The most important theatre event of the last 100 years is a production you've never heard of and likely never will again – Nikolai Okhlopkov's production of The Iron Flood at the Realistic Theatre in 1934.
Of course, that's a silly thing to say. How could this obscure production be the most important theatre production of the last 100 years? And, if it was so great, why haven't we heard about it more?
The Iron Flood probably won't be remembered for the outstanding character of the script, the acting, or even the brilliance of the overall production. Rather it marks a clear spot in the trend toward moving theatre away from the proscenium arch auditorium. The great trend of the last 100 years has been moving theater away from behind the picture frame of the proscenium arch and The Iron Flood provides a dividing line of sorts.
The picture frame of the proscenium arch auditorium lends itself to certain features of theatrical production. First, the proscenium arch provides the framing device for the pictures shown in the production. It places the actor amongst a scenic universe. It places the actors and audience on opposite sides of an event – that is to say, the actors and audience are in a (non-threatening) confrontational juxtaposition. The "black hole of the proscenium arch" provides easily for the concept of a "fourth wall" that has been removed from the setting to allow the audience to peek in at the action of the play.
By contrast, open theatres and arenas and thrust stages take the actor out of a "picture" setting. In these other environments, the actor is to some degree surrounded. Audience members are likely to see the actor in the midst of other audience members. (That is, in a theatre-in-the-round an audience member will see audience members on the other side of the stage. Thus, the "background" for the actors is other audience members.) Audience members have more opportunity to see a fuller plasticity of the actors.
It's unclear that Okhlopkov thought of all of this when he staged The Iron Flood in an arena space. But he clearly wanted to bring the actors and audience together in a "new" way.
Ancient theatre generally didn't trend toward "confrontational" actor/audience relationships. The antique Greek theatre relied on the use of the orchestra as a performance space. As such it thrust into the audience. And, while scholars are unclear about the use of the skene house, some portion of the performance had to have happened in the orchestra. (My experience in directing Greek plays indicates that a fair amount of the plays would likely have happened in the orchestra.)
Likewise from the pageant wagons of the Middle Ages to the commedia stage and innyards of the Renaissance, actors performed in some form of thrust or circular arrangement.
The proscenium arch developed as a peculiar ancillary facet of the Renaissance and reflected the new way of depicting the world.
The early 16th century saw the re-introduction of a wide array of ancient texts into the European world. One of these texts was Vitruvius' work on architecture – including the architecture of the Roman theatre. Evidently the 16th century scholars didn't think of the Roman theatres as open-air affairs. A 1513 edition from Florence included an illustration of a rectangular building with a semi-circular auditorium faced by a scene building.
Serlio published his Architetture mid-century and applied the "secrets" of Roman theatre to the thinking of his own time. Instead of illustrating an elaborate frons scenae Serlio included scenes that showed the latest, up-to-date thinking in terms of plano-linear perspective.
The Teatro Olimpico was completed in 1584 with five "alleys" that had forced perspective vistas as part of a kind of frons scenae. A kind of compromise between the antique and the modern.
The Teatro Farnese in Parma, though, went completely toward the scenic house having a deliberate picture frame – a proscenium arch. The Teatro Farnese, completed in 1618-1619, was the first auditorium to have a clear proscenium arch. It had a kind of "acting" stage of some 30' of depth, a scenic area of another 30' of depth and a "vista" stage with exaggerated perspective (upstage was up stage) of another 55' of depth.
Obviously actors couldn't be seen in these forced perspective areas. (Although they sometimes used costumed cutouts or children costumed as adults.) So, there were limits to putting the human actor into the pretty picture.
The new trend toward the proscenium arch auditorium didn't immediately take hold. For example, the Lincoln's Inn Fields Theatre where Betterton acted in the late 17th and early 18th century was mostly an open stage. The actor/audience relationship, though, tended toward the confrontational arrangement of the proscenium arch auditorium.
However, as the desire for a highly decorative spectacle grew, the desire for the proscenium arch auditorium also grew. Curiously, even though the pictorial arts developed away from the Renaissance purity of plano-linear perspective, theatre embraced the picture frame for ever more "realistic" effects. For example, the Madame Vestris and J.R. Planche used the proscenium arch to good effect in developing the box set — place a very realistic room on the stage and treat the arch opening as if a "4th wall" had been removed. For the spectacles of the 19th century, the proscenium arch also provided a convenient location for a curtain to open and close on evermore breath-taking mechanical effects.
The desirability of the proscenium arch started to diminish for a variety of reasons at the tail-end of the 19th century. One reason was the re-awakened desire to discover Shakespeare's methods of producing his own plays.
The year 1888 saw the discovery of von Buchel's copy of DeWitt's drawing of the Swan Theatre. It showed a kind of thrust stage with a kind of open platform. The British producer William Poel decided to investigate Shakespearean performance. In 1893 he placed his idea of the Fortune Theatre on the stage of the existing Royalty Theatre. Further experiments included mounting shows in a variety of venues without intermissions and without elaborate scenery or scene changes.
In Germany the Kunstler Theatre was builtin 1907-1908 in Munich based on the theories of George Fuchs and Max Littmann. Fuchs saw a kind of communitarian benefit from theatrical performance and wanted a joining of actor and audience in aesthetic event. The Kunstler, therefore, had no proscenium arch, but it still relied on the confrontational juxtaposition of actor and audience.
