Jump to content

Theatre in the round

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
(Redirected from Theatre-in-the-round)
The stage of the Cockpit Theatre, London, has seating on four sides with a capacity of 240.

A theatre in the round, arena theatre, or central staging is a space for theatre in which the audience surrounds the stage.

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.

The Glenn Hughes Penthouse Theatre in Seattle, Washington was the first theatre-in-the-round venue built in the United States. It first opened on May 19, 1940 with a production of Spring Dance, a comedy by playwright Philip Barry.[1] The 160-seat theatre is located on the campus of the University of Washington in Seattle and is on the National Register of Historic Places.

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 Fun Home, the original stage production of Man of La Mancha, and all plays staged at the ANTA Washington Square Theatre (demolished in the 1960s), including Arthur Miller's autobiographical After the Fall. Such theatres had previously existed in colleges, but not in professional theatre buildings.

Theater in the round is a particularly appropriate setting for staging of dramas using Bertolt Brecht's alienation effect,[2] which stands in opposition to the more traditional Stanislavski technique[3] in drama. Alienation techniques include visible lighting fixtures and other technical elements. Round theatres also allow lighting parts of the audience so that people are reminded that they are in a theatre watching a drama with others.

Stage configuration[edit]

The stage is always in the centre with the audience arranged on all sides, and is most commonly rectangular, circular, diamond, or triangular. Actors may enter and exit through the audience from different directions or from below the stage. The stage is usually on an even level with or 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 and 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 squares, or during street theater. Set design is usually minimal since it would obscure the audience's view.


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.

In Margo Jones' survey of theatre-in-the-round,[4] 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, Gilmor Brown founded the Fair Oaks Playbox 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.[5] As Indicated by Jones,[6] the centrally staged productions of the Fair Oaks Playbox were followed approximately eight years later by the work of Glenn Hughes in his Seattle Penthouse.

Stephen Joseph was the first to popularise 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 current theatre, opened in 1996, is 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 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, London in the early 1970s and subsequently moved across the road to a permanent Orange Tree Theatre.

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 costumes or makeup.

Uses in television and concert halls[edit]

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.

Richard Nixon's 1968 U.S. Presidential campaign staged nine live televised question and answer sessions using a ground-breaking theatre-in-the-round format, adapted for a live televised audience. The first time use of the staging device was memorialized in the book, The Selling of the President 1968 by Joe McGinniss. The producer of these Nixon "Man in the Arena" [7] programs was Roger Ailes,[8] who later went to on start Fox News. Ailes' innovation of the theatre-in-the-round format for candidate forums became the blueprint for modern "town hall" candidate formats and even multiple-candidate debates.

Elvis Presley's '68 Comeback Special TV program 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[edit]

The politics of theatre-in-the-round were explored most deliberately by RG Gregory. In his view the lit space of a 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[edit]

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.

Notable examples[edit]




Hong Kong[edit]




United Kingdom[edit]

Greater London[edit]

Greater Manchester[edit]


United States[edit]




District of Columbia[edit]











New Jersey[edit]

New York[edit]

North Carolina[edit]




South Carolina[edit]







In popular culture[edit]

