STAGE CURTAINS – Part 2 -forming the performance spaces

Post 308 – by Gautam Shah



Stage curtains are barriers, used for spatial definitions. Settings are more permanent barriers lasting an act or entire play or performance, whereas curtains as barriers mark temporal divisions that distinguish the physical depth, width, heights, and also pretentious presence of spaces ‘beyond’ the stage. Here a performer projecting different environments on a stage or arena has limited time, space and means. As a result the performance space or the stage is extended beyond its physical limits by exploiting both, the real barriers and indicative barriers. The curtains are also used as gestural break or end of an act. Curtains are soft partitions that occlude the backstage, side-stage and top section of the stage from eye sight. Curtains are also used for projecting an image of slides, movies and in shadow-plays.

3 Roman Theatre Backdrop


Commedia dell’Arte has been depicted as actors in masks performing on temporary stages in market squares in woodcuts, paintings, engravings, and drawings by artists such as Callot, Scarron, and Dujardin. The stages in these depictions often appear to be elevated by six foot tall scaffolding with audience members standing on three sides of the stage. Simple curtains often are depicted hanging behind the actors sometimes painted with an urban background, similar to a backdrop. Sometimes actors were depicted peeking through behind them, and sometimes there would be slits in the curtain indicating doors and windows – Wikipedia (Hildy, Franklin J.; Wilson, Matthew R. (2015). The Rutledge Companion to Commedia dell’Arte)


A performance area could be a boundless space. Its extent needs to be defined for several purposes. Audiences need to focus on an act, and so want a performance area within their visual perspective and audio perceptibility. Even with means of electronic sound amplification, the need to synchronize the sound and action, need for focus remains valid.

2 Orange_roman_theatrescaffold stage

A stage as a raised platform, even though not a pointed entity, needs focus, and that focus shifts with the action or the performer. The performer moves around the stage designating transient zones, and orienting own self to various sides except the back. In a Roman Amphi theatre the actors on the front section are active, and by retreating to the backside become inactive. Going back is like going off the stage and act. These enacted clues were often supported by acting and sounds, but not substantiated with physical barriers or stage settings. The Greek theatre was open on three sides but had an architectural backdrop. Street plays, rudimentary story telling performances and public religious and political ceremonies worked with the presence of a backdrop. The backdrop was a strong architectural entity like wall, building facade, or a non-interfering (static) natural entity like mountain, valley, sea shore, river or lake.

3 Ramlila_DasrathaThe strong backdrop was non-disturbing reference but focussing element. Audiences from side edges distracted the actors, or the actors were in a puzzle which section to concentrate. Gradually informal stages (like street plays) began to be covered on sides. The stage became a box. The boxed stage, however did not allow designated entries or exits, such as hell, heaven, another room, street, etc. Side wings are fixed curtains to obscure side sections of a stage. Curtain-covers or head-wings are used to hide the upper section of stage properties such as the hanging gears, ropes and rolled or folded section of the curtains. A second layer was required to arrange a concealed passage on three sides. The second layer over the wings was of both hard settings and soft curtain materials. The second layer was fashioned temporary for the act or scene, whereas the wings were permanent arrangements of the stage

5 Theater_Bielefeld_InspizientenpultThe sets, stage property, curtains, side wings, lighting, audio-video effects, etc. are used for creating a variety of spaces and signify connections. A cleavage in side wings or a gap between two stage properties could signify a door, window, opening, corridor or a passage. The stage thus becomes a place where a multiplicity of spaces ‘Here’ and a series of connected spaces supposed to exist ‘Beyond’ occur. Whatever is lacking in such definitions is further reinforced by the actors. The acting makes the audience feel as if the actor is actually dealing with or reacting to a real barrier. Mime acts are such explorations with unreal barriers. Since it is not possible to accommodate the entire set of physical barriers, only the acute or important sections are highlighted through frames, outlines, edges, cleavages, thresholds

street performance

A fly is a rig system in the upper section of a stage with ropes, pulley, counterweights, battens (for hard and soft flats or barriers). These are automatically or manually operated by crew walking on the hanging cat-walks. These enable crews to hoist (drop and raise) stage components like curtains, lights, scenery, people, equipments, effects, without noise, quickly, and safely. The upper section of the stage, fly-loft is tall enough to stock these properties or there are folding arrangements.

In informal performances, like street drama, where stage and related provisions are not available, the performers have to devise specific means and strategies to convey the effects.


Stage curtains, side wings, scenery flys, all form the soft furnishings of the performance. These are further exploited through colour, texture (of material surfaces, and folds or creases), degree of transparency, horizontal angle of position, vertical inclination and nature of illumination (frontal, backside, top-down or upward, spot or diffused), dynamics of movements and projections.

6 Glenn_Davis_COH_2011_Event_Scenic_Design

adble scenery

A stage sets and curtain barriers are perceived by the audience from a limited and fixed angle view. Curtains as result are made from black, dark, opaque and translucent materials, and with folds, pleats and gathers, but it is the lighting that casts its sensorial effect.

7 New_York_State_Theater_by_David_Shankbone


10 Theatre_Stage_Albert_Hall_looking_stage_left_showing_theatre_curtains_(2016)Curtains are either dropped downward or moved sideways. In smaller theatres curtains have two leaves which part away horizontally. In larger theatres the curtains are suspended from a batten or staff and dropped down. The dropping is quickest way of adjusting a curtain. The curtains are dropped or raised flown in theatre terminology, up to a required height to mask the upper section of the stage. The masking also substantially hides the back stage settings. The main or the first curtain on the audience side is called a grand drape, act curtain, house curtain, house drape or main drape. These are made of heavier fabric. A curtain call is a curtsy or thanks call offered beyond the closed position of the main curtain, in front part of the stage.


8 Tableau_curtain_central_opening_system_-_Grand_théâtre_d'Angers

Main curtains were first drop curtains but these required a heavy bottom staff. As this was hazardous, roll curtains was soon adopted. ‘The curtain was raised after the prologue and remained up throughout the performance, all scene shifting was in view of the audience. It was not until 1750 that an ‘act drop’ was used; previously, even intermezzi were performed in front of a full stage setting’.

9 Mariinsky_Curtain

A single curtain which moves horizontally is called a wipe. A tab or tableau curtain has two overlapping leaves which are lifted from the corners in a diagonal direction, by the stage assistant or conductor (Sutradhar) of the performance. A scrim is a curtain made of a gauze like fabric that seems to be opaque when lit from the front and transparent when backlit. A backdrop curtain is a painted or scenery curtain forming the back surface of the performance area. A cyclorama is a large white curtain that encircles the stage and provides a background.

11 Interview_with_Francis_Ford_Coppola_&_Alden_Ehrenreich_at_SIFF

STAGE CURTAINS Part 1 (Blog published earlier here)