A Look at Theatre in the Round

StageNotes - Make Believe

Sneak Preview: Henry V, In-the-Round

By Yan Chen, Artistic Apprentice

Henry V

Hartford Stage is changing its stage—to a shape you might not have seen before.

Its upcoming production of Henry V marks only the second time in its 55-year history that Hartford Stage has staged a show in the round.

Fans of the recent Tony-winning productions Fun Home and Once on This Island on Broadway might be familiar with how they invited viewers into visceral, intimate journeys, with audiences seated around the performers, 360 degrees. In-the-round staging draws you into the same democratic circle, upending conventional power dynamics in the theatre by erasing the absolute boundary between audiences and performers.

Open stages partially surrounded by audiences can trace their roots back to Ancient Greece and Rome and continued well into Shakespeare’s times. In the 19th century, the proscenium arch would grow to dominate western stages, seating audiences opposite a “picture-frame” that contained the stage picture. But in mid-20th century America, open stages made their comeback, thanks to the Regional Theatre Movement. From the 1950s to the 1970s, newly founded theatres across the country like Hartford Stage challenged existing New York-centric theatre hierarchies and brought quality professional theatre to communities around America.

Henry V in the Round
Set rendering for Henry V. Scenic design by Nick Vaughan.

As the Movement decentralized American theatre, it also changed the game for theatre spaces, breaking the barrier that the proscenium had erected between actors and audiences. Hartford Stage’s signature three-side thrust stage is a classic example: by adopting open-stage configurations, regional theatres were able to mount productions that could establish a more direct relationship with their audience, and experiment with simpler, more stripped-back scenic designs.

In 2001, Hartford Stage first experimented with theatre-in-the-round with The Carpetbagger’s Children, which played to audiences around the country. Now, with Henry V, Hartford audiences will again see the integration between audiences and performers go even further than usual. As director Elizabeth Williamson (Cloud 9Seder) puts it, “We’re all in this together.” We will co-exist in a common space, actors and audiences alike, to collectively ponder the implications of war, politics, and power, not just in 15th century England and France, but in the shared present and future of the America that we’re all living in, today, at this very moment.