Using the Stage to Tell a Story

Recently I saw the movie Fences in theaters, a film based on the play by August Wilson. Everything about it was working great for me – the plot, the conflicts, the characters, but best of all the performances. Denzel Washington and Viola Davis were outstanding, moving me on so many different levels emotionally I could hardly keep up. However, despite all the things I loved about Fences and how strong the story was, I couldn’t help but feel like something was off.

After thinking it through, it became apparent to me that what felt off about Fences is that it’s a play, not a movieIts strengths and formats relied on it being a play on the stage, not behind a camera. For instance, characters would exit and enter scenes without there being many cuts to new shots, everyone in the cast would suddenly meeting in Troy’s backyard whenever there needed to be an emotionally tense scene, and conversations went on for far longer than a film audience can handle.

Of course, I was so happy to see Fences with great actors in it, given that my odds of seeing the play performed live with actors of that caliber anytime is slim to none. But it got me thinking more about the strengths of the stage and how we as storytellers can utilize the stage when writing a play, making us all the more reliant on the medium it’s being in written in. Because even though I noticed that the Fences movie adaptation was still trying to be a play and didn’t adapt to the medium with more cuts and locations, I was so gladdened to have such a great example to help me study why the stage as an ingredient in theater is so essential.

It seems obvious that the main aspect that makes playwriting different than screenwriting is that for a play you are writing something for the stage. But oftentimes new writers forget that. The stage is just one of the many things that make playwriting different than other forms of storytelling, but for the sake of becoming more aware of the stage, that’s all this post will be focusing on.

The Basics

If you’ve ever been to a play or even acted in one, you’ll know what a stage looks like and how it’s referred to. However, if you haven’t here is a quick chart for you to refer to.

If you’re new to this, you’ll notice that left and right are seemingly reversed. This is because the directions are for the actors, not the audience.

Though most playwrights do not include “stage right” or “stage left” in their directions, as that is usually left for the director to decide, being more aware of the stage will help you think like a playwright.

Exercise: Write a scene in which two people are talking in one of the squares above and in another box there is some action happening but no dialogue. As you write, think about the following:

  • Do the two people talking see the action taking place?
  • Do the people in the action hear the people talking?
  • Will the two separate parts of the story interact?
  • What does the action do for the people speaking? How does it change the mood?
  • How does the conversation enhance the action?

Every playwright has a different way they go about playwriting – that’s part of what makes it such fun. However, there still remain a few standard phrases to keep in mind. As soon as you read one play you should pick up on the different ways playwrights communicate stage directions in a play, but the basic few are as follows:

  • Exit – Indicates the character should exit
  • Enter – Indicates when the character enters the scene
  • Aside – A remark by a character that is intended only for the audience to hear

Usually these are written in italics along with any other stage direction so as to distinguish from dialogue. Some playwrights will also put brackets around their stage directions, but that is one of the many personal liberties you may take when writing your play.

Again, these may seem obvious to the more experienced playwright, but given that there are no set rules like there are in screenwriting, it’s important to remember these key terms.

Types of Stages

Most people when they think about theatrical stages they imagine a proscenium stage in which everyone is sitting on one side of the stage watching the action take place. However, in order to really think through the playwriting experience and consider the stage as a tool to be used in your thought process, it’s important to consider the various types of stages at your disposal.

Arena Theater: Arena theaters are completely surrounded by seats and do not have a proscenium – the part of the stage in front of the curtain or the wall the separates the stage from the auditorium – so that actors must enter the scene via gaps in the seating arrangement or aisles. This forces every actor to go through the crowd to enter the scene, making it very dynamic.

Thrust: Often backed by a proscenium stage in bigger productions, a thrust is when a stage is extended so that the audience may surround three sides of the stage. If there is no proscenium, then actors must enter via gaps in the audience, much like in the arena theater. This creates a dynamic view similar to the arena stage, but it also allows for props and other set pieces to remain in the background without fear of blocking an audience member’s view the entire play.

End Stage: An end stage is when the audience and the actors occupy the same room and are on the same level. Much like the proscenium layout, the audience sits in only one direction, giving those in the front a very personal experience so that the actors seem like close friends performing a show for the audience instead of feeling far away like they would if they were on an actual stage.

Environmental: The environmental stage is focused on the environment of the performance as much as the performance itself, meaning the physical location becomes a part of the play too. For instance, if the play took place in an old church, that would become a major facet of the actor’s movement and the story that follows. Additionally, audience space and performance space are often the same and various plots or stories can take place at the same time due to the dynamic nature of the space itself.

Black box: A black box theater is a flexible theater, often literally in a black box type room. It lacks character or embellishment and the seating can be arranged however the director chooses. It’s strength is that it can be repurposed for many different types of plays, arranging into other styles of theaters like an end stage or a thrust.

