Chances Offered By Theatre In The Round

by Stephen Joseph, published in The Stage, 8 August 1957

What particular opportunities does theatre in the round present to actors and writers? It is worth noting, for a start, what Mr. Darlington recently reminded us of, that there is usually a change in the material aspects of theatre to account for changes in style of presentation and of playwriting. Theatre in the round is still something unusual and its effect has not yet been widely felt. However, summer seasons at the Library Theatre in Scarborough, and Sunday Club performances at 41 Fitzroy Square in London, have already shown us some of the characteristics which may lead to new conventions.

As far as the actor is concerned, the first thing he notices is that up-stage and downstage no longer have any meaning. All the actors on stage are watched all the time by some of the audience. Emphasis must be gained by teamwork. The qualities required of the actor are absolute sincerity, and the ability to concentrate with ease on action and reaction. He may use a wide range of vocal projection, and a wide range of movement and gesture. In theatre in the round the actors and audience are very close together. The most subtle inflections and the smallest movements can convey at once all the meaning the actor choses to give them. The absence of scenery throws tremendous responsibilities on the actor, and gives him every opportunity for the display of his art. There is nowhere for the audience to look when they are bored, except back again at the actors. When the audience is excited, this can be sensed by the actors. The interchange of feeling offers the actor the chance for fresh creative performance, which, in turn, gives the audience a real sense of enjoying something unique.

The Playwright

All this will affect the playwright as well. He always has one foot on the stage and one in the auditorium.

He feels with the audience and he is familiar with the actor’s art.

Theatre in the round offers him the opportunity for plays of many different scenes. There is simply no scenery to worry about. Theatre in the round has proved most exciting when the stage is as bare as possible except for the actors. David Campton's one-act play
Memento Mori has been the most successful presentation so far. There is nothing on the stage - absolutely nothing. Enter two actors.

Grouping actors in theatre in the round is often a tricky business. Production must be more like mobile sculpture than the classical pictorial groupings of Claude and Rubens. Scenes are most effective with two, three or perhaps four actors. Crowd scenes need careful handling. But words do their work with incredible speed and power.
Good plain prose or colourful verse will serve equally well, and the audience will taste them at once, digest them and express their delight or distaste in a moment.
The basic elements of playwriting remain unchanged, of course; the Writer simply cannot rely so much on spectacle to obscure his talents. Equally, his talent can less easily be obscured.

The Studio Theatre Company has, whenever possible, presented full-length plays without an interval. This gives the audience plenty of time for refreshment and a good chatter after the performance. It also gives the playwright the opportunity of working to a single climax, to build suspense, tension or hilarity to an exhilarating finale. Act division is an old convention arising from various needs. At present, two intervals only serve to allow theatre managers to make money from the sale of intoxicating liquors and indifferent coffee, which by no means sharpen the audience’s appreciation of the play. Authors can be freed from any part in this demoralising conspiracy. They can think in terms writing in the form their story demands.

Type of Play

It is stupid to prescribe a certain type of play for theatre in the round. There is no limitation to the sort of play that can be staged. It is impossible to predict what writers will eventually give us. But the Playwright must be familiar with the actors' opportunities in theatre in the round, and he must, as ever, be intensely aware of the feelings, opinions, anxieties and hopes that make up the everyday lives of people in the audience, Theatre in the round brings the audience close to the actors in sheer physical distance. The author must provide a flame that fires them both and fairly welds them together.

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