Theater, one of the oldest and most popular forms of entertainment, in which actors perform live for an audience on a stage or in an other space designated for the performance. The space set aside for performances, either permanently or temporarily, is also known as a theater.

A prominent theater director, Peter Brook of Britain, has said that for theater to take place, an actor walks across an empty space while someone else is watching. In this empty space, called a stage, actors present themselves in a story about some aspect of human experience. The actors, the audience, and the space are three essentials of theater. The fourth is the performance, or the actors’ creative work in production. The performance is very often a play—a tragedy, comedy, or musical—but it need not be. Theater performances include vaudeville, puppet shows, mime, and other forms of entertainment.

Anthropologists and theater historians trace the origins of theater to myth and ritual found in dances and mimed performances by masked dancers during fertility rites and other ceremonies that marked important passages in life. Early societies acted out patterns of life, death, and rebirth associated with the welfare of village tribes. Imitation, costumes, masks, makeup, gesture, dance, music, and pantomime were some of the theatrical elements found in early rituals. At some unrecorded time, these ceremonies and rituals became formalized in dramatic festivals and spread west from Greece and east from India.


Fundamental to the theater experience is the act of seeing and being seen; in fact, the word theater comes from the Greek word theatron, meaning ‘seeing place.’ Throughout the history of world cultures, actors have used a variety of locations for theater, including amphitheaters, churches, marketplaces, garages, street corners, warehouses, and formal buildings. It is not the building that makes theater but rather the use of space for actors to imitate human experience before audiences.

In addition to the actor and the audience in a space, other elements of theater include a written or improvised text, costumes, scenery, lights, sound, and properties (props). Most theatrical performances require the collaborative efforts of many creative people working toward a common goal: the production.

Theatrical texts, often referred to as drama, usually provide the vital framework of a performance. Greek philosopher Aristotle, writing in the 4th century bc, thought of drama as the most direct response to humanity’s need to imitate experience. The word drama has its source in the Greek verb dran, meaning “to do,” “to act,” or “to perform.” Aristotle further defined drama as ‘an imitation of an action.’ His concept of imitation (mimesis, in Greek) begins with the playwright’s deliberate selection and arrangement of events, words, and images into a dramatic pattern that makes up a meaningful course of human events. In Aristotle’s famous definition, drama is an imitation of an action that is whole, complete, and of a certain magnitude or scope. See also Drama and Dramatic Arts; Comedy; Tragedy.


Theater can serve many ends. It can be designed to entertain, instruct, motivate, persuade, and even shock. But whatever the intentions of the director, performers, and crew, the result depends on the interaction with an audience. The audience for theater differs from the reader of a novel or the viewer of a painting in that it assembles as a group at a given time and place to share in the performance with the actors and all the surrounding elements of light, sound, music, costumes, and scenery. The audience affects the performance by providing the performers with immediate feedback, such as laughter, tears, applause, or silence. Each night there is continuous interaction between the auditorium and the stage.

Some audiences want only to be entertained. Others want the theater to provide new insight and understanding about political, social, or personal issues. Throughout history theater has reflected and, at times, commented on the society in which it takes place. In many repressive and authoritarian regimes theater provides entertainment to distract audiences from the brutal conditions under which they live or to serve as lessons in the virtues of the ruling powers. In Germany during the 1930s and 1940s, for example, theater and motion pictures were used to extol the virtues of Adolf Hitler’s regime.

Ultimately, audiences make their opinions known through their attendance or nonattendance. They support what appeals to them and generally fail to support what they find distasteful, offensive, or incomprehensible.

The terms presentational theater and representational theater are often used to describe two different approaches to accomplishing the goals of a production. A presentational style offers a performance with full recognition that the actors are at work on a stage, speaking and acting out a script with music, under lights, and in costumes. There is no attempt to disguise the fact that a theatrical performance is taking place to entertain or instruct audiences. Plays from ancient Greece and from the time of English playwright William Shakespeare are produced in this forthright manner, as are many modern experimental plays. Musicals and traditional Asian theater also fall into this general category.

A representational style of production evolved in Europe in the mid-19th century as writers, directors, and designers set about to show candid truths about ordinary existence within recognizable environments. Two movements—realism in the 1850s and naturalism in the 1870s—presented familiar characters in specific environments, such as living rooms, kitchens, or flophouses. The purpose of the detailed environment was to show how a person’s character and life choices are determined in part by environmental or social forces and in part by gender or genetic forces. Visual elements—such as clothing, furnishings, and stage properties—became very specific to the environment. Actors worked within a picture-frame stage—a stage separated from the audience by an arch or rectangular frame—with the understanding that the imaginary fourth wall of their environment was removed to allow audiences to look into the lives of the characters. Dramatists who pioneered the writing of plays for the new realist production style include Henrik Ibsen of Norway, August Strindberg of Sweden, Émile Zola of France, and Leo Tolstoy and Anton Chekhov of Russia.


Theater is a diverse and complex art. It requires collaboration among many artists, craftspeople, and managers in order to create a performance for audiences. Since the time of the ancient Greeks, theatrical events have included such production elements as costumes, scenery, properties, music, and choreography. Lighting and sound are more recent additions. Each element in today’s theater has its own designer, composer, or choreographer, who collaborates with the director to focus the audience’s attention on the actor in the special environment or seeing place.

A Theater Companies

Organizations that produce theater today range from commercial theaters on Broadway in New York City or the West End in London, England, to nonprofit resident companies subsidized by boards of directors, government agencies, and corporations. Commercial producers organize single productions, such as The Sound of Music, The Phantom of the Opera, or Ragtime, for the purpose of staging the work and making money for investors. Educational theater programs and amateur theaters organize their efforts in ways similar to commercial theaters.

Resident theater companies, which typically are nonprofit organizations, produce a wide variety of works. Resident groups, composed of actors, directors, designers, craftspeople, and managers, are subsidized through the theater’s box office, government grants, and contributions from businesses and individuals. Like commercial theaters, nonprofit companies are located all around the world. Some prominent examples are the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis, Minnesota; the Royal National Theatre in London; and the Moscow Art Theater in Russia. Unlike commercial theaters, which specialize in one production at a time, resident companies usually produce a season of plays in sequence, or several plays in repertory that are rotated week after week over a period of time. Some resident companies were built around the artistic vision of a director. Prominent examples include Trevor Nunn at the Royal National Theatre; Peter Brook at the International Center of Theatre Research in Paris, France; and Ariane Mnouchkine at the Théâtre du Soleil in Paris. In the United States more than 60 professional resident theaters have artistic or producing directors as their leaders. The Arena Stage in Washington, D.C.; American Repertory Theatre in Cambridge, Massachusetts; Seattle Repertory Theatre in Washington State; and the Old Globe Theatre in San Diego, California, are a few of the most distinguished professional, nonprofit theaters in the United States.

