Historical element in Theatre
When we watch a play, or virtually any other type of dramatic or theatrical event, we are taking part in an activity that has been occurring without much significant change for nearly 2600 years. Sitting in a seat in a theatre today, an audience member goes through the same experience that humans have been having for hundreds of generations. Walking into the theatre, finding a seat, sitting down, waiting for the performance to begin, watching the actors, listening to the lines they speak, and reacting to them with laughter, emotions, and applause are all things that those great-great-great-great-great-ancestors of ours did too. The tradition of viewing plays goes back to the ancient Greek world. However, it also ties us into a very human urge – the desire to communicate. We are social creatures by nature. That is, we instinctively gather together and try to share our individual experiences with those around us – to fit in, to share information or ideas, to participate in the larger life and experience of the group, or just to be entertained as we live our lives in this world. The people of Ancient Greece were just like us in that regard. They didn’t have all of the technology that we do today, but they did some very impressive things with what they had, and many of the techniques they developed for their theatres are still used today. The tools have changed and modernized in most cases, but the purpose is the same – to make the experience of live theatre as engaging as possible for the audience.
The very natural human urge to perform is a part of our nature, as noted above. When we stop to examine just how much of our lives is affected by the urge to perform and that uses traditional theatrical elements, we will notice that this is all around us. Ranging from the very simple use of our hands, faces, and bodies to add to or emphasize elements as we are telling a story to our friends or families all the way to the much more formal influences of performance, such as our celebrations, rituals, other such events. Consider the performance-like nature of a church ceremony, or a wedding, or a court case. Except for the specifics of an individual event, the overall shape, form, and substance of many of these is the same throughout our culture – and even across some other cultures as well. We can even go as far as mentioning our games as young children through to adulthood. We very often learn through role-playing and make believe. We often find ourselves pretending to be something we aren’t to experience life through different eyes and perspectives.
Another part of the historical tradition of theatre that has lasted from the Ancient Greek world through to our own is the play itself. Again, the context of het plays has changed, the cultures they reflect, and the specifics of the language, etc. has changed, but the very nature of plays has remained largely unchanged for 2500 years or more. Plays still address the people for whom they are written. They reflect those people’s ideas, goals, values, and cultures. If they didn’t there wouldn’t be any communication. Imagine if you were to go see a play all about life in the Himalayan mountains, spoken in Tibetan and dealing with Yaks and Yetis. There wouldn’t be much that you would understand. A similar phenomenon occurs when a new movie comes out that is not about something that you enjoy. You don’t see it because you don’t want to, you don’t expect to “get anything out of it.” We want to see stories that interest us, that are about people like us, that have a relevance to our own lives. That’s why the stories and plays that we watch today have changed in content, but not in structure or techniques. Telling stories, whether in person, in writing, or as a performed play, is part of our human nature. It’s who we are.
Theatre’s unique quality
Theatre is often referred to as “the lively art.” Just what does that mean? Well, Theatre is a performance art, which means that it is performed live in front of an audience instead of being created and then viewed separately by an audience. It also has several other characteristics, which will be explored more fully in the next supplement, but which include movement in time, interpretation of a text/source, and as mentioned, audience involvement. However, unlike the other performing arts (Music, Dance, Opera) Theatre is unique. It stands apart from the others in a couple of specific ways.
These elements that make Theatre unique almost all concern the role of and interaction with the audience. The performers on stage have a real time connection with the audience. They can hear them and their reactions to the performance. Sometimes, they can even see them. Occasionally, the play or the production will include direct audience interaction which makes the connection between the performers and the audience very immediate indeed. Generally speaking, since the performance takes place live, directly in the presence of the performers, an energy connection is developed. The performers “feel” the energy from the audience as they react to the play. In turn, the audience “feels” the human connection of the live performance, which then impacts the energy they share with the performer. If you have never experienced this for yourself, consider this parallel. Even though we can hear our favorite musician’s music on the radio or via the internet, we still go to the musician’s concerts when feasible. Why? We want to experience personally the presence of the artist while sharing in the creation of the music in real time. It feels like it is more important because we are part of the live process of creating the work of art, the music. It is this same bond that audience members share with the performers on stage during a play.
