Fine Art Tuesday

The Sheryl and Harvey White Theater, San Diego, CA.

We, as people who grew up in the 20th or 21st centuries, are accustomed to theater in a certain format. There is an elevated stage, curtains to partition it from the audience, and various backdrops and other items of “staging” that can be dropped or moved in and out quickly, so as to not interrupt the flow of the play.It was not always thus.

One of the first theater formats was “in the round” which dates back to Greece and Rome. It wasn’t the only form they used; they also used the sort of staging that we use today. However, many of their dramas were produced in the round. I think there were good reasons for this, rather than the simple explanation I’ve heard, that they didn’t have the technology to do modern staging. I’ll call BS on that one-they understood the pulley, paints and so on just fine, thanks.

Theater in the round fell out of favor at some point, but it was revived in the 1940s in the US, and has continued to be used, although not widely, into today. Depending on the play, there can be a relatively “normal” number of set items on the stage all the way down to few or no items. In every theater in the round performance I’ve witnessed, this seems to concentrate the audience on the actors and the play. One of the worst criticisms I’ve ever heard of a play (or movie) is that you left “humming the scenery”, and that happens all too often. (Even on a more traditional stage, I fell that less obtrusive staging is better. This was the case in the version of Wicked that we attended last year.)

It wasn’t a theater in the round, but I remember the first minimalist staging that I ever saw was in junior high school (“middle school” to any of you kids who may have accidentally wound up here), where a group of traveling players played various scenes from the works of Shakespeare on the stage at our school. They had no, and I do mean zero, staging of any kind. No curtains. No modern sound system. They had a big, bare stage and themselves, and almost 50 years later I can still remember how magic it was. Unless you went to sleep, there was nothing else to do but concentrate on the actors and the scenes they played. It was one of the most amazing things I’ve ever experienced.

This is the sort of thing that you get in theater in the round. There are no bad seats, because the players face every way during their performance. It’s like real life in that respect. Unless you’re some bogus “star” on a TV reality show, you live your life in 360o. If you get an opportunity, try your entertainment in the same fashion.

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