There are three commonly used stage configurations. A proscenium stage, a thrust stage, and theatre in the round. A proscenium is probably what you saw in high school or your elementary school cafeteria.
When you think of a thrust stage, think of the Miss America pageant or a New York fashion show with runway models. Theatre in the round means the audience is on all sides, and the actors have to be aware of their stage positions as seen from 360 degrees.
My favorite? Theatre in the round, of course. It’s the most challenging and I like a challenge. I spent two years in junior college learning to be aware of 360-degree acting. There is nothing like it. Ever notice how Jack Nicholson can even act with his BACK!? I bet he spent some time doing theatre in the round. Just a guess. If you know Jack, point him to my blog so he can tell us himself.
Of course the old Casper College theatre in the round is a computer lab now, and my Junior college has a newer stage that is sort of a thrust/proscenium hybrid.
Best stage for beginners? It might surprise you, but I would not say a pure proscenium. I would say a modified proscenium with a generous apron on the front. Sight lines can be harder to manage on an old-school proscenium stage with just 2-3 feet of space in front of the curtain. (see my glossary for term definitions).
Things get really interesting when you start to combine aspects of these various stages. By adding an extention onto the front of a proscenium stage, you can extend your acting space and make it a modified thrust. That approach may overcome the problem with a proscenium stage where all the action happens near the back wall and half the audience can’t see what’s going on. By removing one set of seats from a theatre in the round, you can add set pieces and a backdrop to one side of the room and turn it into a modified thrust as well.
Picture in your mind the American idol stage when the judges sit facing center stage and the stage configuration allows the performers to walk on a platform around the back of the judges. That stage is a total hybrid proscenium that has elements of a theatre in the round depending upon where the singer is performing. It can also be used as a thrust stage if the vocalists walk up to the area just in front of the judges table. Sweet stage design.
Want to give your actors the experience of the different stage setups? Get in an empty room with a bunch of actors and mark the various stage types on the floor with masking tape. Do some improvs or scene work in pairs. Have the other actors sit where the audience would normally sit, and ask them to complain if they can’t see something or if they get tired of staring at an actor’s back.