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Theatre Production

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Theatre Production

Theatre Production


Theatre Production, the various means by which any of the forms of theatre are presented to a live audience. The term theatre is often applied only to dramatic and musical plays, but it properly includes opera, dance, circus and carnivals, mime, vaudeville, puppet shows, pageants, and other forms—all of which have certain elements in common. They are essentially visual; are experienced directly (although film, videotapes, or recorded sound may be incorporated into a performance); and are governed by sets oof rules—such as scripts, scenarios, scores, or choreography—that determine the language and actions of the performers; language, action or atmosphere may be contrived, in order to elicit emotional responses from the audience.


Ever since Aristotle discussed the origin and function of theatre in his famous treatise Poetics (c. 330 BC), the purpose and characteristics of theatre have been widely debated. Over the centuries, theatre has been used—apart from purely artistic expression—for entertainment, religious ritual, moral teaching, political ppersuasion, and to alter consciousness. It has ranged from realistic storytelling to the presentation of abstract sound and movement. Theatre production involves the use of sets and props, lighting, costumes, and makeup or masks, as well as a space for pperformance (the stage) and a space for the audience (the auditorium), although these may overlap, especially in later 20th-century productions. Theatre, then, is an amalgamation of art and architecture; literature, music, and dance; and technology. The most rudimentary performances may depend on found space and objects and be the work of a single performer. Most performances, however, require the cooperative efforts of many creative and technically trained people to form, ideally, a harmonious ensemble. See also Drama and Dramatic Arts.


Approaches to the presentation of drama vary from one generation to the next and across cultures, but most can be categorized roughly either as presentational or representational. Most African, Oriental, pre-Renaissance Western, and 20th-century avant-garde theatre is presentational. TThe stylized approach of presentational theatre makes no attempt to hide its theatricality and often emphasizes it. Thus, the German playwright and theoretician Bertolt Brecht advocated exposing the lighting instruments and stage machinery so that the audience would be reminded constantly that it was viewing a play.

Representational theatre, on the other hand, is illusionistic. Most Western theatre since the Renaissance has been essentially representational: plays have had plausible plots, characters have seemed true to life, scenery has tended towards, or bbeen suggestive of, the realistic.

Most performances do not, of course, fall neatly into one or the other category but may contain elements of each. The plays of the American dramatist Tennessee Williams, for example, are rooted in psychological realism but often employ dream sequences, symbolic characters and objects, and poetic language.


Aside from aesthetic intention, Western theatre can also be classified in terms of economics and of approaches to production, categorized as subsidized, commercial, non-commercial—frequently called experimental or art theatre—community, and academic theatre.

A Subsidized Theatre

Subsidized theatre is financially underwritten by a government or by a philanthropic organization. Because of the considerable expense of mounting a theatrical production, the limited audience capacity of most theatres, and, often, the limited appeal of much theatre to the population as a whole, many theatres can only remain financially solvent and mount quality productions with subsidies to supplement box-office income.

Most countries have a designated national theatre company supported by the state. In Great Britain and Germany, most cities or regions have subsidized companies as well. In the former-Communist countries virtually all theatre was state-supported; often this allowed more elaborate design, technology, and experimentation than in Western European and US theatre. There are signs tthat such funding is no longer so widely available. Until recently, considerable government support was available for the arts in the United States, especially for regional theatres—permanent professional companies located in major cities that often present performers in rotating repertory, such as the Tyrone Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis, Minnesota, and the Arena Stage in Washington, D.C. The amount of government support to the American theatre, however, has always been far less than that given to its European counterpart, and it is increasingly dependent on the unpredictable generosity of philanthropic foundations. This situation, largely caused by the very size and diversity of the United States and of its audience, also reflects current government cutbacks. Other important reasons are the lack of a single dominant cultural centre such as London or Paris and the lack of a strong theatrical heritage.

B Commercial Theatre

Commercial theatre appeals to a large audience and is produced with the intention of making a profit. The basis of commercial theatre is entertainment; social relevance and artistic and literary merit are secondary considerations. Commercial theatre is centred in areas such as London’s West End or New York’s Broadway theatre district, and every major city in the world has an equivalent. Before ttransferring to these venues, many shows are performed in other cities, offering the opportunity to work out difficulties or to test audience response. Equally, a successful show in New York or London may tour other cities.

In 1980 a typical Broadway drama or comedy cost approximately US$500,000 to produce, a musical about US$1 million. Such high initial costs, plus the weekly operating costs (theatre rent, salaries, royalties, publicity, insurance, equipment maintenance, and the like) may cause a show to take several years to pay off its debts and begin to make a profit. Sometimes only the lucrative sale of film rights puts a production in the black. Because of such economics, West End and Broadway producers seldom take risks with unknown playwrights or unusual plays. Although the economics were not so harsh before World War II, commercial theatre has always been inherently conservative and inhospitable to experimentation. See also West End Theatres; Broadway Theatres.

