What is Theatre?


        Robert Cohen and Donovan Sherman. Theatre: Brief Version, 11th edition, Boston: McGraw-Hill Higher Education, 2017; Chapter 1: What is Theatre?

Objectives of Unit I, Lecture 2: What is Theatre?
To identify the differences between theatre and drama and the collaborators involved in the theatrical experience.

1. What is theatre? Drama?

Theatre is the place of performance, such as Aberdeen's Capitol Theatre (L) or the performance of a theatrical work, such as the 2008 Broadway musical: Legally Blonde (R).

Capitol Theatre Legally Blonde

A performance, according to Robert Cohen, is "an action, or series of actions, taken for the benefit of someone else. We call that 'someone else' the audience.'" (Cohen & Sherman, pg 14.)

Drama is the script or the text of a play. As one writer put it: "drama is on the page and theatre is on the stage."

2. What is the original source language of these two terms?


3. What is the rough English translation?

Theatre: To see.
Drama: To do.

4. Is there a difference, besides the spelling, between "theatre" and "theater"?

No. Theatre is the British spelling and theater is the American spelling. In the 1830's, Noah Webster (1758-1843), of dictionary fame, created an American spelling for a number of British words. Colour became color, centre became center, and theatre became theater. Most of those in the acting profession, many of whom were originally British, continued to use the re spelling. Today, both spellings are used in the United States. Those in the profession still generally use the re spelling, the rest of America uses the er spelling.

5. What is Robert Cohen's definition of theatre?

Robert Cohen
Robert Cohen
Robert Cohen (1938- ), the lead author of our text, defines the theatre as "the live performance...of a scripted and rehearsed event" (Cohen & Sherman, pg 16). Obviously the three key words are live, performance and scripted. Scripted means the work is repeatable.

6. Who was Aristotle?

Aristotle (384-322 BCE) was a Greek critic who in The Poetics (335 BCE), (1) outlines the beginnings of drama, (2) develops a structured approach to dramatic analysis and (3) presents a definition of drama.

What is his definition of drama?
    Drama is "an imitation of men in action". Three key words-- Imitation: It's not real, it's make believe. Men: Drama deals with people, men and women. Action: Something happenes. There is movement; a beginning, middle and an end.

7. According to Eric Bentley, what are the three essentials for a theatrical performance?

Eric Bentley
Eric Bentley
Eric Bentley, (1916- ), a British born drama critic, playwright, editor and translator, declares that all you need for a theatrical experience is an actor, a character (developed by the playwright in the script), and an audience.

8. According to Edwin Wilson and Alvin Goldfarb, what is the "heart of the theatre experience?"

Edwin Wilson and Alvin Goldfarb, the authors of a commonly used Introduction to Theatre text, believe that the "heart of the theatre experience" is the live relationship between the performer and the audience. "During a stage performance the actress and actors can hear laughter, can sense silence, and can feel tension in the audience. In short, the audience can affect, and in subtle ways change, the performance." (Wilson & Goldfarb, Theatre, The Lively Art, 7th ed, pg 7)

9. What are the three categories of art?

Literary (poetry, drama, fiction), visual (painting, sculpture, architecture), and performing.

10. What are the four performing arts?

Theatre, dance, opera and music.

11. What characteristics do all the performing arts have in common?

They all require a creator (playwright, composer), an interpreter (actor, dancer, singer, musician), and an audience. They also require that the interpreter and audience occupy the same space (the theatre) at the same time.

12. What are the six major elements of theatre?

Audience, script, actors, director, the theatrical space (the theatre) and the technical elements of scenery, lights, costumes and sound

13. Is theatre a pure art?

No. Theatre, in performance, is produced by the collaboration of many theatrical artists: writers, actors, directors, designers, producers, managers,... Each of these collaborators considers himself an artist.

14. What are the responsibilities of these collaborators?

  1. Playwright: Writes the text of the play. He develops the characters, outlines the plot, and presents this creation to the audience through dramatic dialogue.

  2. Producer: Is the head (boss) of the production company. He picks the play, or property; and is responsible for raising the funds necessary to mount the show.

  3. Director: Is responsible for developing a dramatic interpretation of the playwright's script. He spends most of his time working with the actor.

  4. Actor: Takes the character developed by the playwright and turns that character into a living creation on stage.

  5. Scene Designer: Develops the drawings (Plans and Elevations) necessary to build and paint the sets. He or she supervises the set and property crews.

  6. Lighting Designer: Develops the drawings (Light Plot) and charts (Hook-up Chart and Cue Sheet) necessary to hang, focus, and cue the lights for a production. He or she supervises the light, or electric crew. In the commercial theatre, the lighting cues are called, not by the lighting designer, but by the stage manager.

  7. Costume Designer: Develops the drawings (Costume Plate) necessary to build the costumes worn by the performers. He or she supervises the costume, or wardrobe crew. The three visual designers-- scenery, lighting and costume --create the visual "world of the play."

  8. Sound Designer: Develops the drawings and charts necessary to establish the type and location of sound equipment (microphones, speakers, amplifiers, mixing consoles) needed for a show. He or she supervises the sound crew.

  9. Stage Manager
    Stage Manager calling Cues
    back stage
    at Memphsis, The Musical
    Managers supervise and organize, the work of the actors (Company Manager), production crew (Stage Manager), and house staff (House Manager). The Stage Manager is the back stage boss. He (1) keeps a written record of the play's interpretation (the prompt book), (2) calls all of the light, sound, and shift cues during the performance, and (3) in the commercial theatre, is responsible for maintaining the "integrity" of the show once it has opened. (Making sure the performance does not change from night to night.) Watch and listen to the Stage Manager calling the electric (light) and rail (fly) cues for a brief scene (The song: "Big Love") in Memphis, The Musical at the Colonial Theatre in Boston. See the performance of "Big Love" as it appeared to the audience seated in the house. (YouTube videos) Notice in the photo on the right, that the Stage Manager is back stage, watching the performance on four black and white video monitors.

    Be sure to read "Photo Essay: Broadway Stage Manager Lisa Iacucci" starting on page 139 of the text.

    Why does the Stage Manager call the cues? In many commercial theatres, the crew can not see or hear the actors on stage so the Stage Manager becomes their eyes and ears. Also in the commercial world, especially "on the road", the crew generally does not attend rehearsals. (It's just too expensive.) The first time they "see" the show is at the first performance. They are told, "When the Stage Manager gives you the GO, grab this rope and pull."

    Why is it the Stage Manager's job to maintain the "integrity" of the show? Once the show opens, the director's job is done. From this point on, it will be the Stage Manager who will rehearse the understudy and cast replacements and give notes to the actors each night after the show.

E-mail questions and comments to Larry Wild at Larry.Wildl@Northern.edu.
Updated: December 20, 2016
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Text Copyrighted © 1995-2016 by Larry Wild, Northern State University, Aberdeen, SD 57401