Theatre in the round
Theatre-in-the-round or arena theatre (also referred as central staging) is any theatre space in which the audience surrounds the stage area. In 1947, Margo Jones established America's first professional theatre-in-the-round company when she opened her Theater ’47 in Dallas.
The stage design as developed by Margo Jones was used by directors in later years for such well-known shows as the original stage production of Man of La Mancha and all plays staged at the ANTA Washington Square Theatre (demolished in the late 1960s), including Arthur Miller's autobiographical After the Fall. Such theatres had previously existed in colleges but not in professional spaces for almost two millennia. It is also a popular setup used in contemporary pop concerts in an arena or stadium setting.
Configuration of the stage
The stage is always in the centre with the audience arranged on all sides. Commonly used shapes can be rectangular, circular, diamond, or triangular, with actors entering and exiting through the audience from different directions or from below the stage. The stage is usually on an even level with or lowered below the audience in a "pit" or "arena" formation.
This configuration lends itself to high-energy productions, and anything that requires audience participation. It is favoured by producers of classical theatre. Theatre-in-the-round was common in ancient theatre, particularly that of Greece and Rome but was not widely explored again until the latter half of the 20th century; it has continued as a creative alternative to the more common Proscenium format.
In effect theatre-in-the-round removes the fourth wall and brings the actor into the same space as the audience. This is often problematic for Proscenium or end stage trained actors who are taught that they must never turn their backs to the audience; something that is unavoidable in this format. However, it allows for strong and direct engagement with the audience.
It is also employed when theatrical performances are presented in non-traditional spaces such as restaurants, public areas such as fairs or festivals, or street theater. Set design is often minimal in order not to obscure the audience's view of the performance.
History of Theatre-in-the-Round
In Margo Jones survey of theatre-in-the-round, the first two sources of central staging in the United States she identified were the productions by Azubah Latham and Milton Smith at Columbia University dating from 1914, and T. Earl Pardoe's productions at Brigham Young University in 1922.
In 1924, Gilmore Brown founded the Fair-oaks Play box in Pasadena, California, an important early practitioner of central staging in addition to other stage configurations that it pioneered in its advent of flexible staging. As Indicated by Jones, the centrally staged productions of the Fair-oaks Play box were followed approximately eight years later by the work of Glenn Hughes in his Seattle Penthouse.
Stephen Joseph was the first to populise the form in the United Kingdom from the US in the 1950s and set up theatres-in-the-round in Newcastle Under Lyme and the Studio Theatre in Scarborough. The theatre there is now known as the Stephen Joseph Theatre. Joseph was reputed to have once rhetorically asked "Why must authorities stand with their back to a wall?" His answer to which was: "So nobody can knife them from behind."
Sam Walters set up an impromptu performance space in the upstairs of the Orange Tree pub in Richmond, Surrey in the early 1970s and subsequently moved across the road to a permanent Orange Tree Theater.
In 1972, RG Gregory set up the Word And Action theatre company in Dorset in England to work exclusively in theatre-in-the-round. Gregory sought to create a grammar that would enable actors to maximise the form's potential for connecting with the audience both as individuals and as a collective. All Word and Action productions were performed in normal lighting conditions, without costume and or make up.
Uses in television and concert halls
The innovations of Margo Jones were an obvious influence on Albert McCleery when he created his Cameo Theatre for television in 1950. Continuing until 1955, McCleery offered dramas seen against pure black backgrounds instead of walls of a set. This enabled cameras in the darkness to pick up shots from any position.
Elvis Presley's '68 Comeback Special TV programme was performed with the musicians seated using a raised staging in-the-round format.
When an arena staging was conceived for the progressive-rock group Yes by their tour manager Jim Halley in the mid-1970s, it prompted a redesign of rock concerts and venue seating arrangements.
The politics of the Round
The politics of theater-in-the-round were explored most deliberately by RG Gregory. In his view the lit space of Proscenium Arch is analogous to the seat of power; the audience adopts the role of passive receivers. In traditional theatre design, maximum care is taken with sight lines in order to ensure that the actor can engage every member of the audience at the same time.
However, once removed from the picture frame of the arch, the actors are compelled to turn their back on some members of the audience and so necessarily lose exclusive command of the acting space. All members of the audience can see the actor, but the actor can no longer see all of them. At this point, in order for the play to function, the audience themselves must be allowed to become key conductors of the meaning of the performance.
Some, like the writer Mick Fealty, have stressed a close analogy between Gregory's description of the rudimentary dynamics of theater-in-the-round with the network effect of Internet-based communication in comparison to traditional broadcast and marketing channels.
