Setting The Stage
The Old Vic is a producing theatre in London. Producing theatres are theatres that make their own shows in-house – from casting the actors to designing the sets, props and costumes, right the way through to marketing, press and sales. In contrast, receiving theatres put on shows that have been produced elsewhere, while repertory theatres have a resident company of performers that present a selected range of works on rotation, often performing a different work each night of the week.
Here at The Old Vic, we run a full Season from September to July. A Season is the period over which a theatre presents its annual artistic output. We usually present five to seven productions during this time, in addition to countless other associated events in the theatre, online and in the community. Festivals and festival theatres usually have shorter Seasons (over the summer months, for example), where they present a limited number of productions, often around a particular theme.
The Old Vic building is separated into four areas: front of house, auditorium, stage and back of house.
Front Of House
Open to the public all day, front of house contains the Box Office (where you can buy or collect tickets to a performance), café and bar areas, as well as a new annex (opening in 2024), which will provide additional space for staff and creative teams, audiences, members of the general public and participants in our education projects to work, relax and discover more about our theatre.
The auditorium is the area where the audience sits during the performance. It is sometimes referred to as ‘the house’. The house opens to the public a short time before the start of the performance, and only ticket holders are permitted to enter. On nights where there is no performance, the house is referred to as ‘dark’.
The Old Vic is a typical proscenium theatre. The proscenium is the arch that divides the auditorium from the stage. Many theatres dating from the 19th century were built in this way, with a horseshoe-shaped auditorium containing seating facing the stage, which lies behind the proscenium arch. Other styles of theatres include arenas and ‘in-the-round’ or promenade theatres, where the audience either sits or walks in a circle around a central stage space.
The stage is where the action happens. When the lights in the auditorium (known as the ‘house lights’) go down, the audience’s attention is focussed on the stage area. The curtains used to show or hide the stage from the audience are referred to as tabs (short for tableau curtains). While the curtains are down, any items or scenery that need to be on stage can be pre-set before ‘curtain up’ (which signifies the start of a performance).
The stage area is defined by the areas that the audience can see from the auditorium (on stage), and the areas they can’t (off stage). On stage, the audience sees all the designed elements of the production: the sets, scenery and props (short for ‘properties’ – smaller items or objects that the performers use to help tell the story). Sometimes the stage is built to extend through the proscenium and into the auditorium. This area of the stage is called the apron.
A ‘rake’ or raked stage slopes upwards away from the audience. A revolve is a stage or part of a stage that can rotate. Trapdoors in the stage can provide opportunities for performers to appear or disappear into the understage. A jack-knife set uses wagons on castors to quickly pivot items of scenery on and off stage.
A backcloth (usually made of a thick, heavy dark material) hangs at the back of the stage, and panels of either wood or fabric placed at the side of the stage called ‘legs’ are often used to mask the exits from the stage into the wings.
Stage lighting is a crucial part of creating an atmosphere and telling a story on stage. A lighting rig positions lighting on metal bars above the stage and also at various points in the auditorium.
Fresnel lights (pronounced ‘fruh-nel’) produce a soft-edged beam of light, wider than a spotlight, that can be used to wash light over an area of the stage. Parcan lanterns contain a lamp, reflector and lens to produce a very intense light quality – useful for producing deep colours or special lighting effects. Barn doors are metal flaps fixed onto a light that open or close to narrow or widen the concentration of light.
Fading in or fading out enables light to dim in or out of a blackout. The footlights can be found on the ground at the front of the stage, and light up the action from below. Before the advent of electricity, footlights would have used quicklime, which creates an incandescent light when burned, hence the term ‘in the limelight’.
The wings are the offstage areas either side of the stage. You will find technical equipment like portable lighting here.Prompt corner is located in the wings stage left. Traditionally, this is where the prompter (someone who feeds the lines to the performers in case they forget) would be seated. Nowadays the stage manager or deputy stage manager are to be found here at the prompt desk, a digital system that controls and coordinates the performance using headsets to communicate with members of the crew and cast at key moments.
On a prompt desk, you will find ‘the book’ (a copy of the script with detailed notes about the cues and staging), telephones to the front of house areas, access to a Tannoy system in case of any emergency public announcements, a fire alarm indicator and controls for the safety curtain (or ‘iron’), which is used to separate the stage area from the auditorium in the case of fire and as a safety precaution during the break (interval).
