When I was assistant stage managing last fall, one of my jobs was to take notes during pstaff meetings. This was scary on two fronts. One, I didn't know anyone's name and that made everything very confusing. Two, the pstaff kept using weird words like "vom," "dog" and "able."
I had NO idea what these things were.
It was at that point that I was truly introduced to the Balch Arena.
First off, this stage is an arena stage. (Duh, Abby! It has "arena" in the NAME.) Another name for this kind of stage is "theatre in the round." It was a concept developed by Margo Jones in 1947, so it is relatively new to theatre.
The defining features of an arena stage are:
- There is no curtain,
- The scenery is minimal,
- And most importantly, the audience surrounds the stage.
The actors enter from entrances that run underneath the seats. These entrances are called "vomitoriums" or "voms" for short. The Balch Arena has five voms, named Able, Baker, Charlie, Dog and Easy. Why these weird names, you ask? Well, they come from two plays by Tom Stoppard: Dogg's Hamlet and Cahoot's Macbeth. So, during blocking, we have directions such as: "Enter through Dog, cross to Abel, Exit Abel and grab elephant, enter Charlie..." etc. etc. Each of the voms breaks through the audience seating and splits it into five sections. These don't have fancy names. They are just numbered. The important thing to know is that section 3 is the big one. Just like Dog is the big vom.
The backstage in an arena is extra exciting, because it circles around and underneath the audience. I can't think of how many miles I have logged walking around and around and around down there. During performances, the backstage area is lit with cool blue lights.
As a director and audience member, shows done "in the round" are both exciting and
annoying at the same time. They are exciting because the actors are RIGHT THERE. The action is SO CLOSE to you, that you can see the details of people's expressions and you feel like a part of the show. They are annoying because sometimes the actors are not facing you. (There is no
such thing as "cheating out" in arena blocking.) Watching people's backs isn't very interesting. That is why it is the director's job to make sure that the action on stage is visible to as many people as possible. For set designers, arena stages are tough because the set cannot block the audiences' view of the stage action. However, you can still do really cool things with arena sets. For example, turn the voms into forests. (Pictured above: Uncle Vanya, Fall 2010)
The Balch Arena stage is exciting because section 3 can be removed completely, and the stage ban be transformed into a THRUST STAGE. (Personally, I love thrust stages the best, because you get the intimacy of the arena, but you also have room for a backdrop if you wanted one.) This is done every once in a while at Tufts.
Pretty cool eh?