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Stage Curtains and Drapes - A Definitive Guide

A lot goes into researching, planning, and delivering a breath-taking and complete play or show. There are many components and individual parts working behind the scenes that synchronise to produce the magic that the audience sees on stage.

But what are these components? What are their roles and how exactly do they work?

Whether you are here for information to help support your decision-making for buying a theatre curtain and track, or if you are simply here to expand the boundaries of your knowledge of theatre curtains, this article will provide you with the info you need.

Image Stage Curtains and Drapes - A Definitive Guide
  • 09-Apr-2021

Table of Contents:

  1. What are stage curtains
    • The front curtain
    • Side stage curtains
    • Cross stage curtains
    • Backdrop curtains
    • Acoustic curtains
  2. Theatre drape effects
    • Swag
    • Austrian
    • Contour
    • Scrim
    • Guillotine
    • Painted drapes
    • Front and rear fold
  3. Fire-rated theatre curtains
    • The different levels of fire rated curtains
    • British standards
    • Europe and USA standards
  4. Stage curtain tracks
    • The different stage curtain tracks
    • Choosing the right curtain tracks

What are stage curtains?

Stage curtains (or drapes) are large pieces of fabric or cloth used to close specific areas of the stage off from the audience’s view.  There are many different types of stage curtains, including the front curtain, masking, cross-stage and backdrop curtains.

There are also acoustic curtains and curtain effects that are used to alter the ambience and visuals of a performance.

These various types of stage curtains are used in different areas of the stage in different ways to support the delivery of a magical, breath-taking performance. Let’s take a look at each stage curtain individually, their role, materials and the unique effects they can create.

1.  The Front Curtain

Let’s begin with the front curtain, also known as a (front-of-) house curtain, act curtain, grand drape, main curtain/drape or proscenium curtain.

This stage curtain sits at the very front of a stage separating it from the auditorium and is usually opened at the beginning of a performance to reveal the stage and close it for intervals as well as the end of a performance.

The most common material for the front curtain is a heavy velour or velvet material, often with pleats sewn into the fabric to create a more opulent look usually referred to as fullness.

2.  Side (masking) stage curtains

Lighting and sound are a crucial part of any performance and must be coordinated correctly. Allowing this equipment and hardware to be visible to the audience will ruin the power of the performance and take away the magic it creates.

This is where side stage curtains come into play.

Also called masking curtains, they are used in the wings of the stage to hide (mask) equipment, gear, rigging and technical hardware that is present from the audience’s view, such as lighting bars and curtain tracks.

Legs

Masking curtains come in the form of swivel arm carriers, also called legs, which are rotating side curtains that cover backstage areas from the audience’s view. Because of this, they are subsequently also called tormentors.

They are tall and narrow curtains for the purpose of fitting within the small wings on either side of the stage. These are sometimes in fixed positions using swivels to adjust the angle to the front of the stage, or on braked carriers to track up and down the stage before swiveling to their final position.  

Border curtains

Border curtains work in conjunction with legs, sitting upstage and supporting them in hiding backstage equipment by concealing any hung rigging from the audience.

3.  Cross stage curtains

Cross stage curtains do what it says on the tin. They span the entire width of the stage and have various purposes. But unlike headers, they drop the full distance to the floor from the track. 

Wipe curtains

Named after a technique from the film industry called a “wipe”, the wipe curtain is made up of a single sheet of curtain and spans the entire width of the stage, stacking to one side of the stage only. 

Traveler curtains

Travelers (or draws) are curtains that draw together from the sides of the stage into the middle at either the front of the stage, or midway. They come in two forms which differentiate in functionality.

One is split into two halves and spans only to the middle of the stage; these are called single way travelers, one-way wipes or wipes for short.

The other overlaps and spans past the mid-section of the stage. These are called centre overlap curtains, by parting travelers or by parting curtains.

There are also mid stage travelers, also called mid stage by part travelers or mid stage centre overlap curtains that span only the middle width of the stage.

Travelers can either be operated manually by staff within the wings if corded or motorized using appropriate curtain tracks. Continue reading to learn about the different curtain tracks available to you.

