A proscenium is the area of a theatre surrounding the stage opening. A proscenium arch is the arch over this area.
In ancient Rome, the stage area in front of the scaenae frons was known as the "proscenium", meaning "in front of the scenery". In the Roman theater, no proscenium arch existed, in the modern sense. However, Roman theaters were similar to modern proscenium theaters in the sense that the entire audience had a restricted range of views on the stage—all of which were from the front, rather than the sides or back.
The oldest surviving indoor theater of the modern era, the Teatro Olimpico in Vicenza (1585), is sometimes incorrectly referred to as the first example of a proscenium theatre. The Teatro Olimpico was an academic reconstruction of an outdoor Roman theater. This emulation of the Roman model extended to referring to the stage area as the "proscenium", and some writers have incorrectly referred to the theater's scaenae frons as a proscenium, and have even suggested that the central archway in the middle of the scaenae frons was the inspiration for the later development of the full-size proscenium arch. There is no evidence at all for this assumption (indeed, contemporary illustrations of performances at the Teatro Olimpico clearly show that the action took place in front of the scaenae frons, and that the actors were rarely framed by the central archway).
The Italian word for a scaenae frons is "proscenio." One modern translator explains the wording problem that arises here: "[In this translation from Italian,] we retain the Italian proscenio in the text; it cannot be rendered proscenium for obvious reasons; and there is no English equivalent....It would also be possible to retain the classical frons scaenae. The Italian "arco scenico" has been translated as "proscenium arch."
However, this translator fails to note the importance of the word "Frontispiece" during the long 18th century, which is a sensible and literal translation of the Italian phrase: "scaenae frons."
In practice however, the stage in the Teatro Olimpico runs from one edge of the seating area to the other, and only a very limited framing effect is created by the coffered ceiling over the stage and by the partition walls at the corners of the stage where the seating area abuts the floorboards. The result is that in this theater "the architectural spaces for the audience and the action . . . are distinct in treatment yet united by their juxtaposition; no proscenium arch separates them."
However, the Teatro Olimpico's exact replication of the open and accessible Roman stage was the exception rather than the rule in sixteenth-century theatre design. Engravings suggest that the proscenium arch was already in use as early as 1560 at a production in Siena.
The most likely candidate for the first true proscenium arch in a permanent theatre is the Teatro Farnese in Parma (1618). A clearly defined "arco scenico"—more like a picture frame than an arch, but serving the same purpose—outlines the stage and separates the audience from the action on-stage.
A proscenium arch creates a "window" around the scenery and performers. The advantages are that it gives everyone in the audience a good view because the performers need only focus on one direction rather than continually moving around the stage to give a good view from all sides. A proscenium theatre layout also simplifies the hiding and obscuring of objects from the audience's view (sets, performers not currently performing, and theatre technology). Anything that is not meant to be seen is simply placed outside the "window" created by the proscenium arch, either in the wings or in the flyspace above the stage.
The side of the stage that faces the audience is referred to as the "fourth wall". The phrase "breaking the proscenium" or "breaking the fourth wall" refers to when a performer addresses the audience directly as part of the dramatic production. The phrase can also refer to when a member of the cast or crew walks onto the stage or into the house when there is an audience inside, also breaking the fourth wall.
Proscenium theatres have fallen out of favor in some theatre circles because they perpetuate the fourth wall concept. The staging in proscenium theatres often implies that the characters performing on stage are doing so in a four-walled environment, with the "wall" facing the audience being invisible. Many modern theatres attempt to do away with the fourth wall concept and so are instead designed with a thrust stage that projects out of the proscenium arch and "reaches" into the audience (technically, this can still be referred to as a proscenium theatre because it still contains a proscenium arch, however the term thrust stage is more specific and more widely used).
In dance history, the use of the proscenium arch has affected dance in different ways. Prior to the use of proscenium stages, early court ballets took place in large chambers where the audience members sat around and above the dance space. The performers, often lead by the queen or king, focused in symmetrical figures and patterns of symbolic meaning. Ballet’s choreographic1 patterns were being born. In addition, since dancing was considered a way of socializing, most of the court ballets finished with a ‘grand ballet’ followed by a ball in which the members of the audience joined the performance. Later on, the use of the proscenium stage for performances established a separation of the audience from the performers. Therefore, more devotion was placed on the performers, and in what was occurring in the ‘show.’ It was the beginning of dance-performance as a form entertainment like we know it today. Since the use of the proscenium stages, dances have developed and evolved into more complex figures, patterns, and movements. At this point, it was not only significantly important how the performers arrived to a certain shape on the stage during a performance, but also how graciously they executed their task. Additionally, these stages allowed for the use of stage effects generated by ingenious machinery. It was the beginning of scenography design, and perhaps also it was also the origin of the use of backstage personnel or 'stage hands.'
Other forms of theatre staging
- Alley theatre: The stage is surrounded on two sides by the audience.
- Thrust: The stage is surrounded on three sides (or 270°) by audience. Can be a modification of a proscenium stage. Sometimes known as "three quarter round".
- Theatre in the round: The stage is surrounded by audience on all sides.
- Site-specific theatre (a.k.a. environmental theatre): The stage and audience either blend together, or are in numerous or oddly shaped sections. Includes any form of staging that is not easily classifiable under the above categories.
- Black box theatre: The black box theatre is a relatively recent innovation consisting of a large rectangular room with black walls and a flat floor. The seating is typically composed of loose chairs on platforms, which can be easily moved or removed to allow the entire space to be adapted to the artistic elements of a production.
- Studio theatre layout: Not technically a form of staging, rather a theatre that can be reconfigured to accommodate many forms of staging.
- Reverse in the round: A variant of theatre in the round however the audience sits in a central room and the action happens around them. This variant is usually used in promenade theatre.
- Scenography - The Theatre Design Website Diagram and images of proscenium stage