Theatre-in-the-round, also known as arena theatre or central staging, is a unique form of theatrical arrangement where the audience surrounds the stage on all sides. Unlike traditional proscenium theatre, where the stage is framed by a proscenium arch and the audience sits in front, theatre-in-the-round immerses the audience in a more intimate and interactive theatrical experience. In this, the stage is often a central, circular platform, allowing for a 360-degree viewing angle. This arrangement eliminates the notion of a distinct “front” or “back” of the stage, as performers are constantly visible from all sides. The audience is seated in close proximity to the action, creating a sense of immediacy and intimacy between performers and spectators. This intimate setting allows for a greater connection and engagement between the actors and the audience.
Theatre-in-the-round offers unique opportunities and challenges for both actors and directors. Performers must be conscious of their movements and blocking, ensuring that their actions are visible and meaningful from all angles. They need to project their voices and gestures in a way that reaches all sides of the audience. Directors must carefully consider staging, lighting, and set design to maximize visibility and create dynamic spatial relationships within the performance space.
One advantage of theatre-in-the-round is its potential for a more immersive and interactive theatrical experience. The proximity of the audience to the performers can create a heightened sense of involvement and emotional connection. It can also allow for innovative and imaginative use of space, as actors can enter and exit from any direction, enabling more dynamic and fluid staging choices. Additionally, theatre-in-the-round can foster a sense of community among the audience. Since spectators are seated on all sides, they can see and react to the reactions of other audience members, fostering a shared experience. This shared perspective can enhance the communal aspect of theatre and create a sense of collective engagement with the performance.
However, theatre-in-the-round also poses challenges. Not all seats have the same sightlines, and some audience members may have obstructed views depending on the staging and set design. Lighting and sound design must be carefully planned to ensure equal visibility and audibility for all spectators. Actors must be mindful of their positioning and blocking to maintain balance and accessibility for all sides of the audience.
Theatre-in-the-round has a rich history dating back to ancient Greek and Roman theatre, and it continues to be utilized in contemporary theatre productions. It offers a distinct theatrical experience, breaking down the traditional barriers between actors and audience and creating a more intimate and immersive connection. Through its unique staging arrangement, theatre-in-the-round invites audiences to be active participants in the theatrical event and encourages a deeper engagement with the performance.
It seems very probable that some of the Cornish Mystery Plays were performed in the air with an audience ranged around the actors on banks. One may suppose, too, that Mumming Plays and related dramatic entertainments were thus presented. In modern times theatre-in-the-round achieved prominence in Russia in the 1930s where Okhlopov, using his realistic theatre, even involved the audience in the drama. At that time, too, Robert Atkins was producing Shakespeare in The Ring at Blackfriars.
In America, it has been a particularly popular form of presentation, especially in universities. Margo Jones was the main American exponent. In France, also, it has had some success, particularly in the hands of André Villiers who, in 1954, founded the Théâtre en Rond in Paris. In England, the leading light and dedicated crusader was Stephen Joseph, who established something of a tradition for theatre-in-the-round at Stoke-on-Trent. Joseph also worked on it in London, Southampton, and Scarborough.