Your guide to theatre
Theatre is a performance that involves live-action. It can range from a one-person show to a cast of thousands. In many cases, theatrical performances are carried out in purpose-built entertainment houses, known as theatres. However, theatre can also take place on the street, within communities and even within family homes. Acting is a big part of the tradition but other elements, such as music, set design, choreography, lighting, direction and costume making all play their part, too. Theatre is distinct from other forms of dramatic entertainment, such as TV and cinema, insofar as it is conducted in person in front of a live audience. That said, some live theatrical performances are now streamed over the internet to homes and cinemas, which means the distinctions are becoming blurred.
Which traditions of theatre are there around the world?
The Ancient Greek civilization of Athens is accredited with coming up with the first real theatrical productions, notably from plays written by the likes of Sophocles and Aristophanes. This morphed into the post-classical western tradition of theatre we know today. Indian traditions took an entirely separate course with so-called Sanskrit dramas that date back nearly two millennia. Uttar Ramacharita is a famous seventh-century play written by Bhavabhuti, for example. In China, theatre has its own traditions, too. This developed primarily under the Tang dynasty. Puppetry and opera are two prominent forms of theatre in China to this day.
Why is theatre important?
Theatre creates a direct connection at the moment between performers and audience that few other art forms can. Since performances vary, audiences know that what they are seeing is unique on each and every occasion they take place. This has an effect – when it is carried out to a high standard – that movies and television dramas cannot bring about. Theatre can be interpreted and reinterpreted in infinite ways, but its importance tends to rely on what it says about the human condition in the here and now. Shakespeare's plays, for example, continue to be reinterpreted and staged not because of a sense of heritage but because they still speak to us.
Which types of theatre are most common?
Drama remains one of the most popular theatrical genres. Anything from political thrillers to whodunits is still staged. Musical theatre is perhaps the biggest money-spinner, with the West End of London and Broadway in New York City staging more musicals than any other kind of production. Tragedies are another common form of theatre as are comedies. Both these forms have their roots in Ancient Greece. The other major theatrical category is improvisation, where the performers make up the action as they go with little or no planning.
Are there theories that try to explain theatre?
There are many theories to do with theatrical output. These go back to its earliest days. Aristotle came up with one of the first which broke theatre down into six distinct elements ranging from plot to spectacle. Famous theatrical theorists in the modern age include Bertolt Brecht, who rejected many Aristotelian ideas, and Dario Fo, an Italian playwright who championed improvisation as a theatrical art form.