The Arena Theatre

by Stephen Joseph

It is not known whether this article was published or was primarily intended as a document to promote theatre-in-the-round as well as Studio Theatre Ltd. It appears to have been written prior to Theatre in the Round at the Library Theatre opening in July 1955 and subsequent to Stephen Joseph arranging to use the Concert Room (or Harrison Room in this document) at Scarborough Library during February and March 1955.

What sort of building is a theatre? Most of our theatres have an auditorium horse-shoe shaped with circles and galleries facing a proscenium arch behind which the stage is set and the actors perform. Many auditoriums are simply long halls - they have been skating rinks or swimming baths, perhaps; dramatic activity goes on in all sorts of dual-purpose buildings - school halls, gymnasiums, W.I. halls, church halls, town halls and assembly rooms, but they all follow the pattern of putting the audience in rows facing the proscenium arch. We have accepted this arrangement for so long that any other hardly seems possible; but in the past there have been many others, and even now, on the continent and in America, it is possible to discern three distinct patterns. The first is the common one - the proscenium stage. The second is the open stage, the popular form in Shakespeare's day; the third is the arena stage which has many historical antecedents and some similarities with the boxing ring, the circus and the bull ring. The open stage has been used recently by Tyrone Guthrie in Edinburgh and Stratford, Canada, and by the Ashland Shakespeare Company in Oregon. Richard Southern has outlined its history and potentialities in his book "The Open Stage", But the arena theatre has scarcely been seen in this country, yet it is this form that will probably have the greatest influence on drama during the coming decades.

The most compelling aspect of the arena theatre is that it offers an alternative to many of the artificial conventions that have made the present day theatre an oddity to the multitude, and too often a despair even to its most ardent adherents. Our theatre conventions ensure a small regular audience who are for the most part incapable of criticism and attend more from habit and social obligation than for the joy of it. Among these conventions some concern the auditorium, such as seating by stalls, circles and galleries, red plush and gilt, chandeliers, tableaux curtains and safety curtains. Some concern the stage - footlights, stage-rake, scenery (usually of canvas and three-by-one). Some concern the actors - make-up, facing front, taking centre, upstaging and projection (into a large auditorium through the arch). Some concern organisation - bars and intervals, high rents and large stage staffs. Of course, few of these are in fact necessary to theatre. The alternative offered by arena theatre relies on conventions readily accepted by a large public devoted to the cinema, television and football, and promises scope for experiment, not only of a purely theatrical sort, but also in bridging the gaps between the different media of popular entertainment.

If you make a simple examination of the seating plans belonging to each of the three forms of theatre, you will see that without taxing the audience any further back from the acting area, the open stage has five times the seating capacity of the proscenium stage, and the arena eight times the capacity, You will also notice that the arena stage requires no scenery, has no wing space, and therefore needs only a small stage-staff. An arena theatre may be small and yet financially self-supporting. A space of 60' x 50' could comfortably seat 500 people in six rows round an acting area of 18' x 15'. The economic significance of these facts may easily be seen, but the theatrical consequences are even more important. The effect of such a theatre on the style of production would be threefold. Firstly, the acting could be entirely realistic; next, the problems that have faced producers since poor Antoine puzzled over the difficulty of deciding which wall to remove from his supposed room to let the audience see, would be solved in a new way; and finally, the difficulty of projection would resolve itself into a question of sincerity and subtlety. The arena theatre is therefore extremely appropriate to the drama that owes its techniques to lbsen and Chekov, that is most of our modern drama. Further the acting style would be, at its best, exactly the same as the acting style of film and television - at their best. In particular the arena stage production would be suitable for transmission by television without adaptation; the style of acting would be right, the staging would allow of camera work from all angles, and the presence of an audience in the background might prove very acceptable to viewers in their homes.

Although the arena stage falls in so aptly with the requirements of Ibsen, Chekov, Strindberg and the great realistic producers, Stanislavsky, Antoine and Brahm, it has been successfully used for every sort of play and production. In Dallas, Texas, for example, Margot Jones has staged at her theatre Shakespeare, Moliére and Calderon. It can safely be assumed, then, that the arena stage does not set rigid limitations to the work of new writers. On the contrary, its comparative economy and the generic link with film and television should bring to light many new plays and new styles. It seems likely that the long one act play, such as
The Browning Version and the two parts of Separate Tables besides numerous French examples, will flourish. A specific dramaturgical form may indeed arise, but all the evidence points to great tolerance of form and style. Clearly new plays and the arena theatre itself may discourage attendance of some regular theatregoers who hesitate at the pons asinorum of doing without tableaux curtains or who stop dead at the prospect of seeing audience beyond the actors; but plenty of theatre lovers will find no difficulty, and above all, the arena theatre, particularly if it co-operates with cinema and television may be the means of bringing a new popular audience into the live theatre.
The living theatre is always throwing off new shoots.

Those who only know the old, blown blossoms may believe the theatre to be dying in any generation. Of course experiment must often fight its way against prejudice, lack of authoritative support and even against its own growing pains. The theatre at present, as ever, is ripe for experiment. There need be no pulling down of theatres or abolition of traditions in their place to make way for the new development - there is space enough already. The arena theatre will flourish in three important fields - new plays, television drama, and new audiences. Experience has already been gained on the continent and in America, the beginnings have been made in this country. The arena theatre has a great deal to offer, and it's up to us to take it,

Appendix 1: Scarborough

The Studio Theatre Company is a non-profit-distributing company formed to present arena theatre. The initial financial guarantee is extremely small and, though help is being sought from the Arts Council, the first step will have to be cautious. Plans will be made for activities as the company achieves its successes, enlarges its resources and learns its lessons.

A trial season is proposed for Scarborough between July and September 1955. Scarborough has been chosen because there is a suitable hall available and there will be a good potential audience of non-theatre-goers used to cinema, television and football matches.

Four new plays will be performed, each rehearsing for two weeks, The Harrison room in the public library at Scarborough will seat 208 people round an acting area of 14' x 18'. There is only one entrance for artists. Lighting will be by six pattern 23 spotlights, general light from one in each corner of the hall shining down at an angle of about 45 degrees, the other two used for highlighting and effects. On the edges of area there will be a number of soft edged internally spots being the acting mirrored spot-lamps. This is the minimum possible lighting to ensure the actors are seen and the audience left in comparative darkness.

During the season it is hoped to invite a number of people concerned with television to come and see performances.

Taken for granted that the plays are competent, the acting good and the organisation efficient, the success of this enterprise will depend on getting the people in. The total cost of the season is likely to be £2000, 2% of which is already guaranteed. It should be possible to meet the entire cost through box-office takings, but the element of risk makes a larger guarantee desirable.

Appendix 2: A Permanent Theatre

An arena theatre is a simpler architectural unit than an ordinary proscenium theatre, and may easily be adapted from an old garage, warehouse, factory or chapel. The basic requirement is a clear floor space of about 60' x 50'. This would become the acting area and auditorium. The rows of seats should be stepped up on platforms from the acting area, and a balcony built for lighting. Entrances into the hall should allow for audience, artist furniture and equipment. Two control rooms should have windows into the hall, one for light and sound control and the other for television control. Beside the usual offices and dressing rooms, the theatre should have a large cafe where the new audience can make itself at home. The difficulty of obtaining a license for a theatre without a safety curtain should not be underestimated - a club organisation might be necessary.

The theatre should have a resident company performing a different play every two weeks, one or two performances of each play being televised from the theatre. The Company should remain independent, and the television rights in production bought by contract.

Copyright: Studio Theatre Ltd. Please do not reproduce without permission. Transcribed by Simon Murgatroyd.