Ayckbourn Talks: The Round (1997)

This talk by Alan Ayckbourn offers an introduction to working in-the-round. It was delivered to students in Scarborough on 9 September 1997.

Theatre in the round is the earliest form of theatre - and the most natural. It is a normal reaction for spectators (of a fight, for example) to gather round the action on all sides.

Psychologically, there is a distance between actors and audience in proscenium theatre, which does not exist in the round.

The round is the most exciting medium for an actor, due to:
- the close proximity of actors to audience
- the need for the actors to share responsibility for the piece (an actor can never "switch off" onstage in the round).

The round favours teamwork - it is difficult for one actor to dominate the stage.

There can be a strong sense of realism in the round. Yet the audience can never really forget they are watching a play. This is the sublime paradox of the theatre. That you are at once involved and yet detached. You empathise with the actor, yet you are constantly reminded that there are others watching, empathising, too. There is, in a sense, a common humanity - a sort of bonding between actor and actor, spectator and actor, spectator and spectator. The feeling this generates often remains long after the performance has finished.

Directing actors in the round Voice
A common misconception is that little voice projection is required - in fact the voice must be projected to the back row of the seats which are behind the actor; therefore good diction and voice projection are very important.

Let your actors explore the space. Try to leave to them decisions on when and where to move. You may want to decide where the actors come from; after that, let a pattern develop as the actors explore. Obviously, you will need to be more prescriptive if there are many actors onstage.

Grouping of actors which you would normally check for sight-lines on a proscenium stage need far less attention in the round. A "pretty" picture seen from one direction, everyone grouped nicely, will almost inevitably look terrible from another angle.

Avoid huddling. Actors often instinctively cluster together onstage for mutual protection, like nervous sheep in a thunderstorm; but this does nothing for sight-lines and almost deliberately appears to exclude the audience. The golden rule is, try to keep distance between you, except when kissing or punching each other.

A complex set, and large props, can inhibit movement. The actors must remember to respect the conventions of the set: e.g. with a cross-sectional set, ankle-height walls, which are supposed to continue to the ceiling, must not be "breached" with an arm.

Don't place an actor at the centre of the stage and turn him like the beam from a lighthouse. Instead, consider placing the actor just in front of a vomitory (vom) [the name for a stage exit in-the-round]. That way, the actor's face can be seen by as many audience members as possible.

Options: you may wish to use a composite set, with, for example, multiple rooms in a house; or you may prefer to keep the stage free of set / props, and use the voms to bring on / take off what is needed for scenes.

Make judicial use of sound. It can be effective to use underscoring to reinforce the narrative; sound can also be used effectively to suggest changes in time / mood.

It is important, especially with plays for children, to keep the narrative going. As an alternative to bringing on extra items of set to signify a change of scene, consider using light instead: e.g. "solid" pillars of light from above, or even below, the stage. These could be snapped on / off to signify a change of location, time etc.

Consider using gobos. In the round, the floor is your backcloth.

Copyright: Alan Ayckbourn. Transcription copyright: Simon Murgatroyd. Please do not reproduce without permission of the copyright holder.