Theatre has been an integral part of society since the dawn of time. Performance is ingrained in human nature, regardless of social or economic status, ethnicity, and age. We all perform, even in our daily life. That doesn’t mean we lie, but rather that we consciously try to present ourselves in the best light possible in order to achieve something we really care about.
Think about a job interview. If you want the job and if you think the job is the right one for you, you will try to positively impress the interviewer. You will “rehearse” your interview in front of a mirror, or you will enlist the help of a friend. You will carefully select what to say and how to say it; you will pick an outfit that you think best suits the expectations of the job and your personality. This isn’t all that different from what an actor does.
Theatre allows us to immerse ourselves in a story as it happens live, right in front of our eyes, with real people going through it. It gives us the chance to put ourselves in those people’s—the characters’—shoes and almost feel what they feel. The proximity to the action and the shared space makes for an intense experience. Hence, theatre encourages us to develop empathy and to care for other people.
Theatre fosters a sense of community, as well. The audience and performers are all together in the same time and space, witnessing the action and going through a common emotional reaction. While it can be argued that movies achieve the same objective for audiences, movies don’t reach the same level of engagement that a good theatrical performance obtains from its audience because the action is more removed from the viewers and only allows a more conscious and superficial connection. A recent study1 has proved that students who see a production of a play are able to better understand the story and the plot, significantly improve their vocabulary, and develop greater empathy and tolerance as they understand and value the characters. Theatre teaches us how to behave in social situations by providing examples and the opportunity to use them.
By demanding an immediate reaction, theatre forces us to have opinions and exercise our critical thinking, which is one of the reasons why theatre is part of the Liberal Arts—from the Latin Ars Liberalis2—and is present in most colleges and universities in their General Education curriculum. Theatre represents life and human nature, encompassing a variety of subjects and issues through a wide perspective.
What is Theatre?
What do we need in order to have theatre? For something to be considered theatre, you need to have an actor telling a story and an audience, even if it is just one person, listening to it. That is the bare minimum.
The story itself is crucial, but it doesn’t have to be scripted. In fact, several theatrical traditions that survive to this day rely on improvisation. Over the centuries, scripts have been developed and playwrights have become famous; scripts are definitely instrumental to theatrical productions, but strictly speaking, they are not necessary.
A dedicated theatrical space isn’t necessary either. Of course, it helps to be in a building that has been conceived for theatre productions, but theatre can happen everywhere, as long as there is a space for the actor and for the audience.
Art or Craft?
Is theatre an art? Or is it a craft?
Theatre is a form of art because it is conceived artistically: the actor interprets the material and presents it to the audience following a particular artistic vision that is unique to that actor and to that performance only. This is what makes theatre a unique form of art. While the same script can be performed and produced over and over again, every single performance will be different because everything happens live and is tied to a specific concept.
Shakespeare wrote Romeo and Juliet in 1597. Since then, there have been millions of productions of it, if not more. The story is always the same: two young lovers fight to be together despite all obstacles, and tragically they don’t succeed. What changes for every production are the actors’ interpretations of the roles, the overall vision for the show (which usually comes from the director and the creative team), and the reaction of the audience.
It is important to understand that the actors perform their roles consistently in terms of interpretation and stage positions for any given production, but they are human too! What they receive back from the audience really does impact their performance. This goes back to what was mentioned before: the audience and the actors are going through the experience together, and although they have different roles, they influence each other significantly.
The uniqueness of theatre also relies on the once-in-a-lifetime experience that it provides. The audience experiences a theatre production on a specific day, and that will be it. Even if they attend it several times in a row, they will never see the exact same show; the structure will be the same, but there will be variations in the staging or in the single performances of the actors. The emotional response of the audience will be immediate and tied to that specific experience too. A painting, a sculpture, or a movie, even, stays the same. Time does not alter it. What changes is our emotional response to it, according to our personal emotional and life journey. Van Gogh’s Starry Night doesn’t change. What we see in it and our reaction to it changes in time.
Aside from its artistic nature, theatre requires technique. Talent alone won’t help the actor if he is not able to project his voice and be heard. Sets need to be built as well as costumes. As a result, there is a craft side to theatre too! Certain theatrical mediums require specific abilities, and those abilities need to be developed and trained: actors study voice, diction, and movement; scenic designers learn perspective, painting techniques, materials, and color schemes; and costume designers learn costume construction, fabrics, and color palettes.
Most famous actors you see in blockbuster movies have dedicated their entire lives to their art and perfected their craft through years of training! Meryl Streep is a graduate of the Yale School of Drama, Bradley Cooper graduated from the Actor’s Studio and so did Al Pacino… just to name a few. Even improvisational theatre has a structure and rules, so it requires training in specific abilities.