B Theater Personnel

All theaters, regardless of size or purpose, require artistic, managerial, and technical people as part of a permanent staff to prepare and present productions on a predetermined schedule. Commercial and noncommercial production staffs vary only in size and complexity. In general, the artistic or creative staff consists of a director, designers, and actors. Sometimes a playwright, dramaturge (literary manager), choreographer, musical director, composer, voice and dialect coach, and fight director are added to the staff when necessary and affordable. The administrative staff includes the producer, casting director, managers, box-office personnel, publicist, house managers, and ushers. The technical staff includes the stage manager, production manager, technical director, construction staff (scenery, costumes, properties), sound and electrical technicians, and running crews. In smaller nonprofit, educational, or community theaters, personnel may assume responsibility for several positions or duties.

B1 The Producer

In commercial and nonprofit theaters, the producer is the person who puts together the financing, management staff, and the artistic team to produce the show. The producer is ordinarily not directly involved in the day-to-day artistic development of the production but has the authority to hire (and dismiss) artistic personnel. In this way, the producer may put a kind of stamp on the overall artistic effect of the production. Britain’s Cameron Mackintosh is one of the most successful producers in today’s commercial English-language theater, with the musicals Cats (1982) and Phantom of the Opera (1988) among his credits. A noted producer in the United States was Joseph Papp, who founded the New York Shakespeare Festival in the city’s Central Park. He also launched such Broadway hits as Hair (1968) and A Chorus Line (1975).

In today’s American commercial theater, several producers are often needed to acquire the funding needed to mount a large musical on Broadway. In effect, the commercial producer, with the help of assistants, licenses a playwright’s script, raises funds from investors (so-called angels or backers), hires the artistic staff, rents a theater, negotiates with unions, rents theatrical equipment (such as lights or a sound board), oversees publicity and ticket sales, and takes responsibility for all financial aspects of the production. Usually, the producer works in tandem with a general manager and others to accomplish the daily running of the production, from rehearsals to closing. The producer also supervises the sale of subsidiary rights to touring companies and the recording industry, or for film or television adaptations and broadcasts.

In nonprofit regional (or provincial in Canada) companies, the producer is often the group’s artistic director. In this role he or she selects a season of several plays, hires the artistic teams and technical staff, works with a casting director to audition and cast actors in the various parts, controls the theater’s funding, and acts as the final authority in all artistic and administrative operations.

B2 The Director

Directors assume responsibility for the overall interpretation of a script, and they have the authority to approve, control, and coordinate all the elements of a production. Since the 1860s in Europe, the presence of a single artist guiding all artistic or creative aspects of a production has been an accepted practice. Before that time, leading actors, theater managers, and playwrights staged plays, dictated financial matters, and made decisions on casting, scenery, and costumes. As these artist-managers gave greater attention to creating a unified artistic product on stage, the role of the modern director took shape. The efforts of Duke Georg II of Saxe-Meiningen in Germany, André Antoine in France, and Konstantin Stanislavsky in Russia defined the modern director’s role as the single artist responsible for all creative decisions, resulting in a production that is a harmonious and unified entity.

Today, the stage director collaborates with the playwright, actors, designers, and technicians to stage a carefully crafted vision of life based upon his or her interpretation of the script. In all events, the director is the controlling artist responsible for unifying the production elements. The director works intensely with actors in rehearsals, helping them discover their characters’ inner lives and project their discoveries vocally and visually to the audience. Directors vary in how they approach the interpretation of the script and the rehearsal process, but the final goal is the unified production. Audiences today experience a production largely through the director’s imagination, making the director as distinct a force in the modern theater as the playwright. Notable 20th-century directors include Max Reinhardt and Bertolt Brecht of Germany, Jean-Louis Barrault and Ariane Mnouchkine of France, Elia Kazan of the United States, Peter Brook and Sir Peter Hall of Britain, Giorgio Strehler of Italy, and Ingmar Bergman of Sweden. See also Directing.

B3 The Performers

The actor is the creative artist most identified by audiences with their experience of theater. Actors portray their characters’ wants and needs through believable personal behavior that mirrors the characters’ psychological and emotional lives within the world of the play. British actor Sir Laurence Olivier once said that acting ‘is an everlasting search for truth.’ Acting begins with an individual’s talent, imagination, discipline, the need to express, and the process of observation through the sensory organs—eyes, ears, skin, tongue, nose. Reduced to its simplest terms, the actor’s goal is to tell the character’s circumstances within the story of the play. Through years of training with skilled coaches and through meticulous homework and long rehearsals, the actor is able to convey the psychological and emotional truth of the character’s behavior within the context of the play. The successful actor combines inner belief in the role with learned technique to create a sense of life taking place on stage as if for the very first time.

Throughout the ages, performers have been jugglers, mimes, minstrels, puppeteers, acrobats, clowns, singers, dancers, and amateur and professional actors. The first performers were most likely singers and dancers, as the first performances had no spoken dialogue. Of the earliest actors nothing is known, but in ancient Greece they were men who were participants in religious ceremonies. Attitudes toward the acting profession have varied greatly depending on the culture. Some actors have enjoyed praise and been celebrated as national treasures, while others have been excluded from religious participation or labeled vagabonds and rogues and denied the rights of citizenship. It was not until the 19th century that actors in England achieved a respected social status that culminated in 1895 when Henry Irving received the first knighthood bestowed upon an actor.

Women have had a more difficult history as performers. They did not perform in ancient Greece at all, and only prostitutes were permitted to appear on stage in ancient Rome. Some records suggest that women may have appeared as Eve in biblical dramatizations during medieval times. The professional actress first appeared in Italy in the commedia dell’arte, a form of improvisational theater that originated in the 16th century, and women began appearing on the French and English stages in the 17th century. The profession remains today a challenging one for both men and women.

