What is a Raked Stage?

Actors rehearsing on stage
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In the world of theater, the raked stage is just one many stage types you will encounter as an actor or viewer. Although not common today, they were frequently used in Elizabethan times as well as in theaters of the 19th century. Common theatrical stage jargon used today comes from the era of the raked stage. For actors and dancers, performing on a raked stage presents some unique challenges.


A raked stage is one that is built on an angle that slopes upward and away from the front the stage, also called the apron. The degree of the slope, called the rake, varied widely in historical times and could be quite steep. Modern raked stages are far less steep, usually with a rake of 5 degrees or less. They are far more common today in Europe, with its deep theatrical traditions, than they are in the U.S. One recent exception was the stage used for the Broadway version of the musical Billy Elliot.

American theaters with permanent raked stages usually were built prior to the 20th century, such as the Philadelphia Academy of Music or historic Ford's Theater in Washington D.C. If a play is being staged in a modern American theater, chances are the raked stage was constructed especially for that production. This time-lapse video of a production of "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof," for example, is a fun way to see what a raked stage looks like. 

History of the Raked Stage

In Shakespearean times, theatres were built with an open area in front of the stage, where the poorest viewers, called groundlings, stood to watch performances. They were often rowdy, rude, and thought nothing of catcalling the actors if they didn't like a particular performance. Wealthy patrons were seated in tiers for boxes in the rear, away from the riff-raff.

Raking the stage allowed cast members placed on the immediate action happening nearest the audience to still be seen. When an actor had to cross, he was literally going up the stage or down it. This angled position of the stage prompted the use of the terms upstage, center stage, and downstage, all of which are still in use today.

Stages themselves aren't the only parts of a theatre that have used rakes to improve sight lines and overall visibility for the audience. Beginning in the early 20th century, many theatres were constructed with raked audience seating sections as well. The resulting seating provides more even views from all seats - plus, it helps alleviate the dreaded problem of being a short audience member seated directly behind a tall one!

Performing on a Raked Stage

For theatergoers, a raked stage can enhance the sense of depth and dimensionality of the staging or choreography. For the actors and dancers accustomed to performing on flat stages, however, a raked stage can present some challenges. Most common is a sense of feeling physically off balance, which some actors say can make them feel ungrounded. Dancers sometimes complain of vertigo if they're performing on a raked stage, and the risk of physical injury can increase, particularly if the performance is physically demanding. However, these sensations can disappear with time as an actor grows accustomed to the stage.

The concept of "upstaging" originates with the raked stage, as well. On a raked stage, "upstage" indicates someone who is, literally, higher up on the stage (so, further away from the audience), while "downstage" is a position lower on the rake and thus closer to the audience. To upstage someone, in modern parlance, means to deliberately draw attention, often at the expense of others, and it originates with the particulars of a raked stage: if one actor moves upstage, their scene partner who is further downstage will likely have to turn their back on the audience to address them, thus affecting their own performance negatively.

Resources and Further Reading

Anderson, Jack. "Raked Stages and Scoreless Dance." The New York Times. 19 Nov. 1987.

Cohen, Sara. "Ford's Theater Then Vs. Now: Why is the Stage Slanted?" Ford's Theater Blog. Accessed 22 Nov. 2017.

Fierberg, Ruthie. "Dancing Their Way to Injury." Backstage.com. 29 Dec. 2009.