When you see a theatrical production, you experience the culmination of a complex and long process—you see the proverbial tip of the iceberg. On the one hand, that is exactly what you should see. Yet, you shouldn’t assume it is all that there is. Costumes and sets don’t just magically appear on opening night and actors don’t just naturally and effortlessly speak all of those lines in that specific order and in that specific way on the day you are in the audience.
A Bit of History
Since the Greeks, theatre has been perceived to be educational while also providing a form of entertainment. Two of the most influential classic Greek philosophers had very strong—and opposing—ideas about the role of theatre in the education of the people and in society: they are Plato (428-348 B.C) and Aristotle (384-333 B.C). Let’s see the differences between the two schools of thought.
According to Plato, the world we live in is a mere representation, a copy, or mimesis, of the perfect world, which is the world of ideas. What corrupts our world and makes it imperfect is the fact that it is made of substance, which decays. We ourselves suffer the same flaw. The idea of a human being is perfect, while the incarnation of it is not. Our flesh and bones weigh us down; they make us age, suffer, become sick and eventually die. The truth, the beauty, lies in the idea, in the concept, and if we want to get closer to it we need to see beyond materialism.
Plato said theatre presents the audience with a representation of reality, so if reality itself is a representation of the essence (of the truth), theatre becomes the representation of a representation. The copy of a copy. This is why Plato thought theatre corrupted the people rather than providing an educational instrument.
Plato’s disciple had the opposite approach. Aristotle thought theatre was very important in shaping the minds and character of the people. He said theatre allowed people to see the representation of an action followed by its consequences. Additionally, through a process called catharsis, the audience would emotionally empathize with the characters undergoing the action on stage to the point of identifying with them. With the resolution of the dramatic action, the audience would feel emotionally purged and gain a better understanding of what is right and what is wrong.
At the same time, Aristotle said that in order to be effective, theatre must also offer a component of spectacle and entertainment to keep the audience engaged and motivated. It is important to note that the only theatrical genre that Aristotle considered in his analysis was the tragedy. He didn’t approve of comedy as he didn’t believe it had an educational value.
Today it is safe to say that theatre both educates and entertains. Some plays are heavier on meaning, others on the spectacle, but it is very unusual to walk out of a theatre performance without feeling somehow different from when you walked in.
Interestingly, theatre and psychology frequently cross over. Theatre investigates the psyche of human nature to represent it, while psychology investigates it to understand its dynamics and possibly correct unhealthy behaviors. Therapists can use theatrical exercises to unlock behaviors or to expose the core of an issue through Drama Therapy. By allowing the participants to shift their focus from themselves to a character or situation, they create an alter ego upon which they can transfer their experiences. It becomes a form of externalization, where the participants are able to distance themselves from the issue, see it for what it is, and go from there. Clearly, Drama Therapy requires very thorough and specific training and sees theatre professionals and therapists working and training together, making it far from any acting class you can take.
How does theatre work? How does it create meaning and connect with people?
To start off, as the audience approaches the performance, they are aware that they will witness something that is being created live in front of their eyes and that will present them with circumstances and characters that are fictional. Yet, as the show begins, the audience is willing to suspend their disbelief, or believe in the truthfulness of what they witness for the duration of the performance. This is a convention that is established between the actors and the audience. If the performance is good, the convention will never be broken.
In addition, theatre relies on metaphors and allegories to elevate a subjective, specific situation to its universal abstraction. Both metaphors and allegories are ways to endow narratives with deeper meaning, usually relating ethics, politics or social issues. While a metaphor is mostly related to language and associates words that usually don’t go together (“All the world’s a stage”… from Shakespeare’s As You Like It) , allegories rely on a tale, a fable or a story that reads straight forward and simple on the surface, but that hides a deeper meaning. A good example of a play in the form of an allegory is Arthur Miller’s The Crucible. On the surface, the play tells the story of the witch hunt that took place in 1692 in Salem (MA). In reality, the play is Miller’s commentary on McCarthysm, which is known as the political repression and, at times, persecution of individuals who were suspected of communist ideals during the 1940s and 1950s. Similarly, Shakespeare’s main characters in Romeo and Juliet become the symbol of ill-fated love and represent young lovers of all times.
In some cases, the meaning can be tied to a specific period in history, and as time passes its lesson might become less poignant or apparent. This is the case for some of Shakespeare’s plays, as he was often commenting on the society of his time, which modern audiences might not necessarily know much about. This kind of social commentary is even more evident in plays that respond to the experiences of a certain time period, such as those by playwrights like Ionesco, Genet, and Beckett who wrote about the shock and psychological void left behind by the horrors of the second world war.
