The show's all around you
Arriving at the theatre for The Assembly’s We Can’t Reach You, Hartford, you’re ushered through a narrow passageway that opens up onto the abandoned remains of a once brightly colored circus tent. You stand in the ashes of burnt-down bleachers and charred circus rings, as the ghosts of “The Greatest Show on Earth” appear before, behind, and around you. You’re not watching the action of the play from 12 rows back; you’re right in the middle of it. This is environmental theatre.
In contrast to traditional proscenium theatre, which separates the spectators from the actors, environmental theatre immerses the audience in the performance. Sitting or standing within the set — not outside of it — audience members in an environmentally staged play share the same space as the performers.
The audience’s seating arrangements vary widely from production to production. Chairs might be set up facing one another on either side of the theatre, or they might surround the primary playing area on all sides. Or maybe they’re scattered at tables throughout the space. In the most immersive productions, like Punchdrunk’s Sleep No More, spectators are encouraged to move about wherever and whenever they wish. In any of these arrangements, performances may transpire in front of, beside, or behind any given viewer.
One of early champions and architects of environmental staging was The Performance Group, under the direction of Richard Schechner. (Schechner, who later documented his experiments and strategies in his seminal book Environmental Theater, is known for coining the term.) For The Performance Group’s 1968 production of Dionysus in ’69, designer Jerry Rojo built wooden scaffolding that surrounded the action of the play on all sides. Invited to move around the space at will, audience members clambered over the scaffolding throughout the performance as each spectator decided from what vantage point to experience the action of the play. Immersive, interactive, and intensely sexual, performances of Dionysus in ’69 frequently devolved into full-blown orgiastic bacchanalia, obliterating the distinctions that typically separate performers and spectators. (Of course, not all environmental theatre invites audience participation, orgiastic or otherwise).
Because environmental staging tends to work best in small spaces with no fixed seating, it is more common in downtown, experimental productions than it is on Broadway, which is known for its large, beautiful proscenium theatres. Whether it’s staged in a large outdoor amphitheater, a tiny black box, or a converted warehouse, and whether the cast is constantly interacting with the audience or ignoring them completely, all environmental theatre has one thing in common: It immerses the audience within the environment of the play.
— Ben Beckley and Nick Benacerraf
This video was created by TDF and The Assembly.