In this way, Theatre stands out among the other performing arts, but it shares a lot of this energy and immediacy with those other arts that are performed live in front of an audience. The one way that Theatre stands apart from those other performing arts is the element mentioned the historical look at theatre above. From the beginning of theatre as it has come to us over the last 2500+ years, plays have tried to show us, “us.” That is, we see ourselves in a play. Our humanity is reflected back to us by the performers on the stage. The actors are humans, playing roles with human traits, with relevance to our culture, values, and sensibility. That’s something that the other arts do not do. That’s what sets Theatre apart as being unique amongst the performing arts.
Wide Range of Theatre
Broadway and West End
When most Americans think of theatre today, they think of Broadway – those big hit musicals that light up the stage and have songs that people love and colorful characters. But that’s not the only kind of theatre that exists. In fact, theatre is practically everywhere. Of course, there is Broadway, and its equivalent in London, the West End. These two are considered the top-end locations for theatre productions in the English-speaking world. Other cultures have similar venues for their respective cultures, but they are usually smaller than the Broadway and West End theaters in size and world significance. These are the places that most playwrights want to end up seeing their plays. It means they’ve hit the big time. Most plays that end up in these very large theatres (that seat a minimum of 500 up to around 1800) are financial successes. Big bucks spent to stage a big show, usually expected to return even bigger profits!
In some cases. The big blockbuster shows on Broadway start out in the smaller theaters Off-Broadway. These venues are smaller, seating between 100-499 people in the audience. The smaller space, smaller audience, and closer proximity of the audience to the performers make these spaces more adaptable to smaller shows, non-musicals, and plays about the less mainstream sorts of subjects. When a show is successful Off-Broadway, it may move into a larger theatre to make it more financially profitable.
There are other theaters in New York, besides Broadway and Off-Broadway theaters. These are usually very small theaters with fewer than 100 seats. They are often referred to as Off-Off-Broadway theaters. These venues are usually the starting point, sometimes the ending point, for new experimental, and edgy/controversial plays. Still, some plays that have started Off-Off-Broadway have made the move to more lucrative venues of the larger theaters.
Not all theatre happens in New York City. In fact, only a very small percentage of theatre happens there. In America, theatre happens everywhere. The most significant of these places, after New York, are known as Regional Theatres. These are located in the larger cities throughout America where large populations exist and that serve as economic and social hubs for their surrounding regions. Some of them are Atlanta, Philadelphia, Boston, Miami, Cincinnati, Chicago, Minneapolis, St. Louis, Dallas, Nashville, Denver, Albuquerque, Los Angeles, Seattle, and Portland. This is not a complete list, but it gives you an idea that Regional Theatre is spread throughout the country in most of the major metropolitan areas.
These regional theaters are very similar in size and types of plays to the Broadway and Off-Broadway theaters in New York. In fact, often Broadway plays will capitalize on their New York success by sending touring companies of the successful Broadway musicals to the regional theatres. That’s a way to bring Broadway quality to a much larger audience, especially one that will not travel to New York to see plays. However, these theatres also stage their own productions of plays. They are permanent theaters – built for the purpose of staging plays. They are also quite often made up of professional production and performance staffs, though not always. There are some of the smaller venues in regional areas that operate as not-for-profit theatres as a way to bring theatre to everyone – regardless of income or interests. These theatres are usually the places that the Off-Off-Broadway sorts of plays find themselves when it comes to the regional theatres.
Theatre skills can be taught, so theatre can also be found in academic institutions across the country. Most high schools have some sort of Drama or Theatre program. It is a place that many of the basics can be taught – both for performers and for the production personnel, which we will discuss in a later supplemental article. In addition to high schools, many colleges and universities have academic programs in theatre. Some focus on one or more of the many aspects of theatrical entertainment performance and production – such as stage, film, playwrighting, screenplay production, acting/directing, technical production, etc.
In addition to teaching the skills needed on stage or on film, most academic institutions also produce plays to put those skills into practice for their students. These are generally a useful and relatively inexpensive means for sharing theatre with areas that may not be in New York or one of the Regional Theatre cities.
Another type of theatre is known as Community Theatre. It is local in nature. Basically, community theatre is a venture coordinated by the community for the community. Usually made up of volunteers, it is sometimes semi-professional, with the director, technical staff, theater manager, or possibly a major performer hired in to provide a solid foundation for the production that often includes some academic elements as well, but outside the classroom setting. Instead, community theatre focuses on allowing individuals within a community who want to perform or work on theatre productions the opportunity to do so. These often have relatively small budgets, and they most often produce shows with a popular and/or local appeal. These are essentially local productions for the local audience. Frequently, these productions feature some element of local history or culture in the sometimes “home grown” productions.
