The Stage

Within theatre the stage is the main performance area. Not only does it provide for an area for actors to perform but it also allows for the scene to be set. Scenery can be simplistic or very extravagant, ranging from a few chairs placed upon the stage to an elaborately designed and well thought out set. Not all plays rely on an elaborate design to commence its portrayal, however when staging is set it can be done very extravagantly and can provide an example of where the play takes place. This can be an excellent tool in helping the audience visualize the time period and place where the play is supposed to be taking place. When staging originated the stages were very simplistic, however as time went on they became more extravagant and evolved into what we see today. Greek Theatre was the first to create props and other mechanical structures which is where many staging devices we use today derived from.

elaborate stage.jpg
An elaborately designed set for a portrayl of "Life With Father." Designed by Clarke Dunham in the Regional Theatre (1972).

A simplistic wooden stage which has not been decorated.

Ancient Greek Theatre

In ancient Greece scenery was not quite as elaborate as the some of the stages we see today. In theatre at this time the stage was a circular, flat pit which would usually be located between two hillsides. As time went on the scenery began to evolve slowly. Soon the Greeks began to build small a wooden structure called a “skene.” The skene was a large wooden, rectangular building which was located behind the orchestra, where the chorus was located. This structure was used to house the performers when they were getting into costumes, and acted as thebackdrop for the play. In the beginning the skene was not a permanent part of the stage, it was usually used for religious festivals and other important events, but as time went on the skene became more influential in the plays. Soon this once wooden, moveable object became a stone structure. In the fourth century the skene was changed into a two story building instead of the
original single story. To accomplish this Greeks placed a proskenion, which was a platform, under the skene to create the elevation needed (CUNY, “Introduction to Greek and Roman Comedy”). Soon it was discovered that the skene could be painted to represent what background was necessary for the play; this idea is usually accredited to Sophocles (Ley, 23).
Illistration of a typical Greek Theatre design.
Ancient Greek Theatre

In this time period Greeks also created new forms of technology/machinery to help with the productions. One new invention was called the “mechane,” meaning machine,
it was a basic crane consisting of a pulleys, rope, and a turning mechanism which allowed for someone to be hoisted into the air. This was used very frequently in tragic plays allowing actors whom represented a God to “fly” above the stage and look down upon the mortals (CUNY, “Introduction to Greek and Roman Comedy”). Another new invention was the “ekkyklema,” which was a small structure which was placed on wheels and would be dragged out through the skene. It is believed that this was used to represent an interior scene and the objects and actors which were placed on the platform were suppose to be inside some structure, whether it be a house or building (CUNY, “Introduction to Greek and Roman Comedy”). The final invention that improved the Greek theatre was the “periaktos,” this was basically a revolving triangle which held three different backdrops, as one side was being shown the other two could be changed for the next revolution which would represent another scene (Ley, 71).

During this time there was no portable lighting that could be used to set the stage aglow for audiences to enjoy at anytime, therefore plays had to be done during the day. Stages were usually constructed in places where natural lighting could provide enough to make the stage and performers visible. Along with the lighting problem, there was no way to show where the characters were the characters came from or where they were going. To handle this it is believed that Greeks deemed certain doors in the skene to represent distance. One door, on the right side, was presumed to be used to represent the arrival or departure for the city, while the left was used to represent a far away place (Ley, 44).

Ancient Roman Theatre

In Roman theatre there was a more extensive stage design than that of Greek, although much of the structure, and design was based off it. In the rear of the stage was a grandeur, which was a large three story building. Just like the skene of Greek theatre the grandeur allowed for some type of set, and a place for actors to enter and exit (CUNY, “Introduction to Greek and Roman Comedy”). This structure was set at such a height so that it was equivalent to that of the seating. Roman theatres were set in a semi circle style where the stage would be directly in the middle and the seating was around it. The seats were usually set up on a hill or some structure that was inclined so that stadium seating was possible. The actual stage in RomanTheatre was about 30 feet wide and 100-300 feet long. This lengthy stage was covered by a raised roof, and connected to the back of the stage was usually the grandeur (Roman Colosseum, “RomanTheater”). The stage wall, or the “Frons Sceane,” had two doors on the sides called the “portea hospitales,” allowed the actors to make easy entrances and exits (Roman Colosseum, “RomanTheatre”). These stages usually contained three to five doors, the two on the sides of the stage wall and a one or more extra for easy access to the dressing room. On the side of these stages were usually large stone statues, niches, columns and porticoes which were most of the time painted a bright color, such as gold or yellow (Roman Colosseum, “Roman Theatre”). The stage itself stood about five feet off the ground, and had doors set in the ground where a prop could be taken of the stage if necessary, and stored beneath the stage itself. Before the play started the Romans set up a curtain which was raised to show the beginning of the play and then dropped to represent the ending.

