I Can Smell Them
Theater in the Round is where the stage and the actors are completely surrounded by the audience. There is no formal stage separation with the audience sitting “out there” beyond the footlights. Such an arrangement can create problems for both the performers and the audience members.
I’ve done shows in the round a few times and it requires a level of concentration and awareness of your space unlike more traditional staging. For one thing, the audience is generally much closer to you, often just a foot or two away. So close you can smell what they had for dinner before the show.
Distracting to say the least.
Audience members tend to talk to each other during shows and if you are only a foot away from them you are almost part of their conversation. They really don’t think you can hear them. I attribute this to the “television factor” where, sitting at home they talk while the TV is on and the actors on the tube never react. In the theater they still regard you as just an image in front of them. You are not real, just a flickering light.
I shattered this illusory wall one time when I reached out and tapped the shoe of someone in the front row. She screamed like a monster had come down from the screen and attacked her.
I’ll never do that again.
A few years ago I did a play in the round where the set was designed to look like someone’s living room. The first row of seats was, literally, inches away from the furniture. During the show as I am sitting on the sofa, a man in the front row reaches out and picked up a prop item from the coffee table. Luckily it wasn’t anything critical to the story so I ignored him. After a few seconds it dawned on him what he had done and he returned the item to the table. Of course, the rest of the audience saw all of this and giggled. It took all of my concentration to carry on as if nothing had happened.
Later during the run of the same play another audience member got so involved that, when I delivered a line that sent the action off in an unexpected direction, he exclaimed, out loud, “Oh, shit!” That was another tough moment for the actors.
From the actor’s standpoint there are some positive benefits to working close-up like that. Since you are just inches from your audience you usually don’t need to use the heavier stage makeup and there is little need to “project your voice to the back of the house.” In many cases the “back of the house” is only about ten feet away. Your movements can be more subtle and you don’t have to worry so much about “upstage” and “downstage” sightlines. In the “round” somebody is always getting their view blocked.
Years ago I was in a production of “Man of La Mancha” that was done in a “three-quarter round” with the audience seated on three sides of the stage. It was a terribly difficult thing to pull off successfully. If I was in the front row I wouldn’t want a raging stage fight taking place just inches in front of me. I wouldn’t want Don Quixote belting out “The Impossible Dream” in my lap either. Sometimes doing a show in the round is not a good staging choice.
Seeing and doing a show done in the round can be fun, but it does demand a little more self discipline on the part of both the audience and the actors. Some nights it was very tempting to tell someone to shut up, but that might have caused a riot.
Maybe if I just slapped the guy’s hand he would have left the props alone.