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What is a Proscenium Theater?

A theater is a theater, isn’t it? Well, not quite. There are different types of theaters. So, I’ve decided to take a closer look at one of them in order to answer the question, “What is a proscenium theater?

What is a Proscenium Theater?

Different Configurations

Theater configurations can differ, and the proscenium theater is just one. In addition to proscenium theaters, some of the most common kinds of theaters are thrust stage theaters, theaters in the round, and black box theaters. 

Many theaters were built quite a few years ago and conformed to what was perceived as the best way for the audience to view the proceedings. These days some theaters are designed with a specific type of performance in mind.

It Is What Most People Think

Say the word “theater” to someone and ask them to imagine the inside. It is likely they will think of the proscenium theater as it is the most common. If you have been to a performance in a school, you have probably been to a proscenium theater.

Many of the theaters in towns and cities, even some of the most famous theaters, are proscenium theaters. It is a specific style that has several defining features.

What is a Proscenium Theater? – Main Features

So, what are the defining features of a proscenium theater? The most visual element of the proscenium theater is what you see from the audience. There is something that resembles a picture frame around the stage, almost like a window that you view the performance through.

On either side of the stage are what is known as the wings. These are areas on either side of the stage out of the view of the audience. The stage is usually surrounded by scenery or curtains, except for the side facing the audience. Any areas that are out of view of the audience are known as “backstage.”

There is a “front of stage” curtain that the audience faces, with no seating on either side. Additionally, the stage is raised to ensure everyone has a reasonable view of the performance.

Stage Arrangement

The stage in a proscenium theater is divided into eleven areas. Nine areas for actors plus two other areas. To assist in directing a performance, these areas are also often applied to other theater designs where the stage is a set size. 

The stage areas are roughly equal in size. From the rear of the stage, the main stage areas of a proscenium theater are:

  • Upstage Right, Center, and Left – furthest from the audience.
  • Centerstage Right, Center, and Left – the center of the stage.
  • Downstage Right, Center, and Left – towards the very front of the stage, closest to the audience.

However, there are two other areas. First is the proscenium line. This is an imaginary, descriptive line that runs between the two “pillars” of the picture frame. The other, in front of the proscenium line, is the apron, which I shall look at a bit later.

When Was The Proscenium Stage First Used?

This style of theater has its origins in the ancient theaters of Greece. The Greeks simply had a row of colonnades that supported the stage or acting platform as it was known.

The proscenium as we recognize it today first appeared in Palma, Italy, in about 1618. Although, there is evidence that a similar temporary structure had been erected at the Italian court before this.

It was designed purely for atmospheric purposes and to provide an enhanced sense of spectacle for those watching. In its earliest proscenium theaters, scene changes were performed in view of the audience with the absence of a curtain. 

The Stage Curtain

The Stage Curtain

The stage curtain was used to hide scene changes starting in the 18th Century and was also used during intermissions. They could either be raised to sit behind the upper arch of the picture frame, or drawn to the sides behind the pillars.

The Stage Apron

This is the area in front of the curtain or proscenium line. It is visible at all times and can be used as a part of various types of performance. 

For example, you might see it used for introductions for a particular act, or possibly a singer or group of singers. The announcement is made from the stage apron, and then the curtain is raised. 

In some cases, you might see an entire performance played out on the stage apron. This is rare but not uncommon and might utilize a small number of participants and very little in the way of props and no scenery.

The Advantages of The Proscenium Theater

There are several advantages of the proscenium theater design.

  • The stage is enclosed and not open.
  • Scenery, curtains, or other props allow actors and production staff to move freely without being seen by the audience.
  • Props, sets, and even musicians and orchestras can be placed in the wings and out of view.
  • The proscenium stage generates a feeling of grandeur and importance.
  • The audience feels like they are watching the scenes play out, looking at them through a picture frame or a window.

Disadvantages of The Proscenium Theater

  • Some types of performance can be limited.
  • Actors tend to have more freedom of movement with thrust stage theaters that go out into the audience.
  • Some directors don’t like them because they lack intimacy for certain types of performances.

What Kind Of Performance?


The vast majority of plays and musicals performed fit neatly into the layout of a proscenium theater. It forms a focal point for the production and keeps everything that happens easy to see.

When producing a play, musical, or another form of onstage performance, the choice of theater is important. There may be certain demands of the script and how the work is to be performed. 

For example, there are round stages where the audience surrounds the action, and all areas are visible. I have mentioned thrust stages, where the action goes into the audience, which can create a very intimate atmosphere.

There are many options… 

So, if you want to read up on how we have come to where we are today in the theater, you may enjoy History of the Theatre. Or, if you want to see how theater has evolved and been practiced in various parts of the world, Mapping Global Theatre Histories is an excellent book on the subject.

If you are putting on a school or amateur production and feel it is a daunting proposition, then Perfect Stage Crew: The Complete Technical Guide for High School, College, and Community Theater will guide you through it.

However, for a higher level of performance where you will need to design sets and all the activities surrounding the production, have a look at Designing for the Theatre.

Interested in the Music Often Played in Theaters?

Well, have a look at our informative articles on The Baroque Music Period, our List of String Instruments in an Orchestra, our Brass Instruments ListThe Romantic Period of Music, and Perfect Musicals for Small Casts for more information.

Also, if you’re an aspiring Classical musician, check out our in-depth reviews of the Best Cremona Violins, the Best Student Violins, the Best Electric Cellos, the Best Flute, and the Best Trumpet you can buy in 2023.

What is a Proscenium Theater? – Final Thoughts

Theater, just like most things, has evolved over the years, and in this case, over centuries. And the proscenium theater has gone through periods of change that have made new things possible.

Proscenium theaters are still built today, but the modern designs often lack the famed arch and the picture frame. We still refer to them as proscenium theaters because all the other characteristics that define this type of theater are in place.

The next time you go to a theater, have a look to see if it is a proscenium theater. If it is, which is quite likely, consider the history going back centuries that contributed to what you will experience.

Until next time, may the show go on.

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About Joseph L. Hollen

Joseph is a session musician, writer, and filmmaker from south Florida. He has recorded a number of albums and made numerous short films, as well as contributing music to shorts and commercials. 

He doesn't get as much time to practice and play as he used to, but still manages (just about!) to fulfill all his session requests. According to Joseph, it just gets harder as you get older; you rely on what you learned decades ago and can play without thinking. Thankfully that's what most producers still want from him.

He is a devout gear heat and has been collecting musical instruments all his life. As his wife, Jill, keeps on saying, "You're very good at buying nice instruments, but terrible at selling them!".

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