Introduction to Theater
Introduction to Theater

Introduction to Theater

Lead Author(s): Derrick Spiva

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Enhance the student's ability to enjoy, appreciate and communicate the aesthetic principles of theatre as a collaborative and necessary art form.

Ch 1 Introduction Theater Defined

Key Terms and Concepts:

One would argue that the appropriate way to start a textbook on theater is to define the word. Yet theater can be better defined by what it does as mentioned in the above video.  Andrew Russell, an artisitic director and Tony Award winner speaks briefly of his life in theater and illustrating how theater has the power to change the world. The power of theater helps to define what theater is to both the artist and viewer alike. 

​The terms theater can be used in the strictest sense of the word as strictly the stage and can also be used rather loosely to mean other things such as going to the movie theater. The word "theater" can also be used to describe a place where an event occurs.  

Theater can have many other meanings.  It can refer to an actual building that houses a multipurpose room such as that found in a public school or a town hall consisting of a stage, with a proscenium (basically a frame that defines the stage) with a few curtains as a backdrop and an audience area. In a non-western society if may refer to a battle field or a divine place where rituals take place.

Whether one defines theater as an art form or a performance element, it is important to understand that the word can have many meanings depending on the context for which the word is used and role it plays in setting described.

Defined, Webster's first definition of a theater is as a structure:

a building or area for dramatic performances
a building or area for showing motion pictures
an outdoor structure for dramatic performances or spectacles in ancient Greece and Rome

Keep in mind the theater existed long before the greeks in other parts of the world. This will be discussed in Chapter  8, 13 & 14. However, for now we will use the earliest Greek terms used to define theater or the word "theatron".  If you use this word in a search engine you may pull up many things but the ancient meaning for theatron more or less meant Webster's first definition as a building or area for productions that an audience would experience . In short the term for theater in the early days it is known as a "seeing place" among western cultures.

Early Greek Theaters would look something like this 

One of the greek theaters or "theatron" was touted as the greatest theater in the Western world of its time. The Theatre of Epidaurus was said to have perfect "acoustics" in an age where electronics did not exist.  It is still used even today for performances. About a hundred miles from Athens, this 14,000 seat outdoor theater is said to produce perfect acoustics.

The Greeks didn't have exclusivity on theater. Early Egyptians would produce their passion plays dating back to 2000 BC with the stories of the God Osiris played at festivals annually. Stone tablets preserved in German museums show the first passion plays created in Egypt. The stones give information regarding  Ikhernofret, who represented an Egyptian king, and the role he played the first ever recorded. They resemble many of the passion plays that are seen in this day and age.

Did you watch the Video?

Who funded the building of the Theatre in Epidaurus


Alexander 1




Money from local theaters


Money from healing centers

Although seen as a noun or a verb, theater should be considered a living entity. From ancient Greece, Egypt, Asia to Africa, life was re-enacted on stages around the world. It is that form of life that audiences come to see and hear and experience. 

See what a modern day actor from Julliard experiences as he discovers what it is like to be an actor on stage.

Theater has many meanings whether it be a building or used as a verb in terms such as "theater of operations" that indicate and event used commonly in issues of war. Theater can generally be described as a live event, a moment in time where a presentation is made to an audience for the purpose of expressing an idea, thought or persuasion.

When we look at theater in terms of our definition of acting on stage, we can divide this into 3 different areas of concentration, the building, theater as an organization or group of people, and theater as work.

The Building 

As we discovered in the Theatre of Epidaurus, the ancient Greeks were masters at outdoor theater structures in their time. Building an acoustically perfect  structure where 14,000 patrons could hear the drop of a coin from a distance was no small feat.  Yet the building and/ or outdoor structure built for theater was the primary building used for presentations that would consist at least of an audience area and stage.

Whether there was funding to build an elaborate structure or just a desire to perform and produce a play with a simple store front room, the theater building was instrumental in being the vehicle of delivery.

Many (especially western scholars) would like to say that theater buildings of the past were more "primitive" than modern day theaters. We can give credit to modern day technology and use of theaters such as the elaborate multi -million dollar stage of  in Las Vegas to how far theater buildings have come. But one cannot say that early theaters were not elaborate for their time.

I am not one to downplay the size and spectacle of . Every seat in the  Theater experience has its own speaker to aid in the theater experience for the production and is well worth noting. But the ancient outdoor theater in Epidaurus miles outside of Athens had acoustics good enough for 14,000 people to hear without microphones or a sound system or elaborate lighting set up. We know there are high expectations that the modern day musical productions would include technology that will insure the actors are heard, understood and seen, but one should not assume ancient technologies to have been inferior. 

