Acting is an ancient art form that has existed since the beginning
of recorded time. Although styles range from the ritualized
Noh theatre of Japan, the poignant eloquence of
Shakespeare’s plays, the stark minimalism of Ingmar Bergman
films, to the compelling energy of Bollywood movies, ultimately
these theatrical forms share similar fundamental acting
principles. The diversity of acting styles can be seen across time
and across cultures with ancient acting, closer to what we
understand as dance and mime, differing from what is presented
today. Acting as a creative activity is one of several
practices within the performing arts and all share three common
phases of development; training/preparation, rehearsal/
practice, and performance. Further, any study that investigates
the performing arts must appreciate the reality that a
performing artist is always embedded within a contextual
setting and is engaged in one or more of the three phases of
development. Acting remains a relational enterprise that
involves moment-to-moment interactions with others while
maintaining an ability to draw from personal past relational

experiences and imaginings with self, other, and/or the environment.
It directly reveals the creative process to an audience;
both performer and audience share in the immediate yet transitory
nature of this art form.
Generally, empirical research on the performing arts lags
behind that of the other artistic domains. Perhaps it is because
acting is more process-oriented, even though a product is being
performed. To help provide some coherence to this topic creativity
research studies are frequently grouped into two general
approaches, individualistic and contextualistic. Individualistic
studies include research on the traits of actors (cognitive, personality,
biological) while contextualistic studies examine the sociocultural
dynamics operating within creative ensembles and
between actors and their audience. Fundamentally, an understanding
of acting requires an integration of both.
Etymological definitions shed light on the universal concepts
inherent in acting. The Webster’s Encyclopedic Unabridged
Dictionary (1996) described acting as “serving as something
temporary; the art, profession or activity of those who perform
in stage plays, motion pictures, etc.” (p. 19). The word actor
(‘person who acts’) appeared at the same time as the word act

(1350 – 1400). Another common term that was used in place of
actor is player (AD 382), a term that described “a person or
thing that plays; a person who plays parts on stage ” (p. 1485).
In fact, the terms playwright and playwriting are drawn from this
word. Play (AD 1377) means “a dramatic composition that
involves action, activity or drama; to act the part of a person or
character in a dramatic performance” (p. 1439). Play, player,
and playwright can be found in many of Shakespeare’s dramas
and to this day we commonly use these and other terms such as
playbill, playgoer, and playback.
Along with examining the process of doing or performing
actions while imitating a character, the enterprise of acting also
stimulates and engages the creative imagination of the actor
and the spectator. Creativity is regarded as “the process in
which original or meaningful new ideas, forms, interpretations
or methods transcend traditional ideas, rules, patterns or relationships”
(Webster, p. 472). Creativity is a relatively new term
used to describe human endeavors, since this term was originally
only reserved for the actions of gods; however, an older
term, imagination, did describe human creative actions.
The word and concept of inspiration served to bridge the
behaviors of gods and humans. According to Plato in
c. 388 BCE, the gods literally inspired or breathed their spirit
into the imagination of the artists, hence it was understood
that artists, guided by divine beings, became the messengers or
actors of the gods; they were inspired by god to communicate
to mankind through divine or supernatural influence. Lastly,
the Ancient Greek words poesis, physis, and techne all remain
part of fundamental acting practices of today. Poesis (poetry)
is an action that springs from physis (spirit), considered
our dynamic life force. These concepts, physis and poesis,
are the inherent power that is felt when a great actor has
stage presence or star quality and when a play inspires and
transforms us. The third term, techne, captures the technical
aspects of how an actor portrays a character and tells a story.
From these terms we can conclude that acting is a creative
process of actions that reveal characters and situations while
engaging the imagination of the performers and their audience.
It is a dynamic relational enterprise that can inform,
stimulate, and inspire.
In this entry a brief outline of the major historical developments
of world theatre, the acting training practices of today,
and some recent research findings on acting and actors are
discussed. Regardless of the medium (stage, film, radio, television,
or the internet), the general practice of acting has
remained timeless. When examining the historical evolution
of acting, both in the East and West, what is fascinating and
humbling is that the essential principles of acting tend to
persist. The writings of such giants as Aristotle and Shakespeare
describe what we continue to seek. Ultimately, according to
Tadashi Suzuki (1986), acting demands “the actors involve
their whole selves, their living bodies, in a collective performance”

