Proscenium Staging

Curtain rises. Those two words encapsulate much about the traditional proscenium stage theatre experience. There is a sense of occasion; of an event taking place when those yards and yards of velvet ascend and the audience captures the first glimpse of the opening tableau.

The proscenium itself tends to be an impressive piece of architectural design, raised to high art in the gorgeous art deco theatres that are still home to countless acting troupes throughout the United States. The proscenium is a conversation piece in the moments before the show, a delightfully garish display that lets you know you are someplace different from the rest of the world. In this sense, the proscenium itself evokes the notion of temples and churches. After all, theatre itself has its deepest roots in religious rites pre-dating christianity and was in many ways moved towards its modern incarnation by the ceremonies and mystery plays of the early church.

From a design perspective, the proscenium provides wonderful opportunities for the look of a production. Forced perspective backdrops can only work when looked at dead on from the seats of a classic theatre. The proscenium allows production designers to turn a stage thirty feet deep into the sprawling city of London. Peter Pan can fly, the Lion King can roar and Paris can be swept up in revolution on a tiny rectangle of wood and gaffer tape because of the wizardry hidden behind the proscenium arch.

Dramatically, the proscenium stage lends itself to the artifice of classic theatre. Those ceremonial Greeks, Shakespearean masterpieces and the musicals which have become almost synonymous with the modern proscenium theatre experience. A play performed on such a stage is not obligated to verisimilitude. Looking through the great arching window, audiences are perfectly content to be looking in on another world. Puck and Oberon make sense when viewed through a proscenium arch in ways that a more intimate theatre such as a thrust or black box would not allow.

This is a double edged sword of sorts. For productions high on spectacle, the proscenium is often the way to go. If you want to drive home an intimate personal drama, however, the proscenium can cut you off from the audience. If you are working with a modern play, you will often find the black box to be more to your liking. Mamet works better when the menace is right in the audience’s lap. Bogosian is more compelling when they can see the sweat on your brow. Edward Albee’s plays are at their best when you feel like an eavesdropping bystander who just happened upon the drama. The proscenium removes this element. Or perhaps, more accurately, makes these effects far harder to achieve.

Still, it all comes back to those two magic words: Curtain Rises. No other type of theatre can provide that take your breath away moment in quite the same way; and, though my own tastes lean towards the avant garde performances to be found in our nation’s non-traditional peformance spaces, you can be certain that my children’s first theatre experience will be seen through the proscenium arch.