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An actor or actress (see terminology) is a person who acts in a dramatic production and who works in film, television, theatre, or radio in that capacity. The ancient Greek word for an "actress," (hypokrites), means literally "one who interprets"; in this sense, an actor is one who interprets a dramatic character.

Terminology

The word actor refers to a person who acts regardless of sex, while actress refers specifically to a female person who acts; therefore a female can be referred to by either term. The Oxford English Dictionary states that originally "'actor" was used for both sexes. The English word actress does not derive from the Latin actrix, probably not even by way of French actrice; according to the Oxford English Dictionary, actress was "probably formed independently" in English. As actress is a specifically feminine word, some feminists assert that the word is sexist. Gender-neutral usage of actor has re-emerged in modern English, especially when referring to male and female performers collectively, but actress remains the common term used in major acting awards given to female recipients and is common in general usage.

The gender-neutral term player was common in film in the early days of the Production Code, but is now generally deemed archaic. However, it remains in use in the theatre, often incorporated into the name of a theatre group or company (such as the East West Players).

History

The first recorded case of an actor performing took place in 534 BC (though the changes in calendar over the years make it hard to determine exactly) when the Greekmarker performer Thespis stepped on to the stage at the Theatre Dionysus and became the first known person to speak words as a character in a play or story. Prior to Thespis' act, stories were only known to be told in song and dance and in third person narrative. In honour of Thespis, actors are commonly called Thespians. Theatrical legend to this day maintains that Thespis exists as a mischievous spirit, and disasters in the theatre are sometimes blamed on his ghostly intervention.

Actors were traditionally not people of high status, and in the Early Middle Ages travelling acting troupes were often viewed with distrust. In many parts of Europe, actors could not even receive a Christian burial, and traditional beliefs of the region and time period held that this left any actor forever condemned. However, this negative perception was largely reversed in the 19th and 20th centuries as acting has become an honoured and popular profession and art.

Techniques

Method acting

Method acting is a technique developed from the acting "system" created in the early 20th century by Constantin Stanislavski in his work at the Moscow Art Theatremarker and its studios. The Group Theatre first popularised the Method in the 1930s; it was subsequently advanced and developed in new directions by Lee Strasberg at the Actors Studiomarker in the 1940s and 50s.In Stanislavski's "system" the actor analyses deeply the motivations and emotions of the character in order to personify him or her with psychological realism and emotional authenticity. Using the Method, an actor recalls emotions or reactions from his or her own life and uses them to identify with the character being portrayed.

Method actors are often characterized as immersing themselves so totally in their characters that they continue to portray them even off-stage or off-camera for the duration of the project. However, this is a popular misconception. While some actors do employ this approach, it is generally not taught as part of the Method. Stella Adler, who was a member of the Group Theatre, along with Strasberg, emphasised a different approach of using creative imagination.

Method acting offered a systematized training that developed internal abilities (sensory, psychological, emotional); it revolutionized American theater.

Presentational and representational acting

Presentational acting refers to a relationship between actor and audience, whether by direct address or indirectly by specific use of language, looks, gestures or other signs indicating that the character or actor is aware of the audience's presence. (Shakespeare's use of punning and wordplay, for example, often has this function of indirect contact.)

In representational acting, "actors want to make us "believe" they are the character; they pretend." The illusion of the fourth wall with the audience as voyeurs is striven for.

As opposite sex

In the past, only men could become actors in some societies. In the ancient Greece and Rome and the medieval world, it was considered disgraceful for a woman to go on the stage, and this belief continued right up until the 17th century, when in Venicemarker it was broken. In the time of William Shakespeare, women's roles were generally played by men or boys. The British prohibition was ended in the reign of Charles II who enjoyed watching actresses on stage. When an eighteen year Puritan prohibition of drama was lifted after the English Restoration of 1660, women began to appear on stage in England. Margaret Hughes is credited by some as the first professional actress on the English stage. The first occurrence of the term actress was in 1700 according to the OED and is ascribed to Dryden.

In Japanmarker, men (onnagata) took over the female roles in kabuki theatre when women were banned from performing on stage during the Edo period. However, some forms of Chinese drama have women playing all the roles.

In modern times, women sometimes play the roles of prepubescent boys. The stage role of Peter Pan, for example, is traditionally played by a woman, as are most principal boys in British pantomime. Opera has several "breeches roles" traditionally sung by women, usually mezzo-sopranos. Examples are Hansel in Hänsel und Gretel, and Cherubino in The Marriage of Figaro. This is uncommon in film, however, except in animated films and television programmes, where boys are sometimes voiced by women. For example, in The Simpsons the voice of Bart Simpson is provided by Nancy Cartwright.

Having an actor dress as the opposite sex for comic effect is also a long standing tradition in comic theatre and film. Most of Shakespeare's comedies include instances of overt cross-dressing, such as Francis Flute in A Midsummer Night's Dream. The movie A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum stars Jack Gilford dressing as a young bride. Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon famously posed as women to escape gangsters in the Billy Wilder film Some Like It Hot. Cross-dressing for comic effect was a frequently used device in most of the thirty Carry On films. Dustin Hoffman and Robin Williams have each appeared in a hit comedy film (Tootsie and Mrs. Doubtfire, respectively) in which they played most scenes dressed as a woman.

Occasionally the issue is further complicated, for example, by a woman playing a woman acting as a man pretending to be a woman, like Julie Andrews in Victor/Victoria, or Gwyneth Paltrow in Shakespeare in Love. In It's Pat: The Movie, filmwatchers never learn the gender of the androgynous main characters Pat and Chris (played by Julia Sweeney and Dave Foley).

A few roles in modern plays and musicals are played by a member of the opposite sex (rather than a character cross-dressing), such as the character Edna Turnblad in Hairspray—played by Divine in the original film, Harvey Fierstein in the Broadway musical, and John Travolta in the 2007 movie musical. Linda Hunt won an Academy Award for Best Actress for playing Billy Kwan in The Year of Living Dangerously. Felicity Huffman was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actress for playing Bree Osbourne (a man in the process of becoming a woman) in Transamerica.

Acting awards



See also







References

Sources

  • Csapo, Eric, and William J. Slater. 1994. The Context of Ancient Drama. Ann Arbor: The U of Michigan P. ISBN 0472082752.
  • Elam, Keir. 1980. The Semiotics of Theatre and Drama. New Accents Ser. London and New York: Methuen. ISBN 0416720609.
  • Weimann, Robert. 1978. Shakespeare and the Popular Tradition in the Theater: Studies in the Social Dimension of Dramatic Form and Function. Ed. Robert Schwartz. Baltimore and London: The John Hopkins University Press. ISBN 0801835062.


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