The Interpreter's Handbook
Methods, Skills, & Techniques

Campfire Circle.

Campfire Circles and Amphitheaters

Because of their importance to the interpreter, the campfire circle and amphitheater warrant special consideration in developing and operating an interpretive program. To the visitor, the evening program is often a "must" part of his visit to a park or similar area. Here he has opportunity to learn more about the area, its natural history, history and other values. Here also he can meet the interpreter and get questions answered on many subjects.

Such a facility will be found useful in several ways. Of course the evening program is basic. However, it also serves as an excellent meeting place to start conducted walks. It offers a place for the first comers to sit down while waiting for the walk to begin. When special groups visit an area it is a good place to hold meetings, and to collect tour members for briefing.

Because they are both similar and dissimilar in many respects, let us examine each facility separately.


The campfire circle has an appeal that is difficult to evaluate. Something about sitting around a campfire in an under-the-stars situation makes a lasting impression on people. No other activity is quite the same.

Location of the circle is of considerable importance. It must not be difficult to reach on foot, and must be far enough from roads and parking areas that traffic noises are not a factor. Car noises and headlights can be real problems. The road approach, if one is planned should be so designed that car headlights from late arrivals do not swing across the circle, as this is very distracting to both the speaker and the audience. Acoustics should be considered. If possible, a background of trees or a rocky wall make it easier for the speaker to be heard. Such also serves as a windbreak. The fire pit should be somewhat to one side or other from where the speaker is to stand. If this is not done, the audience has to look toward the fire and can see only a silhouette of the speaker during the program.

Advantages of a campfire circle include:

An informal atmosphere. Here can develop a feeling of group intimacy that is often difficult to achieve in larger, more formal facilities.

Seating is usually less formal than in the amphitheater or indoor auditorium. The seats are normally rustic in character (logs, etc.) arranged in a semi-circle, and allow for "elbow" contact with other visitors. This becomes important if singing is part of the program.

The visitor is reasonably close to the campfire, which has great appeal. Almost everyone likes to watch the fire as the program is getting ready to begin. Because the setting is informal, the speaker finds he is much more "accessible" to the visitors before the program begins and after it ends.

Visitors enjoy standing around the fire for a short time after the program is over. This gives the speaker an opportunity to meet several of them.

The facility is economical to install and maintain. It can be altered without difficulty should the need arise.

There are, of course, some obvious disadvantages:

Usually the speaker has no electricity available, and must present his program without projectors and other visual aids requiring electrical power. He has to rely primarily upon his ability to communicate.

Lack of visual facilities restricts the subject matter the speaker can use.

The speaker is greatly restricted in showing hand-held objects because of inadequate light.

Usually there is no sound amplification, although several good, portable, battery operated sound systems can be obtained.

Because electric lighting is not usually available, care must be taken to prevent visitor exposure to possible injury when darkness comes.

Amphitheater with rear screen unit, Boulder Beach, Lake Mead.


This is a much more involved facility, tantamount to moving a large auditorium out-of-doors, but without the ceiling and walls. Otherwise the physical makeup is quite similar. Because of its size and seating arrangement, the atmosphere is much more formal, even though the interpreter may strive to present a relaxed program.

Location is very important. Because it is designed to handle large numbers of people, the amphitheater must be easily accessible to be successful. This means it must be within easy walking distance of a parking area, as many people will want to come in cars, especially older persons who may not be able to walk very far. However, the parking area (or areas) must be located so that car noises do not hinder presentation of the program, and their headlights do not swing across the audience and hit the projection screen. As with the campfire circle, the matter of acoustics should be considered, although a properly installed sound system will remedy most acoustical defects arising from location. Natural screening by trees and other plants can help solve the matter of acoustics and the twin problems of traffic noises and lights.

Amphitheater design requires consideration of several factors. Among the most important are:

1. The stage building.

This structure can be designed for either rear or front screen projection. If rear screen, the building behind the screen serves as the projection room, and furnishes general storage and utility space as well. Sound equipment and tape decks are also located here. If front screen projection is used, only storage and utility space is usually made a part of the building.