Origins of Acting
Historians and anthropologists have assumed that theatre
evolved from (1) ritual, (2) storytelling, (3) man’s innate
behavior to imitate as a way of learning, (4) man’s natural

ability to play, and/or (5) engage in fantasy to reduce anxiety.
Ritual enactments of myths that recount sacred history are
considered the most salient origins for theatre and acting. In
essence myths were regarded as reality and truth; they were
attempts to reestablish the sacred through the performance of
actions originally done by the gods. It is believed that rituals
were healing attempts to control that which was frightening
and unknown. Dance, music, masks, costumes, chanting, and
narration performed on sacred grounds became the basis for
ceremonial theatrical performances. The sacred ground for
ritual gatherings became an acting area and the priests ensured
that these rituals were performed correctly. They were the ones
who impersonated men, animals or supernatural beings, sang
and wore costumes, and masks. Theatre emerged from these
dramatic rituals, especially when secular stories began to take
the place of religious practices.
Second, many myths became the inspirational sources for
stories and storytelling in which a narrator would impersonate
the action and dialogue of other figures. In this form of
mythic storytelling, the integration of dance, gymnastics, and
rhythmic chants facilitated the portrayal of animal movements
and sounds. The third possible origin of acting is revealed in
the writings of Aristotle (335 BCE) who viewed humans as
instinctively imitative; both enjoying imitating others and
watching imitations performed by others. Aristotle believed
that humans desired to know how other’s felt and why others
acted as they did. He believed that imitation was man’s chief
method of learning about his world. The fourth and fifth
theories posited are that mankind has an innate ability for
fantasy and pretend play and that these capacities may be
used to decrease anxiety while preparing for new experiences.
These last two theories are clearly manifested and continue
to be practiced within community group theatre projects and
group psychodramas. They offer a direct way of engaging the
individual to tell personal stories with the goal of healing
the individual and the community at large. These five theories
assume that society recognized and valued the performance of
myth and ritual, storytelling, imitation, and pretend play.
Origins of Acting: The East
Our knowledge about the origins of Eastern theatre and acting
begins to take shape about 4000 BCE when Egypt and the
Near East entered an advanced stage. Egyptian hieroglyphics
supply the first tangible evidence of drama enacted by priests.
In the Far East, according to Hindu legend, Brahma taught the
art of drama to the sage Bharata, author of Natyasastra
(The Science of Dramaturgy), written around 200 BCE.
Since it gives details on acting, dance, costume, and makeup
it is assumed that these acting elements had long been in
existence. The early Sanskrit plays were organized around
fundamental psychological moods or ‘rasas’ (nine rasas
include erotic, comic, pathetic, furious, heroic, terrible, odious,
marvelous, and peaceful). A Sanskrit play contained
many rasas but all plays ended happily; the intention was
to leave the spectator in a state of harmony. Violence and
death were kept off stage, good and evil were clearly differentiated,
and good was always triumphant. These plays were
only performed on special occasions such as marriages,

Hindu theatre depended most upon the actor who in turn
relied on four basic resources: (1) codified movement and
gesture, (2) speech and song, (3) costume and makeup, and
(4) psychological insight. Gestures were classified linking body
parts to inner feelings while speech and music was regulated by
intonation, pitch, and tempo. Costumes, props, and makeup
were used as symbols and the overarching goal was to illustrate
the Hindu search for peace of soul, rest after struggle, happiness
after trials, and submission to fate. During the twelfth
century Sanskrit theatre ended; however, dance survived and
was integrated, in the seventeenth century, into the dancedrama,
Kathakali. Like earlier Sanskrit drama, it was based on
Hindu epics, with exaggerated style, musical support, and symbolic
representations of good and evil, love and hate, and the
passions of the gods and demons. Performances frequently
lasted all night. Similar dance-dramas were performed in
Southeast Asia and shadow plays performed with puppets
dominated in Indonesia. In the eleventh century, actors
began to replace the puppets and puppet-masters but the use
of music and mimed actions continued.
In China the first known beginnings of acting originated
around AD 714 when Emperor Ming Huang opened the
first training program for performers of music and dance (Students
of the Pear Garden). During the reign of Chen-tsung
(998–1022) semi-dramatic tales of history were performed
with dance and song. Plays of this period were long with
complex plots spanning over 30 acts. Around 1736–1795, the
northern and southern styles were now merged to form
the Beijing Opera. Characteristic of this form of theatre is the
use of narrative to impart details of plot followed by a dramatic
stylized performance of the climactic moments of the play.
The intention of Chinese theatre was to stimulate the imagination
of the audience and not to give the illusion of reality.
Though it was common to have musicians and property managers
on the stage during the performance, the focal point
for the audience was the actor, who generally performed highly
stylized speech and movement sequences and wore symbolic
makeup and costumes. Not until the early twentieth century
did Western spoken drama begin to appear in China including
the construction of proscenium theatres that supported
these productions.
In Japan, the influence of Buddhism during the eighth
century resulted in dance plays that were more ceremonial
in form. These Bugaku dramas were handed down through
generations of families who inherited the rights to perform
them. During the tenth century, the more rural Sarugaku
and Dengaku rituals incorporated song, dance, tumbling,
and comic sketches which evolved by the fourteenth century
into Noh theatre. Its staging reflected Zen Buddhist values of
simplicity and minimalism. Today Noh drama continues to
be highly stylized, uses elaborate ceremonial costumes and
masks, and is performed only by males. Like the other Southeast
Asian theater traditions, puppet performances incorporating
musical accompaniment and a narrator remained popular
in Japan. Later, Kabuki theatre, a cruder form of theatre
inspired by Noh and puppet theatre, developed around 1600.
With the fall of the shoguns, Kabuki became Japan’s major
dramatic form of theatre mingling comic and serious performances,
along with dance and song. All traditional Japanese
theatrical forms required long and careful study. Only during

