A New Hope For The Dying 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.

The Arts Council's report for the year 1956/57, had the blunt, uncompromising title "Art in the Red" and indeed the chronic insolvency of almost every artistic venture has become an accepted part of the contemporary scene. Everywhere theatres have been closing, some to become shops or warehouses and others to remain unused while spreading decay makes them unusable. The theatreless town is now the rule rather than the exception.

As the Arts Council's report points out, the proposed closure of a theatre usually arouses local agitation and a demand that something be done. The local authority might perhaps buy the theatre as an act of faith and run it through a Civic Trust. But no local authority wants to take over a venture which shows no sign of ever being other than a burden on the rates and councillors can hardly be blamed for begging to be excused. Yet clearly the live theatre is a vital part of the intellectual life of the country - and not merely in the West End or at Puddle Dock. The provinces have in the past provided the London stage with many of its brightest lights, while the new playwright, agog to have his say, is much more likely to have it said in the provincial theatre than in the always cautious West End.

Three things might save the situation: the playgoing public might be quadrupled in numbers; prices might be increased to an economic level (economic for the management, but not for the playgoer); costs might be drastically reduced. In the present climate the last seems to offer the only hope of success, though no form of theatre whose sole virtue is that of cheapness could hope to survive for long. Add, however, to the negative though important advantage of cheapness the positive virtue of being a new and exciting form of theatre bringing to the drama a freshness which has been sadly lacking for many years, and the theatre which has these qualifications may well be a strong candidate for municipal support, direct or indirect. Such a form is Studio Theatre's "Theatre in the Round", now completing its fourth summer season in the Library Theatre, Scarborough, under the benevolent aegis of the Scarborough Corporation through its Libraries Committee.

Most theatre auditoriums are horseshoe shaped with circles and galleries facing a proscenium arch behind which the actors perform. Even, amateur societies playing in parish halls imitate this pattern so far as they possibly can. This arrangement has been "the theatre" for so long that any other hardly seems a theatre at all, yet at least two other plans are possible and indeed legitimate. The popular form in Elizabethan England was the open stage, jutting out into the auditorium with the spectators watching from three sides.

Another is theatre in the round, or the arena stage, of which there are many in America and some on the continent. In such a theatre the acting area is surrounded by the audience on all sides, in the manner of a boxing ring. Gone are the conventions of stalls, circle and gallery; of stage footlights, safety curtains, wings, and of scenic backcloths. Gone too, are many of the acting conventions: those of facing front, taking centre, and talking into a large auditorium. None of these conventions is an integral part of theatre and without them it is often easier to get down to essentials - the play and the acting.

With the arena stage all seats are within reasonable distance of the players. In fact without taking the audience any further back from the acting area theatre in the round has eight times the capacity of the ordinary proscenium theatre. Seats may be cheap yet give an excellent view of the stage and close contact with the players.

The proscenium theatre presents the drama within the confines of a room with a wall removed, so that the audience may look inside, but in theatre in the round the space has no limits at all. It can be as small as the physical movement of the players demands or as large as the imagination of the audience will permit. Acting can be entirely realistic, and sincerity and subtlety of approach are vital. The medium demands the best; shoddiness in acting, writing or production is immediately apparent.

Overhead expenses are low. Only a small stage-staff is required and capital and maintenance costs of the simple lighting required are much lower than in the usual theatre. This has an important hearing on the production of new plays which can now be tried out without the risk of disastrous financial loss. Only by seeing his work performed can a playwright hope to become really competent. Theatre in the round makes this possible and in doing so can help to provide the good playwrights so badly needed.

Doing without a proscenium arch and all the complicated technical equipment which goes with it, theatre in the round requires only a hall of suitable size with convenient entrances and exits. In Scarborough the Concert Room at the Central Library, measuring approximately 50 ft. x 40 ft. has made an excellent theatre, all rows except the first being stepped on easily transportable rostra. The use of these rostra makes the theatre completely mobile: a suitable room can be made ready for a performance in a day.

In theatre in the round it is possible to see other members of the audience beyond the actors and this may seem to regular theatre-goers an unpleasant distraction. Yet the eye soon learns the habit of seeing only as far as it wants to see and concentrate on the acting area, much as at a boxing or football match.

The Americans have done plays by Shakespeare and Coward, Moliére and Chekov, Sheridan and Tennessee Williams, on the arena stage. In Scarborough productions have included works by Priestley, Racine, Osborne, Marivaux and several plays by new authors, who were being given their first opportunity of actually seeing their own work. There is no question of the repertoire being limited by theatre in the round.

Theatre in the round not only allows real theatre to be presented at a minimum cost with no lowering of standards, but shows every sign of bringing new life to the dying provincial theatre. After the current season in Scarborough ends in September, the company starts a six weeks tour visiting Hemel Hempstead, Leicester, and Harlow before returning to Scarborough in December.

Local authorities anxious to establish the living theatre where none now exists, but worried about the initial cost and seemingly unavoidable deficits, might well consider theatre in the round if they wish to have theatre in the clear.

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