Why don’t we do it in the round?

ART TIMES June 2009

I’m directing these days in a black-box theater. As it happens, the productions that have been done there up to now have all been done in a frontal presentation. So when I thought about how best to use the space, and wanted to do something different than what had been done before, I decided to do a production in the full round.
There is, of course, nothing revolutionary about that. Theater has been done in the round in modern times all over the place. Yet I do have the impression that it’s rather gone out of favor. I see productions done three-sided—thrust stages are rather all the rage these days, and for good reasons—but haven’t seen anything done in full round in a very long time. That’s a shame, and since I’m fresh off doing a production that way, I’m noticing it especially strongly.
As it happens, my audience is even more disconnected from arena theater than I am. Most have rarely or never seen a production in the full round, as a number of conversations with audience members revealed. Everyone I spoke with reacted positively; some were really fascinated by the experience. In particular, one element came up over and over again. The audience was made aware of itself as an audience, as a participant in the theatrical event. Now, I didn’t do anything in particular to bring that about; there was no audience participation or whatnot in the production I directed. It was simply the fact that at all times, the audience, looking at the performance, was also seeing the part of the audience on the other side of the stage. Quite the verfremdungseffekt, it turns out! The audience could not help but be more aware of itself, and of its presence in the event, and of the live-and-in-person nature of the event, than it would have been in another spatial arrangement. All quite without effort on my part—which definitely appeals to the laziness in me.
From the actor’s point of view, the experience of performance was especially intense. The element of exposure, of being looked at, is always a part of live performing, of course, but in an arena there is nowhere to go, nowhere to hide. There is no upstage to turn toward, no wings to fade into. The only way to avoid being open to the audience is to lie flat on the floor face down. Then there is the element of proximity. In an arena, you can’t help but be unusually close to at least part of the audience at least some of the time. Again, you can run, but you can’t hide. You might as well be fearless and go ahead and fully share with the audience—they’re there and they’re not going away and you aren’t going to be able to avoid them. So the direct engagement with the audience that is always a desirable element in theater became even more powerful and more direct.
From a purely economic standpoint, arena theater has advantages. You can’t help but simplify your setting, which saves labor and materials. You don’t really want to be very design-y in general, because the whole point of the thing is actor-centered. Again, you save labor and materials. It’s easy to run with a small crew backstage, since you aren’t going heavy on design and since every part of the stage is so readily accessible. You find yourself even simplifying your lighting; with less stuff to shine lights on, other than actors, you don’t need to shine so many lights.
And last but hardly least, you know, right from the get-go, that the experience you’ll be delivering is theater—not ersatz film or quasi-video. When every aspect of the performance is perforce sculptural, not imagistic, you are out of the realm of anything that can be done on a flat screen. You’ve broken free of the headlock that screens have held on entertainment for almost the last hundred years. You’re back in the world of unmediated direct experience of performance—where we belong.
The Beatles sang, “Why don’t we do it in the road?” Well, what they were talking about is much nicer done in private and on something soft. But I think we should ask the question more often: “Why don’t we do it in the round?” And just as sex can be great outdoors, I wonder—why don’t we do it not only the round, but in the sunshine?