Most professional stage actors in the United States are members of Actors’ Equity Association, the actors’ union. In the United Kingdom, the union is called British Equity Association. Although the great majority of union actors remain unemployed (as performers) much of the time, their chances for acting work are improved if they have an agent to represent them. Agents work through casting directors, who seek actors for auditions in order to cast them in productions or companies. The majority of acting jobs in the United States are found in regional theaters located across the nation. See also Acting.

B4 The Designers

Designers collaborate with directors to create an environment for a play. That environment may be a well-appointed living room or a run-down tenement apartment, or it may be a nightclub setting or an empty stage for a chorus-line audition. The designers’ work is to shape and fill the stage space and to make the play’s world visible and interesting. In the modern theater various artists are responsible for different design effects. There are four principal types of designers: scene, costume, lighting, and sound.

B4a The Scene Designer

The modern scene designer, also known as the scenic designer or set designer, emerged in the late 19th century out of the work of the scenic artist, who painted large pieces of scenery for the theater manager. In those days scenery’s main function was to provide a painted background for the actors and to indicate place and period. By the end of the 19th century, the requirements for realistic settings and furniture to make the stage look convincingly like the play’s actual setting called for a new theatrical artist—the scene designer.

Scene design can vary widely in style, ranging from the requirements of realism to theatricalism. Realism has been the dominant convention of modern theater, and it calls for the designer to create a stage environment that accurately represents real places, furniture, curtains, and so on. Stage realism pretends that the stage is not a stage but an actual living room, bar, street corner, or other environment. In contrast, scenic theatricalism expresses and symbolizes the play’s atmosphere and imaginative life, rather than attempting to reproduce realistic details of place, lifestyle, and social and economic status.

In the early 20th century designers Adolphe Appia of Switzerland and Gordon Craig of Britain led a revolution against realistic stage design. They were concerned with creating mood and atmosphere, opening up the stage for large symbolic scenic pieces, and making theatrical design more expressive by using platforms, ramps, steps, panels, and drapes. The aim was to make the audience’s experience more theatrical by emphasizing language, sound, lighting, the actors’ presence, and the spectators’ imagination, instead of distracting the audience with a detailed set. This so-called new stagecraft was introduced to Broadway by Robert Edmond Jones and Lee Simonson in the 1920s. Today, such international designers as Ming Cho Lee, John Napier, and Josef Svoboda work within these design traditions in order to serve the requirements of productions ranging from Broadway musicals to single-set dramas of domestic life.

B4b The Costume Designer

The costume designer is the creative artist responsible for the look of the characters and its contribution to the play’s inner meaning. Modern costume design includes a character’s garments, accessories, hairstyle or wig, makeup, and masks, if required. As a design element, costumes help establish a character’s social class, economic status, age, and occupation. They can also assist in identifying a play’s time period, geographic location, weather, and time of day. They help clarify relationships between characters (servant to master, for example) and a character’s emotional state (for instance, Masha in The Seagull by Russian writer Anton Chekhov wears black to reflect her melancholy). During the Renaissance (14th century to 17th century), signature costumes and masks readily identified the stock characters of commedia dell’arte.

From ancient Greek times to the mid-19th century in Europe, actors wore clothing of their time. The actor, manager, director, or wardrobe person was responsible for costumes worn on stage and gave little attention to the unity of visual elements. By the 20th century, the complex demands of stage production required specialized, trained costume designers to design, select, and control the elements of clothing as they relate to the total production design.

Like the scene designer, modern costume designers work with directors to make visible the world in which the characters live. They supplement the director’s understanding of the play and the characters’ lives visually through clothing, paying close attention to fabric, color, texture, and style. One award-winning costume designer has said that costumes serve a producer’s vision, a director’s viewpoint, and an actor’s comfort. In the commercial theater, costume designers have their own design studios and utilize construction shops with managers, cutters, drapers, and stitchers to execute their designs for Broadway musicals or regional productions.

Makeup enhances an actor’s visibility and makes facial features distinctive. Like a costume, it helps an actor reveal character by giving physical clues to personality, age, background, race, health, and environment. In ancient Greek and Asian theater, actors wore masks or used white lead makeup with strong accents of color. In the modern Western theater, basic makeup that consists of a foundation and color shadings is used to prevent the actor from appearing washed out beneath powerful stage lights. Costume designers label makeup straight, character, or fantasy, depending on the way it is used. Straight makeup highlights an actor’s normal features and coloring for distinctness and visibility. Character or illustrative makeup transforms an actor’s features, usually with false noses, wrinkles, eyelashes, eye pouches, teeth, or facial hair. Fantasy makeup alters the actor’s appearance in a fantastic or unrealistic way. Actors appearing in the musical Cats, for example, require fantasy makeup and wigs to appear as the various felines. In Asian theater, bold makeup is often used. In China’s Beijing Opera, for example, male roles require makeup and beards, while most female roles require white painted faces with deep red and pink shading around the eyes.

Wigs are designed by a wig specialist and are used to lend authenticity to plays set in historical periods or to alter entirely the actor’s normal appearance. In all instances, makeup, wigs, and hair require the costume designer’s approval.

Mask-making is an ancient art dating from early cultures, where masks were thought to possess supernatural powers. Masks have been part of the early theatrical traditions of both East and West. The use of masks was common in ancient Greek and Roman theater, commedia dell’arte, and Japanese nō plays. Masks enlarge the actor’s features for visibility at great distances, and they express basic emotions, such as grief, anger, horror, sadness, or pity. They also can create an altogether different presence for the actor wearing the mask. That presence can be stately, heroic, awesome, or mysterious. If the mask reflects light, it can even appear to change expression as the light changes. Today, masks are comfortable, strong, lightweight, and molded to the contours of the actor’s face. The costume designer has final approval of the actor’s mask.

B4c The Lighting Designer

Modern stage lighting affects what audiences see. Carefully planned lighting can establish mood and color, control the audience’s focus of attention, and enhance the meaning of the play.