Theatre can become a form of political commentary, too. In many circumstances, playwrights and theatre artists have used theatre to directly or indirectly expose the wrongdoings of a political regime—at times risking or even losing their own lives or being persecuted, exiled, or censured. Unfortunately, examples abound.
After criticizing the newly formed Soviet government, Vsevolod Meyerhold, the director of the Moscow Art Theatre and one of the most influential theatre artists of the 20th century, was arrested and tortured for days. He broke down and “confessed” to being a spy. He was then sentenced to death by a firing squad. In a letter that was made public after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, he writes:
“The investigators began to use force on me, a sick 65-year-old man. I was made to lie face down and beaten on the soles of my feet and my spine with a rubber strap. They sat me on a chair and beat my feet from above, with considerable force… For the next few days, when those parts of my legs were covered with extensive internal hemorrhaging, they again beat the red-blue-and-yellow bruises with the strap and the pain was so intense that it felt as if boiling water was being poured on these sensitive areas. I howled and wept from the pain. They beat my back with the same rubber strap and punched my face, swinging their fists from a great height … The intolerable physical and emotional pain caused my eyes to weep unending streams of tears. Lying face down on the floor, I discovered that I could wriggle, twist and squeal like a dog when its master whips it … When I lay down on the cot and fell asleep, after 18 hours of interrogation, in order to go back in an hour’s time for more, I was woken up by my own groaning and because I was jerking about like a patient in the last stages of typhoid fever … ‘death, oh most certainly, death is easier than this!’ the interrogated person says to himself. I began to incriminate myself in the hope that this, at least, would lead quickly to the scaffold.3”
More recently, Iranian playwright Nassim Soleimanpour used his play White Rabbit Red Rabbit as a metaphor for the condition of artists—and of young, literate people—in his country. The author was not allowed to travel outside his country and was closely watched over by the government. To let his voice be heard, in 2011 he wrote the play and sent it to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in Scotland, the Summerwork Festival in Toronto, the Bytom Festival in Poland, and the Speltheater Holland in the Netherlands. Per his specific request, the play should not be rehearsed at all. The manuscript should be given to the actor on the same night of the performance, right in front of the audience, and the actor must be completely unaware of the content of the play so that he discovers it as he cold reads it to the audience. With masterful writing and a subtle but clear game of manipulation, Soleimanpour is able to let the actor and the audience experience firsthand the restrictions and confusion that he, and artists like him, go through on an everyday basis. The play achieved enormous success and is still wildly produced. It eventually allowed Soleimanpour to have enough leverage to be let out of Iran and freely exercise his art.
In the U.S.A., there are several examples of plays and playwrights using theatre to establish a clear political position. Think, for example, of the musical Hair. It was written by James Rado and Gerome Ragni (with music by Galt MacDermot) in 1967 to criticize American participation in the Vietnam War. Arthur Miller used his play The Crucible (1953) as a metaphor to criticize McCarthyism.
Nowadays, theatre is once again trying to stand the test of time and respond to the needs of the current society. In the U.S.A., the issues of race, identity, and inclusivity are now prominently represented on the national stage, providing food for thought and visibility to minorities and the gender-fluid community. Plays such as the 2019 Pulitzer Prize for Drama, Fairview, by Jackie Sibblies Drury, portray racial dynamics and their social perceptions in a unique and complex way; Larissa FastHorse’s The Thanksgiving Play (2015) is a shocking investigation of the underlying cultural appropriation and the mishandling of cultural heritage; Tracy Letts’ The Minutes (2017) deals with the hypocrisy of a small community and its attempt at manipulating and reinventing their troubled past; Martyna Majok’s plays, such as Ironbound, The Cost of Living (also Pulitzer Prize for Drama) and Sanctuary City give voice to illegal immigrants and to the differently abled. A recent original musical, A Strange Loop (Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 2020), written by Michael R. Jackson, calls for an exclusively LGBTQ+ and BIPOC cast and gives voice to those who struggle to “fit in” in a deeply prejudiced society.
What kinds of theatres can we find in the U.S.? The biggest distinction in all theatres and theatre companies that operate in the U.S. is between Professional Theatre and Amateur Theatre.
We have professional theatre if the production is conceived, developed, and staged by professionals in the field— that is to say, artists that belong to guilds and that are compensated for their work. Actors, directors, designers, and crew members all have their own associations granting them legal representation and negotiating contracts, wages, and benefits.