Tableau

The tableau curtain is essentially two hung centre overlap curtains that are lifted diagonally from the centre of the curtains to either the top right or left of the front of the stage. They are typically used when revealing the case of show.

Discover the tableau curtain in action.

Austrian

The Austrian curtain is a more elaborate drape. Rather than opening and closing horizontally, it does to vertically, most commonly using a motorised curtain track.

The Austrian drape can also be called the waterfall curtain, Italian curtain, or the puff curtain. Brail ropes or wires are used to open and close the Austrian curtain.

Discover the different effects the Austrian curtain can create here.

Contour

A contour, or Venetian curtain is a full, single panelled curtain that can be raised at different heights to create different contoured effects, hence the name. Lifting the centre of the Venetian curtain will create an arched shape.

Scrim/Gauze 

The scrim curtain, also called the sharktooth scrim or gauze, can be used to create several magical effects. It is an intricately woven cloth made from half-transparent material which creates different visuals and illusions depending on the lighting applied to the curtain.

Learn about the effects the scrim curtain can create here.

Guillotine

The guillotine curtain is a variation of traveler curtain which is raised and lowered horizontally via a fly system. They can do so efficiently which allows the stage to be revealed or concealed extremely quickly.

View a quick demonstration of the guillotine here.

4.  Backdrop curtains

Also called cyclorama curtains (or cyc for short), backdrops hang vertically at the back of the stage and are usually alongside projection or lighting effects or incorporate artwork and designs used to help support the performance and create pleasing visual effects.

Cycloramas are typically concaved which create illusion that the stage is deeper and longer than it really is and are usually produced with a predominantly white coloured flame retardant fabric. 

5.  Acoustic Curtains

These curtains have a totally different role to play in performances and work completely differently from the other curtains we have previously discussed.

They are used to tune the acoustics of an auditorium bespoke to the type of performance being performed. You will not want the acoustics for a solo theatre reading poetry to match the acoustics for an immense musical performance with lights, music, and dancing.

We provide two types of acoustic drapes. These are the VariBanner and VariRoller.

VariBanner

The VariBanner is a Venetian style blind that is covered, back and front, with fabric to effectively control absorb noise and control the acoustics of the performance.

VariRoller

The VarRoller is a thick, roller-styled drape that drops vertically in front of walls and changes the acoustics of the performance with its reflective surface.

For acoustic drapes to work effectively and efficiently, we provide a curtain track system that is designed to control the movement and deployment of these drapes.

ChainTrack enables the curtains to move in and out of a slot into a storage area. They are then stored in a vertical spiral stack, completely concealed from view. They are then deployed quickly when needed.

Now that we’ve discussed the different types of theatre curtains and how they work, let’s talk about some of the various curtain effects available that are used in productions to create eye-opening visuals and illusions.

Theatre drape effects

When used correctly, theatre curtains and drapes can create dramatic and gorgeous effects that can be used both to benefit the audience’s experience, and for the efficiency and of the performance’s delivery.

Swag effect

The Swag effect comes from when an ornamental curtain is fashioned in a certain way that it does not hang straight. Instead, it is draped in a curved shape across the stage between two points. Whilst this sounds simple, when put into practise, it can create highly effective and powerful visuals.

Austrian

The previously discussed Austrian curtain creates some very aesthetically pleasing effects due its functionality and bespoke design.

What makes this curtain so special is the effect it creates as it is raised (opened) from the bottom of the stage. It is designed with many curves or scallops placed across the front face of the curtain which, when lifted, group together creating a glamorous, wave-like effect for a stylish stage reveal.

Scrim/Gauze

The scrim curtain can create multiple special effects and is used extensively in theatre. When light is only applied to the scrim from the audience’s side, the scrim will appear opaque. When light is only applied to the scene behind the scrim, it will appear invisible, but create a foggy, dreamy visual distorting everything behind the scrim. When light is applied to both the scrim and the scene behind it, it will create a translucent effect.

Watch this demonstration of a scrim curtain’s transparent effects on a painted drape.

