Lessons from Ancient Greek Theater
Modern-day entertainment is quite accessible to the masses. Consider: Netflix is available 24/7, there are movie theaters in most counties across America, and local theatrical productions are just a short drive away for most of us. In the early days of theater, however, this was not the case.
The first recorded drama dates back to the 8th century BC in Greece. At the time, Greek theater was much more than entertainment, and their performances weren’t played endlessly on screens, or even shown daily. Dramatic productions were put on for the gods, usually at yearly festivals.
Theater was inextricably tied to the Greek religion—they believed the gods were active and held many human qualities. The different kinds of plays put on by Greek actors and playwrights were held in high regard by their society; they dealt with human struggles, almost always in conjunction with divine intervention or activity.
Though Greek drama was very different than modern drama, today’s actors can still learn from their ancient counterparts. And if you are a young performer just getting started in the industry, it’s a good idea to study up on the roots of your new profession.
Style of Greek Drama
Plays were only performed for special occasions, like the festival of Dionysus. This festival involved the telling of heroic or tragic stories, and included a chorus, which supported the performance through chanting, gesturing, and dancing. Eventually, the festival chorus morphed into theatrical productions with the addition of actors and different forms of storytelling. The festival of Dionysus soon included drama competitions. An authoritative figure known as an “archon” was responsible for setting up the productions, and in many respects assumed the role of a director.
The three forms of Greek drama were comedy, tragedy, and satyr plays. Comedies often mocked the powerful to give the everyday Greek person a feeling of power and agency. Satyr plays usually took place in the middle of a tragic play, with the purpose of poking fun at the tragic heroes. Tragedies, perhaps the most well-known form of Greek theatre, featured a hero who underwent a drastic rise and fall. Very often, tragic heroes displayed acts of “hubris” or a pride that insulted the gods.
Lessons from Greek Drama
Though these plays were originally performed long ago, today’s actors can take a page out of the Greeks’ book when considering how they perform their roles. One lesson is to embrace simplicity. Greek plays usually had three actors on stage at the most (plus the chorus) and worked from very limited structures.
Another lesson modern-day actors can learn from the ancient Greeks is the value of acting with their bodies. Since Greek actors often wore heavy masks, no one could see their faces. They relied heavily on their bodies and voices to portray their roles.
Additionally, actors can emulate their Greek predecessors by respecting the importance and potential impact of the story they’re embodying. Greek theatres had no fourth wall, and the audience was an essential part of the production. Actors thought they were putting on a show for the gods, after all.
Many Greek playwrights, such as Euripides and Sophocles, are still considered masters of drama. Actors will serve themselves well to read their works, as these plays are still relevant today. Respecting those who brought the beauty of theater to life in ancient times will help anyone in modern showbusiness to appreciate their craft.
As in the past, modern theater serves a vital purpose of connecting people with important stories and lessons, which no actor should ever take lightly.