Deciding exactly where to go and not go on stage is known as ‘blocking’ in theatre and film. It’s part of the role of the director to ensure that each of the actors is in the right place. Blocking is useful for speakers for a number of reasons, particularly if you have a large stage. Of course, access to the venue in advance is helpful, so be sure to set this up.
In rehearsal, it’s useful to place pieces of tape on stage to mark the area you should stay in. The audience won’t see them, but it’s important to you for a number of reasons, including the following:
1. Sight lines. Every member of the audience should be able to see you at all times. The simple way to determine this is to walk around the stage, making sure that you can see every seat. If and when a seat disappears from your eyeline, put down a marker.
2. Being heard clearly. If you are using a microphone, there might be areas of the stage that generate feedback. Moving too close to a speaker might cause this. During a sound check, make sure that you cover all of the stage and, if feedback occurs, mark that as a no-go area. If you aren’t using a microphone, some areas might make you inaudible because of the acoustics, so work with an assistant who stands at distant parts of the room and makes sure you can always be heard clearly.
3. Light. Actors know how to ‘find their light’. You should know too and if there are areas of darkness on stage, avoid them. You will be able to feel when the light is on your face and when you are in darkness.
4. Camera angles. If you are being videoed or live-streamed, you must stay where the camera can see you. Going out of shot (especially into the audience) is unforgivable. The camera should be able to find you, so, once again, establish no-go areas during rehearsal.
5. Link to content. Our late speaker friend Warren Evans used a six-block system. Theatre stage blocking can extend to a grid of eight or nine blocks. ‘Downstage’ refers to the front of the stage and upstage to the back. For speakers, downstage centre is the most influential position, with upstage centre/downstage right being the next most powerful, followed by downstage left. Warren used to say that if you tell a sad story downstage left, then that place becomes reserved for sad stories – for the duration of that speech anyway! A funny story could then be delivered downstage right and an inspirational one might start upstage centre and end downstage centre. This is how you link stage blocking to your content extremely effectively.
When the audiences rises to give you a standing ovation, they might not be too sure what you did to make everything ‘work out so well’ – but you’ll know, because it was all on purpose.
Alan Stevens & Paul du Toit – excerpt Chapter 9 (Delivery) from “The Exceptional Speaker – How To Deliver Exceptional Speeches”