Painted drapes

Painted drapes can be used in various ways to create visuals and impressions on stage that aren’t actually there.

For example, back walls are used to create the illusion that the wall is in fact the back of the stage, when, in fact, it is not. Painted black and positioned deceptively in the middle of the stage , it gives the production team the opportunity to work behind the wall to prepare for the next scene of the show.

There are also various types of cloth (or drops) that can be draped over the stage from suspended bars. These are typically painted and create intriguing effects or illusions.

They include:

  • Act drop – a painted canvas used to create illusions, scenery, and visual stimulation and excitement during interludes.
  • Floor cloth – a protective sheet placed on the floor of the stage to indicate the acting area.
  • Cut cloth – also called a cut drop, is a piece of cloth that has cut-outs to create dynamic acting areas and forms scenery with other pieces of production behind it.
  • Front cloth – a drape hung down across the front of the stage during intervals or when a scene change is taking place.
  • Star cloth – creates a star-like effect by incorporating small, low-voltage lights sewn into the fabric of the drop.

Front fold and rear fold

There are some curtain effects that benefit the production team and staff behind the performance rather than the audience. These come in the form of front and rear fold curtains.

The front fold effect causes the curtain or cloth to emerge from the stacking area flat so that p[least or images are revealed in full without being bunched. It is achieved with a brush system that releases the curtain carriers one by one as the curtain is pulled out.

The rear fold effect causes a curtain to travel flat into its open position with the stacking taking place at the end or offstage side of the curtain. The advantage with a pleated curtain is that it looks smarter for the pleats to retain their shape as the curtain travels. If the curtain or cloth has a painted or printed image on it this is retained as the material travels.

The rear fold effect is achieved through the tags attached to the curtain carriers, each of which grab the rope that passes through the carrier so that the whole curtain moves as one flat cloth, as the attachments reach the end stop or the following carrier they tip up and allow the rope to freely pass through.

Fire-rated Theatre Curtains

Curtains that are fire-resistant or retardant are extremely important for the safety of any theatre space. Some curtains are more retardant than others and there are certain regulations in place that set the standard for what curtains are acceptable for different situations and applications.

We believe it is important for you to know what the different types of fire-retardant curtains and fire standards are. Below we have detailed everything you need to know.

The different levels of fire-rated curtains

1. NDFR

Most theatre curtains are non-durably flame retardant (NDFR). This means they meet flammability requirements as they are chemically treated with solutions that increase the time it takes for them to ignite, making them safer to use. However, this is only true if the curtains are dry and may still require periodic retreatment in line with manufacturers' guidelines.

Wet NDFR curtains should be immediately separated and isolated from all ignition sources and marked for retreatment with a compatible fire-retardant treatment.

2. IFR

Inherently flame retardant (IFR) is the opposite to NDFR. These curtains are manufactured using fabrics that are extremely flame retardant due to their high percentages of yarn fibres. Because this is woven into the material, it makes for a much more retardant and reliable curtain compared to NDFR which requires after treatment to become fire retardant.

These curtains never need to be treated post-production or throughout their lifetime as their fire-retardant effects are everlasting. However, water and general dirt will damage the yarn fibres therefore dry cleaning is advised.

Common IFR drapes are made from wool serge, often found in masking and front of stage drapes. 

3. DFR

Durable flame retardant (DFR) curtains and NDFR curtains are very alike in that they are chemically treated postproduction with various solutions to ensure it is compliant with industry standards. Both NDFR and DFR curtains will need retreatment throughout their usage to remain compliant as the chemical treatment is not everlasting.

The main difference between the two is that DFR curtains are treated with a wider variety of solutions.

There are also CBFR and CNFR curtains that stand for “can be made fire retardant” and “cannot be made fire retardant”, respectively.

If you have painted drapes and backdrops, similar to those discussed previously, the paint will need to be fully combined with an FR (flame retardant) solution to ensure that the entire drape is covered in the solution.

British flame retardancy standards

Below are the details on the British Standards for flame retardancy so that you know exactly what the minimum requirements are for your theatre curtains.

