“Blocking” refers to the specific movements that actors make on the stage – where they go, when they go there, how they move (the tempo, the quality of movement, what they might be doing as they move, etc.). Legend has it that the term came about in the 19th century, when directors might decide how to block a show by moving little blocks (representing actors) around a scale model of the set. And in fact, the legend specifically refers to Sir W.S. Gilbert (of Gilbert and Sullivan fame) using this method.
Most directors today no longer use that method, preferring to create the blocking with the actors in the room. However, scenic designers still create scale models. This is designer Rob Koharchik’s model for Red. Koharchik includes a tiny little Mark Rothko in the model, so that the rest of the creative team can understand the scale of the design, as it relates to the size of a man standing onstage. (Note the detail in this model – the paint cans are covered in paint, the floor is full of paint splatters, the strainer on stage left is ready for the day’s work…)
There are lots of terms we use in the theatre every day that might not be immediately clear to a layperson – chewing the scenery, for instance, doesn’t refer to a hungry actor eating the set. Green rooms are often not actually green (and sometimes they’re more of a hallway than a room…), a strike isn’t a work stoppage (in fact, strike is A LOT of work…), flies aren’t insects and aprons aren’t always pieces of clothing. And, of course, when you’re looking at the stage and referring to something you see on the right, you say it’s on stage left (I did that in the paragraph above – to see the strainer, which is the large frame standing in front of the ladder, look to the right of the photo, which would be called stage left.)
To help explain some of these phrases, Theatre Development Fund has created a theatre dictionary, with fun videos that define words (often with great humor), and essays that more clearly discuss the origins of the word. Check out the definition for blocking, stage left and stage right, strike, chewing the scenery and more! (In fact, one of the videos was created by our own Geva Comedy Improv! Don’t miss the definition for catwalk and see if you spy any familiar faces!)