Once stage productions moved into enclosed buildings (and away from natural light), candles and then gas lamps were used to illuminate the stage. In 1879 the invention of electric light transformed the possibilities for the use of light as an artistic medium in the theater. The ability to control lighting effects made it possible to include a range of colors and intensities, create mood and atmosphere, and highlight areas of the stage. In the late 19th century Adolphe Appia first envisioned the possibilities of light as an artistic medium in the theater, and modern lighting design still follows his theories and practices. Today’s lighting designer uses sophisticated equipment, such as computerized light boards and a variety of instruments, to achieve the desired effects. Like the theater’s other designers, the artist responsible for lighting design collaborates with the director and other designers to achieve a unified interpretation of the play.

B4d The Sound Designer

The sound designer is the theater’s newest artist. The technological capability today for both live and recorded sound has brought the sound designer onto the director’s creative team to provide sounds of nature, such as rain or dogs barking; locations, such as doorbells, trains, or airplanes; and abstract sounds to underscore moods of romance or treachery, for example. Working with the director, the sound designer plots the effects required by the script and adds a creative element to enhance atmosphere and psychological meaning. The technology available to the sound designer includes tape recorders and playback units, microphones and turntables, mixers and amplifiers, elaborate speaker systems, and control consoles.

B5 Related Theater Personnel

In rehearsals and workshops, additional personnel may be on the theater’s permanent staff or employed as required. The casting director is employed by the producer to assist in arranging casting sessions. In these sessions, agents send professional actors to audition for previously announced roles. In the United States, such auditions occur most often in New York City; Chicago, Illinois; or Los Angeles, California.

The dramaturge, or literary manager, has become a permanent staff member of regional theaters in North America and Europe. The dramaturge works with the director to select and prepare scripts for performance, advises the director and actors on the details of the play’s history and interpretation, and prepares material such as program notes to help the audience better appreciate and enjoy the play. In addition, the voice and dialect coach and the fight director have become indispensable members of many theater companies. The voice and dialect coach advises actors on audibility, diction, and comprehension, while the fight director ensures the actors’ safety by choreographing and rehearsing any fight scenes. Staging a musical requires a musical director and a choreographer. The musical director oversees the performances of the musicians and singers, and the choreographer is responsible for hiring dancers and preparing dance numbers.

C Theater Architecture

Throughout Western theatrical history, there have been six major types of theater buildings and basic arrangements of audience seating: (1) the proscenium or picture-frame stage, (2) the arena stage, or theater in the round, (3) the thrust or open stage, (4) the amphitheater, (5) the black box or studio, and (6) created or found space. All are still used but with varying degrees of popularity.

The proscenium or picture-frame stage is the most prevalent type of theater architecture in the West. The word proscenium, used by the Romans, originally referred to the area in front of the stage. Today, it refers to the wall with a large center opening that separates the audience from the stage. In the past the opening was called an arch or proscenium arch, but the shape of the opening is more rectangular than oval. In this type of theater, the audience faces in the direction of the proscenium opening and looks into the stage, which is framed by the opening. The auditorium floor slants downward from the back toward the stage to provide greater visibility for the audience. Often at least one balcony is above the auditorium floor, protruding about a quarter of the way over the main floor. A curtain located just behind the proscenium opening hides or reveals the events taking place on stage. The proscenium wall conceals the complicated stage machinery and lighting instruments required by modern theater production.

The arena stage, also called a theater in the round, places the stage at the center of a square or circle. Seating for the audience surrounds the stage. This stage offers more intimacy between actor and audience, since the playing space has no barrier separating them. In addition, productions can usually be staged on relatively low budgets since a large, complex set would partially obscure the audience’s view of the actors. In the mid-20th century, American director Margo Jones initiated the development of modern arena stage design in the United States.

The thrust or open stage consists of a platform stage that thrusts out into the audience, which is seated on three sides or in a semicircle around a low platform stage. At the back of the stage are a proscenium wall and an opening. These provide entrances and exits as well as space for scenery and visual elements. In the 1950s and 1960s, a number of important thrust stages were built in the United States and Canada, including the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis, Minnesota, and the Stratford Festival Theater in Ontario, Canada.

An amphitheater is an open-air building with tiers of seats surrounding a central area, as in a sports stadium or an open-air auditorium. The term originated to describe a Roman open-air building with tiers of seats, generally oval in shape, which was intended for staging gladiatorial contests, wild beast shows, or mock sea battles. The Colosseum in Rome, the most famous amphitheater, was completed in ad 80 and still stands today. In the United States, outdoor theaters, another name for amphitheaters, are often used for historical pageants or other summertime celebrations.

The black box is a type of minimal performance space developed in the 1960s in the United States for inexpensive experimental work or new plays. Essentially a large, rectangular room painted a flat black or muted color, the black-box theater is usually equipped with a complex overhead lighting grid and movable seating (usually about 50 to 200 seats). The movable seating permits flexibility with the shape and size of the performance space. The Cottesloe Theatre, part of Britain’s Royal National Theatre, is a black-box theater with galleries (balconies) on three sides of the rectangular room. The galleries are permanent, but the risers of seats positioned along the floor are movable.

The search for alternative or environmental performance spaces, also called created or found space, although international, is associated in the United States with protest movements of the 1960s. In their revolt against society and the cultural establishment at that time, artistic groups created theatrical performances that rejected conventional stages and seating arrangements. Sometimes the audience became a part of the playing space. Streets, garages, warehouses, lofts, and halls became performance spaces. Jerzy Grotowski, a Polish director, introduced the concept of poor theater—theater without costumes, scenery, makeup, stage lighting, or sound effects. All that was needed were the essentials: the actor and the audience in the bare space. The Living Theatre, the Performance Group, the Open Theater, and the Bread and Puppet Theater were among the American groups active in the search for alternative spaces in which to convey new messages about American society.


All cultures have theatrical performances and special places for viewing these events. In Eastern and Western cultures, the conventions of performance and production have varied in approaches to texts, subjects, acting styles, and production elements. The examination of African, Asian, European, and North American theater traditions that follows will reveal some of these differences.

A African Theater

The earliest performance areas in Africa were used for rituals dealing with life and death. Like early performers in the West, the priest in African villages performed in an open circle, a hut, or an enclosure that he shared with onlookers. African theater today is a mixture of native traditions and European traditions, a mixture influenced by colonial educational systems and warring political factions within the individual countries. Most formal theatrical activity in Africa receives government funding and is encouraged as a means of preserving native cultures that continue to be threatened by urbanization and westernization.

