I learnt my theatre basics from one of Mumbai’s greatest directors – Pearl Padamsee. A pint-sized wonder bursting with joy, dynamism and vivacity, she was my drama teacher at Fort Convent School.
Back in those days, the blocking of a play was solely done by the director. The actors had no say. The director would pre-plan every single move…on which line or even word the character walks, sits, turns. And Pearl had the most idiosyncratic way of doing this. We would all sit on the floor around her, pencil at the ready to mark our scripts, while she moved the characters around a large sketch or set model using different chess pieces! One character was the queen, another the knight and so on. But as she moved your rook from one end of the stage to the other, she would tell you “You now need to move Stage Left” or “you move Down Stage on this line.” So this most basic of theatre terminology became second nature to me.
But the truth is that many working actors today still get mixed up, moving left when the director wants you to go right or moving to the front of the stage when they want you to move further away.
It’s simple really. Left and right refer to the stage’s perspective i.e. the actor’s perspective (not the audience’s) as he stands on the stage facing the audience. Hence Stage Left and Stage Right. Upstage and Downstage actually originated from historic theatre architecture. In the early days of theatre the audience normally sat on flat ground while the stage was raked i.e. the stage sloped slightly upwards towards the back so as to improve sightlines for the audience. Upstage was therefore up the slope, towards the back or away from the audience. Downstage was down the slope, towards the front or closer to the audience. Even though modern stages are flat with raked audience seating, the terminology has stayed.
Aside for actors: Be wary of selfish actors “upstaging” you, thereby purposefully drawing the audience’s attention to themselves. While you innocently stand downstage, these crafty actors will move further back i.e. upstage, forcing you, the hapless upstaged actor, to turn your back to the audience to address them!