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The changing face of theatre

Theatre is always changing – it's an inevitable factor of any artistic medium, and in a community so guided by strong voices and creative minds, there's a constant shift that re-defines what we know and how we experience performance. So how is modern theatre currently shifting?

Stalls and Seating

In Elizabethan times (around the 15-1600s), theatre and performance was a pastime for the working classes and the elites alike – and, surprisingly, often in the same audience. The "cheap seats" weren't seats at all; simply standing stalls around the stage, while the upper classes sat in the tiers surrounding the stage and in the Lords' Boxes to either side of the stage itself [source].

Today this has almost flipped; the most expensive seats are at the front, close to the stage, while the cheap seats are up in the rafters. Increased ticket prices (due to higher production cost) has also meant that subsidies are often offered to get students and less well-off audience members in; we've seen an increase in tickets aimed at young people and new theatre-goers, and many theatres in London now offer student prices or student nights.

Space and Audience

Early Elizabethan theatre is important to recognise for its many changes to the theatre setting and structure; for example, intervals were initially introduced to re-light candles that were burning down [source]. The sale of refreshments followed soon after, as a useful way to inject a little more money into the theatre house.

A traditional modern theatre is a little like a cinema; the audience is seated to one side of the stage, separate from the production, simply observing the story. In Elizabethan theatre, and indeed in contemporary experimental theatre, the opposite is true. An Elizabethan stage would sit in a round building (or often outdoor theatre arenas) with audience members on at least three sides of the stage – with balconies and viewing boxes circling the entire stage. This meant an entirely different set of rules to presenting scenes, and often ensured full audience participation. Plays often ended up as debates between the actors and audience members; an entirely different kind of entertainment for the masses!

Today, the idea of "breaking the fourth wall" and interacting with the audience is considered experimental. Playwright and director Bertolt Brecht said he wanted to "mobilise his audience" by having the actor ask rhetorical questions and let them come to their own conclusions about what was being represented on stage; in more recent times the British experimental performance group Welfare State International would often hold a "ceremonial circle" in which the audience made up one half and the performers the other.

Scenery and Technology

Technology has always held a place in theatre; even the Romans constantly sought to find new methods of creating special effects, most famously engineering hydraulics systems to create floods on stage. We can also thank the Romans and the Ancient Greeks for much of our current knowledge regarding the acoustics still considered in modern theatre.

Today technology is a point of contention for many directors; some feel it's a significant part of high-quality production and expression; others feel over-use of technology acts as a distraction from the performance and writing.

Whatever your view, it's impossible to deny the great strides that have been made even in the past few decades. As Guardian theatre critic Micheal Billington says: "For theatre to turn its back on new technology would be as if it had rejected electrically controlled lighting when it came into play in the 1880s." There is now a great deal of video projection used to create scenery and special effects, while future plans look set to bring even more immersion to the stage...

The Future of Theatre

The future of modern theatre look set to have a distinctly technological edge; already some set designers are testing ways to develop 3D projections onto the stage – for example the Knifedge team looking into ways of placing a computer-generated avatar in front of an actor as part of a sword-fighting scene set inside a video game [source]. Technology is also transforming the box office, allowing even small productions to maximise promotions via online marketing. As the ability to personalise and target online advertising increases, theatre may see another shift in audience make-up [source].

There are also new perspectives coming from the playwrights and actors themselves; as discussed, experimental theatre is bringing actor-audience relationships back into the spotlight, while some are returning to the "two planks of wood and a passion" style of performance art, opting for simplicity over technological bells and whistles. Is Elizabethan the new now? The next decade of theatre will tell.

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