Exit Stage Left
September 9, 2010 9:26 AM   Subscribe

Does anyone know if there is, or ever has been, a recognized significance in a character's exiting stage right or stage left? Like, do bad guys typically exit stage left, etc. I know almost nothing about theatre, and this seems like it would be an esoteric trope or something. TIA.
posted by carping demon to Media & Arts (10 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
I've never heard of such a thing. Which way characters exit depends a lot on the set. If one door on the set is supposed to be the front door, and another is a door to a bedroom, then that would tell you which door a character's supposed to exit by. If the set is theoretically outdoors, say, then a character would probably exit away from the other characters, so if he's wound up stage left, and the other characters are stage right, he'd probably exit stage left, so he doesn't cross behind them.
posted by musofire at 9:35 AM on September 9, 2010

Not to my knowledge. Pretty much everything depends on set design, which is itself increasingly dependent on the venue.

In all the scripts I've read which are really bossy about who does what where, like some Tennessee Williams plays, it's more like the playwright has already dreamed up most of the set design and then explains the character's movements in those terms. But in most productions those suggestions are usually the first things to go out the window.

In most theater spaces, exits Left and Right are your only options. Directors are always trying to stretch this by having people enter or exit through the house, out of the sky, out of the orchestra pit, etc. A director may choose to make that decision based on purely on characterization, but there is no tradition of this that I know of. Typically it's more about constructing the overall world of the play.
posted by hermitosis at 9:40 AM on September 9, 2010

You might be interested to know that there used to be a greater significance in the difference between upstage and downstage: old stages were often built on a rake, sloping gently upward from the audience. "Upstaging" was thus all the more a sin, exalting the upstager as well as forcing the other actors to turn their backs on the audience.
posted by Iridic at 10:02 AM on September 9, 2010


Other than hermitosis' explanation for bossy stage directions, some scripts are published with the stage directions being the notes from the staging of the original productions. Change the set design due to space cosntraints or artistic/budgetary considerations and that will change the staging.
posted by rainbaby at 10:36 AM on September 9, 2010

Conventional wisdom says that stage right is the "power position," at least in the US (or when the audience comes from a reading left-to-right tradition). I have seen directors use that factoid as justification for having an exit or entrance stage right or left, particularly when the set is a bare stage so the direction isn't just going to be determined by "where the bedroom door is."
posted by telegraph at 10:47 AM on September 9, 2010

Best answer: Yes, actually.

I'll try to get my SO in this question at some point, as she is a director. Much of this sort of directorial theory is used in staging classical theatre up through Shakespeare or so, and has sort of fallen off in modern times.

Typically, stage left is considered the open side of the stage, so, for example, if you want to give the impression that someone is exiting the stage and will keep going, like off into the distance, toward open possibility, etc., you'll have them exit stage left. This probably has something to do with Western left-to-right script. If you want to give a sense that a character is leaving but returning say to their house or leaving to enter a scenario where his personal choices will be limited or some such thing, you'd have him exit stage right. You generally also have more players entering from stage right and exiting stage left.

Stage fights, for example, will frequently be stage upstage left, because it's the corner of the least choice, as in crossing back down stage right would seem like a retreat, as opposed to moving stage left which would be where you'd go to run away from the fight. Staging the fight in the most 'closed' stage space gives the fight a feeling of urgency.

Typically center stage is where you would stage major moments of choice for characters, or to symbolize moments of strength, or possibility (of course there are practical reasons to stage things center as well....).

Moving down stage typically gives the impression of a character moving forward in life, finding bravery, finding passion or strength, things of that nature. They are moving toward the audience, away from being backed into corners (quite literally).

Obviously, there are exceptions to all of this, and it's an old-school pedagogy that, while you'll learn it in directing school, it's become more of something to sort of keep in mind than a philosophy of staging. But yes, it certainly is part of theatrical directorial theory. I mean, just picture it...doesn't it seem that a character moving upstage left is boxing himself in somehow? While a character mid-stage right seems to have infinite possibility? It's a little abstract, sure, but, you know, art theory.
posted by Lutoslawski at 11:08 AM on September 9, 2010 [5 favorites]

I've never heard of such a thing (nor for that matter have I heard of telegraph's mentioned "power position," but directors are as reliably fucked up as actors, so.) In my acting experience, meticulous stage directions are largely things to be hooted at and ignored. Shaw in particular is great for this sort of thing: "Lord Winterbottom wears a ridiculous beaten bowler hat and sports an astonishingly orange moustache. After much harrumphing, he checks his silver pocket watch and, for all the world's marvels, dons a jetpack and accelerates into the atmosphere."
posted by Skot at 11:10 AM on September 9, 2010

I've heard of the "power position" and the left to right thing, but only ever encountered one director who gave it any weight. I wouldn't call it conventional wisdom. One director I know cites Ogilvy Ad Design theory and posits Down Stage Left is a stronger position. Most just go with the flow and change it a thousand times till it feels right. Lutoslawski's examples may also sometimes be employed, but are very old school. The concepts also assume a traditional procenium stage.

Movement on a stage is going to be very particular to each specific production.
posted by rainbaby at 11:38 AM on September 9, 2010

I have an MFA in directing, and the only things I was ever taught about left-vs-right had to do with composition, not Character associations ("bad guys exit left"). I come from a very presentational background, so the techniques of classical composition in painting figured in - the strongest spot on stage is downstage dead center, followed by downstage right (because Western audiences read from left to right), etc. That said, i do know that plenty of non-Western theatre traditions DO have ritualized entrances points - the ramp in kabuki, for instance - but I'm not as familiar with those...
posted by OneMonkeysUncle at 1:09 PM on September 9, 2010

Response by poster: Wow! What a great response. Thank you all. I guess that since stage-left and stage-right are in terms of the actor facing forward, then any significance borrowed from traditions outside the theatre, like left=evil/dark and right=good/light would be lost on the audience since aud-left and aud-right are reversed. This left/right thing is just full of reflections. Thanks again.
posted by carping demon at 3:46 PM on September 9, 2010

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