The hidden performer in an auditorium is the theatre itself. Which is why, sometimes, a play can engage you in one theatre but leave you cold in another. Of course, experienced directors and actors quickly grasp the underlying dynamics of the actor-audience relationship in every new setting and make relevant changes in their approach.
Veenapani Chawla, whose works are created in the flat-floor theatre she got custom-built, says that whenever her group travels to perform in a new space, the actors spend a day or two to get a feel of the entire auditorium. They go to every corner of the stage and the auditorium—the seating area—watch, speak, shout and hear themselves and each other from different positions to internalize every nuance of the space. Then, they adjust various aspects of their performance—pace, voice and emotional projection, for instance—to make the performance work afresh in the new space. Unlike cinema, the play must be created anew in every space if it is to work at all.
There are many types of stage-auditorium arrangements and each implies a different relationship between the actor and the audience during a theatrical encounter. An overwhelming majority of theatres, such as Shivaji Mandir in Mumbai and Kamani Auditorium in New Delhi, have a proscenium stage. It is like a large room (where all the action takes place), with one wall removed so that the audience can look inside. In this arrangement, the audience is always outside, looking into an imaginary world that appears complete in itself. In contrast, a handful of theatres in the country, including the Prithvi Theatre, Mumbai, and Ranga Shankara, Bangalore, are built around a “thrust” stage, which literally thrusts into the audience. Unlike in the proscenium, the acting area is held in an “embrace” of sorts by the audience, that surrounds it on three sides. Not surprisingly, the thrust stage offers a more direct engagement by allowing the spaces of the audience and the performer to interpenetrate.
Of course, it does complicate the actor’s task by denying him a single “front” to which to keep the plane of his body aligned, forcing him to keep turning skilfully without losing touch with anyone in the audience. The arena, or a performance space surrounded by the audience on all sides, closes the embrace of the actor by the audience. A primeval mode of the actor-audience encounter, its rewards and challenges to the performer and audience are equally high. As many traditional street performances confirm, in the hands of a skilful performer, there is nothing to match an arena to create a strongly bonded community of audience and actors at the moment of theatre.