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  • Writer's pictureClara Moses

Small Theatre, Big Performances

Many local theatres would probably consider themselves unique and innovative, but Shaker Bridge Theatre truly is. Sure, it’s a small theatre, in a small town, but the space available is used efficiently and interestingly. SBT often puts on plays set “in the round,” where the audience surrounds the stage in a circle. This arrangement is quite different for the audience, actors, directors, set designers, and pretty much everyone involved with the performance.

When a theatre chooses to produce a play in the round, they must consider the fact that there is nowhere for the actors to hide. During some moments of the show, many actors might feel uncomfortable, especially when thinking about the fact that their backs are turned to some of the audience. Essentially, we can see the actors, but they can’t always see us during a show that is performed this way.

“I prefer doing a play in the round. It’s more interesting and challenging to direct,” Bill Coons, Founder and Director of SBT, said. “I have two rows of chairs on each side. Everyone has a good seat and there’s wonderful intimacy. I pick plays that will work in a small, intimate space.”

Theatre in the round was common in ancient Greece and Rome, but after that it wasn’t explored very much until the latter half of the 20th century. Once the theatre world started experimenting with this kind of performance again, others began to notice the originality and intimacy found on a circular stage. Many music artists hold concerts in the round, occasionally television shows are produced this way, circus acts are often performed under a round tent, and even some standup comedians have played with this format.

Coons became inspired after seeing the way one of Henry Moore’s sculptures had been displayed at the Museum of Modern Art. The piece had chairs circling it so that no matter where you were seated, you still got to experience the work of art. Moreover, each spot let you experience it from a different perspective. Perhaps three-dimensional art, people, and characters are best experienced from a multitude of perspectives.

Coons has directed numerous plays in the round over the years, which has helped to show the community that a theatre being physically small isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Every SBT audience member always has a seat within ten feet of the stage with unobstructed views. Simply put, there is no bad seat in the house!

Actor Michael Stewart Allen often works with Coons at SBT and has gotten more comfortable with performing in the small space over time. Allen explained that the bravado people perform with in big theaters can actually overcompensate for less than amazing acting. In a small theater, actors are forced to make subtler choices.

“Because of the size of the space, there is really no way to hide. In the big Broadway and touring houses, you have to be a lot broader in your choices as an actor to make sure you are telling the story to the back row,” Allen said. “(At SBT) you have to be fully invested in the emotional reality of the scene and character. You have to paint with a fine brush because the audience can see and examine every emotion, facial expression, and reaction. They are there with you in the experience.”

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