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Humanities Libertexts

4: Theatre Spaces

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  • Western European theatre spaces have been evolving since the early days of Greek
    theatre. Built into hillsides and taking advantage of natural canyons, early Greek
    theatres allowed for many patrons to comfortably see and hear the presentations, a
    primary function of all theatre spaces. The Roman theatre adapted the Greek spaces
    and added features including a large ornate backing wall (skene) and a framing structure
    adapted from the Greek proskene that has evolved into our modern proscenium
    arch. The Renaissance period brought theatre indoors by adding roofs to some auditoriums
    and developed a heavy reliance on elaborate scenery. A variety of styles of
    performance spaces have been developed since that time, each with its own achievements
    in creating comfortable and flexible spaces that nurture a strong relationship
    between the performers and the audience.


    Proscenium Theatre

    The most familiar type of performance space is the proscenium style theatre. It is essentially
    two rooms: the auditorium holding the audience, and the stage where the
    performance takes place. A wall joins these two rooms with a picture frame opening
    allowing the audience to see into the stage. This picture frame opening is the
    proscenium arch and is often elaborately decorated. The strength of the proscenium
    arch is that it focuses the audience’s attention on the performance area and blocks
    the audience from seeing backstage areas so the “magic” of the presentation can be

    Proscenium style theatres often allow for the greatest audience capacity; large auditoriums
    with multiple balconies are possible with this configuration. The potential
    downside to this type of space is there is a physical and aesthetic boundary created
    by the proscenium arch. Physically, the performers framed by the arch are at
    a distance from the audience, which forces their actions to be enlarged so audience
    members who are further away can read them. The audience may also feel an
    aesthetic distancing in that the performances seem less immediate as they are happening
    to someone “in the next room.”



    Proscenium theatre front elevation



    Ground plan


    Thrust Theatre

    Thrust theatre spaces were developed to decrease the distance between audiences
    and performers, thereby giving the drama a greater sense of intimacy. In a thrust
    theatre, the apron area has been thrust into the auditorium so the audience surrounds
    three sides of the playing area. The upstage wall remains for scenic representation
    and entrances and exits. Thrust theatre spaces allow the performers to be
    quite close to the audiences, but also cause the actors to be very aware of how they
    must move to be seen by all. In a thrust space, it is an interesting experience for an
    audience to be looking at other sections of audience as a background to the play.
    Designers working in these thrust or “three-quarter style” theatres must keep the
    playing area visible to all by using small or low level objects to transform the stage.



    Thrust theatre plan view


    Arena Theatre

    The arena theatre is another format designed for greater intimacy between audiences
    and performers because it includes seating that completely surrounds the
    stage. Often circular stages with tiered audiences creating a bowl, these spaces can
    be scaled from relatively small to arenas seating thousands. Again, like in a thrust
    environment, acting on an arena stage, or “in the round,” requires special attention
    to “keeping open” so you are always engaging the entire audience surrounding you.
    The set design must keep from blocking the audience’s view, so elaborate scenery
    in this style auditorium is rare. Instead, designers often rely on small furniture elements
    and floor coverings to establish scenic locations.


    Arena theatre plan view


    Black Box Theatre

    The black box theatre is aptly named. These spaces are single rooms that house both
    the actors and audience. The black box is a flexible space; most have audience seating
    that is configurable so the room can be adapted for any production. Seating may
    be set up as “end stage” similar to a proscenium style, on two sides in an “L” configuration,
    on two opposing sides as a “traverse” layout, or in a three-quarter or arena
    configuration. Typically, a smaller scaled space, the black box often provides the
    closest connection between audience and performers. Scenic design for a black box
    space is largely dependent on the seating arrangement, but in general the intimacy
    of the space provides less opportunity to hide the “magic” behind the presentation.


    Site-Specific Theatre/Found Spaces

    Site-specific or “found space” performances are held in a variety of locations. If you
    find a location that supports your story, such as performing in an historic ruin or
    on an ancient battlefield, you are doing site-specific work. The challenges for these
    locations may be the lack of traditional support spaces such as dressing rooms for
    performers, lack of technological resources, and the need to provide audience seating
    and accommodations. Many companies successfully produce outdoor seasons of
    classic plays such as Shakespeare in public parks, which could be considered site-specific

    Found spaces tend to be theatre performance spaces adapted from a room’s former
    use. Warehouses, banks, storefronts, and churches are often converted into found


    For Further Exploration
    Brockett, Oscar G., and Franklin J. Hildy. 2006. History of the Theatre, Foundation Edition.
    Boston: Pearson.
    History of Theatre. n.d. Accessed August 16, 2018.

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