Roundabout throughout history
With our Roundabout Season at Shoreditch Town Hall coming to a close last weekend, and our prototype auditorium taking its bow, we’re getting super excited about the future as we move to the next phase of fundraising and planning in pursuit of creating our dream theatre – a fully self-contained portable, demountable Roundabout Auditorium.
We’ll write a blog about our plans for Roundabout Phase 3 soon. But first, the past.
Over the last few weeks we’ve often been asked what inspired us to build The Roundabout Auditorium, and what it is about theatre-in-the-round that excites us.
We ran some workshops we ran for The Actor’s Guild, and we were energised by the enthusiasm the space engendered in the actors. Some common themes emerged, so we wanted to write about the reasons why we think the round is the most exciting theatrical configuration of all.
And we wanted to write about the history of in-the-round and touring auditoria. Sitting in a circle to listen is ingrained in us. From cavemen sitting around campfires telling stories, to forming story circles in Primary School. It’s part of who we are. A cornerstone of our human society.
Storytelling was developed into theatre by a guy called Thespis, who has lent his name to thespians ever since. He toured around in a cart from which he performed monologues in open spaces where audiences would gather to watch. So touring existed long before building based theatre. The first theatre structure built in Athens employed temporary wooden seating surrounding a stage in a market square. Sounds familiar!
The first documented indoor theatre is The Odeon Of Pericles, which dates from 440BC. It was a square, but with seating on all four walls and a performance area in the centre. In 300BC The Theatre Of Dionysus was built from stone cut into a hillside with seating in a horseshoe shape around the stage, and became the predominant model for theatre architecture for the ensuing 500 years across the Greco-Roman world.
Fast forward to the Middle Ages and across the English Channel to dear old Blighty where, in the Middle Ages, a penchant for morality plays started a trend for in-the-round auditoria in market squares, visited by touring players in pageant wagons.
Gradually, across the world, as technology advanced and sets became more ornate, theatre became more of a spectacle and less of a communal, social, experience. Along came the proscenium arch, and stage lighting to illuminate the players and keep the audience in the dark. Then came cinema, and television. For our culture and our entertainment, we all sat and faced the same way. We became end-on.
So in a digital age, sitting in a circle seems almost radical. No-one is told to sit still and face front. It’s a communal experience, a social experience, a democratic experience. Everyone is involved. Even if you turn the house lights out, you can still see the people opposite you.
Here at PP we’re attracted to plays that are innately theatrical, that embrace theatre as a unique art form. You can’t watch a film in the round, or TV. You can’t watch a stand-up gig in the round without the stand-up getting very dizzy. You can’t (generally) watch a gig in the round (unless you’re plaanning to see the new Keane tour). In-the-round is innately theatrical.
And it seems to us to be the most exhilarating way to make theatre. Stripped bare, exposed. There’s no fourth wall, the actors and the audience inhabit the same space. As the playwright Simon Stephens says, “There is no theatrical architecture that challenges or interrogates what it is to be a human being more than theatre in-the-round.” And that seems true of both the work on stage and the audience around it, because the audience are inescapably *in* the action, not just observing it.
We’ve always been attracted to working in-the-round. Our joint AD James, and Roundabout Auditorium designer Lucy Osborne, first worked together on ARTEFACTS by Mike Bartlett at the old Bush theatre in 2008. Faced with the famous old steep-banked L-shaped auditorium, they ripped out the seats and for the first time in its history, put The Bush in-the-round; then reconfigured theatres around the country and in New York when Artefacts went on tour. Our other joint AD George grew up in Manchester on a staple diet of in-the-round theatre at the 800-seat Royal Exchange, where no single seat is further than 10 metres from centre stage.
But George is amongst the lucky ones. Despite theatre in-the-round having undergone a renaissance since Stephen Joseph founded the temporary space the Vic in Stoke and built the UK’s first permanent in-the-round space in 1955 in Scarborough, there are only six purpose-built in-the-round theatres in the country today. So very few people have had the opportunity to experience theatre in this exciting way. Alongside Manchester and The Stephen Joseph Theatre in Scarborough there’s The Octagon in Bolton, The New Vic in Stoke, The Orange Tree in Richmond and The Cockpit in Marylebone.
One of the most exciting aspects of creating Roundabout was the prospect of giving people the chance to see theatre in-the-round for the first time, even though the configuration is as old as theatre itself. Forget the IMAX. Theatre in-the-round is the original and best 3D experience, no silly glasses required.
Alongside the ancient traditions of touring in-the-round, there have also been more contemporary stimuli. Founding Artistic Director of the Royal Exchange Michael Elliot, when explaining the rationale behind the construction of the in-the-round theatre within a much larger hall, spoke of a belief that theatre buildings should have obsolescence built in to them. So after the Arndale bombing left The Royal Exchange homeless in 1996, they built a replica of their theatre and toured it. The RSC did the same with a portable structure that popped up around the UK. Later The RSC built the RoundYard in The Roundhouse, and last year a replica of their Stratford home in Manhattan. For the past seven years, Paines Plough has been producing work at the Latitude Festival in pop-up structures, one year in-the-round. The pop-up seems to have its own energy, its own excitement. And we’re not the only ones who think so. Check out Kneehigh’s wonderful nomadic pop-up tent The Asylum, modern in its conception but rooted in the idea of circus, troubadour and folk traditions. Or Chichester Festival Theatre’s Theatre-On-The-Fly. We can’t wait for The National Theatre’s new pop-up The Shed, opening in Spring 2013.
We were inspired by productions too. For The Royal Court’s 2009 production of COCK by Mike Bartlett, director James MacDonald and designer Miriam Beuther created a cock-fighting arena in The Jerwood Theatre Upstairs. With the play stipulating no set and no props be used in the production, the energy created in the miniature round was thrilling. This was theatre as sport.
And as inveterate sports fans, we’ve been inspired by all manner of sporting arena, from the Colosseum in Rome with its steeped banks and vomitories housing lions, to the Nou Camp in Barcelona. Our most dramatic sports are all performed in the round. The best stadia are designed like cauldrons, with all the heat on the field of play. The pitch at the Nou Camp is below ground level, so the stadium looks modest from the outside, but when the crowd enters from street level to find themselves on the rim of a gigantic bowl, the affect is breathtaking (which is why you enter the Roundabout from the top, and look down on the stage).
Theatre in-the-round demands combatative playing, attack, sport. We reckon these are really positive dramatic qualities. Actors often talk about what a character is “doing” to another in any given moment. The technique of actioning attributes physically active verbs to each line of a text – to slap, to punch, to jab. Like boxing. Theresa Heskins, expert Artistic Director of Stoke’s New Vic says “keep things moving; the round loves action, words are action and the pause is the enemy.” Dennis Kelly talks of lines as weapons.
We love the round, and the kind of work the round demands. That and our desire to find new ways to tour work to as many places around the UK as possible all combined to form the idea for The Roundabout Auditorium. The auditorium will pop-up across the country anywhere from existing theatres to school halls and village halls, community and sports centres, warehouses and even parks. In it we’ll present work especially created for the round, to give people everywhere the chance to experience – in many cases for the first time – this most ancient and thrilling of theatrical configurations.