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Theater

Theater Production, the various means by which any of the forms of theater are presented to a live audience. The term theater 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 of 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.

Functions and Characteristics of Theater

Ever since Aristotle discussed the origin and function of theater in his famous treatise Poetics (circa 330 BC), the purpose and characteristics of theater have been widely debated. Over the centuries, theater has been used—apart from purely artistic expression—for entertainment, religious ritual, moral teaching, political persuasion, and to alter consciousness. It has ranged from realistic storytelling to the presentation of abstract sound and movement. Theater production involves the use of sets and props, lighting, costumes, and makeup or masks, as well as a space for performance (the stage) and a space for the audience (the auditorium), although these may overlap, especially in later 20th-century productions. Theater, 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.

Presentational and Representational Theater

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 theater is presentational. The stylized approach of presentational theater 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 theater, on the other hand, is illusionistic. Most Western theater since the Renaissance has been essentially representational: Plays have had plausible plots, characters have seemed true to life, scenery has tended toward, or been 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.

Types of Modern Western Theater

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

Subsidized Theater

Subsidized theater 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 theaters, and, often, the limited appeal of much theater to the population as a whole, many theaters can only remain financially solvent and mount quality productions with subsidies to supplement box-office income.

Most countries have a designated national theater company supported by the state. In Great Britain and Germany, for example, most cities or regions have subsidized companies as well. In Communist countries virtually all theater is state-supported; often this allows more elaborate design, technology, and experimentation than in Western European and U.S. theater. Until recently, considerable government support was available for the arts in the U.S., especially for regional theaters—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 theater, 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 U.S. and of its audience, also reflects current government cutbacks. Other important reasons are the lack of a single dominant cultural center such as London or Paris and the lack of a strong theatrical heritage.