Acting is an activity in which a story is told by means of its enactment by an actor or actress who adopts a character—in theatre, television, film, radio, or any other medium that makes use of the mimetic mode.
Acting involves a broad range of skills, including a well-developed imagination, emotional facility, physical expressivity, vocal projection, clarity of speech, and the ability to interpret drama. Acting also demands an ability to employ dialects, accents, improvisation, observation and emulation, mime, and stage combat. Many actors train at length in specialist programs or colleges to develop these skills. The vast majority of professional actors have undergone extensive training. Actors and actresses will often have many instructors and teachers for a full range of training involving singing, scene-work, audition techniques, and acting for camera.
Acting is an ephemeral art: once the performance is over, there is nothing left but the memory of it. There is no history, no documentation or record of acting itself before the end of the 19th century except for the written recollections of those who saw it. Acting masterpieces are known only by hearsay. It is as if all of Rembrandt’s paintings had disappeared and only the recollections of one of his admirers remained.
The origins of acting are in the act of remembering. Acting may have begun as early as 4000 bc when Egyptian actor-priests worshiped the memory of the dead. The first nonreligious professional acting may possibly have developed in China. Players there kept alive the memory of the triumph of the current emperor’s ancestors over the former dynasty. Acting has remained an art of remembering to the present day, when actors rely on their memories of emotions and sense experiences to perform a reenactment of those feelings on stage.
The earliest origins of drama are to be found in Athens where ancient hymns, called dithyrambs, were sung in honor of the god Dionysus. These hymns were later adapted for choral processions in which participants would dress up in costumes and masks. Eventually, certain members of the chorus evolved to take special roles within the procession, but they were not yet actors in the way we would understand it.
That development came later in the 6th century BC, when the tyrant Pisistratus, who then ruled the city, established a series of new public festivals. One of these, the ‘City Dionysia’, a festival of entertainment held in honor of the god Dionysus, featured competitions in music, singing, dance and poetry.
One of the first known actors was an ancient Greek called Thespis of Icaria in Athens. Writing two centuries after the event, Aristotle in his Poetics (c. 335 BC) suggests that Thespis stepped out of the dithyrambic chorus and addressed it as a separate character. Before Thespis, the chorus narrated (for example, “Dionysus did this, Dionysus said that”). When Thespis stepped out from the chorus, he spoke as if he were the character (for example, “I am Dionysus, I did this”). To distinguish between these different modes of storytelling—enactment and narration
—Aristotle uses the terms “mimesis” (via enactment) and “diegesis” (via narration). From Thespis’ name derives the word “thespian”.
Modern professional acting in the West began in Italy during the early 16th century. There troupes of actors performed the commedia dell’arte. Actors practiced improvisation, inventing words and actions to flesh out plot outlines called scenarios. Actors learned to work with each other, creating an ensemble, though the emphasis remained on an individual actor’s skills and cleverness. A feature of commedia is the lazzi (probably from le azioni, Italian for “the actions”), short sections of comic business, stunts, and witty comments. The characters that appear in commedia are stock social types such as young lovers, a pompous old man, and Harlequin, the mischievous troublemaker who is often a servant.
In the 18th century sentimental theater came to be. This is a type of acting where the audience was moved from tears to laughter. Scholars argue that the person who wrote the first sentimental comedy play was Gollby Cibber, an actor, manager and poet laureate. He gave himself a role in a a play he wrote called “Love’s Last Shift.”. This style of acting began in England in 1690 and continued into the 1730s. Sentimental acting also was very over acted; just like the French, they used a lot of emotions.
The story of 20th-century acting may be summed up as the attempt to rediscover an “inner truth” in performance. The form that truth takes, however, depends on different and sometimes contradictory perceptions of essential human nature. Superior acting has continued on the basis of strong national theatrical traditions – this is especially true of acting in Great Britain.
During the 1950s and 1960s, there was a continuous movement away from the big business of commercial theater, as typified by New York City’s Broadway theater district. Actors moved “off-Broadway” and then “off-off-Broadway” along with productions to escape the need to show a profit. At the same time, many regional theaters offered opportunities for acting “the repertoire,” the established body of great dramatic literature. University theaters provided extensive training programs and facilities.
Dinner theaters staged small-scale productions.