African traditions of professional entertainment date back to ancient times. Storytelling, music, and dance have all played a central role in African culture, because they help preserve history and religious and social customs (see African Music: African Music in Society). Traditional drama in Africa combines storytelling, songs, and dances with costumes, masks, mime, and drumming. Another important part of that tradition are traveling entertainers, including griots (poets) and singers who praise tribal leaders and other important figures. Playwrights today draw upon these traditions for dramatic material. Contemporary social issues or political events, such as the struggle for independence or tribal warfare, also supply themes and plots for plays.

British and French colonists brought Western traditions of theater to Africa. Shakespeare’s Hamlet was performed on a British ship off the coast of Africa as early as 1607. The British encouraged amateur theatricals in all British-ruled territories as a means of educating Africans and spreading Christianity. The Donovan Maule Theatre in Nairobi, Kenya, was founded in 1947 as a modern professional company on the British model. Likewise, French colonialists laid the groundwork for Afro-French theater. Drama in French West Africa was fostered by French-language academies.

In West Africa, theater artists received their training in public schools and universities fashioned after European models. Nobel laureate Wole Soyinka of Nigeria founded the Orisun Theatre in Nigeria in 1963 to perform his plays and those of other Nigerian writers. East Africa has a stronger tradition of amateur and educational theater than West Africa, in part because of the involvement of East Africa’s large European population. Moreover, large numbers of East Africans speak the same language, Swahili, which facilitates theater production. See also African Theater.

B Asian Theater

Rich traditions of theater practice thrive throughout Asia. Until the 20th century, geography, culture, and politics separated the theater traditions of the East from those of the West. Only in modern times have Asian theatrical traditions influenced Western directors, actors, designers, and theorists. Even though Western theater practices are known in Asia, the traditional staging of classical works of Asian theater remains popular. This section focuses on the theater of China, Japan, and India. For more information, especially on the theater of other Asian countries, see Asian Theater.

B1 China

In China, as in other cultures, theatrical performances arose out of ancient rituals. Theater traditions also absorbed influences from acrobatics and joking of court jesters. Around the time of the Han dynasty (206 bc to ad 220), storytellers combined singing and dancing with their craft. During the Yuan dynasty (1279-1368), known as the classical age of Chinese theater, dramatists created plays from history, legend, epics, and contemporary events. These plays were performed on bare stages decorated with a large, embroidered tapestry hanging between two doors in the rear. Performers wore colorful clothes of the period and elaborate makeup.

Chinese theater today consists chiefly of classical drama from the Yuan dynasty, Peking Opera, and many types of local theater. Peking Opera combines spoken dialogue, operatic singing, dancing, and acrobatics. It arose in the 18th century and by the mid-19th century had become the dominant form of popular theater in China. Its subject matter is derived from legends, historical anecdotes, and well-known novels, and its plots usually reward goodness and punish evil. The traditional opera stage is an open, raised platform covered by a roof that is supported by lacquered columns. As in classical Chinese theater, a large, embroidered curtain hangs between two doors at the rear of the stage. Properties are minimal and have standard meanings. Depending on the way the actor uses it, a table might serve as an altar or a bridge, and an oar might represent a boat. Costumes indicate social rank, character, and occasion through their style and color, and elaborate makeup suggests character traits and gender. From the age of ten, actors (all male) undergo years of strenuous training for the Peking Opera and are eventually selected for roles that they continue to play throughout their professional lives. In the early 20th century actor Mei Lanfang became one of the most famous interpreters of female roles in Peking Opera. See also Chinese Music.

Spoken drama in China developed during the early 20th century, as the country increasingly came into contact with foreign cultures. Playwrights Tian Han and Cao Yu were among the first to write original Chinese drama, addressing such issues as class struggle and political oppression. After Japan invaded China in 1937, the theater in China was increasingly used to voice anti-Japanese sentiment.

In 1949, with the establishment of the People’s Republic of China, government control over theater increased. Plays were based upon officially approved models that dealt with problems of the new society under Communism. The government encouraged communes and factories to mount amateur performances of standard works. Only a handful of plays were approved for performance during the Cultural Revolution (1966 to 1976), when the government attempted to remake Chinese society and culture. All other works and their authors were banned as immoral or counter-revolutionary. After the Cultural Revolution ended, the theater revived in China with presentations of both Peking Opera and Western-style spoken drama.

The Peking Opera and its conventions have fascinated Westerners. Western dramatists and directors who have acknowledged Chinese influences in their work include Bertolt Brecht, Antonin Artaud, Ariane Mnouchkine, Jerzy Grotowski, and Americans Harold Prince and Julie Taymor.

B2 Japan

Japan’s two major forms of theater are and kabuki. The nō theater ( means ‘accomplishment’) arose in the 14th century largely at the hands of the dramatist Zeami for the entertainment of court society, and it has remained unchanged since the 17th century. The same is true of the kabuki theater, which has been popular since about 1600.

Nō theater is highly stylized for enacting stories from the classical literature of Japan. A temple roof supported by four columns rises above the stage, which is divided into two areas: the stage proper and the bridge, which actors use for entrances and exits. A hurry door, which is in the wall at the back of the stage, is used by minor characters, musicians, and stage assistants for quick exits and entrances. Scenery consists of three small pine trees that stand for heaven, earth, and humanity, and a larger pine tree, which is painted on the center wall and represents the play’s earthly setting. Musicians who play the flute and drums sit on stage, along with the chorus, which narrates many of the play’s events. The actors (all male) wear colorful silk costumes, rich headdresses, and painted wooden masks that designate types (for example, men, women, deities, monsters, and spirits). A nō performance is slow and stately by Western standards.

In contrast, the popular kabuki theater is energetic. Dating from the 17th century, it emerged in urban areas, especially Edo (Tokyo’s historic center), Kyōto, and Ōsaka. The kabuki stage combines thrust and proscenium stages. The stage covers the entire front of the auditorium and is approached by a ramp that connects the rear of the auditorium to the stage proper. The actors (all male) use this runway for dramatic entrances and exits. The proscenium stage is long, often 27 meters (90 feet), and has a low opening, or arch. Musicians sit onstage and accompany the stage action. Kabuki plays once required a full day to perform, but today they last about five hours. Their subjects involve feuds, revenge, adventure, and romance, and their staging features elaborate scenic effects.