Proscenium: As mentioned above, a proscenium stage is where all of the audience sits on one side of the stage, usually a bit lower than the actual stage and watches the action. It is often called a “two-box” stage because of it boxes the audience off into one “room” and the stage into another, even though occasionally actors will walk through the aisles in the audience for certain scenes.

Limits and Strengths of the Stage

Now that you know the set up of a regular stage as well as the types of stages, it’s time to consider the different ways the stage itself can be limiting. You might be thinking that knowing said limitations will not help you learn to use the stage for its strengths, but as it turns out these very limitations are also what makes storytelling on the stage so strong and unique.

Real-Time Storytelling

Given the live performance that comes with theater, there are many limitations with the timing in telling a story on stage. For instance, characters cannot change outfits every thirty seconds like they can in a montage for a movie nor can the set be changed every minute. Because of this writers and directors are forced to be creative when they do want to change the scene or the outfit or anything else really quickly.

As a new writer your initial reaction may be to have the lights go out and the curtains drop any time there needs to be a scene change. But one of the things that makes the stage so magical is when the characters interact with it. Instead of having a character go behind stage to change, why not have them remove several layers of clothing on the spot? Or make the characters rearrange a room to look like a different one during a conversation.

These touches give life to the world and the stage the characters are walking on. Set pieces, clothes, and decorations all become less of a backdrop that goes unnoticed, but a real facet of the story to be interacted with. In some ways it’s very meta, but in others it’s a creative solution to changing things quickly. How you do it adds style to the story, so that if you always have costume changes behind curtains it can be very traditional, but if you couple that with an interactive set for the actors that become essential to the story, you’re creating a more modern sensation.

Small Space

The stage itself can be quite small, meaning often your actors have little room to move around and be the character you’ve designed for them. As indicated earlier when discussing the different types of theaters and stages, location is everything.

As a playwright, you can write a really simple story without any stage directions or specifications. Or you can fill your play with tons of stage directions, all the more having to do with the set pieces themselves and the stage. Whichever you choose will determine the style of play you write and how involved it is with the theater space itself. Neither choice is right or wrong, but instead a choice of style.

However, given that the focus of this post is on using the stage to tell a story, I urge you to give a small theater space a consideration when writing a play. It creates a more intimate story, but also allows for you to use other spaces besides the stage for your narrative.

Take for instance when characters walk through the audience or even talk across the room in a more intimate setting. In this way, the writer has either written the play with these directions, or the director has adapted the play to the theater space. Either way, the stage now is more than just the stage where everyone stands, but another prop for the characters to engage with, a wonderful and creative approach to working around the small space of the actual stage.

Scene Locations

Given the aforementioned issue of scene changes in a play, many playwrights will write little to no detail about the backdrop or set pieces. These are usually character focused plays – which most plays usually are – versus plot, meaning the scene’s location is far less important than the scene itself. This is why you’ll often see a minimalistic approach to set design in shows, some even opting out of set design completely.

However, if a play does have a defined location that needs a space, like Fences, then the playwright has a few choices. They can split the stage in half and have one side be say, the inside of a house and the other side by the backyard. This allows for the characters to go in and out of different spaces, have private conversations, all the while keeping the set design stagnant. In this way the approach is much like a dollhouse.

The other way writers will deal with the scene locations is to have an entire play take place in one location. While to many newbie playwrights, that may seem incredibly difficult, that’s exactly where the strength is in playwriting. In having a set space for the entire play, the space itself becomes a character in the play too. It becomes a symbolic set piece, putting all the characters’ main conflicts and arcs in one rom, like a kitchen or a bathroom even.

While it may seem uncomfortable for characters to be walking in and out of the same room or location all the time, in theater it adds mystery to the story. The audience may wonder what else happens outside the room where the play takes place. Big moments such as murders and other deaths in Shakespeare plays happen offstage, allowing for audience members a moment to pause and think about the action and its consequences in a new way.

In movies, the audience is used to seeing everything, always being gratified. This is not because movies are inferior or lack depth, but because their means of showing said aspects are different. On the other hand, the stage takes away that privilege and teaches the audience that they do not need to see the affair or the murder for a story to be great.

In fact, they may find that the most interesting parts about a story are the moments in between those big beats.

For that reason and all the other ones listed above, Fences had all the strengths of a play, but it was trying to work itself into a movie. Most of the movie took place in the backyard or in the kitchen of their home. But with a title like Fences, it becomes apparent that the strength of this story is when it is placed on a stage, for only then the audience and the story can then truly understand the symbolism of what “fences” really are and the importance of the location.

And only that can be understood with the stage itself.


Want to learn more about the strengths in playwriting? Learn everything you need to know in my post on the matter, then tackle a Shakespeare play to see all the strengths in action.