I pulled much of the following from my glossary because it was too wordy. I guess I had a little more to say about “upstaging.”
UPSTAGING refers to an actor (or another event in the theatre) who inappropriately pulls focus from the actor that should be the center of attention at that moment. The term comes from the fact that if an actor stands in an up-stage position and draws the attention of the audience, the actors further downstage cannot see or react to them. This can make the actor downstage look foolish and places them at a disadvantage.
Simply wiggling too much on stage can be upstaging if it happens at the wrong moment. Looking off in the wrong direction can pull focus from another actor. If deliberate, this can be hilarious. Use it sparingly, though. As a theatrical device, it gets old to the audience really fast. As a joke, or just from a lack of technique or discipline, it can cause resentment among actors.
Lots of things can upstage an actor. A sneeze from the audience or a deliberate heckler, a lit doorway opening in the back of the theatre, a poorly planned tech event like a scene change behind a monologue, background music that is too loud, over-zealous lighting design. Even a brilliant set design can upstage if the audience is not given the time to appreciate it before the action begins. Picking an overly enthusiastic person to talk to during an audience participation moment is an easy way to upstage yourself. Pick the guy who looks like he wants to crawl under his seat, not the one who wants his 2 minutes of fame at your expense.
I get this question a lot… “How do I stay in character while another actor is speaking if I can’t MOVE around without upstaging them?” My answer is usually to encourage the actor to make their movements smaller, expressions less wild, and to LISTEN to the other character who is speaking. I tell actors to react to what someone else is saying instead of just trying to be funny or dramatic. They can go ahead and “go big” when it’s their turn, when the other actor pauses, etc. It’s ok if they are really listening to the other actor and not just hogging the spotlight. I encourage actors to definitely react, absolutely DO stay in character, just don’t be selfish about it.
By the way, I work with two actors (they know who they are!) who have developed such strong stage presence they can pull focus JUST STANDING STILL! I rarely let them stand behind (upstage of) another actor, and I often have to angle them away from the audience (standing in profile, for instance) or place them in weaker positions on stage (sitting, off stage right or left from the main action) to make sure the focus in a scene stays where it belongs. These guys are NOT selfish, they just have a super-strong physical stage presence.
As a director, sometimes it’s hard to tell when someone has gone over the top and is upstaging, or if they are just out-acting another actor on stage. You never want to direct in a way that makes a great actor lower their standards to the level of a less experienced actor, so the attention from the director may need to go toward the less-strong actor, not the one who looks like she is upstaging.
Pacing and pauses are important as well… make sure an actor delivering a long speech builds in pauses and looks to the other actors on stage for their reactions so the focus can move from the actor speaking to the actor reacting and back again. This can happen in a split second and doesn’t necessarily have to make a scene drag.
As an actor, resist the temptation to have fun at another actor’s expense. A good ensemble actor plays like a good soccer player, the ball is the focus of the audience and has to be passed from one actor to another if you want to score with the audience.
As a director, be careful not to let self-indulgence rule the day… from an actor or from you. It’s so easy to encourage upstaging because clowning around upstage makes you laugh yourself. But ask yourself if the extra stuff advances the plot or serves a purpose in telling the story. If not, have the discipline to rein it in.