C Non-Commercial Theatre

Attempts to circumvent the economics peculiar to commercial theatre since the end of the 19th century have resulted in the evolution of non-commercial theatre. Known as art theatre in Europe and America before World War I, and later as experimental theatre, it is often identified today in

New York as Off-Broadway and Off-Off-Broadway (the latter being a reaction to the increasing commercialism of the former), in England as fringe theatre, and elsewhere by a host of other names. The various goals of such theatre include presenting more serious, literary, politically active, artistic, and avant-garde drama; experimenting with new forms of production, acting, and design; and giving voice to new playwrights, actors, and directors.

Non-commercial theatre tends to operate on limited budgets, to make lack of resources a virtue, aand to be unconcerned with profit. It tends to believe strongly in specific ideals and often disavows the apparent slickness associated with commercial theatre. Non-commercial theatre tries to survive on box-office income and donations, but in recent years it has become increasingly dependent on state and private subsidy. Those companies that cannot obtain adequate funding are usually faced with bankruptcy after a short time or else are forced to compromise their ideals to survive. In fact, those that do survive aalmost become as commercial as the theatre they once rebelled against. This has been a repeating pattern in 20th-century theatre history.

See also Feminist Theatre; Propaganda Theatre.

D Community and Academic Theatre

Community theatre is generally non-professional, consisting of members of a community who ppractice theatre as an avocation. The repertoire of community theatre tends to be commercial fare, although this may vary. Academic theatre, as the name suggests, is produced by educational institutions, most often colleges and universities. The educational purpose of such theatre results in a repertoire often weighted towards the classical and experimental. Some colleges have technical facilities that surpass those of commercial theatres. Academic theatre is far more active in the United States than elsewhere; with over 5,000 productions a year, it is responsible for more theatre than all other American forms combined.


Theatre can also be discussed in terms of the type of space in which it is produced. Stages and auditoriums have had distinctive forms in every era aand in different cultures. New theatres today tend to be flexible and eclectic in design, incorporating elements of several styles; they are known as multiple-use or multiple-form theatres.

A performance, however, need not occur in an architectural structure designed as a theatre, or even in a building. The English director Peter Brook talks of creating theatre in an “empty space”. Many earlier forms of theatre were performed in the streets, open spaces, market squares, churches, or rooms or buildings not intended ffor use as theatres. Much contemporary experimental theatre rejects the formal constraints of available theatres and seeks more unusual spaces. In all these “found” theatres, the sense of stage and auditorium is created by the actions of the performers and the natural features of the space.

Throughout history, however, most theatres have employed one of three types of stage: end, thrust, and arena. An end stage is a raised platform facing the assembled audience. Frequently, it is placed at one end of a rectangular space. The simplest version of the end stage is the booth or trestle stage, a raised stage with a curtained backdrop and perhaps an awning. This was the stage of the Greek and Roman mimes, the mountebanks and wandering entertainers of the Middle Ages, commedia dell’arte, and popular entertainers into the 20th century. It probably formed the basis of Greek tragic theatre and Elizabethan theatre as well. See also Theatre Buildings; Theatre Stage Design.

A The Proscenium Theatre

Since the Renaissance, Western theatre has been dominated by an end stage variant called the proscenium theatre. The proscenium is the wall separating the stage from the auditorium. The proscenium arch, which may take several shapes, is the opening in that wall tthrough which the audience views the performance. A curtain that either rises or opens to the sides may hang in this space. The proscenium developed in response to the desire to mask scenery, hide scene-changing machinery, and create an offstage space for performers’ exits and entrances. The result is to enhance illusion by eliminating all that is not part of the scene and to encourage the audience to imagine that what they cannot see is a continuation of what they can see. Because the proscenium is (or appears to be) an architectural barrier, it creates a sense of distance or separation between the stage and the spectators. The proscenium arch also frames the stage and consequently is often called a peep-show or picture-frame stage. See also Proscenium.

B The Thrust Stage

A thrust stage, sometimes known as three-quarter round, is a platform surrounded on three sides by the audience. This form was used for ancient Greek theatre, Elizabethan theatre, classical Spanish theatre, English Restoration theatre, Japanese and Chinese classical theatre, and much of Western theatre in the 20th century. A thrust may be backed by a wall or be appended to some sort of end stage. The upstage end (back of the stage, ffarthest from the audience) may have scenery and provision for entrances and exits, but the thrust itself is usually bare except for a few scenic elements and props. Because no barrier exists between performers and spectators, the thrust stage generally creates a sense of greater intimacy, as if the performance were occurring in the midst of the auditorium, while still allowing for illusionistic effects through the use of the upstage end and adjacent offstage space.

C The Arena Stage

The arena stage, or theatre-in-the-round, is a performing space totally surrounded by the auditorium. This arrangement has been used in the 20th century, but its historical precedents are largely in non-dramatic forms such as the circus, and it has limited popularity. The necessity of providing equal sight lines for all spectators puts special constraints on the type of scenery used and on the movements of the actors, because at any given time part of the audience will inevitably be viewing a performer’s back. Illusion is more difficult to sustain in an arena, since in most set-ups, entrances and exits must be made in full view of the audience, eliminating surprise, if nothing else. Nonetheless, the arena, when properly used, can create a sense of

intimacy not often possible with other stage arrangements, and, as noted, it is well suited to many non-dramatic forms. Furthermore, because of the different scenic demands of arena theatre, the large backstage areas associated with prosceniums can be eliminated, thus allowing a more economical use of space.