Arena stage archive
George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia is home to the largest Arena Stage Archive and contains material from the theatre's 50 year history. Included in the collection are photographs, production notebooks, scrapbooks, playbills, oral histories and handwritten correspondence. According to their website, the total volume is 260 cubic feet (7.4 m3) or 440 feet (130 m) linear and is housed in the Fenwick Library.
Theatres in the round
- United Kingdom
- Blue Orange Theatre, Birmingham
- The Castle Theatre (can be in the round or normal theatre format)
- Cockpit Theatre, London
- New Vic Theatre, Newcastle-under-Lyme
- Octagon Theatre, Bolton
- Orange Tree Theatre, London
- Pembroke Theatre, Croydon (closed 1962)
- The Round, Newcastle upon Tyne (closed 2008)
- Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester
- Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough
- The Dukes Theatre, Lanchaster
- United States
- Wells Fargo Pavilion, Sacramento, California (Home of California Musical Theatre's Music Circus)
- The Rock Forum, Anaheim, California 
- Glendale Centre Theatre, Glendale, California 
- Golden Bough Playhouse, Carmel-by-the-Sea, California
- Marian Theatre, Santa Maria, California 
- Solvang Festival Theater, Solvang, California 
- Old Globe Theatre, San Diego California
- Cassius Carter Centre Stage (demolished 2008)
- Cheryl and Harvey White Theatre
- Circle Star Theater, San Carlos, California (torn down for office buildings)
- Riverside Community Players, Riverside, California (built in 1953)
- Valley Music Theater, Los Angeles, California (built 1963, demolished 2007)
- Walt Disney's Enchanted Tiki Room, Disneyland, Anaheim, California
- District of Columbia
- New Jersey
- New York
- The New Theater, Ashland, Oregon (one of the theaters used for the Oregon Shakespeare Festival
- South Carolina
- Ula Love Doughty Carousel Theatre, Knoxville, Tennessee
- The Barksdale Theater in Richmond, Virginia
- Glenn Hughes Penthouse Theatre, Seattle, Washington
- ACT Theatre, Seattle, Washington
- Fireside Dinner Theater, Fort Atkinson, Wisconsin
- Saint James Cavalier Theatre, Valletta
In popular culture
- In the novel The Prestige by Christopher Priest, the magician Rupert Angier courts controversy by writing that stage magic should be performed "in the round" rather than in theatres with a proscenium arch.
- The English progressive rock band Yes were the first rock-era group to perform "in the round" during their 1978-79 Tormato tour. The band also performed using a round, rotating stage during portions of their Drama and Union tours in 1980 and 1991, respectively.
- British rock band Def Leppard played "in the round" for several tours in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Their 1989 live VHS release was entitled Live: In the Round, in Your Face.
- American thrash metal band Metallica have employed "in the round" staging for their arena shows since the early 1990s
- In order to give a show similar to a three ring circus, American singer Britney Spears used an in-the-round setting for her 2009 The Circus Starring Britney Spears tour.
- Stand-up comedians have performed specials "in the round," such as Dane Cook: Vicious Circle and Louis C.K.'s Oh My God.
- The Spice Girls used a circular stage in the round setting for their Christmas in Spiceworld tour in 1999
- U2's 360° Tour uses a very large circular stage structure.
- The Dixie Chicks Top Of The World Tour used a circular stage, except in venues where it was an end stage.
- Metallica have been known to use a rectangular, diamond or oval shaped stage that is placed in the center of the arena beginning with their 1991 Wherever We May Roam Tour. On different tours, they have also included areas within the stage, called "the snake pit", where audience members can watch the show. Most recently, their 2012 European Black Album Tour used this format.
- In a Curb Your Enthusiasm season finale, Larry David, while playing The Producers character Max Bialystock said he invented "theater in the square".
- "The Theatre Module". Royal Exchange Theater. Retrieved 2012-10-31.
- Jones, Margo. 1951. Theatre-in-the-Round. Rinehard & Company, Inc.; Sec. Pr. edition
- Altenberg, Roger. 1964. A Historical Study of Gilmore Brown's Fair-oaks Play box: 1924-1927
- Jones, Margo. 1951. Theatre-in-the-Round, p. 38
- [Stephen Joseph]
- California Musical Theatre at The Wells Fargo Pavilion
- Cape Cod Melody Tent official web site
- South Shore Music Circus official web site
- Theatre in the Round, Minneapolis, official web site
- Seton Hall University - Arts and Sciences: TITR
- Artisan Center Theatre official web site