Site-specific theatre refers to a type of theatre that is not performed in a location that is normally used for production of plays. These are spaces that may offer something specific to the production that is appropriate to the text. For example, some plays lend themselves to being performed in front of a small audience. Performing that sort of play in a large auditorium traditionally used for plays will make the play less effective for the audience and may hamper the ability of the production to convey the desired message to the audience. Some specific examples of nontraditional spaces that have been used for performing plays include churches, barns, libraries, cafés, warehouses, garages, courtyards, parks, colonnades/porticos, etc. As you see, almost any space can be adapted to be a performance space, indoors or outdoors.
Performance art is often considered to be a relatively new form of dramatic expression. It usually consists of a solo performer, or at most a very few, who creates a performance for a localized, and sometimes random, audience. This may consist of a variety of performance techniques and elements. There is often a message, though frequently implied instead of overt. You might have seen some performance art on a very casual scale in the form of street performers. Other times, the performance can be rather elaborate and formal in its set up. Performance art can cover the entire range of purely impromptu celebrations of the artist’s ideas, to a scripted statement of an idea conveyed through symbolism, movement, spoken word, and/or music. In almost every case, performance art is somewhat autobiographical on the part of the performer.
Performance art, though considered relatively new as a theatrical form, has actually been around nearly as long as Theatre itself, possibly even longer. Our human nature often draws us into sharing our stories with others that is often done using the dramatic use of voice and body as a form of expressive storytelling. Essentially, that is the origin of performance art – sharing the artist’s story or ideas with any interested audience.
Global and Multicultural Theatre
Theatre is not just a phenomenon in Western culture. Since the urge to perform is a human trait, every culture in the world has some kind of tradition for performing. In virtually every country, on nearly every continent, theatre has developed to suit the cultural needs of the people who live there. Japan and China have a rich, centuries old tradition of theatre, but it does not resemble anything in our theatrical traditions. We shouldn’t expect it to. The Oriental cultures are significantly different than ours. However, in our world, the traditions of vastly differing cultures are finding a way to blend together.
You may be familiar with the Broadway musical, The Lion King. The Broadway production is a classic example of how this blending of global theatre traditions have blended to create a very successful event. The Lion King is based on a traditional African story with Medieval roots, set in the African savannah, with influences of African music traditions, told in a quintessential American theatrical form (the American Musical), and presented using several Oriental design techniques, not least of which is the technique of using masks to evoke specific characters, in this case animal masks worn by human performers.
Theatre is Everywhere!
Though many of us in society don’t go to see plays any more, that doesn’t mean that theatre is not a part of our lives. In fact, theatre and performance are always an integral part of our lives, from when we are very young through to our old age. It has made itself such an integral part of our lives that we often don’t see it. However, if you look deeply enough, you’ll see theatre looking back out of your past at you. Did you ever “playact” as a child? Did you ever put on your parents’ clothes and pretend to be an adult? How many of you spent time playing outside, maybe playing “cops and robbers”? As you have grown older, are there any points in your life that you can point to the “drama” you have experienced, or perhaps observed others experience? Do you know a “prima donna” or “diva”? Our language is full of theatrical terms that relate to real-life situations. We don’t normally think about the theatrical connections, but they are there. Why? Because we, as human beings, are dramatic and theatrical by natural impulse. Even an infant is conditioned to “act out” when it wants something.
In addition to our language, we can often recognize the idea that we perform different roles in varying situations in our lives. When we go to work, we are often expected to act a certain way, to fit the expectations of our employers and customers/clients. In is usually clear that we act differently in church than we would at a party. Different places bring out different “faces” in us. Even in the classroom we have different roles to play. (See how difficult it is to talk about human experience without using theatre-related language!) The teacher has the role of educator, leader, guide, counselor, and students take on the role of learner. Outside the classroom teachers and students may act totally differently from how they act while in the classroom. Just think about how you act around your friends. Would you act that same way around your parents or grandparents? Our glib answer is often, “Sure, I do!” but the truth is that there at least subtle differences. Sometimes they are in the way we speak, the words we choose, or in the clothing we wear in a particular situation. Would you dress the same way for a first date as you do in the classroom, or when just hanging out with long-time friends? We put on a face that fits the audience we are “performing” for. We want others to see us through a personal façade or mask of our choosing. That means, in each of these situations, that we are taking on different roles. All of them are “us,” but they are a select version of us that we choose to share with that particular audience.
