Most of the time, when people think of going to a play, they expect to see a stage in front of them. Usually that stage is higher than the main floor of the auditorium, and has curtains across the front that can be opened and closed. The curtains are closed when the crew is moving sets around, changing the furniture, scenery and props. The actors can take their places while the curtains are closed, and then when the curtains open, the action begins.
There is another type of theatre that is very different from that. It’s called Theatre in the Round, or “arena stage.”
Now, just to be confusing, theatre in the round isn’t always round! Sometimes the space where the actors stand is square, or rectangular. But the thing that makes theatre in the round unique is that the audience sits all around the stage, with the stage right in the middle. Usually the stage is not raised at all, it’s a flat expanse of floor with audience seating going up on risers all around it.
The actors are out in full view of the audience — although at any given time part of the audience will be seeing the actor’s back. There is no curtain — entries and exits, as well as scenery changes, are done either in full view of the audience, or under cover of darkness (which can be tricky).
But it is a fascinating way to see a play. The professional theatre in the city where I live is a theatre in the round — in fact, the first professional play I saw was done this way. The audience, especially those who are sitting in the first few rows, can really feel a part of what is happening on the stage.
It must be fascinating to plan, direct, and design such a performance, too, as you have to have scenery that doesn’t block the view of the audience, you have to work out how to have the actors move on stage so that they’re not always facing the same way — each section of the audience deserves to see the fronts of the actors at times. There are lots of challenges, but when it’s done well, it is an amazing experience.
There’s a great photo of a theatre in the round at this site: Minneapolis’ Theatre in the Round. And on that page, there’s a link to this 8-minute video that tells not only about the history of this particular theatre, but about what it’s like to put on a play “in the round.” I hope you’ll take time to watch it.
Something exciting that I’ve learned is that there’s a theatre troupe in England called Paines Plough that is developing a portable theatre in the round, so that when they take productions out on tour, everyone can have the same experience — they’ll take the theatre with them, so there’s no problem with trying to use all kinds of different facilities to stage their play. They tell about it on their website.
Have you ever seen a play in a theatre in the round?