I’ve had the great good fortune in the past few weeks to see some absolutely sensational musical theatre in London’s West End and on Broadway. Two of the shows (director Jonathan Kent’s production of Gypsy starring the great Imelda Staunton in London and director/choreographer Casey Nicholaw’s staging of the hilarious new Something Rotten! in New York) were on traditional proscenium stages. Two more, however, were offered in arena staging, a relative rarity for musicals, and it’s those that have captured my imagination as a directing teacher for the moment.
Director Maria Friedman’s mounting of High Society, a musical based by Arthur Kopit on the Philip Barry play Philadelphia Story with songs by Cole Porter (mostly from the 1956 movie High Society), is currently running at London’s Old Vic Theatre. That storied venue has been transformed (for the season now ending) into a theatre-in-the-round by building a substantial seating unit in what was heretofore the upstage end of the stage house. My front-row seat was, for all intents and purposes, onstage, with no change in elevation or other barrier to distinguish audience leg room from playing space (in fact I kept worrying that the seat-mate to my right would trip one of the dancers with her outstretched ankles).
Choreographer Nathan Wright’s high-energy dances swirled around the circular stage and often had ensemble members facing out so that each seating section might feel they had their very own chorus member for a moment (my favorite was the charismatic Omari Douglas). If you Google the phrase “High Society Old Vic” and click on Images, you’ll see some of photographer Geraint Lewis’s shots of the musical action, which give a better sense of the arena staging than some of the photos of the dialogue scenes. For example, check out the striking shot of leading lady Kate Fleetwood as socialite Tracy Lord dominating the right side of the frame in a fabulous persimmon-colored party dress, a cigarette dangling from her insouciant lips, with Jamie Parker as love-struck reporter Mike Connor in the left part of the photo in a white dinner jacket. “What a swell party” that scene was, and what I’d ask you to notice are all the characters in the background, facing away from the camera–but toward a different section of the audience.
Less effervescent but several fathoms deeper is playwright Lisa Kron and composer Jeanine Tesori’s Fun Home, adapted from the graphic autobiography of cartoonist Alison Bechdel. It’s currently on stage at Broadway’s only arena-style theatre, Circle in the Square, directed by Sam Gold, who won a Tony Award for his sensitive and winsome work, and it’s a complete knockout. I could go on and on about the story, the unforgettable songs, and the sensational performances, but let’s stick to the knitting and consider the in-the-round staging. The beautiful furniture and other properties that stand in for scenery arrive on trap-door platforms that ascend like elevators from below the stage floor. The actors enter and exit the oblong playing space primarily through vom-portals that stand open under the audience at the ends of the stage. Gold makes excellent use of the entire stage, often using small areas at one end or even one corner or at center. He is unafraid of relatively long moments in which the main players in a scene are both facing away from some part of the audience, but many of these are ameliorated because they are being observed by an often-silent grown-up Alison gazing upon on her own memories–and often facing the part of the audience seeing the other characters’ backs.
But no audience member in this Circle is deprived of the full emotional satisfaction–and oh, how satisfying it is–of the characters’ journeys; everyone gets plenty of “face time” from the various performers. In one case this is achieved using what we might classify as a trick, but it’s a trick that works beautifully: as the college-age Allison and her complicated father sit facing forward together in the front seat of a moving car, the entire bench that accommodates them both pivots slowly 360 degrees so that their subtle interaction is available to the entire house. If you Google “Fun Home Broadway,” though, and then click Images, you’ll get at least one breathtaking shot (by Joan Marcus) of the kind of luscious composition that exemplifies superb arena staging. With much of the audience in view in the frame, you see Judy Kuhn as Alison’s mother, Helen, seated primly at the piano and facing rightward; child Alison (Sydney Lucas) and her two brothers collapsed on the floor in the upper right corner near adult Alison (Beth Malone), who faces diagonally across the stage; with Alison’s father Bruce (the impeccable Michael Cerveris) in focus at center, also facing on a diagonal but three-fourths closed to the camera; and his young love-interest (Joel Perez) near the bottom-center of the frame, also facing diagonally and even more closed to the camera. Designer Ben Stanton’s golden pools of light accentuate director Gold’s varied, graceful, and revealing staging.
My point here is to call attention to how arena staging needs to work, and one way of learning about it. I don’t recall a unit on this in my MFA program, I give precious little time to it in my own directing classes, and there’s almost nothing about it in the book. Fortunately there’s an excellent learning resource available to every director that’s a regular theatre-goer (and I hope every director is). Watching the blocking designed by talented and skilled directors such as Maria Friedman and Sam Gold–and watching mindfully, intentionally learning through observation–can work wonders. If you have the chance to see either of these wonderful productions, by all means do, but whatever you can see in the round, even if the director has not solved all of the problems presented by this intimate format for theatre architecture, can be a useful teacher.