A theatre (theater in American English), or playhouse, is a structure where theatrical works or plays are performed or other performances such as musical concerts may be produced. While a theatre is not required for performance (as in environmental theatre or street theatre), a theatre serves to define the performance and audience spaces. The facility is traditionally organized to provide support areas for performers, the technical crew and the audience members.
There are as many types of theatres as there are types of performance. Theatres may be built specifically for a certain types of productions, they may serve for more general performance needs or they may be adapted or converted for use as a theatre. They may range from open-air amphitheatres to ornate, cathedral-like structures to simple, undecorated rooms or black box theatres. Some theatres may have a fixed acting area (in most theatres this is known as the stage), while some theatres such as black box theatres, may not, allowing the director and designers to construct an acting area suitable for the production.
In Australia and New Zealand a small and simple theatre, particularly one contained within a larger venue, is called a theatrette. The word originated in 1920s London, for a small-scale music venue.
Basic elements of a theatre structure
On and off stage
The most important of these areas is the acting space generally known as the stage. In some theatres, specifically proscenium theatres, arena theatres and amphitheatres, this area is permanent part of the structure. In a blackbox theatre the acting area is undefined so that each theatre may adapt specifically to a production.
In addition to these acting spaces, there may be offstage spaces as well. These include wings on either side of a proscenium stage (called "backstage" or "offstage") where props, sets and scenery may be stored as well as a place for actors awaiting an entrance. A Prompter's box may be found backstage. In an amphitheatre, an area behind the stage may be designated for such uses while a blackbox theatre may have spaces outside of the actual theatre designated for such uses.
Often a theatre will incorporate other spaces intended for the performers and other personnel. A booth facing the stage may be incorporated into the house where lighting and sound personnel may view the show and run their respective instruments. Other rooms in the building may be used for dressing rooms, rehearsal rooms, spaces for constructing sets, props and costumes, as well as storage.
Seating and audience
All theatres provide a space for an audience. The audience is usually separated from the performers by the proscenium arch. In proscenium theatres and amphitheatres, the proscenium arch, like the stage, is a permanent feature of the structure. This area is known as the auditorium or the house. Like the stage in a blackbox theatre, this area is also defined by the production
The seating areas can include some or all of the following:
- Stalls or arena: the lower flat area, usually below or at the same level as the stage. The word parterre (occasionally, parquet) is sometimes used to refer to a particular subset of this area. In North American usage this is usually the rear seating block beneath the gallery in the orchestra stalls whereas Britain it can mean either the area immediately in front of the orchestra, or the whole of the stalls. The term can also refer to the side stalls in some usages. Derived from the gardening term parterre, the usage refers to the sectioned pattern of both the seats of an auditorium and of the planted beds seen in garden construction. Throughout the 18th century the term was also used to refer to the theatre audience who occupied the parterre.
- Balconies or galleries: one or more raised seating platforms towards the rear of the auditorium. In larger theatres, multiple levels are stacked vertically above or behind the stalls. The first level is usually called the dress circle or grand circle. The next level may be the loge, from the French version of loggia. A second tier inserted beneath the main balcony may be the mezzanine. The highest platform, or upper circle is sometimes known as the gods, especially in large opera houses, where the seats can be very high and a long distance from the stage.
- Boxes (state box or stage box): typically placed immediately to the front, side and above the level of the stage. They are often separate rooms with an open viewing area which typically seat five people or fewer. These seats are typically considered the most prestigious of the house. A state box or royal box is sometimes provided for dignitaries.
History of theatre construction
Greek theatre buildings were called a theatron ('seeing place'). The theatres were large, open-air structures constructed on the slopes of hills. They consisted of three principal elements: the orchestra, the skene, and the audience.
The centerpiece of the theatre was the orchestra, or "dancing place", a large circular or rectangular area. The orchestra was the site the choral performances, the religious rites, and, possibly, the acting. An altar was located in the middle of the orchestra; in Athens, the altar was dedicated to Dionysus.
Behind the orchestra was a large rectangular building called the skene (meaning "tent" or "hut"). It was used as a "backstage" area where actors could change their costumes and masks, but also served to represent the location of the plays, which were usually set in front of a palace or house. Typically, there were two or three doors in the skene that led out onto orchestra, and from which actors could enter and exit. At first, the skene was literally a tent or hut, put up for the religious festival and taken down when it was finished. Later, the skene became a permanent stone structure. These structures were sometimes painted to serve as backdrops, hence the English word scenery.