The floor of the stage should be about two feet above ground level. Opinions vary, but this height has proven very effective. This places the speaker high enough above the audience for him to see everyone, and for them to see him. The stage should be longer than the projection screen is wide to allow space at either side for the speaker and the picture at the same time.

Size of the screen will vary with seating capacity. The larger the audience, the larger the screen will need to be. Generally a 12' x 12" screen is effective with an audience of 500 or more. Smaller sizes will give good results for smaller groups. A rear screen unit should have a roller type door, power operated, coming down over the screen when not in use to give it vital protection. For front screen projection the screen may either be a large roll-down type or a painted surface. If the latter, a roller door is highly desirable to protect against weather and vandalism. If a roll-down screen is used, no protective door is needed, but the screen box should be under a protective "roof" to keep out rain, snow or dirt. Roll-down screens require care that moths, etc., are not rolled up in them after a program is completed.

All projection and sound equipment are to be located inside the same building if a rear screen unit is used. With front screen projection, these items will be in the projection building. Equipment should include amplifiers, tape decks, and both slide and movie projectors. Speakers for the sound system are usually quite effective if mounted one on either side of the screen and high enough above the stage floor to discourage vandalism. Column speakers appear more effective than other types. The microphone (or microphones) on stage should be transmitter or necklace type, with a long cord. Either kind eliminates the need to carry a hand mike, or operate from behind a microphone stand, thus giving the speaker more mobility and free hands for other things.

There should be a control panel at one side of the screen, set into the wall and so designed that it can be securely locked. Inside should be switches and controls for all the lights, projectors amplifiers, power outlets, etc. This enables the MC or speaker to control the entire program from on stage. By turning on amplifiers for all equipment to be used at the start of the program, he can use any sound or projection unit desired at the flick of a switch. Do not put power outlets outside of the panel box. Often these outlets are placed along the front of the stage—perfect locations for filling them with chewing gum, sticks and the like! The control box can also be designed large enough to house a small flashlight-type arrow pointer, which is thus readily available should the speaker need to indicate something being shown on the screen.

2. The fire pit.

Many amphitheaters are built with a fire pit. This is normally used prior to commencement of the regular evening program. Its location is important. It should be to one side or the other of the stage building, and several feet away from the stage. It should be placed far enough forward so light from the fire will have minimal effect upon the screen. This is essential, as the "campfire," once it is burning well, may not burn down enough by the time the projection screen is to be used, and may reduce effectiveness of the picture image. Or, as often happens, some helpful visitors may add fuel to the fire while the program is in progress. As a side note on this possibility, never have more fuel at the fire pit than you expect to use!

3. The amphitheater seats.

Make these as comfortable as you can. Often the argument is heard that seats with comfortable back rests are not in harmony with the natural scene in which the amphitheater may be located. No doubt this is true, but neither is the stage building, the screen, the sound systems, or even the presence of the seats themselves! As an interpreter you have the task of putting your story across to audiences running into the hundreds of people, and the job becomes a bit difficult to accomplish if they begin to suffer from poorly designed seats and aching backs.

4. Front screen projection booth.

If front screen projection is used, the booth should house all equipment. The projection window should be high enough above the ground that late comers to the program will not interfere with the picture being shown on the screen. This problem can also be helped by having an aisle from the booth to the stage, thus tending to eliminate the urge some people have to stand on a seat and make "finger images" on the screen when the projector is in use.

5. Area lights.

By all means, there should be ground lights to illuminate walkways, and subdued ground lights located on the aisles to help the late comer see where he is going. Good overhead lights at strategic points around the outside of the amphitheater, for use before and after a program, are a must.

An amphitheater with the above basic elements will allow the interpreter to devote his attention to the task at hand, and give his program the professional touch it needs to be successful.

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Last Updated: 01-May-2008
Copyrighted by Southwestern Parks and Monuments Association
Western National Parks Association