Like nō actors, kabuki actors are trained from childhood. The women’s parts are performed by male actors skilled in their ability to convey feminine gestures and sensibilities. Actors wear boldly patterned makeup that signifies the roles (heroes, villains, children, women), and each role also has a conventional costume based on historical dress. Japan’s greatest playwright, Chikamatsu Monzaemon, wrote for kabuki, which flourishes today. See also Japanese Drama.

B3 India

India has a long history of theatrical activity, yet no clear theatrical centers until recently. The absence of a national language also hindered the development of an identifiable native drama. Sixteen major languages and hundreds of dialects are in use in India today.

Theater in India may have originated as early as the 3rd century bc and was influenced by the Hindu religion, the caste system, and literature in Sanskrit, the ancient language of India. The earliest theater was patronized by the ruling classes. Two great Sanskrit epics, Mahabharata and Ramayana, made up of history, legend, and myth, became the major sources of material for early Sanskrit dramatists. The Natya Shastra (The Science of Dramaturgy), a Sanskrit handbook probably completed sometime around ad 200, codifies practices in drama, dance, acting, costume, and makeup. Ancient tradition assigns this work to Bharata, the eldest member of a legendary family, who learned the art of theater directly from Brahma, the creator-god, and passed it down to his many actor-sons. Ancient theater was, therefore, regarded as a sacred art descended directly from a Hindu god to human beings. Women were admitted to theatrical companies when another Hindu deity pointed out that women made exceptional dancers.

The earliest theatrical performances took place in palaces and temples. When theaters were built, the auditorium was divided by four pillars painted white, red, yellow, and blue to indicate social castes, and spectators sat near the pillar that corresponded to their caste. A curtain divided the stage in half, with the front half used for the performance and the rear for dressing rooms or other offstage functions. Although paintings and carvings decorated the stage, there was no scenery, and the actor indicated the locale through spoken description or mime. Attention focused on the actor, whose movements, gestures, costumes, and makeup had been codified by early Hindu writings. Each play was accompanied by musicians and singers.

Sanskrit drama was organized around rasas (moods), which ranged from furious to peaceful, and ended with good triumphing over evil. Dialogue was a mixture of verse and prose spoken in classical Sanskrit, the learned language spoken by gods, kings, generals, and sages; and Prakrit, the everyday dialects of Sanskrit used by women, children, servants, and people of low birth. Thirteen plays by Bhasa, written as early as the 3rd century ad, are the oldest surviving complete Sanskrit dramas. Shakuntala, written in the late 4th or early 5th century ad by Kalidasa, a court poet and dramatist, is considered the finest of all Sanskrit dramas. Based on an episode from the Mahabharata, it recounts a love story with insight and sympathy.

Popular forms of entertainment, including shadow-puppet plays (see Puppets), folk drama, and dance, began to replace Sanskrit drama in the 7th century. By the 10th century companies were touring and performing plays in regional languages. By the 15th century many regional theatrical forms had emerged, dominated by folk plays that were performed outdoors, often with spectators surrounding the performance space. Many of these plays featured legendary heroes, along with themes of love and chivalry.

Modern Indian theater owes its origins and development to the growth of urban centers in the 18th and 19th centuries. Kolkata, Madras, and Bombay evolved as theatrical centers, largely as a result of the British presence in these cities. British theater was imported to entertain British soldiers, business people, and government officials, and proscenium theaters built on British models became centers of urban theatrical activity. Plays were then written in the language of the region, based on historical and mythological sources, and performed by actors of different castes, races, religions, and occupations. Songs and dances popular with Indian audiences were grafted onto dialogue.

Other modern Indian plays more closely resemble Western plays in style. These plays focus on families and on social and political events, including India’s struggle for independence in the first half of the 20th century. Poet Rabindranath Tagore, who won the Nobel Prize in literature, successfully blended Indian and Western traditions in such plays as The King of the Dark Chamber (1910) and The Cycle of Spring (1917). Theater in India has remained highly diverse, ranging from productions of Sanskrit plays and folk drama to modern realistic works. Classical dance forms, such as manipuri of northeastern India and kathakali of southeastern India, continue to delight 20th-century audiences (see Indian Dance).

C Western Theater

Theater in the West, like theater elsewhere in the world, is believed to have evolved from prehistoric rites and religious practices. For the most part, the theater of Europe and North America has been more text-centered than African or Asian theater. Although ritual played a prominent role in ancient Egypt, scholars generally regard ancient Greece as the birthplace of Western theater.

C1 Theater in Ancient Times

Ancient Egyptian theater emerged from ritual practices. For example, a passion play performed annually at Abydos from about 2500 bc to about 550 bc dealt with the death and resurrection of the god Osiris. Although no part of the text remains, references to it suggest it was one of the most elaborate spectacles ever staged and included mock battles, processions, and burial ceremonies. Despite the advanced civilization that developed in ancient Egypt, theatrical activity never progressed beyond ritual, pageantry, burial ceremonies, and commemorations of dead pharaohs. Therefore, historians look to Greece as the source for Western theater and drama.

When theater began in ancient Greece is not known, but the Greek philosopher Aristotle, writing in the 4th century bc, claimed that it began with hymns to the god Dionysus presented at an annual festival. According to tradition, Dionysus died each winter and was reborn each spring, a cycle that signified the seasonal return of fertility to the land and also the rebirth of human beings after death. Greece’s earliest theater architecture took its form from the threshing circle—a round, flat circle at the base of a hillside that was used for separating wheat from the chaff. By the 5th century bc, when the classical period began, two performance areas were cradled within the curve of a hillside: one where a chorus performed, usually portraying ordinary citizens; and the other where the main actors performed. One speaking actor (later three) portrayed mythical and historical characters, at first in an empty space and later in front of a rectangular building that formed a neutral background. This scene building could represent different places as needed—a palace, temple, house, or cave, for example. Initially audiences stood or were seated on the ground; later, wooden or stone benches on the hillside formed an auditorium. The open-air theaters of ancient Greece, which held some 20,000 people, became the prototypes for amphitheaters, Roman coliseums, and modern sports arenas.

