The Glenn Hughes Penthouse Theatre in Seattle, Washington was the first theatre-in-the-round venue built in the United States. It first opened on May 19, 1940 with a production of Spring Dance, a comedy by playwright Philip Barry. The 160-seat theatre is located on the campus of the University of Washington in Seattle and is on the National Register of Historic Places.
In 1947, Margo Jones established America's first professional theatre-in-the-round company when she opened her Theater '47 in Dallas.
The stage design as developed by Margo Jones was used by directors in later years for such well-known shows as the Tony Award-winning musical Fun Home, the original stage production of Man of La Mancha, and all plays staged at the ANTA Washington Square Theatre (demolished in the late 1960s), including Arthur Miller's autobiographical After the Fall. Such theatres had previously existed in colleges, but not in professional spaces for almost two millennia. It is also a popular setup used in contemporary pop concerts in an arena or stadium setting.
The stage is always in the centre with the audience arranged on all sides, and is most commonly rectangular, circular, diamond, or triangular. Actors may enter and exit through the audience from different directions or from below the stage. The stage is usually on an even level with or below the audience in a "pit" or "arena" formation.
This configuration lends itself to high-energy productions and anything that requires audience participation. It is favoured by producers of classical theatre and it has continued as a creative alternative to the more common proscenium format.
In effect, theatre-in-the-round removes the fourth wall and brings the actor into the same space as the audience. This is often problematic for proscenium or end stage trained actors who are taught that they must never turn their backs to the audience, something that is unavoidable in this format. However, it allows for strong and direct engagement with the audience.
It is also employed when theatrical performances are presented in non-traditional spaces such as restaurants, public areas such as fairs or festivals, or street theater. Set design is often minimal in order not to obscure the audience's view of the performance.
In Margo Jones' survey of theatre-in-the-round, the first two sources of central staging in the United States she identified were the productions by Azubah Latham and Milton Smith at Columbia University dating from 1914, and T. Earl Pardoe's productions at Brigham Young University in 1922.
In 1924, Gilmore Brown founded the Fair Oaks Playbox in Pasadena, California, an important early practitioner of central staging in addition to other stage configurations that it pioneered in its advent of flexible staging. As Indicated by Jones, the centrally staged productions of the Fair-oaks Play box were followed approximately eight years later by the work of Glenn Hughes in his Seattle Penthouse.
Stephen Joseph was the first to populise the form in the United Kingdom from the US in the 1950s and set up theatres-in-the-round in Newcastle-under-Lyme and the Studio Theatre in Scarborough. The current theatre, opened in 1996, is known as the Stephen Joseph Theatre. Joseph was reputed to have once rhetorically asked, "Why must authorities stand with their back to a wall?" His answer was: "So nobody can knife them from behind."
Sam Walters set up an impromptu performance space in the upstairs of the Orange Tree pub in Richmond, London in the early 1970s and subsequently moved across the road to a permanent Orange Tree Theatre.
In 1972, RG Gregory set up the Word and Action theatre company in Dorset in England to work exclusively in theatre-in-the-round. Gregory sought to create a grammar that would enable actors to maximise the form's potential for connecting with the audience both as individuals and as a collective. All Word and Action productions were performed in normal lighting conditions, without costumes or makeup.
The innovations of Margo Jones were an obvious influence on Albert McCleery when he created his Cameo Theatre for television in 1950. Continuing until 1955, McCleery offered dramas seen against pure black backgrounds instead of walls of a set. This enabled cameras in the darkness to pick up shots from any position.
Richard Nixon's 1968 U.S. Presidential campaign staged nine live televised question and answer sessions using a ground-breaking theatre-in-the-round format, adapted for a live televised audience. The first time use of the staging device was memorialized in the book, The Selling of the President 1968 by Joe McGinniss. The producer of these Nixon "Man in the Arena"  programs was Roger Ailes, who later went to on start FOX News. Ailes' innovation of the theatre-in-the-round format for candidate forums became the blueprint for modern "town hall" candidate formats and even multiple-candidate debates.
Elvis Presley's '68 Comeback Special TV programme was performed with the musicians seated using a raised staging in-the-round format.
When an arena staging was conceived for the progressive-rock group Yes by their tour manager Jim Halley in the mid-1970s, it prompted a redesign of rock concerts and venue seating arrangements.
The politics of theater-in-the-round were explored most deliberately by RG Gregory. In his view the lit space of a proscenium arch is analogous to the seat of power; the audience adopts the role of passive receivers. In traditional theatre design, maximum care is taken with sight lines in order to ensure that the actor can engage every member of the audience at the same time.
However, once removed from the picture frame of the arch, the actors are compelled to turn their back on some members of the audience and so necessarily lose exclusive command of the acting space. All members of the audience can see the actor, but the actor can no longer see all of them. At this point, in order for the play to function, the audience themselves must be allowed to become key conductors of the meaning of the performance.
Some, like the writer Mick Fealty, have stressed a close analogy between Gregory's description of the rudimentary dynamics of theater-in-the-round with the network effect of Internet-based communication in comparison to traditional broadcast and marketing channels.
George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia is home to the largest arena stage archive and contains material from the theatre's 50-year history. Included in the collection are photographs, production notebooks, scrapbooks, playbills, oral histories and handwritten correspondence. According to their website, the total volume is 260 cubic feet (7.4 m3) or 440 feet (130 m) linear and is housed in the Fenwick Library.