Get our free email newsletter with just one click

Dear West End Producer: ‘What is this fabled fourth wall, and where is it?’

West End Producer West End Producer. Photo: Matt Crockett
by -

The fourth wall is something that was invented in the 1960s when a director wanted an actual brick wall to be built on stage – so the audience would be just ‘listening in’ to the conversations behind. While this was all well and good, the designer thought it a bit of a silly idea, so instead came up with the idea of an ‘invisible brick wall’ – situated at the bottom of the stage between the audience and actors. This wall meant the actors could act behind a pretend wall, with the advantage that the audience could still watch them gurning and emoting.

Nowadays the fourth wall is something that is thrown around drama schools more than Louie Spence’s old jockstraps. Directors love talking about it – mainly when they don’t know what else to say. Favourite ‘fourth wall’ quotes include “don’t break the fourth wall”, “remember the fourth wall”, and “you just walked through the fourth wall, you idiot”.

The fourth wall can also be rather dangerous for less experienced performers. When actors are ‘in the moment’ they sometimes imagine there is actually a wall and lean on it during a show. This obviously has disastrous results, as the actor falls straight through the invisible bricks on to an unsuspecting old woman on the front row – causing a show stop, an injured actor and a very excited OAP.

When used correctly however, the fourth wall is a very useful tool. It allows the actor to think they’re not being watched – and helps them to block out the discerning grins, gasps and grunts of the audience. But of course everyone realises the fourth wall isn’t actually there. It’s one of those things famous drama practitioners such as Christopher Biggins call a ‘theatrical device’. Anything that sounds a bit pretentious, arty and ridiculous can be called a theatrical device.

In some theatre spaces the fourth wall can be all around the actors – not just at the front of the stage. For example, when performing in-the-round the fourth wall becomes a circular wall. This, however, becomes confusing for actors, who feel like they’re playing a goldfish in a circular fish tank of dramatic repetition (which is actually a good description for any theatre job that lasts for more than six months).

The reason the fourth wall shouldn’t be broken is because it breaks the ‘world’ of the play – and suddenly makes the audience realise that what they’re watching isn’t real. This of course can be the desired effect – for example that Brecht bloke loved breaking theatrical conventions. However, if an actor takes it upon themselves to break the fourth wall, they have to be aware of the implications. Some actors have walked through the wall and found themselves in another dimension. It can sometimes become a gate to another world. And that world is usually one consisting of profit-share and theatre in education tours. So be warned, dear.

The fourth wall is currently becoming very important in the real world – with Donald Trump thinking about using one to border Mexico. Well, he can’t seriously be thinking about building a real one, can he, dear?

This week’s question was submitted by @andrewdowbiggin. Send questions to your dear agony aunt via Twitter @westendproducer

We need your help…

When you subscribe to The Stage, you’re investing in our journalism. And our journalism is invested in supporting theatre and the performing arts.

The Stage is a family business, operated by the same family since we were founded in 1880. We do not receive government funding. We are not owned by a large corporation. Our editorial is not dictated by ticket sales.

We are fully independent, but this means we rely on revenue from readers to survive.

Help us continue to report on great work across the UK, champion new talent and keep up our investigative journalism that holds the powerful to account. Your subscription helps ensure our journalism can continue.