The most celebrated theater of classical Athens, the theater of Dionysus, was located on the slope of a hill below the Acropolis. Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides, and Aristophanes, the four Greek playwrights whose work has survived, wrote for annual dramatic festivals held there. Their plays expanded and interpreted the characters and stories of legend and history. During the 5th century bc, the features of Athens’s annual dramatic festival became fixed: three groups of players—each consisting of a chorus, musicians, and two (later three) actors—competed in acting four sets of plays. Each set contained three tragedies and a satyr play, a burlesque of Greek myth that served as comic relief. Costumes were richly decorated, masks elaborate, and physical action restrained; violent scenes occurred offstage. In the 4th century bc, theaters throughout the Greek world grew more elaborate.

Theater in ancient Rome had its origins in musical and dancing performances and in chariot racing, boxing, and gladiatorial contests. The first drama was performed outdoors at annual games dedicated to the gods, and Roman theater maintained a circus-like atmosphere. The popularity of theater so increased that by ad 354 dramatic entertainment consumed more than 100 festival days per year. Works by only three Roman writers—Plautus, Terence, and Seneca—survive today.

Early Roman stages were temporary narrow platforms of wood approximately 30 m (100 ft) long. A stage house with three openings for entrances framed the back and ends. In time, the stage house was decorated with columns, statues, niches, and porticoes, and covered by a roof. The platform served as a street, where the dramatic action occurred, and openings in the back wall served as doorways into fictional houses that bordered the street. The first stone theater in Rome, in imitation of Greek theaters, was built in the 1st century bc. In the permanent stone theaters, the stage house and the auditorium formed a single architectural unit, and the orchestra was a half circle between the stage and auditorium. A distinguishing feature of Roman theater was a curtain at the front of the stage that dropped into a slot at the beginning of a performance and was raised at the end. Roman actors wore thin sandals, garments of the time, and masks that were useful for playing multiple roles. Music accompanied the dialogue in most comedies. Tragedies included choral interludes and long speeches.

Roman theater declined as the Roman Empire expanded. Dramatic festivals gave way to gladiatorial contests, water ballets, and sea battles held in the orchestras of theaters. By the 1st century ad, these spectacles had become increasingly bloodthirsty. The last recorded performance in Rome occurred in 533ad. The ruins of many Roman theaters erected in Europe, Asia, and Africa may still be seen today. Theater reemerged in the religious festivals of medieval Europe.

C2 Medieval Theater

Like the theater of ancient times, the theater of medieval Europe took place at outdoor festivals, though not until about 1200. Medieval theater had its origins in short plays performed in Latin by priests in churches. Some scholars argue that the church introduced dramatic ceremonies to counter pagan rites that remained popular throughout Europe. However, dramatized episodes from the Bible also made biblical stories more immediate and understandable for the public. Gradually, performances moved out of churches and into marketplaces. Lay performers replaced priests, and scripts became more complex, mixing serious religious subjects with boisterous and farcical material.

Medieval theater used two types of stages: fixed and movable. The fixed stage was a platform set up in a public square for the days or weeks of the performance. Audiences stood around the platform. One of the best-known fixed stages was constructed in 1547 for a passion play performed in Valenciennes, in northern France. One part of the stage contained so-called mansions or huts that depicted such locales as Paradise, Jerusalem, a palace, the sea, or the entrance to hell. The other part of the stage served as the open playing space. Heaven and hell were usually at each end of the stage, with earthly scenes of toil and humor occurring between them. The fixed stage made it possible to present numerous scenes along with special effects without interrupting the performance. Actors simply went from hut to hut to indicate a change in locale. Costumes distinguished the spiritual and earthly realms. God, angels, and saints wore borrowed church garments; earthly characters wore garments appropriate to their status in life; and devils were fancifully conceived with tails, horns, beaks, claws, and wings.

The fixed stages used elaborate stage machinery for special effects. The devices included pulleys and ropes for moving clouds, trapdoors through which actors could disappear, and fire and smoke for the mouth of hell. As productions became more complex, the skills of machinists and stage managers became increasingly important.

While fixed stages were common throughout Europe, movable stages were also used in England and Spain. A platform on wheels, similar to a modern parade float, was called a pageant wagon in England and a carros in Spain. A hut on top of the wagon provided a scenic background, an acting space, or a place for costume changes. The wagons moved through narrow streets and stopped for performances at designated places. Audiences assembled around the wagons to watch such plays as The Wakefield Cycle, which traced the Christian view of world history, from Creation to Judgment Day, in 32 short plays.

Three types of plays were written for performance on medieval stages. Cycles (or mystery plays) dramatized biblical material in a series of short scenes. Miracle plays depicted episodes from the lives of saints and martyrs. Morality plays dramatized spiritual lessons. The morality plays, or moralities, aimed to teach through entertainment by dramatizing the conflict between Vice and Virtue (which were represented by actors) for an individual’s soul. They were performed by small professional companies in banquet halls and elsewhere. The best-known morality play in English is Everyman (1495?). Morality plays flourished in the mid-15th century and formed a bridge between earlier religious drama and the secular drama of the Renaissance. See also Miracle, Mystery, and Morality Plays.

C3 Renaissance Theater

By the late 16th century in Europe, permanent buildings were being constructed to house a new kind of commercial theater. In 1576 actor James Burbage built London’s first public theater, known simply as The Theatre, which was an open-air structure that combined features of pageant wagons, fixed stages, and banquet halls. The most famous Renaissance theater was the Globe Theatre (completed 1599), which was also in London. The Globe became a showcase for the talents of playwright William Shakespeare and Burbage’s acting company, The Lord Chamberlain’s Men, later renamed The King’s Men.

The Globe was an open-air building with a platform stage and standing room for spectators on three sides of the stage. Bordering this space was a large enclosed balcony topped by one or two smaller roofed balconies. A multilevel facade, which was part of the theater building, backed the platform stage. A roof, supported by two columns, jutted out above the stage platform. The underside of the roof, nicknamed the heavens, was painted with moons, stars, and planets. On the stage level were places for hiding and discovering people and objects—probably influenced by the huts of medieval stages. Productions used little scenery and few props. Costumes—largely clothing of the time—defined the rank of kings and queens, lords and ladies, soldiers and servants. A modern reconstruction of the Globe, completed in 1996, stands on the south bank of the Thames River in London, very near the site of the original theater, and holds performances from May to September.

