Think theatres are all the same? Wrong. From being part of a 360-degree wall of audience members to watching with a pint from the pub downstairs in your hand, there are many types of theatre in which to watch a show. Our types of theatre glossary is a handy guide to what to expect from each.
One of the oldest and most breathtaking types of theatre is the amphitheatre. It is an outdoor venue with tiered seating sloping up from the stage. It may all sound very ancient Rome, but there are amphitheatres in London to visit. We recommend a (summer) trip to the Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre or More London’s The Scoop.
This is an incredibly popular format for shows, especially plays. The audience sit on all sides of the stage, meaning the actors have to play to all angles. It creates a really intimate feel and also allows you to sneakily watch the reactions of the people across from you. Kevin Spacey transformed The Old Vic into an in-the-round space for his tenure as Artistic Director, though current boss Matthew Warchus reverted back to a proscenium arch in 2016. Orange Tree Theatre in Richmond is also an in-the-round theatre.
You will find very few music halls these days, because they’re mostly a thing of the past. But in the capital you can visit supposedly the world’s oldest surviving grand music hall, Wilton’s Music Hall in east London. Unlike traditional music halls, which were used for variety entertainment in the Victorian era, Wilton’s stages anything from children’s theatre to gigs.
Some theatres are all about the jazz hands and are home to the world’s most iconic musicals. London has a plethora of theatres that specialise in massive musical hits, from the legendary London Palladium to the vast Theatre Royal Drury Lane. A large stage to present big show numbers and huge auditoriums to cope with audience numbers make for a great musical house.
Exactly as it sounds, an opera house is a venue specialising in opera. Such venues also frequently double as home for dance companies. Traditionally, opera houses boast opulent interiors and beautiful architecture, so a trip to a venue such as the Royal Opera House or the London Coliseum is both a creative and visual extravaganza.
These theatres are perfectly suited to plays. Often more petite, but no less lavishly decorated, than its musical house friends, a playhouse is designed to ensure the audience has the best experience when watching a play. This is one of the types of theatre where no subtle expression or Pinter-esque pause goes unnoticed.
In recent years, pop-up theatre has become a popular trend. This type of theatre sets up for a limited time in a quirky space and brings shows to unusual locations. Paines Plough has Roundabout, its own travelling theatre tent, while a luxurious red spiegeltent, which houses circus, cabaret and burlesque shows, regularly visits Southbank.
This is the format of traditional West End venues and the one that 99 per cent of people imagine when picturing a theatre. The arch refers to the structure that frames the stage. It marks the division between the audience – who all watch head on – and the platform upon which the actors perform.
If you’re looking for the next big thing, head to a pub theatre in London. There are many to choose from, usually found in a small room above the bar. You’ll see quality plays and musicals for a fraction of West End prices. Plus, you can have a pint while you do so. Alan Rickman, Dawn French, Hugh Grant and numerous others cut their teeth at pub theatres, so you could be watching a future Oscar winner perform just a few feet from your seat.
A thrust stage does just that; it thrusts out of the proscenium arch and into the audience. Looking a bit like a walkway, it offers audiences a closer view of the action. It can also create a more exciting, vibrant space for the actors to move around in.