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This booklet describes a few of the many different types of physical theatre spaces and the various histories behind them.

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THEATRICAL SPACES

and how to use them

A Guide

by

Delaney Rogers

The proscenium arch. This frames the opening between the stage and the auditorium in some theaters. Not all proscenium theaters have an actual, physical proscenium arch like this one, but the space that marks the edge between audience and performers is often referred to as the "proscenium arch" regardless of whether or not the arch is present.

THEATRE SPACES


Theatre can exist in any given space. Performance is not limited to those spaces that we traditionally think of theatrical, and thinking about theatre in terms of spaces can be limiting. However, having a broad understanding of existing types of theatrical spaces can not only help you better determine what spaces are right for you, but can also help you configure new, exciting spaces in which to perform your works.


PROSCENIUM

Proscenium theaters are the prototypical theatrical spaces. Originating from Hellenistic Greek and Roman theaters, these spaces are perhaps the most common theatrical space in western cultures. In proscenium spaces, there is a clear separation of audience and performers. The performance space is generally a raised plane at one end of the theatre, with an apron at the far downstage end of the stage. The apron and the proscenium arch are the two things that separate the stage from the audience The audience is only able to see one side - the fourth wall - of the performers.

Because audience members are only going to be able to see actors from one side, it's important to be cognizant of the angles in which you position yourself. Two important rules for acting in proscenium spaces are:

  1. Do not face your back to the audience, especially when you are speaking. Unless there is a reason within the narrative why the audience should not be able to see your face, you should never be full-back to the audience. 
  2. Do not upstage your fellow actors, especially while they are talking. While it can be fun and interesting to have characters positioned behind and in front of one another for comedic or dramatic purposes, if a conversation is happening, the audience should be able to see the faces of any and all actors participating. 

Much like most theatrical rules, you will see these two guidelines broken again and again when you watch professional theatre. They are not strict rules, but rather guidelines that are especially important when you are just beginning in the theatre. 

Side view of proscenium stage. While traditionally the audience doesn't have to be arranged in any particular way in order for the stage to be considered proscenium, you will rarely see box seating in any other type of theater besides thrust, because the spaces simply don't allow that type of structure.

THRUST

In theatre, a thrust stage is one that extends into the audience on three sides and is connected to the backstage area by its upstage end. It extends well past what we could consider the proscenium arch. While proscenium arch theaters are what we could consider the modern prototypical theater, great historical theaters in Western culture were more often than not thrust stages (also known as open stages). For example, Shakespeare's Globe and most ancient Greek theatrical spaces were all done in thrust. 

Some directors will point out that there is a slight difference between a thrust theater and a three-quarter-round theater. The claim is that while three-quarter-round theater spaces are entirely surrounded by audience on all sides but the far upstage side, thrust theaters traditionally still have an upstage area, near or even sometimes behind the proscenium arch, where the audience doesn't quite reach. While these claims are important for blocking and staging purposes, for the purpose of identifying these spaces, there is no need for distinction. 



In the above image of a classical Greek thrust stage, you will notice that there is no real "backstage" area, nor any place from which we might see curtains hung. Instead, what we have is a skene. This is the structure at the far upstage end of the space. In Hellenistic Greece, where this structure was initially found, the skene served not only as additional staging for a terrace scene, or various entrances and exits, but also as the backstage area for the actors, costume shops and prop storage. Additionally, the word proscenium is derived from the skene. The line between the skene and the stage area was referred to as the "proskenion(literally "the space in front of the skene" in Greek), which would eventually become the English word proscenium.

Almost all plays are written with a proscenium theater in mind. This can make blocking and staging a written work in an arena space particularly difficult. Often, by necessity, you have to ignore the staging instructions provided by the playwright - something that is heavily frowned upon in professional theatre. For this reason, many of the shows you will see in the round are either philosophical, conceptual pieces like Waiting for Godot or No Exit, or period pieces and adaptations of period pieces. And, as one might expect, ancient Greek plays are very frequently performed in the round. 

Arena spaces are challenges for actors and directors alike. While the pressure of ensuring your back isn't to the audience is long gone, actors now face a new pressure of ensuring that they aren't biasing their "face-time" towards one side of the audience too frequently - and they also have to ensure that important emotions on faces and objects of importance are visible to all members of the audience, especially when these things are pivotal to the movement of the scene. Directors also face the complication of managing exits and entrances through a stage space. If, like the picture above, the only exits and entrances from the space are up a long flight of stairs, the actors would be forced to climb all that way to get on and offstage. This is made simpler in small, black box spaces, but remains a complication that pushes many directors toward sticking to proscenium.

