Scott Wright (Friar Laurence) on his “back-side”

To stage actors whose experience is mostly in the traditional proscenium-type set up of modern theaters, the world of thrust-staging and ensemble directing is a strange and alien place. Not being told by a director exactly where to stand or what to do is unusual to say the least, and having an acting space where the audience seems to be close at hand on every side can feel downright strange.

A few years ago as a newbie to these staging conventions it took considerable effort to get out of the old habits of standing in horizontal lines, slightly turned out downstage. With eyes and ears wide open I quickly learned that thrust staging offers a number of interesting spatial relationships for scene partners, and that the best way for the majority of spectators to see you and your scene partner(s) is to stand on diagonal lines. Turning one’s back downstage – something that the experienced proscenium-stage actor knows never to do, is so common on the thrust-stage as to go almost unnoticed. On the thrust-stage one often finds oneself standing in a down-stage corner looking (diagonally) up toward a scene partner and also finds that this position offers virtually all of the audience a particularly interesting spatial picture and a good view of all of the characters in the scene.

One may also notice at such a time that some of the audience are close enough to see and/or sense very small details, and some of the audience might have a particularly good view of your back-side.

I – for one – don’t think my back is necessarily my best side…

Our production of Romeo and Juliet had a director, and to be sure, there is something a little comforting about having someone there who’s job it is to decide where everyone should stand, to keep actors reaching for something more – something better, and perhaps most importantly, to decide just how best to tell our story.

Working with Alisha was great, but there was one note that I have to admit left me bemused and puzzled.

When encouraging us to avoid the often habitual turned-out, horizontal lines of proscenium style staging she told us not to worry that we were turned to face up-stage, but (to paraphrase) to act with our backs and our butts and the backs of our heads… Obviously, when working with a great director, an actor often has to make the extra effort to deliver – sometimes finding new resources within, discovering unexpected meanings in the text, or even learning new skills – and I often found myself outside of rehearsal mulling over Alisha’s suggestions.

But this business of acting with my back-side seemed to pose the greatest challenge of all. How in the world does one do that…? And, as often happened with Alisha’s advice, while pondering how to do it – sort of visualizing seeing myself from that perspective while performing one of the scenes where it seemed my back was the most visible part of me, I had one of those, “Of course…!” moments.

As I saw myself – the actor performing the scene, initially as though through a camera focused close on the back of my head and shoulders, or (ridiculously) on my behind, it occurred to me as the camera seemed to pull back enough to see the whole actor, that I could still see his gestures, see the energy in his posture and movements, hear his voice, and see (at least a little of) his facial expressions. Things that I would still be seeing if he were facing me. Just as an actor’s facial expressions alone don’t tell his character’s story, the actor’s back isn’t all you see when his character’s turned away from you…

So perhaps I was already acting with my back and didn’t even realize it…

Though I think my back-side’s skills could use a little more work… :)