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.
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 preserved.
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.”
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.
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.
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 events.
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 spaces.
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. http://www.historyworld.net/ wrldhis/PlainTextHistories.asp?historyid=ab35.