D Variant Forms

One variant form of staging is environmental theatre, which has precedents in medieval and folk theatre and has been widely used in 20th-century avant-garde theatre. It eliminates the single or central stage in ffavour of surrounding the spectators or sharing the space with them. Stage space and spectator space become indistinguishable. Another popular alternative is the free, or flexible, space, sometimes called black-box theatre because of its most common shape and colour. This is an empty space with movable seating units and stage platforms that can be arranged in any configuration for each performance.

E The Fixed Architectural Stage

Most stages are raw spaces that the designer can mould to create any desired effect or location; iin contrast, the architectural stage has permanent features that create a more formal scenic effect. Typically, ramps, stairs, platforms, archways, and pillars are permanently built into the stage space. Variety in individual settings may be achieved by adding scenic elements. TThe Stratford Festival Theatre in Stratford, Ontario, for example, has a permanent “inner stage”—a platform roughly 3.6 m (12 ft) high—jutting on to the multilevel thrust stage from the upstage wall. Most permanent theatres throughout the Renaissance, such as the Teatro Olimpico (1580) in Vicenza, Italy, did not use painted or built scenery but relied on similar permanent architectural features that could provide the necessary scenic elements. Noh and kabuki stages in Japan are other examples.

F Auditoriums

Auditoriums in the 20th century are mostly variants on the fan-shaped auditorium built (1876) by the composer Richard Wagner at his famous opera house in Bayreuth, Germany. These auditoriums are shaped like a hand-held fan and are usually raked (inclined upwards from front to back), wwith staggered seats to provide unobstructed sight lines. Such auditoriums may be designed with balconies, and some theatres, such as opera houses, have boxes—seats in open or partitioned sections along the sidewalls of the auditorium—a carry-over from Baroque theatre architecture.


Regardless of the type or complexity of a production, all theatre performances have similar requirements. For a small, non-commercial production, most of these requirements may be met by two or three people; a West End or Broadway show requires ddozens; certain opera companies employ several hundred. The staff may be divided into administrative, creative (or artistic), and technical personnel.

The administrative group includes the producer, box-office and publicity personnel, and front-of-house staff (house manager, ushers, and others responsible for the audience). The artistic staff consists of the director, designers, performers, and, if applicable, playwright, composer, librettist, choreographer, and musical director. Technical personnel include the stage manager, technical director, and various construction and running crews, all working backstage.

A Producer

The producer is responsible for the overall administration—raising and allocating funds, hiring personnel, and overseeing all aspects of production. Large productions may have several producers designated as executive, associate, or co-producers, each of whom may be responsible for a specific aspect of the show. Someone may be listed as a producer by virtue of the amount of money invested. An organization can be a producer, as was the Theatre Guild, a group responsible for some of the most important productions on Broadway from the 1920s to the 1940s. In such arrangements, of course, individual members of the organization still supervise.

For a new commercial production, the producer contracts with a playwright for a script; raises funds from private investors called “angels” (who may invest after sseeing a fragment of the play at a special staging known as a backer’s audition); hires the artistic and technical staff; rents a theatre and all the necessary equipment for the stage; and oversees publicity, ticket sales, and all the financial aspects of the production. Box-office operations are handled by a general manager. In theatre companies that do repertory, a season of several plays, the producer may be responsible for selecting the repertoire, although this is often the task of the artistic director. The producer also arranges tours, subsidiary productions, and the sale of subsidiary rights, including film, television, and amateur production rights. Most theatres also have a theatre or house manager, responsible for theatre maintenance and audience control.

B Director

The director makes all artistic or creative decisions and is responsible for the harmonious unity of a production. The director, usually in conjunction with the designers (and perhaps the producer), determines a concept, motif, or interpretation for the script or scenario; selects a cast, rehearses them; and usually has a deciding role in scenery, costumes, lights, and sound. Movement, timing, pacing, and visual and aural effects are all determined by the director; what the audience finally sees is the director’s vision. From tthe time of the ancient Greeks until the 17th century this role was generally fulfilled by the playwright, and from the 17th to the end of the 19th century directing was the function of the leading actor of a company. Under such conditions, however, ensemble performance was rare.

The concept of the modern director can be traced to the 18th-century English actor-manager David Garrick, although George II, duke of the German principality of Saxe-Meiningen, is generally referred to as the first director; touring Europe with his theatre company in the 1870s and 1880s, he exercised absolute control over all aspects of production. In the 20th century there has been a recurring tendency for directors to use a script simply as a starting point for their own theatrical visions, resulting in unorthodox and frequently spectacular productions often called “theatricalist”. Such productions often achieve clarification or emphasis of themes or images in the text, or a new relevance for classic scripts, ...

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