Consider the forethought put into an ancient Greek theater in the following video.

Every part of the stage has a purpose. Every part of the building has a purpose. Many special effects were considered during this period to provide the audience with the effect the director wanted the audience member to see and experience.

Consider the age of the Elizabethan Theater.  Although many Elizabethan theaters were large seating anywhere from 1500 to 3500 people, one stands out in a much smaller form, The Red Lion Theater in the city of London, England. Built in 1567, the Red Lion theater started as a farm, but was converted to a multi-sided  40 by 30 feet theater. It had a fixed stage  equipped with trapdoors, aerial stunts could be performed above the stage.  It had its challenges as a venue but still was innovative for its time.

Shakespeare's Globe-London Elizabethan Theater

Shakespeare's Globe-London

In its simplest form the basic parts of a theater building are as follows:

  • The Stage: the area where all of the action occurs sometimes this is performed in the audience area as well.
  • The House: usually considered the non playing area or where the audience is seated.
  • The Front of House: usually consiting of the lobby and outer areas
  • Backstage: sometimes considered offstage is the area where all the work goes on to do the show. 

Additional to the basic parts of a theater building, there are many different types of theaters to consider:

  • Arena:  Consider structures like the Coliseum in Rome. The action occured in the center. Arena theaters have stages in the center of the building with the audience surrounding the actors.
  • Thrust: A thrust stage actually is a building with a stage that goes into the audience allowing the actors to go from the stage to the audience area to perform.
  • Proscenium: What one would consider a traditional theater stage and found in most schools and colleges with a stage framed by columns in either side of the stage and an audience area angled for viewing.
  • Theatre in the Round: similar of the arena stage only in that the actors perform in the center surrounded by audience members. 
  • Black Box Theater: Considered bare bones but a more intimate stage for smaller audiences.

More can be said about the theater building that goes beyond introductions. We will explore these functions later in the book.

Elizabethan Theaters

Elizabethan theaters were large seating anywhere from


100 to 300


1500 to 3500 people


500 to 1000


600 to 700

Ch 1 Thrust Stage

What is a "Thrust" stage : A thrust stage actually is


A stage out side of a building


A stage that is elevated for the audience seated in the balcony to view


a stage with the audience seated around the actors


a building with a stage that goes into the audience allowing the actors to go from the stage to the audience area to perform.

Ch 1 Outdoor theaters

The ancient Greeks were masters at outdoor theater structures in their time. Which of the following was an example of this?


Theater in the round


Theatre of Epidaurus

Theater as a Company or Group of People

The joy of theater is the ability to work with many artists from various field of performing arts on a common goal, the production of a play.   Many times performing artists and technicians develop a camaraderie or mutual trust, working on projects together for many years.  These groups are known as troupes.  Some of them stay in one location while others travel. Sometimes these troupes were referred to as playing companies. Troupes usually consisted of 13- 14 members. 

One of the earliest  western troupes to play was Commedia dell'arte that originated in Italy around 1560.

Did you Watch the Video?

In the video above about Early Greek Theater Design, In what area did the chorus stand?









The Working Theater

One statement most theater professionals  can agree is to say "theater is hard work". But,  for those in the industry it is a very rewarding work with many benefits.  From the actor on the stage to the designer and crew person behind the scenes, all areas of theater are demanding requiring long hours, passion and dedication.

Performing arts in general require much work. Filmmaking as well as theater work require long hours.  I have spent many hours working in both worlds and in many ways merging the two together for productions that integrate both mediums.  The consensus though is the same. Performing arts work requires long hours.

What is the typical timeline for mounting a play? It all depends on the type of production and what role one plays in the play. Typically the play takes around a month to two months to mount. But many parts of production occur before the play even hits the stage. The playwright could spend months on writes and re-writes, many things can occur in life with funding or life in general. Exceptions to this are very complex musicals such as "Spider Man" which took 16 full weeks to mount. 

Areas of production that need to be considered that can take time include planning, casting, production design, music, choreography, costume design, set design, sound and lighting design. We will talk more of the roles in theater later in the text.

Theater work can be divided into the various jobs that bring everything together into the final production. In general, theater like other forms of performance art can be divided into pre-production or jobs done before the show. and production that is the period from the end of pre-production to the final bows on the stage.  Other performance art such as film have a section known as post-production known for the time when the film is edited and sound is added. All of this however is combined on the stage in production for theater.

