“Hit your mark and say your lines.” So goes the world’s shortest piece of acting advice. And while it’s a little bit reductive, there’s truth to the importance of knowing where to stand and why. The way you present yourself on stage goes a long way as to how you present your character, fight for your objective and give the audience reason to feel and think. This is why we’re going to talk about blocking in acting.
In drama, “blocking” in refers to the physical movement and placement of characters throughout a filmed or live performance. While the positioning of actors has always been important in drama—usually in service of showcasing the most important character/actor to the audience—blocking has become increasingly complex with drama’s move towards naturalism. It is therefore important to learn and understand the fundamentals of blocking, so as to allow an actor to carry themselves confidently as they move through a scene.
Blocking is one of those things that feels so inherent to acting. And for this reason, many actors fail to explore the topic properly: storing in that part of their brain reserved for one-off drama school exercises and curios. But blocking is not only an essential part of drama, it helps you become a better actor when you can understand its meaning and deploy it effectively.
The Origins of Blocking
There’s a story about the origin of the term “blocking”, much like the origin of the word beats. Even if it isn’t strictly true, it’s a great yarn, so it’s the one we’re telling. W.S. Gilbert, of Gilbert & Sullivan fame, used to plot out his performers’ placement on stage using a scale model of the set. What did he use to represent the actors? Little wooden blocks. Delightful.
Of course, as long as actors have been standing on stages saying things, there has been a need to plot out where they stand. Blocking, however, became more important in the 19th century with the move towards naturalism on stage. It’s easy to forget that the concept of replicating real life, emotions and interactions in drama is a new one. And so modern blocking has become increasingly complicated, as we look for new and interesting ways to present drama.
Blocking can also be applied to screen acting—where it has its own importance as an aspect of the technical side of filmmaking. Below, we’re going to provide a short breakdown on each, so that you’re prepared no matter the job.
Blocking for Stage
Blocking a scene for theatre is usually undertaken by the play’s director—who will be informed by the text as to what is required. The top priority for any blocking of theatre is clarity for the audience. No matter how brilliant the actors or the writing may be, nobody is going to know unless they can be seen (and heard).
As we mentioned above, naturalism in Western theatre has led to blocking becoming far more complex than simply “walk on-stage and find your light.” It can involve multiple journeys across the stage, prop work and even scenes of violence and intimacy.
And let’s not forget that not all contemporary theatre is utilising naturalistic techniques. Theatre can still take other, non-modern-Western forms and require blocking that is highly unconventional. Postmodern theatre, contemporary dance, even interactive or immersive theatre events!
Whether you’re performing Death of a Salesman or CyberHamlet 2.0 (not a real show (yet)), one important aspect of blocking is the mapping of a theatre space.
On the ‘x axis’ we have stage left and stage right. These are left and right as seen from facing the stage, so for the audience they would seem backwards. This is often confusing, even for those in the industry. So some people substitute these for prompt side (P) and opposite prompt (OP). This hearkens back to the days when there’d be somebody in the wings on stage left holding a ‘prompt copy’ of the script if an actor forgot their lines.
On the ‘y axis’ we have upstage towards the back of the theatre and downstage, closer to the audience. Ever heard of the concept of “upstaging” somebody, as in overshadowing them? It refers to actors who would stand further to the back of the stage, forcing actors to turn their back on the audience to regard them. Cheeky, right?
If you’re unfamiliar with these terms, they’re great to get to know. Just in case a director yells: “Enter prompt side and then walk downstage centre!” and your first impulse is to freeze like a deer in headlights.
Should I Follow Stage Directions?
Spicy question, this one. We actually have a larger article on the topic of stage directions that covers this topic in more detail. For the sake of blocking, we’ll say this: it’s a popular thing for actors and directors to cross stage directions out these days. Many believe that following the exact path as set out by the writer will stifle them creatively, or not adhere to their particular playing space (theatre.)
Our recommendation is to ask why the writer has insisted on including stage directions that might indicate blocking. Is there something to the fact that a mother does not cross the stage to hug her son returning from war? Can we tell something about a character who doesn’t stand up when being threatened, even though that might be the actor’s impulse?
At the end of the day, you keep what you want—whatever you think might be helpful. But to cross them out on principle denies you the chance to really explore and tear apart the script. And the blocking suggested may very well be exactly what you’re looking for.
Blocking for Film
Blocking for film (or television or anything involving a camera) has a number of similarities and differences. Both shoot for clarity, and both are suggested by the germinating text (the playscript or screenplay.)
The biggest difference with blocking for film is that it is uniquely precise. Theatre blocking has its own technical requirements—finding your light, not upstaging people, creating spaces that might suggest new or simultaneous locations. But film is planned to the enth degree to accommodate cameras, the lighting, and the limitation of sound recording.
There’s also continuity to consider, which is the process by which each take of a shot looks the same. If you pick up a glass with your left hand in the wide, you have to pick it up the exact same way in the close-up. Otherwise you start having props and costumes and bloodstains flying about from shot to shot.
When you’re acting on a film set, know your blocking and follow instructions so that the crew captures what they need and time is never wasted. The plus side of this is that there is a much larger team on hand than in theatre to help you through this process.
Doing Your Own Blocking
But what if there’s no team? What if there’s no continuity supervisor, no stage manager, perhaps no director? Doing your own blocking is a skill to practice and experiment with. There’s no absolute right way to do it, but we can certainly help you with a few pointers.
- Less is more. Don’t plot ten moves for your character when two or three will do. Unnecessarily busy blocking always looks amateurish. And if you’re making a film, it’ll be a nightmare to keep the continuity in order.
- Minimise prop work. It’s often a sign of a less seasoned actor to utilise lots of props in a scene. It might help you feel like you’re inhabiting the story world more if you’re touching a bunch of your character’s things. But it can be incredibly distracting for the audience. If a prop is mentioned in the script, you’ll likely have to incorporate it into your blocking. But do you have to hold it the whole time?
- Analyse the script. As big fans of script analysis at StageMilk, we can’t stress enough the importance of knowing the words on the page. If you’re blocking your own scene, the script will give you the best idea of what needs to be achieved. And if there’s no blocking (here’s lookin’ at you, Shakespeare), look to our first two points above to guide you.
- Work with your scene partner/s. Discuss blocking with your scene partner. Are you doing something that isn’t feeling right, or doesn’t fit with the character or story? Ask your fellow actor for some advice, even if they’re completely motionless in the scene. There may not be a director, but that doesn’t mean that you have to work alone.
Blocking, like any important aspect of an actor’s practice, can be studied and practiced and improved upon throughout your career. Keep working at it, keep examining what you come up with and think of ways you can improve, experiment and challenge yourself.
But before we wrap this article up, here’s one last question to ask yourself: does this serve the story? It’s true to ask of blocking, of prop work, of acting, of everything in our craft. Ask this of the way you move on stage or screen as an actor, and watch all the unnecessary things fall away. Aim for elegance and simplicity. And you’ll do wonders.