Our rituals and ceremonies
Think about weddings for a moment. They are almost all very similar. They follow a pattern, and in many cases they use the same text. That’s just one example of how we have incorporated the dramatic into our everyday rituals and ceremonies. Patterns and common elements bring comfort and continuity to those special and big events. The dramatic impulse to show off and to “perform” is why the bride wears the best and most beautiful gown she can and why we always stand for the formal entrance. There’s even a part of the wedding where the couple and the minister are in front of the guests, who are essentially an audience watching the performance of the wedding ceremony. Sure, these rituals go back in time, and many stem from the religious roots of many of those ceremonies. However, think about church services. They, too, have patterns and repetition in them. They also have the “performers” at the front and the congregation (audience) observing. Most organized religions also have a set order to the service – a script, if you will. The continuity these elements bring to the service is part of what makes church such a comforting and easy-to-understand event in our lives.
Weddings and church services are not the only types of rituals and ceremonies that we can think of. Almost any event or activity that follows a specific structure or has repeated elements from occurrence to occurrence can be considered to be theatrical. It has elements of the dramatic. Here are some additional common events that have a theatrical component: parades, birthday parties, trials, conferences, meetings, etc.
The final area where we can see theatre in our everyday lives is possibly the most obvious one – our entertainment. However, we rarely think of entertainment as being theatrical. We look at each one as being unique, but they all draw their elements from that common historical precedent, ancient Theatre.
We watch movies and television, and they are directly derived from the live stage experiences of the past. Neither of these mediums is performed live for the majority of the audience, but they use virtually every other theatrical element in their production and performance. Television often uses a live in-studio audience to create the same sort of live performance energy that comes from a live theatre performance, but that is not always possible to capture on camera for the audience viewing the program at home.
Another area of entertainment that also uses theatrical elements is video games. Similar to the stories we get in movies and television, video games use many of the same production techniques. Video games add a dimension that television and movies don’t have, and most theatre doesn’t have it either, and that’s audience interaction and participation in the story telling. The online role-playing games (Ah, another theatrical element!) allow the player/audience member to take an active role in determining the course of the story.
“Theatrical” – what do I mean?
The word “theatrical” has been used several times already in this supplemental guide. It might not be clear what is meant by this term, so let’s explore what it is to be “theatrical.” Based on the historical analysis by Plato, the ancient Greek philosopher and writer, Theatre consists of several things. To be “theatre” you must have all of them present. In this course, when something isn’t “theatre.” but it still has many of the traits of theatre, then it can be referred to as being theatrical. The elements that have come to be the definition of theatrical are summed up in the list below.
Live – at least some of the audience is present at the event
Spectacle – visual components that create an environment in which the story exists
Structure based in tradition or in another script of sorts
Roles “played” by the participants
A message or purpose that is communicated through all of the above
We can see that by this definition, containing the traits outlined above, the events listed throughout this supplement, up to this point, all fall pretty squarely into the realm of being theatrical.
Modern American television is probably the most ubiquitous form of entertainment. As noted above, it has many theatrical elements derived from the live theatre tradition. What may not be obvious to the modern viewer is that many of the kinds of shows we watch on television are modern versions of historical theatre traditions and forms, or genres.
Consider this brief list of comparisons:
Modern Soap operas = domestic dramas (a form developed and popularized in the 18th-19th century)
Police and Hospital shows = melodrama (a 19th century French theatre genre)
Situational Comedies (Sitcoms) = domestic comedy (an ancient classic Roman comedy style)
Variety shows (like SNL) = minstrel shows, burlesque, vaudeville (variety enetertainment blending various genres began in ancient Rome)
Movies, like television, hold a dear place in the minds of the American public, when it comes to entertainment. In fact, movies have become one of the primary on-demand items that American audiences enjoy. Again, like television, movies have many of the same genres and types of theatrical elements that we identified above. Interestingly, we often see staged plays turned into movies, or movies being made based on plays that have appeared on stage previously.
Movies today draw on many technical tools to give the audience a greater sense of reality in film-making than can often be achieved on stage, but the use of special effects goes all the way back to the ancient Greeks almost 2600 years ago.
Another way that our movie industry draws on the theatrical traditions of the past is the fascination with “stars.” Many of the famous people in our society have become famous through their work in the movies. However, many of them worked in live theatre before, during, and/or following their movie careers.
