Theatre is the act of sitting quietly in a chair, in the dark, watching actors on a stage pretend that you aren’t there. But where you sit or stand, is of the utmost importance. What you can see, hear and experience shapes the play in your mind and makes it a unique and individual experience. What you take away from a visit to a theatre is only the memory of what you saw, heard and felt. Space is a fundamental aspect to how that experience is shaped. It is also one of the most challenging aspects in the creation of that experience for your audience.
If you want to engage your audience completely you would do well to take a leaf out of Oli Savage’s book. His method of space in Romeo and Juliet was to immerse the audience in a sensual and intriguingly dark world where the stage was created using spotlights, which appeared and disappeared across the vast floor of club 601, creating mini environments. He also utilised a floor level catwalk with blue standing lamps to mark off a corridor in which scenes of rival gangs were staged. The corridor was also cleverly used to section off the audience without being too intrusive to the overall feel of the open environment. You could stand between the Montagues and Capulets if you dared. It created tension and a closeness to the tense action unfolding just feet away. The only traditional stage was used during the finale, as the star-cross’d lovers took their life, they sat above us, out of reach. We could only watch as the end neared, this final distancing from the audience from each other from their families and we could but watch.
There are, however, dangers in this type of immersion. Firstly, there’s a lot of walking and it would be a challenge for any disabled members of an audience. Secondly, with scenes happening simultaneously in different areas of the stage you miss some of the action. Thirdly, you don’t always know where to look, I was watching a fight scene when suddenly behind me a spotlight and suddenly the balcony scene was happening. I was caught between watching a well-staged fight and a love scene and I’ll be honest I was torn I wanted to see them both. But in the grand scheme of the play I left having enjoyed it, even the bits I missed. In fact, it only made want to see it again.
What made it work? Well, it was unusual and therefore intriguing. It kept you on your toes and gripped you throughout the whole performance, you didn’t know what was going to happen or where. It was also a joy to listen to different pieces of dialogue, the ballroom scene took place across a large part of the space and characters were talking all around, you could walk about and listen in to the Capulets or to Romeo having a laugh with the Montague boys. It was just fun to be able to choose. It also means if you happen to be standing next to an annoying audience member you can just move on and find somewhere else to stand, which is a rare pleasure.
Another interesting use of space is to take your audience out of the theatre altogether. Hamish Rae did just this in his debut play Dinner at Ours, which was staged in a real life living room in a student flat. I had the pleasure of interviewing him and I asked why he chose this unique venue, he told me, “It’s not that they’ve come to a theatre to show it to you. It’s that you’ve just come into their sitting room they’re not showing it to you they’re just living their life and you’re watching.” Although the setup was a standard Proscenium theatre, with the audience on one side, it wasn’t really a theatre at all. This was an actual house. It’s almost as voyeuristic as theatre gets and it pulls you into a very real world. The distance between the actors and audience and the lack of space also helped create a very intimidate setting.
The closeness to a scene matters. By forcing the audience to see every expression, to see every gesture and hear every word spoken you become immersed. You feel empathy, sadness, loss, and fear along with the characters. I remember one part of the play during an argument between two characters and I watched the audience look away when unexpectedly a character roared at another. There was a palpable sense of fear, shame and embarrassment in a single moment. If the point of theatre space is to immerse an audience then this worked beautifully.
Beyond the interaction between actor and audience space can be used to create interactions between audience members. Hannah Raymond-Cox’s one woman play Polaris is staged in a pub cellar. The stage, a long corridor with the audience placed either side of the single performer, brings voyeurism in the theatre to a new and deeper level. In moments of heightened emotion, we are inclined to look away from the person in emotional distress, in this play one is left looking at another member of the audience experiencing the same emotion as yourself. It’s not only exciting for the audience but it helps the performance. From a performance standpoint, Hannah says, “It’ll be really fun to have them (the audience) turned and then to face another group of people for a bit,” and she is right. Enhancing the audience’s experience by subtly making them a part of the show creates a sense that we are all in it, that we can see the palpable reactions of others heightens our own.
Intimacy, oneness and emotional connection can all be enhanced by the space we choose to perform in. Thankfully in St Andrews writers, performers and directors are willing to take risks when it comes to the use of space in their productions. These three productions used unconventional spaces in an unconventional way and created unconventional theatre. Two of these productions were original dramas and one is nearly as old as the University itself but if I have learned anything from watching these productions it is that we need not be bound by standard theatre spaces. When I watched theatre as a child the most exciting use of space I saw was a production of The Crucible in the Arches, Glasgow. It was Theatre in the Round and thinking back to that performance it reminds me that almost all the theatre I watch now is Proscenium, and I wish if there was anything the theatre world could learn from St Andrews it would be to expand beyond this standard mode of storytelling. For when it branches out into new and exciting uses of space we can all be that bit more captivated and excited by the drama’s we watch. All the World’s a Stage and so it should be.