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What is theatre?

Theatre comes from the Greek word Theatron which means “seeing place”. It is a place where
something is seen. The term drama comes from the Greek dran which means “ to do”. It is
something done.

Today we use the word theatre in many ways such as:

1. Theatre - the building or place.

Theatre is often used to describe the building where plays are put on; the architecture,
the structure and space for dramatic performances. It may also be used to describe the
place where films are shown as in movie theatre and the place where surgeries occur e.g.
operating theatre.

2. Theatre- the company / cast/ group

Theatre is a collaborative art usually involving dozens, sometimes hundreds of people for
one single performance. They include owners, managers, technicians, actors, dancers,
director etc. Theatre companies would go on tour in various places as a means of earning
a living.
3. Theatre- the occupation
Theatre is an occupation that is a professional activity. It is also the passions of thousands
of men and women around the world. It is a calling that one has and it is sometimes a
lifetime devotion. There are thousands of theatre artists who have dedicated their
professional life to perfecting special arts of acting, directing etc.

Theatre and drama is not the same thing. Here are some of the differences between theatre and

Theatre ( is seen) Drama ( is done)

Theatre means “ seeing place”. Drama means “to do”.
Something is seen. An action is seen. Something is done. An action is done.
Theatre is the hardware of the play Drama is the software of the play
production. production.
Three things are needed in order for something to be called or deemed as theatre. They are the
process, product and audience. Therefore:

Process + Product + Audience = Theatre

- analysis of script - what is produced - those who came to
- rehearsals - what we see see the product.

Origins of Theatre (How it all started)

 What we know today as theatre can be traced to stories and rituals found in dances and
mimed performances by masked dancers during fertility rituals and ceremonies that acted
as important passages in human life.
 These ritual passes were used to guarantee a successful crop or to please the gods. These
rituals were also to glorify supernatural powers, victories and heroes. Often these
supernatural forms would be represented using costumes, masks; make-up, dance, music,
gestures and pantomime were some of the theatrical elements found in early rituals.
 These rituals were practiced not only for duty of the gods but because they brought
entertainment and pleasure. The act of storytelling was also practiced during the rituals
with stories of the hunt and conquests, tribes and family history. It soon developed other
theatrical elements such as developing a character, voice impersonation, gesture and
facial expressions and imitations of emotions.
 Eventually, these ceremonies and rituals became formalized into dramatic festivals and
spread west from Greece and east from India.

History of Theatre (When it all started)

1. Greek Theatre

 The Greek theatre history began with festivals honoring their gods. A god, Dionysus, was
honored with a festival called by "City Dionysia". Plays were only presented at City
Dionysia festival. In Athens, during this festival, men used to perform songs to welcome
Dionysus and female followers danced themselves into a state of frenzy. They would
carry long phallic symbols that they would tear to pieces consume the raw flesh of
sacrificial animals.
 Soon, the followers of Dionysus developed a more structured form of drama. They dance
and sing, in choral form, the stories of Greek myth. In the 6th century BC a priest of
Dionysus, by the name of Thespis, introduces a new element which can validly be seen as
the birth of theatre. He engages in a dialogue with the chorus. He becomes, in effect, the
first actor. Actors in the west, ever since, have been proud to call themselves, Thespians.
 In Greek Theatre, tragedy, comedy, and satyr were the theatrical forms of the plays.
Tragedy and comedy were viewed as completely separate genres. Satyr plays dealt with
the mythological subject in comic manner.
 Tragedy plays: Tragedy: Tragedy dealt with the big themes of love, loss, pride,
the abuse of power and the fraught relationships between men and gods. Typically
the main protagonist of a tragedy commits some terrible crime without realizing
how foolish and arrogant he has been. Then, as he slowly realizes his error, the
world crumbles around him.
 Comedy plays: Comedies were fun and laughable and would mainly mocked
men in power for their vanity and foolishness. Later on comedies were about
ordinary people.
 Satyr plays: These short plays were performed between the acts of tragedies and
made fun of the plight of the tragedy's characters. The satyrs were mythical half-
human, half-goat figures and actors in these plays wore large phalluses for comic
 Greek costumes and masks

The actors were so far away from the audience that the costumes and masks had to be
exaggerated (larger than life, extravagant). The actors also wore thick boots to appear taller and
gloves to exaggerate their hands so that their movements would be seen by the audience. The
masks is the best known symbol of Greek Theatre. A distinctive mask was made for each
character in the play. The masks were made from linen or cork. Tragic masks carried sad,
mournful expressions. Comic masks were smiling or smirking. The actors entire head was
covered by the masks which also included hair. It is said that the shape of the mask amplified the
actors’ voice, making the words easier to hear.

Fig 1. Panoramic view of the Greek theatre At Epidaurus

Panoramic view of the Greek theatre at Epidaurus.

Fig 2. Ariel view of the Greek Theatre

Theatron: The theatron (literally means "viewing-place") is where the spectators sat. The
theatron was usually part of hillside overlooking the orchestra, and often wrapped around a large
portion of the orchestra (see the diagram above). Spectators in the fifth century BC probably sat
on cushions or boards, but by the fourth century the theatron of many Greek theaters had marble

Orchestra: The orchestra (literally means, "dancing space") was normally circular. It was a level
space where the chorus would dance, sing, and interact with the actors who were on the stage
near the skene. The earliest orchestras were simply made of hard earth, but in the Classical
period some orchestras began to be paved with marble and other materials.

Skene: The skene (literally means, "tent") was the large rectangular building directly behind the
orchestra, used as a backstage. Actors could change their costumes and masks. Earlier the skene
was a tent or hut; later it became a permanent stone structure. These structures were sometimes
painted to serve as backdrops.

Parodos: The parodos (literally means "passageways") are the paths by which the chorus and
some actors made their entrances and exits. The audience also used them to enter and exit the
theater before and after the performance.
Project (Describe the theatrical elements of each theatre Era.)

1. Greek Drama
2. Roman Drama
3. Medieval Drama
4. Renaissance Drama
5. African Theatre
6. Caribbean theatre