A theatre’s a theatre, isn’t it? A theatre, a place where you go to watch some kind of show and be entertained is never going to be anything else. If this is what you think when it comes to theatres, you won’t be the only one – many people simply assume that a theatre is a place to enjoy some entertainment and leave again. However, there are many different types with varying characteristics, from the theatre’s seating, to the stage, to the acoustics, and it’s quite possible that you’ve visited at least a few of them. We’ve broken down the terms used to describe the different theatres for you so you can see the differences between them.
The amphitheatre style is perhaps the oldest version of theatre in the world. Amphitheatres are outdoor venues, just like Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre. The seats are tiered and slope up fairly steeply in some cases, away from the stage. Ancient Rome was the first place to install these theatres for the people’s use, but it wasn’t long before Greece and other countries followed suit.
When a play is performed in the round it means that the audience sit on all sides of the stage. This can be great for dramatic effect and writers will need to take this into account when they are writing the play, just as directors will need to think carefully about the staging aspects. It can be difficult for actors to get used to this style of theatre as they need to ensure they play all angles. For audience members it’s great as they get to see different sides (literally) of the show, and it creates a much more intimate feeling.
It’s likely you will have heard the term ‘music hall’ even if you’re not entirely sure what it is. Sadly, there aren’t many music halls left these days, but the world oldest surviving one is in East London – it’s Wilton’s Music Hall and is definitely worth a visit. A music hall was used for variety acts, all of which had to contain music of some kind.
These days, musicals are much more popular than variety shows, and you’ll find that many theatres are entirely taken over by one particular music, sometimes for years or even decades at a time. When this happens, the theatre becomes known as a musical house. These theatres tend to have huge stages and lots of seating to accommodate both the audience and the spectacular that they have come to see. Comfort is especially important in a musical house as these shows tend to be rather long.
As the name suggests, an opera house is a theatre that specialises in opera. However, despite this it is likely that you’ll also find a dance company in residence their as these venues often double as their base. Opera houses are traditional decorated in an opulent, grand manor with stunning architecture and gorgeous interiors. This is because it was one only the wealthy who could afford to see opera, and they wanted somewhere lovely to watch it in.
A playhouse is a theatre that is particularly suited to the performance of plays. They tend to be a lot smaller than other theatres so that the audience doesn’t miss anything that is happening on stage, but they still are often beautiful decorated.
Just as we’ve recently had the pop up shop phenomenon where little stores appear in various places for a short amount of time before packing up and heading off to ‘pop up’ somewhere else, so theatre is getting in on the act, with plays, music, dance, and more being performed anywhere that space (and audience numbers) will allow. The Southbank in London is the perfect place to spot one of these fabulous pop up theatres.
When you imagine a theatre in your head, it’s the proscenium arch version that most likely appears. This is what you can see predominantly in London’s West End. The arch itself can’t actually be seen from the outside, but is part of the internal structure of the theatre, and it’s the part that goes across the stage, effectively framing it.
Pub theatres are usually found in rooms above bars, but don’t let that put you off. You can still see some excellent shows that will cost just a fraction of that it would to see something similar in the West End. Plus you might be watching a star of the future; many of our greatest acting treasures (including High Grant and Alan Rickman) started their careers in pub theatre.
Finally, the thrust theatre. A thrust stage literally thrusts itself out into the audience, through the proscenium arch. It looks like a catwalk, and it gives the audience a great close-up view of the action.