“U” is for “Upstaging”

“…the actors must interrelate, communicate physically, and be seen and heard as they solve the acting problem. When an audience is restless, uninterested, the actors are responsible for this.”

Viola Spolin, Improvisation for the Theater. A Handbook of Teaching and Directing Techniques. Third Edition. Evanston, IL: Northwestern UP, 1999. p.38


This post focuses on a more universal theatrical concept that is not particularly unique to improv although it can disproportionately affect spontaneous performance as an attentive director can’t quietly adjust staging in the privacy of the rehearsal hall. Upstaging refers to a performer’s inability to remain “open” or seen by the audience, which, in turn, can create the additional challenge of making dialogue difficult to hear. It embodies an inelegant staging tendency that will undermine the stage action, increase the chances of miscommunication, and annoy your audience who must strain to see what needs to be seen and hear what needs to be heard. Inexperienced improvisers can fall into this trap of adopting a weak stage position, but often players of all stripes inadvertently upstage their scene partners by literally performing behind them in a way that forces others to turn around and face upstage.

In a related sense, the term can also refer to stealing focus or pulling attention from fellow players in less-than-generous ways. For example, a really interesting crowd member can easily rob attention from the more central action occurring between the featured characters who are positioned downstage of them. Whether you’re upstaging yourself or absent mindedly forcing others to do the same, this habit is counterproductive and distracting.


A firefighter, police officer, and medic walk into a bar… they arrange themselves poorly and only one of them can now be seen and heard.

What’s Up With That Staging?

1.) Can you see the audience? A simple truth is that if you can’t see the audience, then they probably can’t see you either (or at least your eyes). If you’re performing on a more conventional stage, an equivalent adage is making sure you can feel the light on your face assuming that you’re not exclusively using dramatic side lighting from the wings. When playing in more presentational modes where characters may directly address the crowd with great frequency, retaining this physical orientation, openness, and connection will likely remain more front of mind. In representational or “realistic” styles, it can become easy to lose sight of this responsibility as your focus resides more firmly behind the fourth wall. In these situations, nothing beats practice, a mindful coach, and kindhearted teammates working to keep you seen. A sidenote: remember that the saying above also holds true when you’re striving to create verisimilitude. Visibly loitering in the wings or the side of the stage when you’re “offstage” might break the illusion by unduly drawing the audience’s attention. In such cases, you shouldn’t be able to see the audience while waiting for your moment to contribute.

2.) Are you standing toe-to-toe? The closer we stand by our fellow players, the more likely we might inadvertently close each other off. This is particularly true when characters stand toe-to-toe and in full profile (essentially forming a straight line parallel to the edge of the stage while facing each other). Angles and a little distance are an improviser’s best friends unless you’re playing affectionate or intimate scenes where you’ll still want to explore angles, but inappropriate distance would undermine the intended relationship. Rather than stand in strict profile so that the audience can only see half your face at best, cheat out a little to more of a three-quarters orientation: this will add visibility and a little staging variety. Flat angles (only standing in profile or full out to the audience) don’t add much to our visual storytelling efforts. The same can be said for assuming monotonously uniform physical levels or postures. When we more imaginatively endow our stage spaces with furniture and props this also justifies stage business which facilitates more interesting stage pictures and character configurations.

3.) Is your connection to your scene partner clearly established? In our efforts to forge strong and emotional connections to other onstage characters, we can find ourselves almost locked in close eye contact. In truth, there is something understandably enticing about maintaining this bond – as they say, the eyes are the windows to the soul, and we can send and receive a lot of information through these portals. In larger venues, however, an over-reliance on this practice can easily become problematic, especially if it results in stasis or if your partner is located behind you, thus forcing an upstaging dynamic. In the opening moments of a scene, rigorous eye contact makes sense as it helps both the players and characters get on the same page. Once this connection is strong, however, you can aesthetically utilize different angles – perhaps facing downstage and talking over your shoulder – without severing emotional bonds. Of course, check back in as needed if you’d like to see how a choice has landed or want to keep the emotional energy building. But don’t forget that you should also create and maintain a connection with your audience, and they want to see your eyes too.

4.) Are you throwing focus to where it’s needed? Ceding the proverbial high ground receives consideration in my discussion on stage picture here. When players become aware of their own upstaging habits and adjust accordingly, they often invariably nudge their teammates into less favorable positions and angles instead. If you have finished pitching your offer or are perhaps largely assuming a support function in general, it is an act of improv kindness to step into a weak or self-upstaging pose so that your partner remains strongly visible. Lowering yourself is particularly effective as this can keep sight lines open, elevate your scene partner’s status, and help craft dynamic and multi-leveled staging. The same holds true if you are improvising with guests onstage or players with a less polished sense of stagecraft. When you witness another player struggling to find an effective stage position, there is a lot that a mindful improviser can do to gently help remedy the situation, much of which reflects an understanding and thoughtful application of the advice above.

Final Thought

If you’re unfamiliar with the etymology of the term, upstage denotes moving towards the backwall of the theatre or away from the audience. European proscenium stages used to be built on a rake, so this traffic pattern would literally involve the performer moving “up” as opposed to traveling “down” the stage to be closer to their adoring fans. Nervous players tend to drift up to perceived safety, but this, more times than not, creates the “ideal” circumstances for problematic sightlines.

Related Entries: Acting, Levels, Physicality, Sharing Focus, Stage Picture Antonyms: Being Seen, Staying Open Synonyms: Closing Yourself Off

Cheers, David Charles.
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© 2023 David Charles/ImprovDr

Connected Game: One-Voice Expert

Published by improvdr

A professional improvisational practitioner with over thirty years experience devising, directing, performing, teaching and consulting on the craft of spontaneous (and scripted) theatre and performance.

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