Because open-air theaters could not be used year-round, professional companies sought out other buildings in London. The first of these private theaters was opened in 1576 in a residential district called Blackfriars in a former monastery. By 1610 a rebuilt Blackfriars Theatre had become the winter home of Shakespeare’s company, and by 1642 six other private theaters had opened.

The private theaters shared many of the features of the public stages. A raised platform stage at one end of a long, rectangular hall served as the stage, and spectators sat in the pit, galleries, or private boxes around it. The theaters were roofed and restricted in size, with a far smaller seating capacity than the outdoor theaters. Staging conventions remained largely unchanged, with the exception of candles used to illuminate indoor theaters.

In Italy conventions of theater architecture and stage spectacle introduced in Florence, Venice, Parma, Bologna, Rome, and Milan during the Renaissance were to dominate European theater into the 20th century. These conventions included the picture-frame (proscenium) stage; perspective scenery, which gave an illusion of depth; elaborate machinery for scene shifting and producing special effects; and artificial lighting. Also popular in Italy was commedia dell’arte, an actor-centered improvisational theater. Troupes of professional commedia actors toured Italy, and later the rest of Europe, performing their shows.

C4 Theater of the 17th and 18th Centuries

Theater practices in Europe, especially in Italy, France, and England, underwent great changes in the 17th and 18th centuries. Proscenium theaters were developed and imported into France and England; painted perspective scenery with wings, borders, and shutters came into wide use; machinery above and below the stage helped shift scenery quickly; and auditoriums were divided into pit, boxes, and galleries to reflect class distinctions. Professional acting companies led by star actors, such as David Garrick in England, selected the plays to be performed throughout the season. A typical evening at the theater lasted at least three hours. It began with orchestral music, followed by a prologue and then a full-length play. An afterpiece, usually a pantomime, farce, or comic opera, concluded the show. Intervals between acts were filled with variety acts, such as singing, dancing, magic tricks, acrobatics, and trained animals.

European playwriting at this time ranged from French plays by Pierre Corneille, Jean Racine, and Molière, which generally followed strict rules based on ancient Greek and Roman models, to sketched-out scenarios of Italian commedia dell’arte troupes. In England, most new plays were either tragedies, featuring great heroes, or comedies that satirized the manners of the upper classes. England’s outstanding playwrights of this time included John Dryden, William Wycherley, William Congreve, and Richard Brinsley Sheridan.

Italian theater artists continued to develop ideas introduced during the Renaissance. The great innovators in the Italian theater of the 17th century were Nicola Sabbattini, Giacomo Torelli, and the Bibiena family of designers. Their innovations prepared the way for the great operas of the 19th century. The majority of professional Italian dramatists were engaged in the lucrative business of writing libretti (texts) for opera, a new form of theater in which dialogue was sung. The greatest influence on playwrights Carlo Goldoni and Carlo Gozzi were the commedia dell’arte troupes. At the height of its popularity in 1600, commedia touring companies, made up of men and women, performed in marketplaces and palaces throughout Europe.

C5 Theater of the 19th Century

Commercial theater in the 19th century continued in large proscenium playhouses in London and Paris, where such popular types of theater as melodrama, farce, and comedy served as the favorite entertainment. Despite the Napoleonic Wars (1799-1815), which involved all of Europe, demand for entertainment increased, partly as a result of growing urban populations. The most noteworthy theatrical changes of the 19th century were the rise of touring companies, the exploitation of stars to promote plays, and the increase of long-running productions in place of rotating repertory. As the railway system expanded in the United States, so did the number of traveling productions. Touring companies eventually undermined resident theaters in outlying towns and cities. By 1900 the single-play, long-run policy had become the norm among commercial producers.

The principal departures from established conventions of staging in 19th-century European theaters were attempts to achieve historical accuracy and the illusion of real life. These experiments from the 1850s through the 1880s, known as realism and naturalism, brought about changes in scenic and costume design, acting styles, and staging. The leading exponents of these international movements for writing and staging truthful depictions of life included playwrights Émile Zola in France, Henrik Ibsen and August Strindberg in Scandinavia, Anton Chekhov in Russia, Gerhart Hauptmann in Germany, and John Galsworthy and George Bernard Shaw in England. Emerging directors who advocated realism included André Antoine at the Théâtre Libre in Paris, France; Otto Brahm at the Freie Bühne in Berlin, Germany; and Konstantin Stanislavsky at the Moscow Art Theater. By 1900 realism had become the dominant mode in playwriting and in theatrical production in the West.

C6 Theater of the 20th Century

Theater became international in the 20th century. Rapid modes of communication and travel fostered worldwide touring companies; cultural exchanges of artists, theories, and productions; and international publication of dramatic texts. Numerous experimental movements of varying duration included symbolism, expressionism, theater of the absurd, epic theater, documentary drama, and environmental production. However, realism remained the most popular mode of writing and staging in the West, and the picture-frame playhouse—enhanced by lighting, sound, and other technologies—remained the most common style of theater architecture.

The American theater in the 20th century fostered playwrights of extraordinary influence, including Eugene O’Neill, Lillian Hellman, Tennessee Williams, Arthur Miller, Edward Albee, and Neil Simon. (See American Literature: Drama). The United States also pioneered musical theater as the most popular form of commercial, nonprofit, and amateur entertainment. Broadway, the heart of New York City’s theater district, became synonymous with the production of musicals—both revivals and new works—and with multimillion-dollar production costs. The American theater also became ethnically and ideologically diverse, beginning in the 1960s with the rise of African American, Latino, Asian American, feminist, and homosexual theater groups, to name a few. The emergence of professional regional companies or resident theaters (now called the regional theater movement) formed a parallel trend in the 1960s.

For several decades, government subsidy of the arts in the United States—begun in 1965 when federal legislation established the National Endowment for the Arts—assisted nonprofit theaters, orchestras, museums, and opera and dance companies. In the 1990s, federal funding for the arts came under attack from Congress. Nonprofit professional theaters responded by engaging in coproductions with other theaters, sharing artists and costs, and providing a source for serious dramatic plays that eventually moved to Broadway. Despite rising costs and criticism that Broadway theater has become homogeneous and predictable, audiences are larger than at almost any time in the history of theater in the United States, and playwrights, actors, and directors have become household names.
Contributed By:
Milly S. Barranger

Microsoft ® Encarta ® 2009. © 1993-2008 Microsoft Corporation. All rights reserved.


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