The props table, on which all props for the show are kept, is also located in the wings. ‘Noises off’ refers to any sounds the audience are meant to hear from off stage.
Sightlines refer to the angle at which a seated audience member can see the stage or into the offstage areas (which they shouldn’t). The closer a seat in the auditorium gets to the side of the stage, the wider the angle becomes, which is why performers try to stay well out of sight until their moment to enter on stage.
Cast and Creatives
The ensemble is the group of performers or cast of a piece of theatre. Performers learn their lines from the script. Their lines may consist of monologue (where only one person is talking), or dialogue (a conversation between two or more people). When a performer has learnt their lines off by heart, they are said to be ‘off book’. If they begin the rehearsal period still unsure of their lines, and having to refer to the written script, they are said to be ‘on book’. Some plays require improvisation, where the performers can make up their lines (although this is usually within a prescribed framework).
The director and assistant director work through the piece with the performers and establish the blocking (where in the space the performers will interact and deliver their lines). Sometimes the director and cast will also work with a dramaturg. This is someone who provides the cast and production team with research and contextual expertise about the work itself and who can help shape everyone’s knowledge and understanding of the work they are performing. For more complicated movement such as dance or crowd scenes, the director may call in a choreographer or movement director to assist. Principal performers will often be assigned a dresser. This is someone from the costume department who helps them get in and out of costume, or with any complicated hair, wigs or make up changes.
Rehearsals take place in a rehearsal studio (usually either in the theatre or in a similar space off-site). The rehearsal studio usually has a model box showing a scale model of the set. This helps the performers visualise what the eventual set will look like.
As the performers get closer to opening night, they transfer from rehearsals in the studio to stage rehearsals, which gradually allow elements of the final show to be introduced, such as costumes, hair, wigs and make up and props. The get-in refers to the process whereby the technical crew build or put together the set on stage. In the run up to the dress rehearsal, tech week is the period in which the performers and technical crew have the opportunity to work on lighting and any other technical elements or special effects featured in the show. The dress rehearsal is the final opportunity for the cast and technical crew to run through the show before opening to the public.
Following the dress rehearsal, previews give the cast the opportunity to perform in front of a paying audience. Tickets for previews are often cheaper as the creative teams are still in attendance and changes can still be made. The number of preview performances depends on how long the run is (the number of scheduled public performances) and also on how complicated the show is. Press night follows the previews. This is considered to be the ‘official’ opening night, when critics from the press and industry professionals are invited to see the show. Matinee performances take place in the daytime, usually starting at 2:30, with evening performances usually starting at 7:30.
Once a run is finished, the instruction is given to strike the set, meaning that all the scenery is dismantled.
Back of House
The back of house area at The Old Vic contains office space for all the administrative employees of the company, rehearsal space, which is used by the performers to practise in, and dressing rooms for the performers to prepare themselves in before going on stage. Quick changes of costume during the performance will sometimes happen in the wings, but typically take place in the artists’ dressing rooms.
Before the start of the performance, the stage manager will announce calls on the Tannoy system: the ‘half’ (30 minutes), ‘quarter’ (15 minutes), ‘five’ and the beginners’ call, indicating that all beginners (performers who appear at the beginning of the show) should make their way to the stage area. These calls are actually announced five minutes earlier than scheduled (35, 20 and ten minutes) to give the cast more time than they think they have to get to the stage. If there is an interval in the show, the stage manager will also announce the time remaining until the continuation of the show.
The green room is also situated back of house. This is a larger room where the performers can relax before, during or after the performance. Most theatres have a green room – but ours is blue. The origins of why these spaces are called ‘green rooms’ remain unclear.
Back of house is accessed via the stage door.
The annex, (opening in 2024), will provide additional space for staff and creative teams, audiences, members of the general public and participants in our education projects to work, relax and discover more about our theatre.
It will also include a café, a free play reading library and a dedicated space for our education and community projects, which will support access to theatre for people in the local community who don’t currently have it. People will be able to visit during opening hours regardless of whether or not they have bought a ticket to a performance.