Alan Ayckbourn & Theatre-in-the-Round

How is this for a very obscure – but highly significant – Ayckbourn fact. On 14 April 1957, Alan Ayckbourn experienced theatre-in-the-round for the first time.

At the Mahatma Gandhi Hall, Fitzroy Square, in London, Alan saw Stephen Joseph’s Studio Theatre company performing Sartre’s Huis Clos and it would have the most profound effect on his career and life.

Several months later, he would be working for Stephen in Scarborough with the UK’s first professional theatre-in-the-round company with which he would become indelibly associated. He would subsequently become a passionate advocate and champion of theatre-in-the-round.

He has directed upwards of 300 productions in-the-round and premiered the majority of his own writing in-the-round – the theatre form for which he generally writes his plays and which he believes they are most suited to.

To mark the anniversary, I’ve found a rarely seen article by Alan Ayckbourn in which he discusses theatre-in-the-round and working in his favourite theatre space.

Alan Ayckbourn Discusses Theatre-in-the-Round

I’ve found theatre in the round to be an extremely liberating medium to work in; you can employ a sort of fluency, and a lot of things fall naturally into place.

Alan Ayckbourn (©Tony Bartholomew / www.bartpics.co.uk)

Most proscenium arch theatres, most end-stage theatres, have an angle of visibility, sight-lines, which of necessity dictate what you, the audience, can see. With the round everything is visible, every square foot of the playing space is viable playing space.

In the round, it is vital that the actors understand where they are standing in relation to each other. This is perhaps more important than it is even in the proscenium where the director often arranges people simply to create a good picture. In the round, they may look pleasing from one side but walk round to the other side and they look anything but. You can’t make arrangements and pretty pictures in the same way.

What you have to do is to try and arrange actors so that, emotionally, they relate in the right way to each other. Put simply, if you know two people are enemies, they will stand slightly further apart than they will if they are lovers. Certainly in the round, people rarely stand close together unless they intend to kiss each other or punch each other. A lot of the time we are playing with the subtle spaces that exist between physical beings, which is interesting and usually instinctive for actors.

The round is very much an actor-controlled medium. Having said that, they do need guidance, as indeed all casts need. In the round, there are a few basic areas to avoid, like standing with your back to the stage and looking down a vomitory (vom) for a major speech, but most actors instinctively find that for themselves.

Nonetheless, it is worth pointing out: standing with your back to a vom and facing into the main body of the stage is usually a very strong place to stand, a good place for a major speech, while standing in the centre of the stage is probably not the strongest place. An actor‘s instinct is generally to try to gain the centre stage, but in the round you would then find you want to keep spinning round in order to cover all the auditorium.

The Round at the Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough (© Tony Bartholomew / www.bartpics.co.uk)

It’s interesting that theatre in the round is very conducive to company acting but not so good for stars. Star actors tend not to be too fond of the round because they cannot dominate the stage completely. It can be hard to realise that if you’re playing a scene with another person, then that person is as important as you in making the scene work. It’s the sort of theatre I love.

Theatre in the round also only works satisfactorily when it is genuinely in the round. I know from experience from working in various in-the-round spaces that trying to persuade actors to play truly in the round when clearly they sense that 75% of their audience is concentrated in one block or on one particular side, is a forlorn hope.

Also, the audience ideally should be looking down on the stage whilst not being so far or steeply above it that the actor cannot make contact with them without physical contortion. As a general rule, in-the-round back rows should be at a level whereby it remains possible for the actor on stage and their seated audience to have eye contact. And by the round, I don‘t mean that the stage itself has to be round or even oval. It simply means that the audience surrounds the stage. The playing space in Scarborough at the Stephen Joseph Theatre is square.

Stephen Joseph – who had an enormous influence on me -would say that theatre in the round was the original theatre form – ever since the Greeks staged plays. His love of the round was based upon its immediacy. His great concept – which I agree with – was that the only thing that mattered about theatre, when it came to it, was the actor and the audience. And the round, more than any other medium, emphasises this most strongly. The actor is in the middle with the audience surrounding him, and everything else, really, is extraneous.

You can find out more about Alan Ayckbourn’s directing career at his official website here and read about his own thoughts on directing and writing in his book, The Crafty Art of Playmaking which is available here.

Article by Alan Ayckbourn and copyright of Haydonning Ltd. Images copyright of Tony Bartholomew. Please do not reproduce without permission of the copyright holder.

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