BS5867-2

The British Standards “Fabrics for curtains and drapes” state that fabrics must pass specific testing methods to meet the flammability requirements to be used in the manufacture of theatre curtains. These tests are:

  • Part 2B – after being washed 12 times, the curtain (not IFR) still passes the fire retardancy test.
  • Part 2C – after being washed up to 50 times, the curtain (IFR) still passes the fire retardancy test.

The fire retardancy test in question here is where a flame is applied to the curtain which is placed on a metal structure for a variety of different durations from 10 to 30 seconds.

Europe and USA

Fire retardancy standards differ depending on which country you are in. Click on your country below to view your individual fire retardancy standards:

Stage Curtain Tracks

Stage curtain tracks are the backbone of any theatre or stage production. Curtains alone cannot function properly or achieve the different effects we have discussed previously. Attaching your curtains to an appropriate curtain track will bring your effects and performance to life.

Also called tab tracks, curtain tracks also come in different forms – walkalong, corded and motorised, and which one you choose will depend on your specific requirements and situation.

Walkalong

Walkalong curtain tracks are a perfect option for small stages, schools, drama studios, village and community halls and work great for perimeter curtains and cycloramas. They work by pulling the curtain whilst walking in the direction you wish for the curtain to move.

Corded

Corded curtain tracks are operated with a floor or floating weighted pulley and head, and return pulley's which enables the curtain to move across the track. A cord is run through these pulleys and operated by hand. Corded curtain tracks are very durable and easy to use, appropriate for slightly larger venues and can be used across multiple applications including main house curtains, legs, backdrops and travelers.

Motorised

The motorised curtain track is the last main track used in theatre. It is most useful for heavy-duty curtains where walkalong and corded operations would be too difficult and impractical. They are quite easy to operate and do so more efficiently, making them very effective at covering large distances.

Larger venues and professional theatres will prefer this type of curtain track as they will have complex and heavy scenery and curtains to move across larger stages.

For a closer look at these 3 curtain tracks, the different theatre sizes and applications they are suitable for and which out of our full range of curtain tracks would be right for you, discover our stage curtain tracks.

Choosing the right curtain track

When choosing a curtain track, it is important to consider both your curtain weight and theatrical production requirements.

If you have a light to medium weight curtain for a perimeter application in a small drama studio, then a walkalong track such as 2Way will be perfectly suitable. If you are involved with the production of a large-scale, professional play with many heavy curtains moving across a large stage, then a corded or motorised curtain track will be much more suitable.

For smaller-scale venues where the drapes need to be motorised or corded then our Erail system is a perfect choice, easy to install, near-zero maintenance, and with smooth-running carriers like our bigger tracks. Often chosen for schools, community halls, and other medium-sized venues.   

Bigger venues will normally use either our UniTrack or UniBeam systems for their tracks. Although a combination is often found in venues with the permanently fixed in place tracks comprising UniBeam and mid-stage tracks, those that are are on flying bars or expected to be moved as part of the venue's productions.

In some venues, you may even find three of our track systems with a UniBeam front-of-stage track, some UniTrack on flown bars in the mid-stage positions, and 2Way being used to mask off technical areas and fly floors.  

But what if your play is on tour? Say you are visiting a new location each week and are having to set up the entire set and then pack it back up after each performance to journey to the next location. Which motorised/corded curtain track do you use? What is the difference between them?

Well, some motorised/curtain tracks are put together and installed differently depending on these criteria. Our UniTrack curtain track joins together extremely easily and effortlessly, making setting and packing up extremely easy with the modular flexibility to tool-free adjust the track to various different sized venues. . This is a track we frequently supply for those on tour, especially those touring in smaller vehicles rather than 40ft trailers. 

For some touring applications such as larger shows, arena music tours, and those involving heavier scenery such as large wall panels or led screens many chose to use our UniBeam range taking advantage of the 6.1 m maximum length and additional strength from that system. 

 

We hope that this article has helped you understand the different components of a stage from curtain types to the motors and tracks that drive them. If you have any further questions on the types of curtain tracks available to you and which are most appropriate to your situation, please get in touch with our team and one of our experts will get back to you.

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