There are three types of stages: proscenium, the traditional “flat” stage a la Childrens’ Theatre; thrust, in which the audience surrounds three sides of the stage, as at the Guthrie; and arena, where the audience totally surrounds the stage. Arena is also known as theatre-in-the-round staging.
Arenas are ancient of course, but drama in-the-round — performed for an audience surrounding the stage — is largely a 20th-century American development. In-the-round performances date to 1914 in the U.S.; in 1940, the University of Washington built the world’s first arena theatre. Arena theatres opened in England in the ’50s: Alan Ayckbourn, who writes for in-the-round, is artistic director of the Stephen Joseph Theatre in the Round in Scarborough, named for his mentor who helped bring arena staging to Britain.
A successor to the Circle Theatre (1951-52), Theatre in the Round Players performed in gym-like spaces until moving to its present location in 1969, where volunteers built a permanent arena theatre under the guidance of Ralph Rapson Assoc., designers of the original Guthrie and University of Minnesota theatres. Its 245 seats are seven rows deep, with no seat more than 30’ from the center of the stage.
Entrances and exits in an arena are called “voms”, an abbreviation of “vomitory”.
The only other local, permanent arena is a small one at the University of Minnesota. Some local theatres will occasionally configure their spaces to stage a show in-the-round.
There is no “stage left” or “stage right”: movement notes for rehearsals may use north-south-east-west, the hands of a clock, or the names of the voms (e.g., “then you exit through the Cedar vom”).
TRP’s arena is also the very rare theatre stage that is used by the public: audience members must cross the performing area to get to their seats, go to intermission, etc. As a result, the theatre requires scenic designs to accommodate wheelchairs, women in high heels, and other public vagaries (not to mention posting ushers at intermission to keep the audience from handling or eating the props).
Once the production begins, most audience members cannot leave their seats. A special entrance is used for late-seaters (who must then wait until intermission to get to their assigned seats). Many audience members have been known to get up and cross the stage during performance — new artistic directors are reminded that any act longer than 90 minutes will find audience members jostling the cast on stage on their way to the restrooms.
Major scenic elements in-the-round are the floor and the “modesty panels” which front each seating section (originally developed for women sitting in the front rows).