The thrust stage
Since the Royal Shakespeare Theatre opened in 1932 directors have fought to try and bring the actors and the audience closer together. The well documented shortcomings of the existing proscenium arch theatre create a gulf between those watching the performance and action taking place on stage.
The building was of a hideousness that nobody who had not sat in it could possibly appreciate. It was built like a cinema...The Dress Circle was set so far back that you were almost sitting outside the theatre...One of the first jobs I was obliged to do was to pull the Dress Circle nearer to the stage...so that the Dress Circle audience was linked visually and physically with the action.
— Anthony Quayle, Festival Director in 1950
Those people who have performed in and visited the RSC’s Swan Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon will have experienced the intimacy of the thrust stage auditorium which seats around 450 people. For many it is one of the favourite theatres in the country to perform and see productions.
One room theatre spaces, like the Swan, aim to get the actor and the audience in the same space reinforcing the idea that they are part of a collaborative event.
Shakespeare wrote for a space where actors and the audience shared the same environment, not watching the action in a cinema style space. Over the past five years the RSC has adapted the Royal Shakespeare Theatre stage experimenting with ways to bring the stage further out into the audience.
Thrust stages are nothing new. From the ancient Greeks onwards, audiences and performers have enjoyed the intimacy of a shared space. Most 20th century theatres have sought to create one room rather than two room theatres.
Unlike the ‘picture frame’ proscenium theatres a stage which thrusts into the audience allows a quick transformation of mood, scale, setting and environment that in Shakespeare is led by language rather than stagecraft. It also encourages audiences to bring their imagination to the space and to concentrate more on the language.
The architectural feasibility study, produced by Bennetts Associates, has confirmed that the proposed 1,000 seat, thrust-stage auditorium can be accommodated within the shell of the existing building between the current fly-tower and Art Deco foyers. By creating a thrust stage, the RSC will have a 1,000 seat main house that celebrates the distinctness of theatre and intensifies the relationship between actors and audience.
The audience will be brought much closer to the actors, with the furthest seat reduced from 27 to just 15 metres from the stage.
Actor, Barnaby Kay who recently worked in the Royal Shakespeare Theatre explains why he loves performing on a thrust stage.
To perform on a thrust stage is an absolute thrill – you feel so connected to the audience, surrounded and supported during the performance. When the audience is no more than 15 metres away you feel like you are carrying them with you through the story, they are easier to draw in. When you can reach down, out, up and almost grasp people there is an excitement, an immediacy which is almost impossible to create in a proscenium arch theatre.
I recently saw a production in the Swan Theatre and it was a joy to be able to see past the actors to other members of the audience who were enthralled and delighted. This adds to the experience, the spectacle of going to the theatre.
— Barnaby Kay