“There I was, standing alone in the middle of a room. Everywhere I looked people were staring at me. I felt naked, cold yet sweaty, frightened. I felt little, insignificant. Strangers were staring, some pointing, some looking disinterested, others could reach out and touch me. My pulse was beating harder, harder, echoing in my ears…..”
“Oh my goodness. You were having a nightmare.”
“Heck no. I was in a play being performed ‘in the round’.”
What exactly is Theatre in the Round?
Simply put, you take a handful of actors, drop them on a staging area in the center of a venue, then surround them with audience - some so close they can lift your wallet if so talented.
This keeps the audience highly engaged, especially in a production like 12 Angry Men where you want the audience to feel they were locked inside the jury room along with the cast. They may even begin to feel that they are part of the cast (which presents a problem on payday!)
But surrounded by audience, how does an actor ‘act’? After all, there’s audience to their left, their right, in front and behind them. The actor must remain focused at all times. During your big scene you can’t suddenly think to yourself ...'hey that guy in the third row is Timothy Olyphant and I think he's wearing my hat!' Diction must be clear, clean and loud. Remember at any one time you are speaking directly to only one-fourth of the audience. You must be heard and understood by all and what the audience cannot see in your eyes they must hear from your voice..
On a proscenium stage an actor has distance between themselves and the audience. Miss a cue, whisper “damn” and only your fellow actors can hear it.
“Pssst Sam. Your zipper’s open.” No problem. A slight turn away from the audience and ZIP, you’re back in action.
Performing In The Round, there is no distance between you and the audience.
Chances are, during your big scene the audience member to your right decides the only way they can keep themselves alive is by coughing as loud, long and as hard as they can - and it all must be done on you and as close to your face as possible.
And through it all, the actor must remain focused, act as if that audience member is not hacking themselves back to life, to keep eye contact with their fellow actors and not, under any circumstances, stop mid-sentence and hand them a Luden’s cough drop.
An actor ‘in the round’ will always have the audience in their eyeline.
And, worse yet, the actor has to ignore that fact.
On a proscenium stage the lighting is directed at the actors, leaving the actors with no real view of the audience, but ‘in the round’ lighting comes down from the top, so wherever the actor looks, BOOM, there’s the audience.
So, if you happen to be playing Stanley Kowalski in A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE and you are on your knees screaming “Stella” chances are you’ll be staring at an audience member unwrapping a caramel from its’ cellophane.
You will also see audience members laughing, sneering, nodding off, glancing at their watches, yawning, smiling and perhaps looking for the exit sign.
all that must be ignored.
Needless to say, this is a hard adjustment for an actor to make.
Performing ‘in the round’ is a challenging, unique and quite frankly a terrifying experience - but it is also the most rewarding. If an actor can stride out in the middle of a venue, be surrounded by audience and block it all out and deliver a command performance - they have truly arrived. After that, acting on a proscenium stage should be like shooting fish in a barrel (bad analogy but you get what I mean…)
So how does directing change when directing 'in the round'?
A director needs to keep the actors moving. The ingenue in the summer dress can no longer sit at the edge of the couch, drink in one hand, stage cigarette in the other and pontificate ad nauseam about her failing marriage and her dislike of the suburbs, Mozart and Hemingway. Not in the round she can. She’s got to be up and moving, playing to her left, her right, behind and in front of her, all the time making it look natural, not blocked.
Good luck with that.
Now throw 12 Angry Men in a small room with just a long table and 12 chairs and let’s see if the director can pull that off - keep them moving and making it all look natural.
Was it possible?
I’ll let you be the judge of whether it worked or not.
Imagine a world with no real doors, no real windows, no real walls, then throw actors into that setting and make the audience feel that there are real doors, real windows and real walls.
All just another hurdle to jump in directing ‘in the round’.
Though the actor speaks directly to just one-fourth of the theater at any one time, a director needs to direct to the entire audience at all times. In a play like 12 Angry Men, there is a lot of discussion taking place around the table….. so how do you get actors moving in a setting like that. How do you keep an audience interested when it is performed in real-time, and actors are supposed to be seated around a table?
Can it work ‘in the round’?
Again - I’ll let you be the judge (jury, judge… get it?)
you become part of the play
How is sitting in the audience different when watching theatre in the round?
For one, it's more exciting.
The feeling of sitting in an audience and watching actors perform at a distance on a proscenium stage is standard and fine, but it’s all done in front of you, like a big television screen, while ‘in the round’ takes you by the hand and places you right smack dab next to the actors. If Willy Loman had garlic with his spaghetti and meatballs that evening, you’re going to know it… But more importantly, as an audience member you become part of the play - it somehow turns the table and puts you center stage.
It’s a wonderful theatre experience - so join us in the jury room. I promise no one will eat any garlic before the performance.