Note: This is part one of a three part series on Theater-in-the-Round.  Today, the focus is on staging, next week will be on speaking, and then having a panel in the round.  Enjoy!

You walk into the convention ballroom and immediately recognize that this meeting is going to be different.

The stage is not at the front of the room, but in the middle of the room. There is no lectern – no “front” to the stage. The chairs are placed closely around all sides of the stage, with highboy tables lining the back ring of chairs. There are four screens hanging from the rafters, much like a jumbotron in an athletic stadium.

Oh yeah. This is not the typical meeting room set.

Welcome to the most intimate seating arrangement for a large group: Theater-in-the-round. It’s an audience-centric room set where the audience is looking at each other during the meeting, making deeper connections with each other and with the speakers. It also allows more engagement and involvement with the audience since 50% of the audience is closer to the stage than typical theater-style seating.

Theater-in-the-round is not all that new. Common in Greek and Roman times, (remember the Coliseum?), theater in the round is used worldwide for small, intimate plays and performances. But for large events? Is that even possible?

Sarah Michel, VP at Velvet Chainsaw Consulting, has staged several of these style events. She responds, “Absolutely! The goal is to bring the audience in to the conversation, to create connections and enthusiasm for the meeting. You can’t do that in a traditional format with hundreds of people, but you can in a theater-in-the-round.”

To do theater-in-the-round style seating right, consider these key factors:

  • Select a venue and A/V crew that will work with this unique seating arrangement. Check references as they may say they have done it, but they might not!
  • The stage is always in the center and is most commonly rectangular, circular, diamond, or triangular. The stage is usually on an even level with the audience, on risers, or below the audience in a “pit” or “arena” formation. For high-end meetings, you can even have the stage set on a slow rotation “turntable” that makes one rotation every 15 minutes. That’s slow enough to minimize disruption to the presenters and fast enough that everyone has a chance to maintain eye contact. (Note: If on a riser, it’s smart to have two sets of stairs for the presenters to get to the stage.)
  • Any furniture and scenery should not obscure the stage or inhibit the audience from seeing what’s going on. As a general rule, less is better.
  • As with all meetings, you want to make sure the center stage is well-lit since the presenter(s) should be visible from all sides without blinding nearby audience members. You may need to rig some drop down lights and/or keep the ballroom lights up.
  • The chairs should be placed as close to the stage as possible, staggered so that each person is looking between the heads of the two people sitting in front of them.
  • If the budget allows, the jumbotron idea is great to display video images of the presenters and their slides. Otherwise, set two to four projection screens on the outer walls.
  • Think segments. In this format, the optimal timing for a “segment” is about 15-20 minutes. After that, switch it up. The audience needs variety with another speaker, a new activity or other kinds of interesting and entertaining things.
  • Last, but not least, are your presenters. Most have never spoken “in the round,” so you’ll need to give them advanced warning. It is NOT the same as speaking to an audience from a mainstage. (Never assume they know how to do this – even if you have hired a professional speaker.) Unless you give them some direction, they will pace back and forth at the perceived “front of the stage” (even though there isn’t one!) and favor one side of the audience versus creating the intimate, conversational experience your audiences crave.

Next week:  A few pointers for your speakers!

 

If you could benefit from learning more panel moderation techniques, join us for this webinar on “Using Creative Training Techniques to Engage the Audience During a Panel Discussion.”

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Kristin Arnold, professional panel moderator and high stakes meeting facilitator, shares her best practices for interactive, interesting, and engaging panel presentations. For more resources like this, or to have Kristin moderate your next panel visit the Powerful Panels official website.