside and out by the time the show goes into tech. They know which stage hand is available and what transition is not going to work by simply looking at it. If anything is needed to be finished, Stage Management is assumed to finish it before the call that day. However, the show doesn’t transfer hands from Director to Stage Management the beginning of tech. The Stage Manager begins working for tech the moment the show is announced. They begin to track props, and costumes before there are any on stage. They create a system – unique to each Stage Manager – to lessen the chaos backstage as soon as they can get into the space.

 The design process for Stage Managers, begins after the design process for designers. Stage Management needs the cast list, and the complete production list to being doing their jobs completely. Stage Management is the conversation and member that keeps the collaboration on track. They are the main source of information – before Tech Week even arrives.

 One of the main duties Stage Management has during rehearsals is the rehearsal report. This is a document that allows all departments to see the questions, concerns, or ideas the director has and came up with during that day’s rehearsal. Each Stage Manager has a different system of setting these reports up. Each report should have a section for each department. Above is an example for MCLA’s production of She Kills Monsters that was Stage Managed by Chelsea Sutherland. Since this show had a large puppetry element, puppetry was added to the report.

Stage Management must also create a blocking schedule. This allows the director and the actors to know what is being done each rehearsal. This helps keep the production on track. This should be sent out to the entire company including the designers. Designers should receive this so they can come see specific moments that they need to see to aid in their design process. If this schedule changes, you must fix it on the master and resend to everyone. This keeps the objective of the production clear and there are no bouts of confusion throughout the company.

One of the larger forms of design that Stage Management needs to be concerned about is props. Once the show starts it is the Stage Management Team to make sure props stay organized and checked in. This required creating prop tables. Although they are not the main contact for props, but much like other design elements, it becomes the duty of the Stage Management Team once the show goes up.[7]

Overall, it may be said that Stage Management has become the glue that holds the production together. They know and need to know everything that happens in the production. In order to run a smooth and safe production, the Stage Management Team needs to be well versed in all areas of design and organization. It is the only way to completely run a theatre performance.


  1. Ionazzi, Daniel A. The Stage Management Handbook. Betterway Publications, 1992.
  2. Metzler, Bo. What We Do: Working in the Theatre. Infinity Publishing.com, 2012.
  3. Kelly, Thomas A. The Back-Stage Guide to Stage Management: Traditional and New Methods for Running a Show from First Rehearsal to Last Performance. 3rd ed., Backstage Books, 2009.
  4. White, Christine A. Technical Theatre: A Practical Introduction. Arnold, 2001.
  5. Brook, Peter. The Empty Space: A Book about the Theatre: Deadly, Holy, Rough, Immediate. A Touchstone Book, Published by Simon & Schuster, 1996.
  6. “Theatre Blogs.” Stage Directions, 10 Jan. 2019, stage-directions.com/theatre-blogs.html.
  7. “Guildhall Theatre Technology Blog.” Guildhall Theatre Technology Blog, 24 Nov. 2017, theatretechnologyblog.wordpress.com/.
  8. Brockett, Oscar G. (1999). ‘History of the Theatre (8th ed.). Boston, MA, USA: Allyn and Bacon.
  9. Pallin, Gail (25 April 2003). Stage Management: The Essential Handbook (2 ed.). London: Nick Hern Books.
  10. Bloom, Ken. “Introduction” Broadway: Its History, People, and Places (2004) (books.google.com) Taylor & Francis
  11. Ackerman, Alan. “Liberalism, Democracy, and the Twentieth-Century American Theater,” American Literary History (2005)
  12. White, Timothy R. Blue-Collar Broadway: The Craft and Industry of American Theater (2014)

[1] Source 8, Source 11

[2] Andrea Williams Presentations in Theatre History I and Theatre History II

[3] Source 10

[4] Source 12, Source 11, Source 10

[5] Source 1

[6] Source 2

[7] Source 3, Source 2, Source 1


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