  • 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.
  • The second tour of the global country-pop superstar Shania Twain, the Up! Tour (2003/04), had a stage configuration in the style of "in the round". The tour was one of the most successful tours of 2004, and served to promote the RIAA diamond certified album, "Up!" (2002).
  • The Into the Millennium Tour by the American boy band Backstreet Boys featured an "in the round" stage. The tour, which began in 1999 and ended in March 2000, is one of the most successful of all time.
  • 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. "In-the-round is an incredibly, insanely aerobic kind of thing…" remarked singer Joe Elliott, who gave up drinking on the Hysteria tour to cope with the physical demands. "You can't stand still; you've got to keep moving. The [other members of the band] had identical microphones on either side of the stage, so they could stand still for a little bit. I had to keep moving."[24]
  • To evoke 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, in-the-round stage for their Christmas in Spiceworld tour in 1999.
  • U2's 360° Tour used a very large circular stage.
  • The Dixie Chicks' Top of the World Tour used a circular stage, except in venues where it was an end stage.
  • Metallica have used a rectangular, diamond or oval-shaped stage in the center of the arena, beginning with their 1991 Wherever We May Roam Tour. On different tours, they have included an area within the stage, called "the snake pit", where audience members can watch the show. Their 2012 European Black Album Tour used this format.[25]
  • In the musical The Producers Max Bialystock remarks that he invented "theater in the square".
  • Roger Waters' 2022 This Is Not a Drill tour is performed in the round with a large cross-shaped stage. Hanging overhead is a cross-shaped video screen arrangement that matches the shape of the stage.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Tate, Cassandra. 200255. "Curtain rises on Seattle's new Penthouse Theatre on May 16, 1947." Archived August 8, 2016, at the Wayback Machine
  2. ^ Alienation Effect in Encyclopedia Britannica online.
  3. ^ The book "An Actor Prepares" was first published in 1936 and is the first volume of the translations of Constantin Stanislavski's books on acting, which were published as a trilogy in English, though originally meant to be published as two books in Russian.
  4. ^ Jones, Margo. 1951. Theatre-in-the-Round. Rinehard & Company, Inc.; Sec. Pr. edition
  5. ^ Altenberg, Roger. 1964. A Historical Study of Gilmore Brown's Fair-oaks Play box: 1924–1927 Archived March 27, 2016, at the Wayback Machine
  6. ^ Jones, Margo. 1951. Theatre-in-the-Round, p. 38
  7. ^ Archived at Ghostarchive and the Wayback Machine: "Man in the Arena Part 1". YouTube.
  8. ^ "Roger Ailes, Nixon's Television Man »". 18 May 2017.
  9. ^ "La Boite Theatre (entry 602171)". Queensland Heritage Register. Queensland Heritage Council. Retrieved 13 April 2015.
  10. ^ "Roundhouse Theatre". Queensland University of Technology. Retrieved 5 January 2015.
  11. ^ "Le Théâtre en Rond". Théatre en rond. Retrieved 20 June 2014.
  12. ^ Hale Centre Theatre in Arizona Archived June 20, 2013, at the Wayback Machine. Accessed 2014-06-20
  13. ^ Broadway Sacramento Archived October 28, 2016, at the Wayback Machine at The Wells Fargo Pavilion
  14. ^ "Welcome to the Wagon Wheel Center for the Arts". Retrieved 13 April 2015.
  15. ^ "Facilities". Smith College. Retrieved 13 April 2015.
  16. ^ "Mark A. Chapman Theatre". Kansas State University School of Music, Theatre, and Dance. 12 October 2019. Archived from the original on 12 October 2019. Retrieved 12 October 2019.
  17. ^ Cape Cod Melody Tent Archived February 8, 2007, at the Wayback Machine official web site
  18. ^ South Shore Music Circus Archived November 29, 2006, at the Wayback Machine official web site
  19. ^ "Balch Arena Theater at Tufts University". Archived from the original on 17 October 2015. Retrieved 13 April 2015.
  20. ^ Theatre in the Round Archived October 18, 2016, at the Wayback Machine, Minneapolis, official web site
  21. ^ "About Seton Hall Theatre". Seton Hall University. Retrieved 13 April 2015.
  22. ^ Plaza Theatre Company Archived April 14, 2016, at the Wayback Machine official web site
  23. ^ Artisan Center Theatre Archived October 16, 2016, at the Wayback Machine official web site
  24. ^ Wall, Mick (May 2018). "A wild ride over stony ground". Classic Rock. No. 248. p. 36.
  25. ^ "News | The Snake Pit Returns!!". Metallica.com. Archived from the original on 10 November 2013. Retrieved 20 June 2014.