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What is a Proscenium Theater?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 23, 2024
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A proscenium theater is a specific style of theater. Several features define a proscenium theater, and this particular theater layout is extremely common; if you have ever been to see a live performance, especially in a high school auditorium, chances are high that you have seen a proscenium theater. In addition to proscenium style theaters, it is also possible to find black box theaters, theaters with thrust stages, theaters in the round, and numerous other configurations of stage and audience.

The classically defining feature of a proscenium theater is the proscenium, an arch which frames the stage for the audience. In addition, the audience faces the stage directly, with no audience on the sides of the stage, and the stage in a proscenium theater is typically raised, allowing the audience to see more clearly. Modern proscenium theaters sometimes lack the proscenium, but they are still called “proscenium theaters” because they retain the other characteristics of this style of theater.

Proscenium theaters originated in the 1600s, and became immensely popular by the 1700s. There are certain advantages of a proscenium theater, such as the fact that the stage doesn't have to be as open, allowing people to conceal props, sets, and orchestras in the wings or near the stage without having these things visible to the audience. A proscenium theater also creates a sense of staged grandeur, with the proscenium arch acting almost like a picture frame, giving the audience the sense that they are looking into a scene.

Classically, proscenium theaters have curtains which are used to conceal the stage during set changes and intermissions, rising up behind the arch to reveal the stage. The area in front of the curtain, which is visible at all times, is known as the apron, and some performances may be played entirely on the apron. Behind the proscenium arch are the wings, the areas adjacent to the stage which cannot be seen by the audience, with steps which allow actors and crew to access the stage.

Some actors and crew find the proscenium design very limiting. The wider angle of the thrust stage, where the audience surrounds a section of the stage, allows for more natural staging, because actors do not need to play to a specific location for the audience to see them. Black box theaters offer more flexibility than proscenium theaters, along with a more intimate setting, while theaters in the round, where the audience surrounds the entire stage, present interesting and sometimes fun challenges and situations.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a Musical Expert researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments

By sweetPeas — On Aug 31, 2011

I read an interesting observation about the proscenium theater. Starting many centuries ago when this type of theater was commonly used, the arch was like a window that framed the scene. The two side walls helped contain the scene. So that made three walls. Then the wall between the stage and the audience was the invisible wall. So it was sometimes called "the four wall theater."

The term "breaking the wall" refers to the actors as they speak or walk onto the scene and connect with the audience. I think that it is an interesting way of looking at it. But some people didn't care for the concept and wanted the audience to have a feeling of being closer to the scene.

By Bertie68 — On Aug 30, 2011

The theater at my high school was a proscenium theatre. It was built in the 1920s. I liked it because everyone could look straight on at the stage and actors. And the actors faced straight at the audience and didn't have to move around so much.

Having the arch frame helped the audience to focus on the play or performance. I didn't feel distracted. It was a very cozy feeling theater with plush red cushioned seats.

Some of my classmates who had parts in plays, told me that they liked the fact that the curtains could be closed. This gave them a chance to have a little break from the audience, while the scene was changed.

The proscenium theater has advantages for both the actors and the audience.

Mary McMahon

Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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