Ground plans

Continuing the series on theatre education for high school students…

Directors need to establish the framework in which their actors move around. That’s the ground plan.

After you read the script several times, sketch out what the stage will look like–but only generally. Don’t be picking out the color of the couch just yet. That’s irrelevant at this point. But do figure out where that couch will be located in relation to other prominent set pieces and props. Here, you’re focusing on what goes where.

As you do so, you have to keep two things in mind. First, how do you need the actors to move? Second, how would your ground plan compel the actors to move in the absence of your direction?

And realize this: Copyright law dictates that you follow the script’s dialogue exactly as it’s written, but you are free to ignore the stage directions. (I’m no lawyer, of course, but that’s what I was taught.)

So, the actors have to say all the lines in the script as written. When you’re designing the ground plan and blocking the show, think of the script’s stage directions more as suggested guidelines, but do whatever works for your production. (After all, the playwright doesn’t know what performance space you’re working with.)

Let’s say your play is set in a house, but aside from entrances and exits, the script features little action. It’s just talking heads, basically. Or it’s written as talking heads, but you and your cast need to fill in the blanks with interesting and relevant movement.

This is where your ground plan can be a true and valued friend.

Think: What would be in this house? How can you arrange the furniture to make full use of the stage?

For most shows, you probably don’t want all your action taking place on a straight line. Spread out the movement. This isn’t old-school Nintendo where Super Mario can only walk forward or backward. You’ve got multiple dimensions, so use as much as you can. If you go overboard in rehearsals, you can always pull it back to something more appropriate for your production.

In our hypothetical script, let’s say a phone rings somewhere along the way. Make sure the actor needs to get up and walk over to answer it. If you’ve got him on a couch upstage-center, then put the phone on a desk located downstage-right…and then have the pen and paper he needs set on a table downstage-left. And then he can crash back on the couch afterward.

So he moves in a triangle, basically.

In college, I was taught to design ground plans as a triangle, with three points that the actors would be drawn to for whatever reason. One point would be about upstage-center, and the other two points would be downstage-left and -right to anchor the movement.

Within that, you can place obstacles in the actors’ path to inspire more movement and action from them. Maybe between the couch and phone, there’s some clothing strewn about the floor that he needs to avoid tripping over.

You can also have multiple levels. Maybe you can set down a platform to elevate some of the action, or elevate one actor over another.

Remember, the ground plan establishes a pattern of movement.

Of course, in art, there’s no definitive right and wrong. But generally, you’ll want to avoid any of the following: aimless actors, purposeless movement, actors standing around for long periods of time not moving, and large unused portions of stage. Make sure your show–and everything about it–has purpose.

What I’ve said here is by no means the be-all and end-all on the subject of ground plans, but I hope it’s enough to get you thinking.