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.

Commercial Theater

Commercial theater appeals to a large audience and is produced with the intention of making a profit. The basis of commercial theater is entertainment; social relevance and artistic and literary merit are secondary considerations. In the U.S. and Canada, commercial theater is centered in New York City’s Broadway theater district; almost every major city in the world has an equivalent—London’s West End, for example. Before opening in New York, many shows hold tryouts in other cities—preview performances to work out difficulties or to test audience response. If a show is successful in New York, road companies will tour other cities. These companies may range from the original cast playing extended runs in large cities to “bus and truck” tours (so called because of their method of traveling and transporting cast and scenery) with little-known actors playing one-night stands in small cities. Road companies were once common, but today only hit shows tend to tour. Commercial theater also includes dinner theater and summer stock.

In 1980 a typical Broadway drama or comedy cost approximately $500,000 to produce, a musical about $1 million. Such high initial costs, plus the weekly operating costs (theater 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 movie rights puts a production in the black. Because of such economics, Broadway producers seldom take risks with unknown playwrights or unusual plays. Although the economics were not so harsh before World War II, commercial theater has always been inherently conservative and inhospitable to experimentation.

Noncommercial Theater

Attempts to circumvent the economics peculiar to commercial theater since the end of the 19th century have resulted in the evolution of noncommercial theater. Known as art theater in Europe and America before World War I, and later as experimental theater, it is often identified today in New York City as Off Broadway and Off-Off-Broadway (the latter being a reaction to the increasing commercialism of the former), in England as fringe theater, and elsewhere by a host of other names. The various goals of such theater 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.

Noncommercial theater tends to operate on limited budgets, to make lack of resources a virtue, and to be unconcerned with profit. It tends to believe strongly in specific ideals and often disavows the so-called slickness associated with commercial theater. Noncommercial theater tries to survive on box-office income and donations, but in recent years it has become increasingly dependent on federal 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 almost become as commercial as the theater they once rebelled against. This has been a repeating pattern in 20th-century theater history.

Community and Academic Theater

Community theater is generally nonprofessional, consisting of members of a community who practice theater as an avocation. The repertoire of community theater tends to be commercial fare, although this may vary. Academic theater, as the name suggests, is produced by educational institutions, most often colleges and universities. The educational purpose of such theater results in a repertoire often weighted toward the classical and experimental. Some colleges have technical facilities that surpass those of commercial theaters. Academic theater is far more active in the U.S. than elsewhere; with over 5000 productions a year, it is responsible for more theater than all other American forms combined.

Theater Space

Theater 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 and in different cultures. New theaters today tend to be flexible and eclectic in design, incorporating elements of several styles; they are known as multiple-use or multiple-form theaters.

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

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