Weekly Volcano Blogs: Walkie Talkie Blog

April 11, 2011 at 3:47pm

CARV’S WEEKLY BLOG: Directing 201:"In the round"

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The first show I ever directed was The Boys Next Door by Tom Griffin. It was staged in a fair-sized college proscenium theater, meaning the elevated stage was framed by a rectangular arch. The entire audience watched the show from a single direction. There was a time when almost every play was staged in this manner; it was so common, in fact, that it's part of the reason a movie image has a rectangular shape. I don't think I'm being immodest when I tell you that first production was a raging success.

Not so, I'm afraid, for my second production, Boys' Life by Howard Korder. That play was staged in a black box theater, which can have almost any configuration. I elected to stage it in the round, meaning audiences would view it from all four sides. The truth is I had no idea what I was doing, and it showed. My grad school advisor made me re-block the entire show, meaning give the actors new places to stand and directions to move, halfway through final tech week. My actors regarded me as a dunce, but at least they could now be seen by the audience.

Blocking in the round is hard. It took me a long time to gain competence at it. I think we directors are preconditioned by movies and TV to imagine our shows in proscenium. It's as if we've spent our whole lives enrolled in osmotic proscenium directing school. Most of the time, when I watch a show in the round, I can tell exactly where the director was sitting throughout the rehearsal period. All the action is aimed in one direction, usually toward the seat the director would have chosen if the show were a movie. Any audience member not sitting in that section is obliged to watch the backs of actors' heads. The problem occurs so frequently that I've taken to choosing the most out-of-the-way seat in the house, just to see whether the director values my vantage point or not.

If you're directing in the round and your playing space is rectangular, the simplest way to get this right is to move your actors along the diagonals of the space. If two actors are having a conversation, they should be looking at each other along one of the diagonals. Ergo, the only way an audience member could be looking at the back of an actor's head is if said audience member were standing in an entrance or aisle. This seems simple enough, until you realize your set designer placed every stick of furniture in your way! This should be discussed with your designers long before rehearsal begins, because many amateur designers are likewise untrained in proper staging for arena theaters. A large couch looks awkward wedged diagonally into a corner of the stage. When blocking in the round, furniture should be kept small so that it fits into the spaces toward which actors should move. Proper blocking in the round also lessens the bane of lighting designers' existences, which is piercing lights shining directly into the tender retinas of a paying customer.

Most important, a director should sit in a different chair every night, especially when blocking for thrust or arena spaces. If you don't have a great view, then neither will the patron who pays to sit there on opening night. Still worse, the person sitting there just might be your critic.

Filed under: Arts, Theater,
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