Origins of Acting: The West
Western drama began in Greece at festivals honoring Dionysus.
Dances, hymns, and dramas (comedies, tragedies, and satyrs)
were presented at these festivals. The earliest records of dramatic
contests date back to 534 BCE. One of the first known
playwrights, Thespis, involved only one actor and a chorus,
but what was remarkable about Thespis is that he was the first
individual to break out from the chorus and assume the role
of the character (in honor of his achievement performers
are still referred to as Thespians). Thespis used masks to
perform all the characters. When he left to change characters
the chorus remained on stage and filled the intervals with
singing and dancing, hence the chorus was regarded as the
principal unifying force in early drama. Aeschylus introduced
a second actor into the action in order to allow face-to-face
conflict; as this practice increased the role of the chorus began
to decrease. Euripides reduced the chorus to the point where
they were almost insignificant and instigated a more intense
focus on questions regarding social norms, psychological realism,
and philosophy.
By the fifth century, Greek plays were produced by wealthy
citizens, choregus, who financed the costumes, scenery, musicians,
and prepared the chorus and actors for the productions.
The playwright/dramatists applied to have their plays performed
at the festivals, were responsible for writing the
work, directing, and acting. They were paired with a choregus
who would help produce the work and if the play won the
contest, the playwright received money and honor. The city
Dionysia, the location where all festivals were held, contained
the Theatre of Dionysus (a raked hill area for the audience and
a flat terrace structure at the foot of the hill designated as the
performing space).
Roman theatre followed the traditions of Greek theatre but
expanded the notion of spectacle. The growing immorality
and decadence of later Roman theatre alienated the early
Christian followers and so Medieval theatre rose as a reaction
to the theatrical productions of the Roman Empire. Although
actors at this time were denigrated by the Christian church,
elaborate Passion (Mystery) plays emerged as a way to celebrate
religious festivals outside of the church. The emergence
of Renaissance theatre saw an increase of support by the courts
and academies and the church became less involved in theatre.
Renaissance productions followed the spectacle nature of the
earlier Roman theatre. In an effort to amplify the spectacles,
intermezzi were provided between the acts of the drama