Commercial Theatre is an example of professional theatre. In this case, the producers’ goal when developing a commercial show is to make a profit. This doesn’t mean that the quality of the purely artistic side of the production suffers, but it simply puts more emphasis on the economic side of the equation. Market research and marketing strategies become vital to the opening and running of a show, and a lot of time is spent looking for investors (who ultimately expect to see a good return for their money).
The most famous incarnations of commercial theatre are Broadway and off-Broadway theatres. New York is where we can probably find the most commercial theatre in the entire U.S., given that it hosts 41 Broadway theatres and countless off-Broadway ones. It is important to understand that commercial theatre, in particular Broadway theatre, is extremely expensive to create. The funds that need to be raised to ensure the smooth run of a production are easily in the millions. Therefore, stakes are very high on the investors’ side. It also takes a long time before the investment pays back. It has been calculated that in order for a production to break even on Broadway, it needs to run with sold-out houses for at least three consecutive years… which is a lot!
At the same time, commercial theatre heavily contributes to the economy of a city. The whole micro-economy of the theatre district in New York City directly depends on shows. Hotels, restaurants, bars, souvenir shops, street carts, and cabs all thrive on the audiences of the theatres. In fact, when Broadway was dark during the COVID-19 pandemic, the entire neighborhood looked like a ghost town, with many going out of business.
To multiply their chances at a profit, most Broadway shows tour the U.S., bringing the show to new and local audiences. Merchandise plays a huge role as well, providing almost the higher margin of the production’s profit. You might have noticed if you went to see Wicked, The Lion King, or The Phantom of the Opera that a cotton t-shirt with the show’s logo can cost you up to $50.
The most well-known avenue for professional and commercial theatre in the U.S.A. is without a doubt located in New York and is known as Broadway theatre. First off, it is important to understand what we mean by a Broadway theatre. The term is actually tied to something very specific: the number of seats in the house. A Broadway theatre is a theatre that can seat more than 500 people. An Off-Broadway venue is a theatre that can seat between 100 and 499 people. Off-off Broadway theatres can seat less than 100 people.
As you can see, the term isn’t really connected to the geographical location of the theatre: not all Broadway theatres in New York are, in fact, on the avenue named Broadway! Aside from some notable exceptions, most of the Broadway theatres are in the so-called Theatre District, the area within 6th and 9th Avenue and 40th and 59th Street. Off-Broadway theatres are scattered throughout Manhattan, with quite a number of them being downtown.
As of 2022, there are 41 Broadway theatres in New York, and most of them are owned and managed by three companies: the Shubert Organization (owning 17 theatres), the Nederlander Organization (with nine theatres), and the Jujamcyn Organization (with fove theatres). The League of Resident Theatres (LORT) owns four theatres: the Lincoln Center, Manhattan Theatre Club, Roundabout Theatre, and Second Stage.
In Europe, the equivalent of Broadway theatre would be the London West End, as they bear many similarities. First, both cities are major tourist attractions, which helps immensely with ticket sales. Both cities share the same passion and tradition of theatre, with major newspapers such as the New York Times (in New York) and The Guardian (in London) actively reviewing productions all year round. If a show is successful in London, it is quite likely that it will do well in New York, which is the reason why many shows in New York are imported from London! Examples include The Phantom of the Opera, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, I, Juliet, Six, and The Lehman Trilogy.
Another kind of professional theatre is represented by Regional Theatres (also called Repertory Theatres). Regional theatres are located all over the U.S., including New York City, and produce their own season of shows, at times having their own resident company of “creatives,” actors included. They tend to have several performance spaces in order to fit each individual production. There is usually a main stage, which is a larger venue used for bigger productions, and then a smaller space for staged readings, workshops, or rehearsals.
Regional theatres are headed by an Artistic Director, who is in charge of selecting the productions for each season and of developing all the artistic projects related to the theatre activity. Usually, the Artistic Director is sided by an Executive Director or Managing Director who helps and sorts out the financial side of the operations, applies for grants, and builds budgets.
Regional theatres gravitate towards producing both classics and new plays, or plays with themes more challenging than what you would normally find on Broadway. Regional theatres are at times the spin-off venue for shows that will later transfer to Broadway, so producers can test the waters to see how the audience and the critics receive the show. Most recently, there are several shows on Broadway that originally premiered in a Regional Theatre, including Moulin Rouge!, Kinky Boots, Memphis, and Come From Away.
