Mise-en-scene on Stage

“It’s that life in that house that determines that mise-en-scène.”

—Georgi Tovstonogov, Russian theatre director


Mise-en-scène is the arrangement of actors and stage design in scenes for a theatre or film production, both in visual arts through storyboarding, visual theme, and cinematography, and in narrative storytelling through direction.


Broadly used term in cinematography, the origins of the term come from theatre.


The term "mise-en-scène" developed in the theater, where it literally meant "put into the scene" and referred to the design and direction of the entire production, or, as "metteur-en-scène," to the director's work.


From Russian Theatre Encyclopedia:

Mise en scène, the arrangement of actors in relation to the objective environment and each other at one time or another of the scenic or cinematic action, expressing their semantic relationship.


In the Western science of theater, the concept of "mise-en-scene", due to its etymology, often approaches and even equates with the concept of "directing". In the Russian theatrical tradition, it is customary to single out "mise-en-scene" as a separate concept and consider it as the main structural unit of the theatrical text. At the same time, the performance itself is viewed as a "set and system of mise-en-scenes" (Y. M. Barboy).


Mise-en-scene can be static or dynamic, planar or deep, as well as frontal, diagonal, etc.


Variants of a static "mise-en-scene" are the so-called silent scene and a living picture, when the actors freeze in expressive poses, forming a pictorial composition, or even purposefully stage a particular piece of painting or sculpture.


Examples of mise-en-scene


In some cases, complexity of design sends the right message about mise-en-scene:

Here, we see a busy space fraught with decrepit objects and potential threats. The primary threat is hiding in plain sight. The audience knows this, the protagonist does not, and therein lies the drama.

Then, there’s simplicity:



Simple as it gets: a room, a table, some chairs, a few characters, and a single light source. The drama is in the blocking of actors and stunning lighting. If you haven’t seen the film, you still get a good sense for tone, who holds power in the scene, and what is happening.


How to master mise-en-scene for your projects


Mise-en-scène additionally incorporates the arrangement, which comprises the positioning and movement of performing artists. The different components of design assist in expressing a performance’s vision by creating a sense of time and space, and setting a mood, and infrequently suggesting a character’s state of mind.


These are all the areas sometimes supervised by the director. The important people amongst the individuals that teams up with the director is the production designer. The production designer is responsible for individual sets, areas, props, and costumes, among other things. The production designer is by and large in charge of the general look of the picture.


Mise-en-scène can be either realistic or artistic depending on how you, the director, wants to tell the story. When a scene calls for dramatic representation, it may require a lot of layers (performers action, sound, ligh, etc) .



What techniques can a director use to make one actor dominate the stage?

  • The character's relationship to the audience [Full front is the strongest position],

  • A character's height [The tallest actor will dominate a scene],

  • The character's focus, [The audience will look at the character, the other on stage characters are looking at],

  • Stage areas [The strongest area is down center],

  • Scenery [A character framed in a door way],

  • Costumes [A character in a bright costume],

  • Lights [A character isolated in a pool of light],

  • Movement [A character moving across the stage].


Here are some things to consider when blocking your actors in a play:


1. Let the script do most of the work for you.

As a director, you may have plenty of ideas on changing the setting or the costumes or the dialogue, but leave the basic stage direction as intact as possible. You aren't trying to reinvent the wheel, just making sure your actors know where to stand and when to cross. Most scripts already contain enough staging information to allow you to form a rough idea of blocking. You should know when the characters are supposed to enter and exit, and what obstacles are in their way during their dialogue. Trust the script notes to paint the broadest strokes you will need to do basic blocking.


2. Avoid clutter- keep the audience in mind.

A traditional proscenium stage should be viewed as a living painting. No artist would dare place all of his painting's elements on one side of the painting. Balance the stage movements so that the audience has a feeling of aesthetics. If a character has no interaction with others in the scene, move them to the opposite side of the stage for balance. If you have furniture on stage, avoid piling every actor on the couch center stage. You might set up more furniture on both sides of the stage to keep your actors from crowding each other. You might also consider building various levels to keep all actors in plain view. Build up different parts of the set, and when one actor moves to a different 'level', move another actor to replace them. If done subtly, the audience should not notice the continuous shift.


3. Allow the actors to improvise and contribute to the blocking process.

During the rehearsal process, a director must be an benevolent dictator and democratic leader at the same time. There are some blocking directions that should be seen as immutable, such as exits, dramatic crosses and entrances. These movements need to be fixed and unchanged, so that lighting directors and other technical people can get a proper fix on actor positions. But some elements of blocking, such as internal monologues and staged arguments, can be modified through improvisation and actor input. You should listen carefully to your actors' ideas, even if you still veto them. Actors can get a feel for where their characters would want to move during a scene, so their input can be very useful indeed. During a conflict scene, you may feel that the couple would naturally move away from each other to get some emotional distance, whereas the actors involved may feel like moving in closer to increase the tension between them. Both actions seem reasonable, so see which movements improve the scene. Be prepared to adjust your original ideas accordingly- move other actors out of the scene or change the stage layout. [Michael Pollick]



Do you want to learn how to create a strong mise-en-scene and master the art of composition on stage? Join our 3-months distance learning course "Choreography and Blocking in Performance" starting in March 2021>




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