Theatre In The Round

by Stephen Joseph, published in Plays & Players, August 1955

The arena theatre is a theatre in which the audience sit all round the stage like a circus but, usually, smaller. Acting and production in the round have a special interest to us because scope is offered for certain kinds of experiment which our theatre at the moment, for various reasons, denies.

The theatre with a proscenium arch or frame, evolved from the apron stage of the 18th-century which, in England, was the compromise between the Italian perspective stage, with its raked floor - still sometimes in evidence, and the open stage of the Elizabethans.

The open stage, of course, is still a valid dramatic unit and, like the arena, has been used for many exciting productions in Europe and America.
The origins of present day interest in arena theatre were the circus productions of Reinhardt, the Realist Theatre in Moscow, and the American projects of Norman Bel Geddes and Robert Edmond Jones, all of which belong to the so-called New Movement of the ‘20s. In America the arena theatre has played a special role since plays in the round are presented to people all over the country who have never before seen live theatres.

Cut The Cost

Proscenium stage theatres are big buildings and for many years speculators have avoided this particular sort of investment; but the building necessary for a financially self-supporting theatre in the round can be as simple as a garage, a ballroom, an assembly hall, a gymnasium, a factory, a store and so on.
Because of this there is a relatively flourishing arena theatre movement in America.

There are also some buildings specially designed for the purpose such as the Penthouse Theatre at the University of Washington in Seattle, which I visited when I was in America and which does not look nearly as antiseptic as its photographs make out. The other arena theatre that I visited in Washington had recently been a garage.
Places have been built or adapted in Italy, France, Russia and even in England - though in England pathetically few. Jack Mitcheley, late drama adviser for Norfolk and now of Essex, deserves credit for trying to demonstrate the potentialities of arena theatre in this country with amateur actors in school halls, in gymnasia, in Women's Institutes and in Norfolk.

John English’s arena theatre is not an arena theatre. He does productions on an open stage and tries to make it as much like a proscenium arch theatre as possible. This, I think, is a pity.

Some of our university companies have done plays in the round, but the possibilities of this method have not been fully explored, and some discussion is perhaps worthwhile.

Discussion is second best, of course, to going to an arena theatre and seeing a performance or two, but London has no arena theatre, and apart from an occasional festival production or amateur performance there is little enough to see. The reasons for this scarcity of arena production in England are, firstly, the licensing regulations. These were drawn up for timber-built, gas-lit theatres, with proscenium arches, and which demand a safety curtain, which can have no function in an arena theatre and, there-fore, stops arena theatres being built. Secondly, the scarcity of suitable halls or building sites prevents clubs prepared to experiment with tuppence farthing from doing so.

The absurdity of the licensing laws should be remembered when we are campaigning for the preservation of old theatre buildings, for here is one bad reason that new theatres are not going up, So let me take you to an arena theatre in America. The first thing that may strike you is that there is no scenery. Oddly enough, almost every sort of play ever written has been done in the round without this particular difficulty causing much anxiety. The point is that scenery is only one of the jewels on the fingers of drama and, with some other trappings, can be laid aside with impunity; theatre in the round brings us face to face with the essentials of drama - good acting and good plays.

If you consider the way people are usually seated in a theatre you will see what I mean when I describe the auditorium as being on one side of the acting area. Think of the acting area as a rectangle, then open staging allows a three-sided auditorium and an arena stage a four-sided one and if, for simplicity’s sake you draw a diagram in squares to illustrate this you will arrive at the startling conclusion that, without going any farther back from the acting area, there is eight times as much space for seating the audience in an arena theatre than in a proscenium theatre.

But I hasten to add that this is not quite the true state of affairs since the square does not represent any real auditorium. However, it is undoubtedly one of the outstanding advantages of arena staging that more people in the audience can see and hear the actors than in most ordinary theatres. This is not only a gain for the audience but for the actors as well - as we shall see in a moment.

Although there need be no scenery, in the canvas and three-by-one sense, the arena theatre is not without visual appeal; the most important thing to see in the theatre is the actors acting; but visual aids may include masks, costumes and lighting which can be used when and how the play demands.

A New Magic

A lot of people cannot stomach the idea of a theatre devoid of red plush, gold cupids, house curtains and footlights. Personally, as an advocate of arena theatre, I do not wish to pull down historic buildings, Aunt Edna should be able to go where she pleases; but these particular things are not essential to drama, and some of their particular magic and charm can be replaced by another magic and charm in an arena theatre - its decor and lighting.

The houselights fade into blackness, lights come up on the acting area and we cease to be aware of the rest of the audience in the sudden concentration of our attention on the actors who have taken possession of the stage.

In an arena production the conventions that are most upset on stage and concern mostly the actor are the little textbook adages about facing front, kneeling on the downstage knee, standing with the upstage foot slightly in front of the other, upstaging other actors and taking centre. You can see these ideas put into practice - and badly - by many of our most reputable performers in the West End.

But there is no up and down stage in the arena; there is no need for a stage whisper - the truest of whispers will be heard. Movement and grouping have a new importance. Above all, the arena theatre exposes insincere acting, at the close range from which the arena audience watches, a good actor can be crystal clear even when only his back is seen.

Test for the Actor

It follows also that many artists experienced in our vast proscenium theatres may come across very phoney in the round. The audience is near, the actor needs to be in earnest; this is all to the good with most modern - and some classical plays.

Several people who ought to know better have talked rubbish about the intimacy of the arena theatre; they have supposed that we claim it as an advantage of the arena theatre that the audience is so involved in the play that they no longer distinguish between actors and audience - which can be very embarrassing.
Stories of gentlemen and others leaping onto the stage in defence of Desdemona or to finish off Macbeth tell us less about the power of a particular method of staging than about the occasional presence of morons or adults with child minds in audiences.

There must be separation between actors and audience in the adult, though not necessarily in children’s theatre; there are all sorts of ways of effecting this separation - putting the actors on a platform, putting them behind masks, in costume, seating the audience in formal rows (of fairly comfortable seats often enough), putting the actors in bright light and the audience in comparative dark, putting the actors behind a frame, making the actors speak set lines, move set moves and behave as if the audience were not there, giving them a vocabulary and syntax unlike that used in conversation.

Without going further, you will see that many of these established ways of separating actors and audience are available to the arena theatre.

Intimacy in this case means simply that members of the audience are close enough to the stage to see and hear better than Aunt Edna’s poorer friends usually can, with the result that actors can convey thoughts and feelings more convincingly, so that the entertainment is at once more exciting, and worth time and money.

The particular opportunities offered us by the arena theatre, then, include a style of acting freed from techniques of projecting over large physical distances, and substituting a particular integrity and intensity capable of transmitting thought and feeling in all directions. There is the chance of taking Antoine’s dilemma to a happier conclusion - no need for us to remove the fourth wall at all.

The whole business of theatre if it is an art implies convention; but I believe that the conventions of theatre in the round - at any rate as I have seen it in America - are more acceptable to filmgoers and T.V. viewers than the conventions so dear to proscenium theatre goers.

This means that with theatre in the round we may be able to win a larger audience back to live theatre. There are chances too of giving these audiences new plays - and if there is anything desperately needed in the theatre world it is an easier market for the beginning playwright. There are signs that the production of classic and foreign plays can be presented without the awful consideration of high production costs.

Certainly these things are being done in America and on the Continent. Most important of all, there are possibilities in arena theatre for giving every sort of audience a new and exciting experience of drama, the oldest of the arts.

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