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Theater is arguably the most expressive storytelling medium, and is constantly adapting to the shifting times. Although audiences today generally experience live-action storytelling from the comfort of our living rooms, purely for leisure, this wasn’t always the case. Theater troupes of the past went to great lengths to tell their stories, and audiences had a much different experience than those today do.

The Origins of Theater

While humanity has been passing down stories orally since we developed the use of language, the institution of the theater did not begin until much later. Ultimately, early versions of theater were wildly different than a theater performance we might attend today.

Plays of the past had a stronger basis in religion and tradition. Early Greek and Chinese performances are especially rich with religious dedications and community traditions

Ancient Greek Theater

Ancient Greek history is intimately tied with theater. Early plays were performed in tribute to the god Dionysus, the god of wine, fertility, and, later, theater itself. Choruses began performing hymns written in his honor, which were dubbed dithyrambs. These choruses gradually began dressing up in costume or masks, but still did not resemble theater as we know it today. It wasn’t until the 6th century BC, under Athenian ruler Pisistratus, that “acting” as we know it came to be. Pisistratus instituted a number of public festivals, one of which was dedicated to Dionysus. The day centered around music, dance, and poetry. One man, Thespis, is reported to have burst from carts to recite poetry in-character; and this is where the word “thespian” comes from. His audiences weren’t even seeking out entertainment, they were just wandering through the festival. Setting an important precedent in history, wealthy citizens donated money to the arts in hopes of becoming influential in politics and society. This process would change throughout history, but wealthy Greeks sponsored plays through a special tax called a choregia. This tax enabled the creation of recognizable theaters, complete with stone benches situated outdoors. While such conditions may have been tolerable for a short period of time, Greek playwrights soon began writing much longer plays, adding additional characters and prologues to fully flesh out a character-driven story. Stories like Oedipus Rex are much closer to modern theater than poetry recitals, but this came at a price. Sitting or standing on stone benches for hours at a time would have been painful, and audiences would have been at the mercy of the elements. However, what the stadiums and amphitheaters sacrificed in comfort they made up for in acoustics. While moviegoing audiences today are used to a surround sound experience, ancient Greeks did not have that luxury, but still had an impressive, advanced audio system built right into the theater. Greek architects deliberately raised seating to provide a better view for audiences, as well as designed the seats to reflect and amplify the sounds from the theater. As a result, thousands of people attended these performances, and most were able to not only see, but also hear, the action on the stage. The Greek classics were ultimately spread throughout multiple cultures and civilizations as a result of the conquests and formation of the Roman Empire. Apart from adopting many Greek gods and customs, the Roman Empire also continued to perform many of their plays.

Early Chinese Theater

There is some debate about how far back Chinese theater really goes. This is not due to a lack of evidence, as ancient Chinese culture developed writing very early. Instead, it has more to do with what qualifies as “theater.” As early as 2205 BC, there are records of various ceremonial dances representing and depicting animals or occupations. Like the ancient Greeks, early Chinese civilizations held festivals that consisted of dancing, music, and even a chorus. Some of them celebrated military victories, others honored religious spirits, but this version of theater had a much stronger hold in China than in Greece. Audiences also wouldn’t have had any seating during these festivals, so they would either have to stand or sit throughout the performances. There wasn’t any semblance of a real theater site yet, so performances were scattered throughout the festivals. Eventually, that changed. In 1122 BC certain performances were forbidden from being associated with religion. The dances and costumes grew more lavish, and the performers danced upon a stage built for that specific purpose. This allowed people to congregate in a certain area for a performance, but these performances didn’t consists of a narrative. There were acrobats or dancers, but audiences could leave in between acts. It didn’t require hours of their concentration.A more familiar version of theater appeared in China in the 6th century with Daimain (Mask). It told the story of a prince with such soft features that he required a mask to frighten his enemies. A few other classics appeared around this time, employing now-familiar martial art scenes and women with long, flowing sleeves, which would later become popular in Chinese opera.

Theater in Medieval Europe

Medieval Europe had a low literacy rate, so records are few and far between. Additionally, the church opposed certain performances, so some plays were either lost to time or performed in secret. Throughout the Middle Ages, the church’s grip gradually loosened on the arts, so record-keeping concerning plays eventually improved.

Sacred Drama

The church did approve of some performances however, and more specifically, those related to the Bible. In order to spread their gospel to an illiterate population, the church performed stories directly from the Bible or based on the lives of saints. Though they had plenty of material to work with, most churches only performed these plays for specific religious occasions, possibly only once or twice a year. Audiences watched these performances in church, so their accommodations wouldn’t have been much better than their Greek predecessors. Sermons could go on for hours and audience’s only comfort would have been a rigid wooden bench. There was no consideration for comfort, in deep contrast to our view of theater today. Religious plays were in service to God, so if the seating was sufficient for sermons, it was sufficient enough for theater as well.