ARENA

Also known as theatre in the round, arena stages are stages entirely surrounded by audience members. There is no true backstage, nor is there an upstage or downstage or stage left or right in these stages. Most arena stages are circular, while many others, especially in black box spaces, are in a square configuration. The shape of the stage itself is not as important as the fact that, with the exception of aisle spaces between seating, the performance space is surrounded by audience on all sides.

While theatre was often done in the round in ancient Greece and Rome, this type of space was not widely explored and utilized until the latter half of the 20th century. The first known permanent arena structure was built in Seattle, Washington in 1940 on the campus of the University of Washington. As decades passed, this style of theatre became more and more popular until it peaked near the end of the 20th century. While it hasn't quite regained its once-wide popularity as we delve into the 21st century, theatre in the round is making a slight resurgence, especially among college campuses. 

OTHER (NON-WESTERN/NONTRADITIONAL THEATRE)

While most of the theatre you encounter in your life will be in traditional Western spaces, there are many prominent, important, and influential types of theatre which you may very well not encounter in your lifetime. This does not, however, mean that learning these types of theatre will not be useful to you.

GUERILLA THEATRE

Popularized in the 1970s by protesters, and inspired by the movement surrounding Che Guevara, Guerilla Theatre brings performance to public spaces, usually as a means of demonstration and protest. These guerilla performance were generally spontaneous, surprise performances in unlikely public spaces to an unsuspecting audience. Typically these performances were intended to draw attention to a political/social issue through satire and protest, often utilizing taboo materials, profanity and nudity in order to provoke and shock their audiences. 

KABUKI THEATRE

Kabuki theatre is a traditional, highly stylized type of performance of singing and dancing that has been around for nearly four centuries. It's often noted for its highly detailed makeup and costuming.

While kabuki staging will differ from space to space and show to show, it's worth noting just how intricate kabuki spaces are. Kabuki theatrical spaces are generally outfitted with seri - platforms with the ability to raise and lower. While these used to be powered by people underneath the stage, they are generally mechanically operated now. Kabuki spaces also often have hanamichi (a long, raised platform that runs left of center from the back of the theater through the audience to connect with the main stage, generally used for entrances and exits), and mawari butai (a revolving section of the stage). 

PROFILE or TENNIS COURT THEATRE

Much the way it sounds, These spaces will generally have an audience on either side of a stage, facing one another, the way they might at a basketball or tennis court. Because very few theatrical spaces are built to accommodate seating and staging like this, you will often only find theatre done this way on actual sports courts, or in "flexible" stages - black box theaters that can be customized according to the director's vision. These are especially useful in shows where the director might want the audience to confront their own humanity and morality. By forcing the audience to stare at one another, the show is made much more personal, which can be awkward unless the show is particularly well chosen and well performed.

VOCABULARY

Proscenium - The proscenium of a theater stage is a structure in front of the stage that frames the action of the play. It can be square or arched, and the stage curtain is generally directly behind it. 

Apron - Any part of the stage that extends past the proscenium arch and into the audience or seating area.

Proscenium Arch - an arch framing the opening between the stage and the auditorium in some theaters. Often used metaphorically, regardless of the existence of an actual physical "arch" in the space.

Fourth Wall - A performance convention in which an invisible, imagined wall separates actors from the audience. While the audience can see through this "wall", the actors act as if they cannot.

Skene -  A building behind the playing area that was originally a hut for the changing of masks and costumes but eventually became the background before which the drama was enacted.

VISION PAPER PROMPTS

After reviewing the different existing types of theatrical spaces, try out one (or a few!) of the following exercises to help develop your creative directing muscles.

  1. Pick a popular play - an old standard. Design a stage layout for this same play for three different types of theatrical spaces. What changes? What remains the same? What are the limitations and strengths of each?
  2. What are the pros and cons of using a wide variety of set pieces when you're doing theatre in the round or in thrust? Do these pros and cons differ when you take these set pieces to a proscenium setting? Why or why not?
  3. Describe how you might stage a play for the round that is traditionally done in proscenium. 
  4. Describe how you might stage a play for proscenium that is traditionally done in the round.