Episode 7: Level and Horizontal
Leading up to this episode we have talked a lot about the shape, positioning, and use of the body.
Now we are going to talk about how things like height, space, and distance add to the dynamic of a communication.
It’s one thing to discuss an interaction between two people standing in front of one another in a controlled environment.
But how how often does that happen?
In your day to day life you’ll probably have conversations seated at a table, maybe you’ll chat with a friend standing in a break room or at a lunch counter; at some point you’ll likely speak to someone from across the room; you’ll interact with people who are taller or shorter than you, heavier or lighter than you; people of both outgoing and introverted demeanor.
You may watch someone from a stage or have to stand up to speak before a team of coworkers or employees.
All of these different configurations have an effect on how the elements we have previously discussed function.
Think of Level as the way the body occupies space in a vertical sense in relation to other people or objects.
For instance: a person standing on their feet is occupying a different level than a person sitting in a chair, who is on a different level than a person lying down etc.
But it’s not just about standing and sitting.
A person standing on a stage is on a separate level from the audience standing in the crowd, and a colleague standing 6’4” won’t occupy the same level as one standing 5’5”
I’ve found myself in situations where a tall man sitting could occupy the same level as I do standing up!
Think of Horizontal as the way the body occupies space laterally in relation to other people or objects.
Remember that Plane refers to the space the body occupies forward or backward on a line
Horizontal is side to side, lateral movement or positioning on the plane you occupy.
Imagine two people seated at a booth in a restaurant.
If they are seated on opposite sides of the table, across from one another full front, then they are each on a different plane, but share the same horizontal.
If they are seated next to one another shoulder to shoulder seated at the table in the booth, then they are sitting on a shared plane, but two separate horizontals.
If you want to look at it in the abstract sense, on a coordinate graph the x axis, side to side, is your horizontal; your y axis, up and down, is your level; and the z axis, forward and back, is your plane.
Not everyone can easily picture their world plotted on graph, we will be sticking with simple terms like up, down; forward, back; and side to side.
Let’s talk about Level first.
Level, at its most basic, is about giving and drawing focus in a vertical sense.
Most of the time we identify the level another person is occupying by looking at the head, which unless you’re doing a handstand is going to be at the highest point their body holds in space.
Standing, sitting, kneeling, or lying down are all quick immediate ways to change level, and much of the time level will be dictated by architecture and terrain.
Many facilities are designed to create a specific dynamic by predetermining the level and horizontal the people inside are positioned on.
Theaters, public stages, podiums, churches, synagogues, mosques, and courtrooms are all styled to direct people’s attention and focus using Level and Horizontal to convey specific information through degrees of unity and separation.
Imagine a courtroom for a moment.
The judge sits high up at a raised desk called the bench, purposefully situated on a higher level than all others present in the room.
Throughout the proceedings the judge will remain seated, while the attorneys change level, getting up, sitting down.
Witnesses will ascend to the level of the witness stand, typically at a higher level than the defendant but a level or two beneath the level of the judge.
In this particular arrangement the architecture grants a certain authority to the judge, differentiating him or her from all other participants in the proceeding: the judge presides over a level that is unique in the room.
No one is able to share that level, which creates a symbolic separation.
The focus of the judge goes down to the participants, and the focus of the participants has to go up to the judge.
Now think of attending a concert in a performing arts theater.
The performance will take place up on an elevated stage, separating performer and audience.
If you’ve ever been to a performance where the artist steps off the stage and down into the audience you know that the experience changes quite a bit when the performer changes down to a shared level.
The key to using level strategically is knowing when to create or remove separation.
To create a shared experience we match level to those we are interacting with.
Think of bending down to the level of a child to play, waiting until everyone is seated to begin a meal, or teammates on a field taking a knee to await the recovery of an injured player.
Think of when a speaker tells an audience, “Everyone on your feet”
What they are really doing is creating a change of level to create a more shared experience.
We also use level to separate one person from a group of people, going from a shared experience to one where focus is being drawn purposefully by certain individuals.
Think of standing to give a toast at a wedding, introducing yourself to a group of people at a meeting, or stepping up on a podium to receive an award or commendation.
The Olympic platform is a good example of what level can communicate.
There are podiums of three different heights, one for gold, silver, and bronze, but the platform itself raises up above a fourth level- the one shared by the spectators and non medalled participants.
Even without the colors in play, the message of hierarchy is clear.
The podium separates three individuals from a crowd, and then those individuals are separated from one another using level to denote the different status of each person.
We get the whole story with four simple elevations.
Horizontals tell a story in a different way.
We’ll get to that after the break.
A great deal of the skills and principles we discuss here on the show come from the world of performance and theater.
Most of that intuitively translates to the outside world, and we haven’t talked much about these skills in the context of a stage.
The concept behind Horizontals is one that is easiest understood and applied with a little of that stage context in mind.
Let’s talk about three types of stage configuration.
In addition to Horizontals, I’m going to use Plane in my explanation to demonstrate the difference, but also the relationship between the two.
A Proscenium stage is probably the most commonly found stage in a purpose built performing arts center.
It consists of a stage that sits within the frame of a proscenium arch and an audience oriented full front.
The stage may be raised or not. The audience may be seated in a or on the floor.
Typically with a view of the stage from a single angle, although the seating in the audience may be in a slight curve.
Most theaters, opera houses, and cinemas are set up this way.