Secular Drama

One of the most important developments in comedy was the Feast of Fools, a popular medieval festival, particularly in France. This festival had dance, song, minstrels, and mimes, but it also allowed for lower clergy to mock their superiors as well as church life. So it wasn’t completely separated from the church, but it was certainly a rare opportunity to criticize holy men and texts. This represented a huge step forward for comedic theater.Around the 12th century, truly secular plays began. Actors were typically normal citizens, and stages were usually outdoors. Set pieces could be transported with a cart, but there were no theater houses or troupes. As such, audiences would have stood or sat on the ground, but at least now it was for leisure purposes again.

Renaissance Theater

The Renaissance was a new era for science, philosophy, and art. During this time, theater as we know it today came to be, complete with widespread professional acting troupes and playhouses. Many Renaissance plays are still performed and taught today.

William Shakespeare

Perhaps the world’s most famous playwright, William Shakespeare wrote 37 plays and 157 sonnets. His plays are frequently taught in schools and referenced in pop culture.

Shakespeare’s plays were performed at the Globe Theater, which had seating for the wealthy and standing room for the rest. With room for 3000 people, just about anyone attending needed to be constantly entertained. If you could not afford seating, then you had to stand in front of the stage, packed tightly with other bodies for hours. Ergonomically designing your own personal theater can be simple today, but doing so for a public theater intended for thousands of people in Shakespeare’s time meant sacrificing comfort. That put the onus on the Bard to distract people with on-stage antics, wordplay, and popular themes like love and betrayal.

Unfortunately, the original Globe Theater was destroyed in the 1640s, but was later reconstructed. You can visit this reconstruction in England today.

French Theater

One of the most important developments in comedy was the Feast of Fools, a popular medieval festival, particularly in France. This festival had dance, song, minstrels, and mimes, but it also allowed for lower clergy to mock their superiors as well as church life. So it wasn’t completely separated from the church, but it was certainly a rare opportunity to criticize holy men and texts. This represented a huge step forward for comedic theater.Around the 12th century, truly secular plays began. Actors were typically normal citizens, and stages were usually outdoors. Set pieces could be transported with a cart, but there were no theater houses or troupes. As such, audiences would have stood or sat on the ground, but at least now it was for leisure purposes again.

Italian Theater

Italy focused on reviving old Roman classics, even going so far as to include and highlight choruses. However, their largest contribution to theater was actually architectural design.

Italian theater companies added backdrop paintings to better immerse audiences in the performance. These would become commonplace throughout Europe, as would Italian proscenium arches, which frame the stage from the perspective of the audience. These arches are now standard in auditoriums and theaters around the world.

Modern Theater

The theater that we experience today differs vastly than the theater of the past — not only in comfort and environment, but also in the material that we consume.

American Theater

Melodrama was particularly popular in 19th century America. Melodramatic plays usually included music, a clear good-and-evil dichotomy, and a happy ending. The most popular melodrama was Uncle Tom’s Cabin500 companies were producing it in 1899.

Broadway theater also started in New York City during the 19th century. It became so successful that these theaters have their own awards — the Tony Awards. Even when film came around, Broadway persevered, as it does today. Broadway plays always took intermission into account, since it gave audiences a break from the performance and increased bar and food sales for the theater.

Additionally, Broadway theaters are required to have at least 500 seats, but that is still a far cry from the thousands in the Globe Theater or Greek amphitheaters. Indeed, Off-Broadway theaters can have even less than 500 seats. The Renaissance added comfort for those who could afford theater, and Broadway wasn’t exactly cheap either. However, both offered limited seating, creating an exclusive event for the express purpose of leisure and luxury.  

The Rise of Film

With the advent of film in the early 20th century, many theater companies felt threatened. At first, when they only had silent films to contend with, there was a clear advantage to seeing a play. However, theater enthusiasts worried when sound came to film in 1927.

Movie theaters exploded across the country. They offered the same plush seating as Broadway, concessions, an immersive story, and culture that a theater did. However, movie theaters also offered financial accessibility and the chance to see a technological marvel.

As time went on, movies moved from the theater into our homes. No longer did people have to go out to witness these stories, but instead they could stay in the comfort of their own home. Nowadays, movies play on television channels, through consoles, on streaming services, and more. Audiences can construct their own viewing experience within their home, whether they want to watch a film alone or with friends, with drinks or without, or lights on or lights off.  In this modern age, it’s all up to the audience.

The Future of Theater

Although television is now the most prominent way that we consume stories, theater has maintained popularity. Movies and plays often inspire each other, borrowing from one another or outright creating their own version of the same stories. This only benefits audiences, as these stories spread through theater, television,or internet-streaming services.

Furthermore, audiences can now enjoy epic tales from comfortable seating in temperature-controlled environments. This is leaps and bounds from the stone benches used in ancient Greece.

More and more people are also creating their own home theaters. This allows audiences to stay in the comfort of their own homes, a definite convenience, and the profound intimacy of witnessing a story alone. On top of that, as virtual reality becomes more and more advanced, perhaps we’ll be able to experience these stories as a character, or right up on the stage with the world’s best.

The medium of storytelling has evolved with each era, but, ultimately, the tradition of theater is safe. We might tweak the methods over time, but we have been performing for each other for millennia, and technology is not about to change that.

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