Theatre and Concerts
Another entertainment area that draws on the theatrical elements mentioned above is live music performances. Consider nearly any modern concert in virtually any style of music. The musicians often take on distinct “characters” on stage – some very obvious ones are the members of the band, Kiss. However, most musicians maintain a stage persona that is different from their private, off-stage lives. Musicians will, on occasion, find themselves involved in live theatre performance – either as a performer or perhaps as a songwriter for a given play.
The performances go well beyond the musicians’ characters though. The use of video, laser lights, pyrotechnics, and other special effects adds theatrical elements to visual impact of the musical performance. Even music videos are essentially mini-movies using a song as the script, but also using characters, scenery, dance, etc. to add to the overall impact and message of the music lyrics.
The reverse is also true. That is, music performers and performances are having an influence on modern theatre as well. Several recent Broadway musicals have focused on the story of a particular band, or their music.
Theatre at the Amusement Park
Another location where theatrical elements can be noticed is at our amusement parks. Most people know of Walt Disney World and Universal in Orlando, FL and their counterparts in other cities around the world. There are local amusement parks and larger more regional parks that share these ideas. The themed areas of these parks attempt to create an immersive experience for the guests and visitors. Using locations that are meant to suggest a place or time, and having characters dressed in costumes to further enhance the experience is a way to create a new and theatrical experience for the visitors.
Theatre & Other venues
Theatre and its elements pervade our experience beyond our entertainment venues. Just as theatre has found its way into our everyday language, many of the elements of theatre have found their way into our everyday lives. Here are just a few examples.
Museums use dioramas and theatrical “sets” for exhibits
Dining venues create theatrical experiences (for example, Medieval Times and Rainforest Café)
Sports teams’ staging entrances and halftime entertainments (Football, other sports – the Super Bowl)
Las Vegas is a whole city that creates a variety of immersive experiences for the visitors
Theatre and Digital Media
The advent of the internet has had a major impact on the spread of theatre’s influence throughout our culture. As noted previously in the discussion on movies, the on-demand nature of digital media through streaming and other digital delivery systems, the theatrical elements in movies have become a common part of our lives. As a result, theatrical elements have made their appearance in our interactive gaming through dedicated gaming systems (such as Xbox and iPads) and smart devices such as our phones. Most of us today have a world of entertainment, and as a result, nearly instantaneous access to theatrically influenced media at our fingertips almost constantly. Some of you are likely accessing this reading supplement through such a device.
Though not directly digital itself, an area of theatrical experience has grown out of this digital experience. Live action role-playing of favorite characters through Cosplay (Costume Playing) where fans create and wear costumes of their favorite characters, whether cartoon or only fictional. It’s a sort of year-round Halloween dress up opportunity, except the purpose is not to scare, rather it is to celebrate the traits and exploits of those favorite characters. Again, it’s something of a reverse of the theatrical experience which seeks to create a fictional but real-seeming world for a live audience. Cosplay attempts to bring fictional into the real world for the audience, the participants.
The Human Condition
Probably the most important point about the Theatre of Today is that it provides a means to celebrate the Human Condition. What does that mean, you may ask? The human condition just refers to us – to people. Now, then, here, and there. We share that in common with all the other human beings on this planet. Theatre lets us look at, reflect on, and try to understand who we are. Just as audiences and performers have done for more than 2000 years, theatre today looks at and celebrates life, being human. It is an event. Again, just like our ancestors those many generations ago, we attend theatre. We go there to see the play, to see the other people who are there in the audience, and to share that experience together.
Theatre is a form of literature brought to life, staged for the audience to relate to the stories it tells, to enjoy the highs and lows of what it means to be a human being. Short stories and novels and other works of literature do this too, but not quite like theatre does. Seeing the living, breathing humanity of the stories right in front of us is something that sets theatre apart from any other type of live performance, as we will see in a later reading.
Theatre has its own quality, coherence, and integrity. It is a special thing, and it is the product of a lot of people working together to bring it to life for the audience. They are all working toward the same goal. That’s the glue that holds all the elements together – keeps them focused on a singular purpose. When that happens successfully, theatre has an integrity of its own. That is, it stands apart as a unique thing that has a purpose and a function in our shared experience as human beings. This last paragraph may not make sense to you yet, but hopefully as the course progresses, it will become clearer.