Blocking is a term used in theater to describe the basic stage movements of actors within a scene. When done correctly, the results are often invisible to the audience. When done poorly, the actors and audience can both feel awkward and unbalanced. Good blocking allows the actors to move naturally toward exits or deliver long monologues without making awkward crosses or hiding other actors in the scene. Blocking is also about the visual composition of the set–actors shouldn’t be stacked on one side of the stage or kept at the same level all of the time.
Here are some tips on how to block a theatrical scene effectively.
- Read and reread all of the original stage directions found in the script. As the director, you’ll need to know precisely where all characters will enter the scene, where they will sit or stand during the scene, and where they will exit. The stage directions in the script may also suggest some blocking movements, such as an angry character leaping to his feet or another character running out the door. The original script with stage notes should be enough to establish the relationship between characters and any strong moves essential to the dialogue or action. These notes, however, won’t always provide specifics on actors’ positions onstage.
- Consult with the set designer to determine your blocking limitations. Are you going to have to add furniture for additional characters or cheat the angles of existing furniture? Cheating the angles means adjusting the furniture to allow audience members to clearly see all of the actors, instead of the more natural angles one might use at home. Blocking the scene also includes moving the furniture to keep actors in view. You’ll also want to make sure the set designer has incorporated proper exits and entrances dictated by the script.
- When the actors arrive for their first blocking rehearsal, you may want to allow them to explore their space on their own before dictating your own marching orders. An actor may instinctively find a natural way to cross the stage without an awkward pause, so just let the cast read their lines and make natural crosses once or twice. Pay attention to any major problems that arise, such as an actor blocking out another actor or too many characters standing in no man’s land. Once you’ve seen enough, it’s time to start blocking the scene yourself.
- Begin blocking by telling the first actor precisely where to enter and where to stop. This could mean saying, “Jim, I want you to come in the door, say your line while taking off your coat and then sit down on the couch at stage right.” If all goes well, the actor should figure out a way to come in the door in character, say his or her line naturally, and end up on the couch. The second character also needs this level of specific advice. As soon as the actors learn exactly where they need to move and when to deliver lines, it should become a matter of muscle memory. It shouldn’t be obvious that an actor is thinking, “Open door. Take off coat. Say line. Cross to couch.” Good blocking should be as natural as possible.
- One important element to consider when blocking is balance. Not all of the characters in your scene need to cross to the same couch in the same direction. Try to keep some actors on all sides of the stage whenever possible. If some actors have to stand while delivering lines, have other actors sit down to provide another level of interest. Crosses are almost always seen as strong movements, so make sure characters in the background don’t have to move at the same time as the lead actor. Having more than one actor move at a time can be confusing for the audience.
- As the blocking progresses, ask your cast for any technical or creative input. Does anyone feel awkward or unnatural during an important stage movement? Can anyone suggest another way for a character to change positions without being too obtrusive? Should background characters be given some business, such as fixing drinks at a party or pantomiming conversations? No one understands uncomfortable blocking better than actors, so a director should listen for some constructive feedback.
- Blocking a theatrical scene is an evolving process, so expect to make some minor corrections all the way through the rehearsal process. What you’ll want to avoid, however, is making too many last-minute blocking changes. Actors may not respond well to significant changes in stage direction just before the curtain goes up. Try to have all of your blocking completed during the rehearsal phase.
- If all goes well, the blocking should seem natural and invisible. Actors should be prepared to improvise if someone should miss a movement or two, but the audience should be able to focus its attention on the main action of the scene. Good blocking is all about traffic control, so don’t be afraid to bark out a few commands to avoid collisions.