Likewise, the performance space at Hellerau outside Dresden in the pre-war years of 1910-1913 provided a large open space for both performers and audience. Adolphe Appia had been entranced by Wagner's ideas about theatre. After seeing Wagner's productions at Bayreuth, Appia noted the contrast between Wagner's ideas and the realization of those ideas on the physical stage. Appia foresaw and called for a much more plastic presentation of Wagner's music dramas and theatre generally. For Appia, the moving body of the actor reconciled the rhythm (the temporal elements) of the music and/or text and the setting (the spatial elements). Appia said the actor needed appropriate rhythmic space. He also recognized the beneficial utility of supple lighting.
Appia heavily influenced the physical realization of the demonstrations done by the Swiss musical pedagogue Emile Jaques-Dalcroze. When he was invited to build a school in Hellerau by the Dohrn brothers, Jaques-Dalcroze enlisted Appia's assistance in planning the physical spaces of the school – particularly the presentation space. Demonstrations during summer festivals in 1912 and 1913 indicated interesting and promising investigations in performance, but the school under Dalcroze's direction ended with the Great War.
In Russia Vsevolod Emilievich Meyerhold explored a variety of actor/audience relationships. As part of his first explorations of Symbolist theatre, Meyerhold relied heavily on the use of bas relief configurations of performers. Meyerhold greatly restricted the available stage depth and posed actors in static physical stances. A play by Alexandr Blok, however, provided the means to start to break free from the static nature of the bas relief theatre he had explored.
A Puppet Show (or, The Fairground Booth) gave Meyerhold the opportunity to expand the means by which Symbolism could be shown on the stage. The play opened with a group of "mystics" awaiting the coming of "death." When "death" approached in the form of a beautiful, icy woman, it turned out that the woman was instead Columbina and that her "scythe" was her plaited pony-tail. Various episodes ensued. One of the episodes featured a clown in a fight with another man. The clown was struck. He fell to the ground complaining that he had been struck and was bleeding cranberry juice. He "died" over the footlights. After "dying" the clown jumped up, winked at the audience, and ran off.
Meyerhold did two things. First, he staged the scene with the "mystics" on a small stage on the stage. This self-conscious use of the stage to show a miniature stage provided a "meta" critique of the proscenium arch. Likewise, by having the clown "die" over the footlights literally broke the "4th wall."
Meyerhold's many experiments with actor movement and bio-mechanics built over the next several decades. One of Meyerhold's actors in the mid-1920s was Nikolai Okhlopkov.
In the 1930s Okhlopkov led the Realistic Theatre. Housed in a very small space, Okhlopkov made virtue of necessity by placing the acting space in the middle of the room and surrounded the actors with the audience. In Iron Flood the actors moved freely throughout the auditorium. An actor exiting the stage might do so while shaking the hand of a nearby audience member in a friendly way. Okhlopkov joined actor and audience in a real way.
The trend toward moving the actor away from the picture frame and into other actor/audience relationships grew throughout the 20th century.
Concurrent with Okhlopkov's experiments in Russia, the School of Drama at the University of Washington in Seattle established the Penthouse Theatre, an arena space that seated about 140 audience members. Raymond Sovey had also experimented with arena staging at ColumbiaTeachers College. Famously, Margo Jones established an arena space in Dallas, Tx as Theatre 47. Likewise Zelda Fechlander established the Arena Theatre in 1950.
Tyrone Guthrie, among others, experimented more with the thrust stage. Thus, not surprisingly his legacy spaces at Stratford, Ontario and the theatre named for him in Minneapolis were thrust stages.
The theatre as we recognize it has a history of roughly 2500 years. The proscenium arch auditorium has been a very recent addition to that history. The picture frame stage has been very useful for some kinds of shows. Having helped direct a cast of about 90 in The Unsinkable Molly Brown on a thrust stage, I can attest the utility of being able to close a curtain and doing a number "in one" while changing the scenery behind the curtain. (Moving 90 folks on and off a stage is a pain in the butt.) But the picture frame also constrained other factors of theatrical production.
The center of the theatre is the truth of the human experience. That experience finds embodiment in the physical presence of the actor. Sometimes it can be useful to place that body in the midst of a pretty picture. But more often it's better to place that actor amongst the humans who provide witness to the story.
We see the actor. We see other audience members watching the actor. We are together. We're just human beings together. Sometimes that's not just what's wanted. Sometimes that's all you need.
Bordman, Gerald, ed. The Oxford Companion to American Theatre. Oxford: Oxford U Press, 1984.
Hederson, Mary C. "Scenography, Stagecraft and Architecture." The Cambridge History of American Theatre. Ed. Don B. Wilmeth and Christopher Bigsby. Cambridge:Cambridge U press, 1999.
Leacroft, Richard and Helen. Theatre and Playhouse: An Illustrated Survey of TheatreBuilding From Ancient Greece to the Present Day. London: Methuen, 1984.
Nicoll, Allardyce. The Development of the Theatre: A Study of Theatrical Art from the Beginning to the Present Day. 3rd ed. New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1946.
Rudnitsky, Konstantin. Russian and Soviet Theater: 1905-1932. New York: Harry Abrams, 1988.