Regional theatres can function as nonprofit or for-profit establishments. Regional theatres rely on season ticket sales more than on single ticket sales and aim at developing, or at least maintaining, the number of their subscribers, as that would allow them the necessary flow of cash at the beginning of the season to produce their shows. Regional Theatres usually promote several fundraising events and actively pursue donations, grants, and national funds—mostly available through the National Endowment for the Arts. Most regional theatres in America are part of LORT, the League Of Resident Theatres, an association that collectively represents the theatres when negotiating contracts with the individual guilds.
Some of the most notable regional theatres include Yale Repertory Theatre, Berkley Repertory Theatre, La Jolla Playhouse, Roundabout Theatre Company, Second Stage Theater, Actors Theatre of Louisville, American Repertory Theatre ART, The Goodman Theatre, the Guthrie Theater, and Manhattan Theatre Club.
Amateur theatre is nonprofessional theatre, which doesn’t mean that its quality is any less than what you might see on a professional stage. Everyone working in such a theatre is driven by passion, as they earn income from another job.
Community theatres all around the U.S. are a perfect example of amateur theatre. These are nonprofit institutions that, as the name suggests, revolve around a community and its activity. They might have full-time staff, but most likely they rely on volunteers. At times, they use spaces that belong to the community, while at times they own their own theatre. Community theatre also has its own national association, the American Association of Community Theatre, which aims to provide support and opportunities for its members.
College theatre is another example of amateur theatre, as it produces shows mostly by students. Regardless of whether the students’ theatre professors belong to guilds, they serve the production as educators, not professionals, meaning the professors get paid to teach, not to perform, direct, or design. College theatre has proved to be the incubator of a later successful production, like Lin Manuel Miranda’s In The Heights, which premiered in its original draft at Wesleyan University in 1999.
Theatre people can be very superstitious. Here are some fun facts about superstitions in the theatre:
The Ghost Light:
The ghost light is a simple, single bulb, usually mounted on a stick that has wheels attached to the base. It is left on stage, lit, when everyone leaves the theatre. While for some it is merely a safety measure, many thespians believe that it keeps the ghosts away. Many theatres have the reputation of being haunted, and several theatre artists swear to have met ghosts. Even on Broadway, there are legends about ghosts wandering the building. For example, the New Amsterdam Theatre is said to be haunted by the ghost of a young dancer named Olive Thomas, who died in 1920. She was a dancer in the show Ziegfield Follies. The Belasco Theatre is also believed to be haunted by its namesake, David Belasco, who used to live in an apartment above the theatre. He died in 1931.
The “Scottish Play”:
Shakespeare’s tragedy Macbeth is infamous among theatre people who believe that naming it out loud could trigger an unfortunate chain of events. Hence, the play is usually referred to as “The Scottish Play” instead (because it takes place in Scotland).
Because the pattern and colors on the feather resemble the evil eye, peacock feathers are banned from the stage.
This is maybe the most famous of all theatre superstitions. Don’t wish anyone involved in a production “Good Luck!” before the show because it might bring them the opposite! Instead, use the expression “Break A Leg!”
It is believed that a really bad final dress rehearsal before opening night will bring a very successful opening night.
“Break a Leg”:
The origin of the expression isn’t totally clear. It might relate to the idea that, if the show is successful, the actors will have to bow at curtain call, bending one of their legs.
Don’t whistle backstage:
Whistling backstage brings bad luck, according to thespians. In this case, the origin of the superstition is rooted in practicality. Before the age of technology, every cue and scene change was triggered by a whistle backstage. So, if anyone whistled inappropriately, something would happen on stage… when it wasn’t supposed to!
It is considered bad luck to give flowers to the actors before the show…. Just wait to do that after the show!
Some colors are said to bring bad luck on stage. Curiously, different countries have their own color for bad luck.
In the U.S.A., it used to be that the jinxed color was blue, although not many recall that superstition any longer. Blue used to be the most expensive pigment, so producers are rumored to have brewed superstition so they would not have to buy much of it.
In France, green is supposed to bring bad luck because it seems that Molière—the greatest French playwright—was wearing a green costume when he died on stage in 1673.
In Italy, all shades of purple are banned from the stage. In this case, the superstition has historical roots. Up until the 18th century, theatres had to cease all activities during lent, which is when Catholic priests wear a purple robe. Hence, theatre artists hated that color because for them it meant being out of a job!
In Spain, thespians attribute a negative aura to the color yellow, and not just in the theatre. It is believed that yellow is the color of the devil, and therefore wearing something yellow when you have to do something important—such as acting in a performance or in a job interview—is not considered wise.
American Association of Community Theatres
Broadway / Off-Broadway
Regional Theatre/Repertory Theatre
Suspension of Disbelief
Theatre as Art
Theatre as Craft