In front of the skene there may have been a raised acting area called the proskenion, the ancestor of the modern proscenium stage. It is possible that the actors (as opposed to the chorus) acted entirely on the proskenion, but this is not certain.
Rising from the circle of the orchestra was the audience. The audience sat on tiers of benches built up on the side of a hill. Greek theatres, then, could only be built on hills that were correctly shaped. A typical theatre was enormous, able to seat around 15,000 viewers.
Greek theatres were not enclosed; the audience could see each other and the surrounding countryside as well as the actors and chorus.
The Romans copied the Greek style of building, but tended not to be so concerned about the location, being prepared to build walls and terraces instead of looking for a naturally-occurring site. (See Roman theatre for more.)
During the Elizabethan era in England, theatres were constructed of wooden framing, infilled with wattle and daub and roofed with thatch. They consisted of several floors of covered galleries surrounding a courtyard which was open to the elements. A large portion of the audience would stand in the yard, directly in front of the stage. This layout is said to derive from the practice of holding plays in the yard of an inn. Archaeological excavations of The Rose theatre at London's Bankside, built 1587, have shown that it had en external diameter of 72 feet (22 metres). The nearby Globe Theatre (1599) was larger, at 100 feet (30 metres). Other evidence for the round shape is a line in Shakespeare's Henry V which calls the building "this wooden O", and several rough woodcut illustrations of the city of London.
Around this time, the green room, a place for actors to wait until required on stage, became common terminology in English theatres.
The Globe has now been rebuilt as a fully working and producing theatre near its original site (largely thanks to the efforts of film director Sam Wanamaker) to give modern audiences an idea of the environment for which Shakespeare and other playwrights of the period were writing.
During Italian Renaissance were built the first modern enclosed theatres. Their structure was similar to that of Ancient theatres, with a cavea and an architectural scenery, representing a city street. The oldest surviving examples of this style are the Teatro Olimpico in Vicenza (1580) and the Teatro all'antica in Sabbioneta (1590).
At the beginning of 17th century theatres had moved indoors and began to resemble the arrangement we see most frequently today, with a stage separated from the audience by a proscenium arch. This coincided with a growing interest in scenic elements painted in perspective, such as those created by Inigo Jones, Nicola Sabbatini and the Galli da Bibiena family. The perspective of these elements could only be viewed properly from the center back of the auditorium, in the so-called "duke's chair." The higher one's status, the closer they would be seated to this vantage point, and the more the accurately they would be able to see the perspective elements.
The first enclosed theatres were court theatres, open only to the sovereigns and the nobility. The first opera house open to the public was the Teatro San Cassiano (1637) in Venice. The Italian opera houses were the model for the subsequent theatres throughout Europe.
German Operatic influence
Richard Wagner placed great importance on "mood setting" elements, such as a darkened theatre, sound effects, and seating arrangements (lowering the orchestra pit) which focused the attention of audience on the stage, completely immersing them in the imaginary world of the music drama. These concepts were revolutionary at the time, but they have since come to be taken for granted in the modern operatic environment as well as many other types of theatrical endeavors.
Contemporary theatres are often non-traditional, such as very adaptable spaces, or theatres where audience and performers are not separated. A major example of this is the modular theatre, (see for example the Walt Disney Modular Theater). This large theatre has floors and walls divided into small movable sections, with the floor sections on adjustable hydraulic pylons, so that the space may be adjusted into any configuration for each individual play. As new styles of theatre performance have evolved, so has the desire to improve or recreate performance venues. This applies equally to artistic and presentation techniques, such as stage lighting.
Specific designs of contemporary live theatres include proscenium, thrust, black box theatre, theatre in the round, amphitheatre, and arena. In the classical Indian dance, Natya Shastra defines three stage types. In Australia and New Zealand a small and simple theatre, particularly one contained within a larger venue, is a theatrette. The word originated in 1920s London, for a small-scale music venue.
Theatrical performances can also take place in venues adapted from other purposes, such as train carriages. In recent years the Edinburgh Fringe has seen performances in a lift (elevator) and a taxi.
- List of national theatres
- List of fictional theatres
- The Theatre of Small Convenience, the smallest theatre in the world
- Moore, Bruce 1999. The Australian Oxford Dictionary ISBN 0-19-551796-2
- "theatrette". Oxford English Dictionary (2 ed.). 1989.