Just as the Greeks did the Romans built stages outside in well lit areas to provide light for the performances. They usually situated their stages in front of some type of hill, so they could set the seating arrangements upon the hill creating a natural stadium seating style. To provide an entrance and exit for the audience the Romans had to create “vomitoriums,” which were small passageways located behind the seats of the theatre where large crowds could quickly enter and exit (Roman Colosseum, “RomanTheatre”). The seating and stage layout of these theatres allowed for sound to travel and be amplified so all around the theatre could hear it.
The Grandeur in Orange, France.
Recreation of the Roman Theatre

Medieval Theatre

Just as the earlier staging models in the beginning medieval stages were stationary and would not dramatically change from one play to the next. These plays took place originally for the most part adjacent to the church; in fact the stages were usually located on church owned property, so obviously the plays revolved around the Christian story (Trumbull, “Medieval Theatre”). On this land, granted to the theatre groups by the church, the stage would be set up to consist of semi-extensive technical tricks and there were small scenic structures which indicated location called “mansions.” A mansion was used to represent a certain structure and indicate location, “a throne might equal the palace of Pilate” (Trumbull, Medieval Theatre”). During the shows it was not unusual for the church to be used as the mansion. The choir loft could represent heaven while the altar could indicate the tomb of Christ (Trumbull, “Medieval Theatre”). Adjacent to these mansions were the “plateaus,” or the performance space. The plateaus for the most part were where the actors would conduct their performances. During these performances, just as in the Greek theatre, devices could be used to create illusions. A lot of the plays in which Jesus was lifted to heaven, or angels were flown around the stage there were cranes used, just like the “mechanes” (Leach, 18).
Pageant Wagon

Soon these stationary stages began to change. Stage construction soon took a turn to something different, “pageant wagons,” which were basically small stages placed on a wheeled wooden cart. This new type of stage changed the number of people who could view the plays, instead of people having to travel to the church to see the play, the stage and the play could now come to them. The wagons often made cycles through towns or cities and would perform the acts multiple times so people could view them (Leach, 29). The wagons would be dragged through the area and the actors would perform their roles over and over for the changing audiences. Each wagon would show a different scene from the bible and would be set up in a different way to match the play taking place within the wagon. These new performance areas were now being constructed by guilds, whose profession matched the story. These groups of men, who shared closely related professions, would get together and build highly elaborate stages. Usually these stages would have three different parts and would represent earth, heaven, and hell, usually with earth in the middle of the others (Trumbull, “Medieval Theatre”). Staging machinery was not as prominent as in the fixed stages so flying was not a usual performance trick, so instead to represent God and the angels the actors would be in the “Heaven side” of the stage. To show the difference the “Heaven side” of the stage would be decorated in cotton, to represent clouds, and the “Hell side” would be red and usually contained the “hellmouth” (Leach, 30). The hellmouth was a large fire breathing monster which would spew out demons/devils. With the staging moved off catholic property the guildsman were able to get away with more. In original medieval times the stages would have located “heaven” and “hell” very far from one another, but now while they were off the church’s soil they constructed what they saw fit, and what got the best reactions from the audience.

Hellmouth illistration 1
Hellmouth illistration 2

Italian Renaissance Theatre

During the Italian Renaissance there was a new idea that revolutionized theatre. At this time artists were creating new fantastic ideas about painting and the view of art. These new ideas created an interesting new take on the possibilities for theatre. About the second decade of the 1400’s Filippo Brunelleschi created a bold new idea called linear perspective (Wild, “A Brief History of Theatrical Scenery”). This idea allowed for the illusion of space and distance, basically creating a three-dimensional aspect to a painting on a flat surface.

Italian Stage design

With this revolutionary idea other artists began to create scenery which created a new understanding for acting. In the mid 1545 a man by the name of Sebastiano Serlio published a detailed work on the construction and design of a new type of court theatre (Wild, “Renaissance Theatre: Italy”). In this new model the front of the stage would be in direct contact with the floor while slowly inclining backwards towards the rear of the stage. Upon this incline he placed four “wings,” one parallel to the audience creating a sort of backdrop, two were placed on the sides of the stage and were angled inwards toward the central background, and one was place upon the side wings creating a sky (Wild, “A Brief History of Theatrical Scenery”). These wings, although for the visual effects, also provided for covering the surrounding walls, rafters, the pulleys and ropes, and the back wall of the theatre. With this box design Serlio created a stage which not only provided the illusion of depth but created a realist view of a street and the area surrounding it. Serlio provided, in the book, detailed instructions on how to create each stage to fit the type of theatre in which the play was to portray. He wrote in detail on how to create a set for tragic, comedic, and satiric plays, each one with its own design and surroundings (Wild, “Renaissance Theatre: Italy”). Serilo’s tragic set consisted of columns, pediments, statues, and royal decorations along with a centered road which was surrounded by three houses on both sides and an arch in the rear. His comic set consisted of a group of buildings and galleries in which windows were created to look similar to those in regular private dwellings surrounding a center road. Lastly his satiric set consisted of a more pastoral look, it was covered in trees, caves, hills and other things often seen in nature, and this stage also had a centered road.
Serilo Tragic Scene design
Serilo Comic Scene design
Serilo Pastoral/Satorical Scene design


Dunkle, Roger. “Introduction to Greek and Roman Comedy.” Introduction to Greek and Roman Comedy. CUNY, n.d., Web. 22 Nov. 2012.

Leach, Robert, and Martyn Briggs. Medieval Theatre. London: Harrap, 1981. Print.

Ley, Graham. A Short Introduction to the Ancient Greek Theatre.Chicago: University of Chicago, 1991. Print.

“RomanTheatre.” RomanTheatre. Roman Colosseum. 2008. Web. 13 Nov. 2012.

Trumbull, Eric. “Introduction to Theatre- Medieval Theatre.” Introduction to Theatre-Medieval Theatre. N.p., Nov 16. 2007. Web. 14 Nov. 2012

Wild, Larry. “A Brief History of Theatrical Scenery.” A Brief History of Theatrical Scenery. N.p., 23 Feb. 2006. Web. 14 Nov. 2012.

Wild, Larry. “Renaissance Theatre: Italy.” Renaissance Theatre: Italy. N.p., 25 Oct. 2011. Web. 20 Nov. 2012.