Upstage/Downstage: Why?

One of the first lessons that I teach young performers is how to take direction and move across stage. When I say young performers, I am typically referring to elementary school students. However, anyone who is new to the rehearsal process, regardless of age, needs to be able to recognize basic theatrical lingo in order to take direction. At a minimum, all actors should understand and recognize the terms, “stage right,” “stage left,” “downstage” and “upstage.” The terms “stage right” and “stage left” are pretty self explanatory. It refers to the actor’s right or left as they are standing on the stage and facing the audience.

The terms “Upstage” and “Downstage,” on the other hand, require a bit more clarification. In the early days of theater, stages used to be “raked” or built to slope toward the audience. The lowest side of the stage was the side closest to the audience and the highest side of the stage was furthest away from the audience. Thus, when actors were directed to move away from the audience, they were literally walking up an incline, or, in other words, they walked “upstage.” Similarly, to move toward the audience the actor would proceed down an incline or, “downstage” as it came to be known.

While it’s true that most theaters today are not built with a raked stage, actors, directors, dancers and anyone who makes their living on stage recognize that “upstage” implies moving away from the audience and “downstage” implies that you move closer to the audience.

Now, imagine the stage floor in a traditional, rectangular, proscenium stage and, in your mind, divide the stage floor into a giant tick tack toe board. Focus only on the playing area where actors will be seen by the audience — don’t worry about any part of the stage that is “off stage.” The center square of that tick tack toe board is center stage, while the squares to the immediate right and left of center are “stage right” and “stage left.” The squares directly above and below center stage are “upstage” and “downstage.” The four squares on the diagonal to center stage are “upstage right,” “upstage left,” “downstage right,” and “downstage left.”

If you are a teacher, I am certain that if you invite your group on stage and ask them to gather together “center stage” — they will know where that is. That is usually how I begin a class on stage direction. Get everyone to identify center stage and go from there.

I tell my students that center stage is generally recognized as the most prominent position on stage. Whatever is happening center stage is what the audience should be looking at or focusing on over anything else that is happening. I also advise my students that, in rehearsals, when you are working on a scene for the first time and it’s your turn to come on stage, enter with confidence and take the center position. This tells the director that you are eager, you are ready and you’ve got something to say! Let the director direct you where to go if he/she does not want you to be center stage. Always, always, always follow the director but, when it doubt, be brave and take center stage!

Discussion3 Comments

  • Willie Myette May 17, 2012 

    Val, this has always confused me. So glad you wrote about this. Great article!

  • Jackie Nov 07, 2013 

    Val, we are a small community and are trying to get the highschool drama class excited about learning drama and doing a play. There hasn’t traditionally been a strong program, and a new teacher is working to change that. The students like to play theatre games, but aren’t interested in much else. Besides stage direction, what suggestions do you have for a curriculum that makes them more passionate about performing, and to actually learn about the theatre. I have made suggestions to start with stage direction, but besides a few theatre terms am not sure what else to suggest.

    Do you have any advice?

    Yours truly,

  • Valerie Nov 07, 2013 

    Hi Jackie,

    I’m so glad to see that you and this new teacher are trying to get your students excited about theater. Where are you from? Theater games are a great place to start. They encourage creativity, fearlessness, collaboration, self-trust and fun. Are there any kids at all who are interested in plays? or is the whole group pretty collectively set against using text? If there are even two students who want to work with a script, I would find a short scene or a 10 minute, two-character play just for them and, in your practice time when you would normally do the games, carve out a small portion of time to publicly support those students. Give them a chance to rehearse their scene and show their stuff in front of the other kids who are now the audience. You can use this as a teaching opportunity to discuss audience etiquette (never a bad thing to reinforce) or give them an opportunity to provide appropriate and constructive feedback (another teaching moment). Chances are, once the kids see what kind of juicy roles are out there for them to inhabit, and they see other classmates doing it and having fun with it, they may just want to do it themselves! I hope this helps. If you need play suggestions or scene suggestions let me know!

    Good luck!


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