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27 Spotlight Right: A Brief History of Theater

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

A Brief History of Theater

Theater began about 12,000 years ago, nobody knows where because at the time they did not yet have playbills. These two guys were out hunting and this funny thing happened, the one guy with a spear was chasing this, um, well, kind of like an antelope, but we don’t have them anymore, and anyway, so he trips and falls, and as he is falling the spear flies out of his hand and lands point down in a huge pile of mammoth dung. So the two guys start laughing and when they get back the chicks were like, “what’s so funny”. So instead of just telling the story they kind of act it out a little, think stone age running man, one of them puts on an animal skin and pretends to be the antelopish beast, the other guy reenacts his fall some with some comic flourish, and theater was born.

This went on for about 9,000 years until in 1,000 BCE some people in Eurasia made a stunning realization. They began to write the stories down, with different parts so that it could be performed by many people, in many places, at many times. These people, became known as “actors” from the Greek “Aktos” meaning people who don’t get paid. In addition to “actors” this period saw the invention of house managers, upstaging, and industry comps. Theater at this time, and for the next 2,000 years would performed mainly in amphitheaters, which was nice because it meant you didn’t have to pay a lighting designer.

By the sixteenth century CE the world was ready for a new kind of theater, Shakespearean theater, a deep and troubling psychological theater, but with plenty of fart jokes (it is a well known fact that Shakespeare never heard a trumpet without giggling a little). Though still technically outdoors, the new Globe theater used new lighting methods, and quickly burned to the ground. In addition to lighting design this period saw the advent of the costume designer, scalped tickets and company mission statements.

Not much changed until the dawn of the 20th century when Stanislavski realized that he could sleep with more actresses by convincing them that they had to “research” and “become the character”. His success was astounding, the amount of sex going on in dressing rooms more than tripled, and in a birth cry of postmodernism, the foibles of the actors became as much a part of the show as the play. It was at this time that Actors Equity Association was formed. Originally conceived of as a Ponzi scheme in which lesser known, poorer actors paid dues to ensure the rights and livelihood of more established richer actors, AEA soon blossomed into the only union in the world that can boast 90% unemployment among its members.

That brings us today, theater’s golden age, when as many as 1 in 40 million Americans report having been to a play in the last 20 years.


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