A stage like this is divided by the performers into 9 parts, and each has a designation taken from the perspective of the performer facing out to the audience.
The middle section of this stage is referred to as center stage.
One section to the left of center stage on a horizontal line is called Center Left.
One section to the right of center stage is called Center Right.
If you start at center stage and move forward in Plane, toward the audience, that section is called down center.
If you move backward in plane from center stage, away from the audience, that section is called up center.
Horizontal to these section to the left and right we have up left, up right, down left, and down right.
When a performer moves across the stage the audience and this grid are their constant reference.
Movement forward and back from center will have one effect, and movement laterally to the right and left of center will have another effect.
With a proscenium stage the perspective of the audience is fixed, and Horizontal movement will be viewed and understood from that perspective.
This has a lot to do with directing focus.
Full front to the audience is seen as full front from every seat in the house.
Forward and backward and Side to Side are easily defined.
Not as easily with a Thrust stage.
A thrust stage projects out and is surrounded by the audience on three sides.
This adds a level of complication to Horizontal and Plane.
The stage is still divided into our nine parts, but what could be seen as a change in horizontal from one seat in the house will be seen as a change in plane from another seat.
Though the actors still understand the configurations like on a proscenium to be able to directed to a particular area on stage, the audience now experience upstage, downstage, left and right from whichever vantage they have from their side of the performance.
When changing the Orientation of the body one audience member will see a body in profile, and another will see a body full front, and another will see a body full back.
Directing actors on a thrust stage requires a clear understanding of the art of establishing focus.
This gets us a lot closer to how these concepts impact us in the real world.
The difference here is that in the real world our reference point is ever changing.
Our third Stage configuration, called “In the Round” has a stage surrounded by an audience on every side, 360 degrees.
Now those easy to follow references we had with the proscenium stage, audience and grid, are gone.
What takes their place are reference points decided upon by the actors within the scene.
An actor in the round cannot adjust the angle at which they draw and receive focus based on the vantage of the audience, because each audience member will have a different view of the action.
They can’t base their movements or positioning on upstage or downstage because any movement could be perceived as traversing up or down to the spectator.
Side to side and back and forth now hinge solely on the other elements within the scene, meaning elements and actors that exist on the stage all around them.
So which configuration most resembles the real world?
They all do.
It’s about how you establish reference.
You will spend a great deal of your life in circumstances directed and influenced by architectural and environmental features.
Speaking to a crowd or giving a presentation you’ll most likely find yourself in more of a proscenium or thrust configuration.
The expectation of where focus should be drawn to and directed from are clearer.
In a crowded bar or at a party you will find yourself in a configuration more akin to a stage in the round.
Action takes places all around you and you can move in and through that action without fixed references.
With the other physical concepts we’ve introduced in the preceding episodes- Line Focus, Orientation, Plane, Frame, and Stance- We can easily recognize and understand the function in ourselves and in interactions we observe.
Where is the other person directing focus? How are they using the orientation of their body to control and modify that focus? Are they moving forward and backward in plane as they give or receive information? Do they distribute the weight across their frame in a way that lends to or detracts from what they are saying? Do they hold their body in a counterbalanced position?
But Horizontal is a lot more complex.
This is because you can interpret and employ Horizontal in two distinct ways.
The first is by establishing your physical environment as a reference, think proscenium and the imaginary lines on the stage.
In this way lateral movement is understood from fixed perspective.
Your movement is more to one side of the stage or another.
And the second way is by assigning your reference to wherever you direct your focus like an actor in the round.
In this way you are constantly re-establishing perspective, and therefore what constitutes a lateral movement changes and is based on what YOUR OWN perspective is in a given moment.
He’s the tricky part: You are always using Horizontal in both ways at once.
Imagine you are standing in east corner of a room, which happens to be where the door is. From your current orientation that door is on your left horizontal.
But if you turn around the door isn’t on your horizontal at all anymore.
Now a window is on your left horizontal and the door in the east corner is at your back behind you in plane.
From your point of view your horizontals are ever changing.
But the Door remains in the east corner, and horizontals as they relate to the room are unchanged.
Both of these, your personal horizontals and the horizontals of your setting allow you to make important decisions.
Who and what is to the side of you, and to whom and what are you to the side of?
In lieu of our usual recap I want to end this episode by giving you some things to practice.
As you go about your day I want you to think about how your horizontals change and shift, both the horizontal of your personal sphere and Horizontals in your environment.
When you enter or exit a space I want you to analyze how you transition between configurations that mimic our three stage setups.
Are you entering a proscenium atmosphere with defined boundaries and line of focus?
Maybe you are shifting from defined boundaries toward an “in the round” configuration.
Decide where your audience is.
Establish a focal reference for every interaction, especially when interacting with two or more people.
Keep Level in mind as well.
As you play observer in your day to day I want you to take careful note of how Levels are arranged in your routine and in your interactions.
You’ll notice both intentional and unintentional impact from Level.
For impacts that feel intentional, ask yourself why, and observe how you and those around you react to the use of level in architecture and look for level in our various social conventions.
Becoming aware of Level and Horizontal configuration in all aspects of interaction will strengthen your ability to use height, space, and distance to communicate more clearly.
And importantly, recognizing how you are limited by the settings you are placed in will allow you to make informed choices about how to navigate within them.
Remember that Level and Horizontal are all about creating and removing separation.