Paines Plough: Round and round we go

Kevin Berry

How do you build a stage you can take on tour? Kevin Berry asks Paines Plough as it prepares to take a prototype on the road

Next year Paines Plough will be on tour with The Roundabout, the company’s very own, fully portable, self sufficient, theatre-in-the-round.

A prototype has been constructed, in collaboration with Sheffield Theatres, and is in use at Sheffield Crucible’s Studio. Early next year, Paines Plough will build a phase two Roundabout that can be flat-packed, transported and then erected on stages, in studios, in arts centres, schools, absolutely anywhere. The Paines Plough team call phase two the ‘Full Bells and Whistles’ or, if they are feeling jolly, it’s Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. Setting up phase two should take a day and a half with a six man crew. It will cost £90,000.

The idea is that each and every audience member will enjoy the same theatrical experience. The Roundabout is perfectly round and is actually more of an amphitheatre, having 150 seats over four tiers. The actors are just breathing distance away. One wishes that Stephen Joseph, the legendary pioneer of theatre-in-the round, could see it. Maybe he can.

The prototype Roundabout is currently showing a rep season of new writing at the Crucible studio. There are three plays – from top writers Nick Payne, Duncan Macmillan and Penelope Skinner. The season will continue next year in the ‘full bells and whistles’ auditorium.

The prototype has been designed by Lucy Osborne, a regular collaborator with the company, and she is evaluating, with the production team, before the building of Roundabout phase two. She says: “There are modifications to make, but we know that it works.”

Osborne trained on the Motley Theatre design course but she has always had an interest in the actual designing of auditoria. Being responsible for the National Student Drama Festival at Scarborough kicked off the interest.

“I was the venue designer for all the venues at Scarborough,” she explains. “It was the first time I had thought of the relationship between actor and audience member and being in control of it. We built the theatres to replicate the space the students originally performed the play in, so that they didn’t have to change too much when they got to Scarborough. I would design and build several mini theatres during the course of the festival.

“Also I’m an associate designer at the Bush Theatre and one of the first things that we did when Josie Rourke took over was to take out all the fixed seating. We liberated the space. Every play can benefit from the relationship between actors and audience being redesigned every time the space is used.”

The first play that Osborne stage designed for Paines Plough was Love, Love, Love by Mike Bartlett. It was noticeable that in every venue there had to be compromise, with differing sight lines and other factors, and each audience saw a completely different product.

“We weren’t in control of that”, Osborne states. “Part of the design brief for Roundabout was – whether you’re sitting in Skegness on the beach watching the play, or at Bristol in a swimming pool, every audience member is getting the same experience. The sense of control underpins everything we’ve been doing.”

There is a continuous line of spectators at the top level with three vomitoria going underneath. The audience acts as the outer wall of the structure. There is a bare CNC plywood finish which is intended to look fresh and warm and be as far removed as possible from the conventional black box theatre space. The outer ring of seating is steel deck fabrication with legs.

“We wanted the audience to feel relaxed and chatty”, adds Osborne. “You enter at height, having climbed up slightly more than two metres of treads, with the Roundabout stretching out below you. Going into the structure is an experience, a journey.”

Bernd Fauler, Paine’s Plough’s production manager for Roundabout, mentions sound and lighting issues he has had to consider.

“We have to lift the sound out of the auditorium and also bring it right down, so we have loudspeakers fitted at 1.2m height. Audiences in the front two rows are literally part of the set, in terms of how they feel and what they experience. The lighting is a very careful choice of colours and levels. We can’t hide anything. With this structure we have to be even more precise than in a pros arch setting. The overhead rig is supplemented with lanterns fitted within the structure and architectural lighting.

“With using plywood we have to be aware of echo. Speakers fitted into the structure need to be completely isolated from their surroundings so we use the same insulation that you would find in a recording studio.”

The first prototype of the Roundabout has been built by Factory Settings, the Leyton- based scenic fabricator company used by both Osborne and Fauler for previous assignments.

“It’s a great opportunity to work this way, with a prototype first,” says Will Jackson, of Factory Settings. “Usually everything we make has never been made before and we’ve got to get it right the first time, which is always a challenge. We’ll end up with something that will last maybe ten years or more. It’s quite a large object. In the workshop it looked quite grand but at the same time when you walked into it you could tell how intimate it would be, how close you would be to the actors.”

So this year there is the prototype. Next year, and for many years to come, it will be the ‘Full Bells and Whistles’.

Watch the auditorium being built at Sheffield’s Crucible:

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