Types of theatre glossary: Beginner’s guide

Charlotte Marshall explains everything, from amphitheatre to thrust, in our types of theatre glossary.

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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.

Amphitheatre

Regent's Park Open Air Theatre (Image: David Jensen)
Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre (Image: David Jensen)

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.

In-the-round

Spiegeltent in Galway Comedy Festival #intheround

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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.

Music hall

Wilton's Music Hall
Wilton’s Music Hall

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.

Musical house

London Palladium
London Palladium

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.

Opera house

Royal Opera House
Royal Opera 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.

Playhouse

Wyndham's Theatre
Wyndham’s Theatre

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.

Pop-up theatre

Five Guys Named Moe at the Marble Arch Theatre.
Five Guys Named Moe at the Marble Arch Theatre.

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.

Proscenium arch

The beautiful Coli 💜💜 . . #londoncoliseum #londontheatre #sumptuous #majestic #prosceniumarch

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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.

Pub theatre

Tabard Theatre.
Tabard Theatre.

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.

Thrust

The Royal Shakespeare Theatre set for Hamlet 2013

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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.

Learn more about theatre with our beginner’s guides to parts of a theatretypes of performance and where to sit.