theatre was presented in ornate indoor venues including the
introduction of proscenium stages that facilitated the use of
elaborate scenery.
The Italian Commedia dell’arte grew in tandem with
the drama of the Renaissance court and academy. This form
of theatre was not spectacle-based: rather it was actor-centered.
Skills in improvisation, vocal range, and physical movement
facilitated strong characterizations (Pantolone, Dottore, and
Capitano). Similar to the practices of Eastern theatre traditions,
these acting ensembles worked together and individual
actors developed the same role over time. Influenced
by the power of Commedia dell’ arte ensembles, other
European professional acting companies developed strong
dramatic works written by such great playwrights as Marlow,
Moliere, Tartuffe, Johnson, and Shakespeare. Instead of
focusing on elaborate spectacle these acting ensembles
focused on the words of the playwrights; once again Western
theatre returned to the wisdom offered by the early Greek
theatre practitioners.
As the eighteenth century arrived, acting companies came
under the increasing control of businessmen. Now the actors
and playwrights were the employees, rather than active participants
in the management of the productions. Restoration
drama, especially the comedy of manner genre, grew more
sentimental and pantomime became a weaker version of commedia
dell’ arte. Opera started to separate from the dramatic
presentations and was now performed independent of plays
performed by actors. During the nineteenth century, along
with the firm theatrical control of businessmen, Romantic
drama and Melodrama held sway. Repertory companies
increased during this period but so did the star system in
acting. Celebrity artists such as Henry Irving, Edwin Booth,
Elenora Duse, and Sarah Bernhardt travelled widely, drawing
audiences from all walks of life. Theatres now specialized in
particular forms of drama (pantomime, variety hall, opera,
ballet, drama), and audiences were provided greater freedom
to select productions that specifically interested them. Diversification
and possibilities made available by new technology
such as radio, cinema, television, and the new electronic
mediums led to even more specialization.
The Director and Acting
Western theatre shifted from the earlier focus on the poet in
the Elizabethan stage, to the actor in the eighteenth century,
and finally to the ‘metteur en scene’ (master of the scene)
who controlled the appearance of the stage in the nineteenth
century. With growing value placed on appearance, actors
changed their approach as well. The words of the playwright
had less meaning and in its place virtuoso performances
matched the elaborate sets and costumes of the day. At the
pinnacle of nineteenth century theatre, the ‘metteur en
scene,’ now known as the director, moved from the role of
stage manager to the one who conceptualized the images that
appeared on the stage. At the end of the nineteenth century a
backlash against spectacle led to the introduction of realism.
Andre Antoine was one of the first directors to create a
repertory theatre company with the vision of integrating
reality as the unifying force in dramatic works. Shortly

after, Stanislavski broke further from the ranks. As a director
he explored all possibilities to achieve a realistic production.
Ultimately, in order to get the emotional depth of a theatrical
work he realized that he needed to train his actors. Due
largely to his efforts, the focus on the actor and acting
returned, and with it literary meaning was once again merged
coherently with staging design.
Acting Theory
In The Poetics, Aristotle (c. 335 BCE/1958) clearly outlined the
essential ingredients for dramatic performances and his ideas
remain powerfully resonant in today’s international acting
traditions. He stated:
So all the arts . . . produce their imitations by means of rhythm,
speech and melody, using them separately or together. . . . Since
those who make imitations represent men in action, these men
must be superior or inferior, either better than those we know in
life or worse, or of the same kind . . . that is why their works are
called dramas, because they represent men “doing”. (pp. 3–6)
He grounded his theory of imitation in the natural activities
of child’s play and the pleasure and learning gained during this
activity. He claimed that poets must employ insight and clarity
to represent men in action and they must determine the positions
and attitudes of the actors in the play who will imitate the
characters. Aristotle believed that gifted poets expressed powerful
emotions only when they felt them. And what differentiated
gifted poets from the ungifted was the ability to remain
balanced and not get lost in the characters they portrayed. He
also offered a warning, that actors must not become more
important than poets; it is the balance of all these elements
that make theatre vibrant and meaningful.
In Hamlet, Shakespeare (1623) offered a similar perspective.
Hamlet demanded that his players “Suit the action to the
word, the word to the action, with this special observance, that
you o’erstep not the modesty of nature . . . to hold, as ‘twere,
the mirror up to nature” (Hamlet, Act III, Sc. I, lines 18–21).
Both Aristotle and Shakespeare insisted that acting was a fusion
of word and action that was rooted in the truths of nature.
Performers were charged with the responsibility to engage their
entire self in the portrayal of another; they were to give life to
the character and the action of the play. Today, Tadashi Suzuki,
one of Japan’s leading theatre-makers, echoes the thoughts
of Aristotle and Shakespeare. In The Way of Acting (1986), he
stated: “The art of stage performance cannot be judged by
how closely the actors can imitate or recreate ordinary, everyday
life on the stage. An actor uses his words and gestures to try
and convince his audience of something profoundly true. It is
this attempt that should be judged”
These major concepts confirm the universality of acting in
which actions are performed in a contextual relational field
between the performers, the audience, and the socio-cultural
experiences that have shaped them. To perform something
profoundly true, to hold the mirror up to nature, to retain
critical balance and yet maintain an ability to be emotionally
engaged requires training and practice, and then it must
be performed with others in the immediacy of the present

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