The Orange Tree Theatre in Richmond is London’s only permanent theatre-in-the-round. This year the theatre celebrates its 40th anniversary, so to find out more Contrary Life caught up with founder and director Sam Walters.
It’s the 40th anniversary of the Orange Tree Theatre. What have been the main changes and most memorable moments since it first opened in 1971?
The most memorable moment was having to do the opening lunchtime performance twice because so many people arrived that we couldn’t get them all in. It got us off to a terrific start and the pub loved the extra takings as audience number two waited for their turn.
Growing to work in the round (the most important thing about us).
The association from 1977 with the plays of Václav Havel (and other new writers).
Discovering the over-looked repertoire from the past.
Opening the new theatre in 1991.
The Orange Tree Theatre is London’s only permanent theatre-in-the-round. What unique challenges are there when producing plays for this type of theatre?
There are challenges of course – things that need to be overcome, making sure that everyone can always see what they need to see. A play may throw up a particular problem but that is fun. Solving problems is part of the game. For example farces often need doors, but if you can’t have them and have to mime them with a stage manager providing sound effects with a door slam, you may find that your “problem” has become a huge additional benefit. Working in the round is liberating – and natural. You are not making a picture to be seen from one side only, but behaving naturally as in life.
Do you think being a theatre-in-the-round offers audiences a different type of theatre experience?
Yes. A much truer experience. A communal, shared experience. An involvement and an intimacy. Theatre in the round must be small (best if all theatres are). And the audience has to work! The film director shows you what to look at, but in the round you have to decide for yourself. The audience is empowered. How the play is being presented is an important part of the audience’s experience. A theatre in the round is the form of theatre most different from watching a screen and if it is to survive, theatre must exploit what makes it special and different and that is that it is a shared experience. Theatre in the round does that more than any other form of theatre (except perhaps promenade which does it too!)
You have directed plays for both the West End stage and for local theatre. Which do think is more rewarding?
Local. Because it is the audience’s theatre. West End audiences are there because the show is a hit or there is a star in it, or the critics have raved. Local theatres belong to their audiences – and ideally to their actors too who return often to work there.
What are your hopes for the future of the theatre, and what upcoming shows would you recommend people go to see?
Hopes for this theatre? (as opposed to the theatre in general?). After my 40 years or so a new director must take the theatre into new areas, while at the same time building on a tremendous audience base and support. Not an easy job – to build and pay attention to the past and what has been done and what is there, but also to look to the future. Good luck to them!
More info: www.orangetreetheatre.co.uk