Pre-Production Roles

The following is a list of theater roles that you will see in operation during pre-production. Click on each link to see their respective responsibilities in theater production.

Production Roles

The following is a list of theater roles that you will see in operation during production. Click on each link to see their respective responsibilities in theater production.

It seems like so many people to produce a show but the list shown is fairly inclusive. Many productions combine roles depending on the play, funding available and the people on hand with the experience and time to do the work. In fact, many theater professionals do their own shows. The level and complexity of theater productions can go from very simple one man/women shows to elaborate musicals that include or even employ hundreds of people.

Ch 1 Props Master

What is a theatrical property master?


In charge of theatrical make up


In charge of costumes


Over all responsibility for the production


Designer overseeing any props needed for a production

Ch 1 Movement

Which designer creates sequences of movements and physical bodies ?




Lighting Designer


Set Designer



Ch 1 Theatrical production management

Production Managemer


Designs Lights


is a sub-division of stagecraft


Plans costumes


Plans makeup

Theater and Art

Let us turn for a moment to look at art in theater. Art has always played a role in theater history and its origins. Whether it be from a simple set to something more spectacle, to elaborate costumes or the simple mask that displays emotion, art plays a central role in the expression of theater.

Lets examine the mask in theater history.  Masks have been used since the western beginnings of theater to express emotion, to portray drama or comedy. Aside from theater, the mask has been used many times in religious rituals to display pleasure or anger of the gods.

As a tool in theater, the mask came from ancient Greece and their religious practices. The worship of Dionysus played an instrumental role in the use of masks on the Greek stage. Listen to Professor Oliver Taplin explore the use of masks in Greek theater.

Theater is a living art form that incorporates many talented artists.  From the ancients to the present, this living art form continues to shape our world providing new worlds to explore on the stage. In this technological age we are seeing theater transform before our eyes using new technologies such as virtual reality to explore the medium.

In fact, virtual reality was first mentioned by a French playwright Antonin Artaud who described theater in the real world and used the term virtual reality. Listen to feature film director William Cusick talk about the new frontier of virtual reality and its connection to theater. (at 4:36)

Theater and Live Performance

One can look at the art aspects of theater and spend a lifetime of study in the world of art. However, one must also consider the performance aspect of theater.  Performance can encompass so many elements.  Performance is an action such as singing, acting, representation of or impersonation of a character.  Performance can occur in film, animation, church and of course theater.  When it is done in theater the definition is more refined.

Consider the performer who engages the audience, and ackowledges their presence. This form of performance is known as presentational acting. Think of it as if the actor is presenting something to the audience.

Now consider an actor whose purpose is to act without ackowledging the audience's presence. This is known as representational acting.  You will see these forms of acting used extensively in theater. Preview this short video comparing presentaional to representaional acting.

Theater productions have a script they follow. Designers, actors and crew rely upon the script as the production's blueprint to complete the production. The script is the handbook used to make it all happen.  There is another form of theater, however, that doesnt rely upon a scipt to move the story along but on improvisation, a spontaneous performance that is not scripted but relies on the actors intuition and imagination to come up with the next moment on the stage. 

This is seen many times in comedies on the stage and directors will use improvisation (improv for short) in rehearsal to work through some part of the script or to prepare an actor in their role. One of the greatest improv artists that was a great film actor as well was the late Robin Williams. robin had a gift for being spontaneous to the extent that talk show host were slightly nervous when having him on their shows, concerned of what he might say or do the next moment.  Many ideas come to actors during improvisations that work into their routines or may work into their characters. 

Theater can be defined many ways. Theater production has a long history from ancient outdoor theaters with masks to virtual reality and its individual user, theater has a broad history that will get even more interesting as the future unfolds. But the play is the center of focus. So let's talk about the play in our next chapter.

Works Cited:

1 “African Theatre.” History of Theater, Wikipedia contributors. "History of theatre." Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 8 Aug. 2018. Web. 17 Aug. 2018.

2. Fort, A. and Kates, H. (2018). Egyptian "Passion" Plays. [online] Available at: [Accessed 17 Aug. 2018].

3. Wikipedia contributors. "Parts of a theatre." Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 9 May. 2018. Web. 17 Aug. 2018.

4. Cohen, Robert . Sherman, Donovan. Theater, Breif, 11th Edition published by McGrow-Hill Education 2017, New York