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The World of Theatre

Theatre is a world of its own. It enchants us as spectators when we enter a theatre hall. Whether modern or antique, classical, it doesn't matter, there is an atmosphere of its own in the theatre.

The audience enters the theatre and is full of anticipation and excitement. What will the play be like? What is the stage set like? What are the costumes like? Will it be exciting, will it be boring?

But what is theatre actually? Why has it captivated people for generations? Where does the urge to perform come from and what actually happens backstage?

Today, theatre (the word comes from the Greek and means a place to watch) refers both to the building in which scenic performances are staged and to the plays performed there. Today, a distinction is made between spoken theatre and musical theatre.

One thing is clear: without an audience, nothing works in the theatre and the audience contributes a great deal to the success of a play.

There are many people (especially in Vienna) who have a subscription to a theatre and therefore go to the theatre almost monthly and always know all the current plays. Others choose a play specifically because they have heard that it is well done. Still others have a favourite actor or actress and go to see one play or another for that reason.

Many spectators read a synopsis or reviews before going to the theatre to know what to expect.

For children, there are exciting offers throughout Austria within the framework of the Theater der Jugend or Jeunesse. This way, children can also experience theatre at very reasonable prices. For people who have little money, there are also free options such as

Possible tasks for work in the class

Group work on the questions: Why has theatre captivated people for generations? Where does the urge to perform come from and what actually happens backstage?

Put an English lesson under the motto "theatre"!

Job profiles in the theatre


Head of the theatre and responsible for artistic, organisational and technical areas.


The dramaturge selects theatre texts, makes playbills with the artistic director. New plays are also written or others simplified. Currently, even novels are "transformed" into plays!


Theatre directors stage works. The original text can be changed, shortened or simplified.


Choreographers develop the dances in a play and rehearse the choreography with the dancers.

Stage manager

The stage manager is the coordinator of the performance. He must be well acquainted with the production and is a link between the artists and the technical staff.

Stage Designer

The set designer creates the set in collaboration with the director, whose ideas he or she must implement.

Costume designer

In collaboration with the director, they design costumes for the production.

Make-up artists

Make-up artists apply make-up to the actors for their roles or, if necessary, create masks.


They make a prop list, i.e. a list of items needed for the performance (e.g. flowers, lamps, food, umbrellas, books etc.). Then they get these props and have to make sure that they are always prepared during the performance.


In cooperation with dramaturges and directors, sound technicians are responsible for operating the sound equipment. These are, for example, entire pieces of music or just short sounds that have to be played in at the right moment.

Technical director

Responsible for the running of all technical processes in a production.


Lighting technicians are responsible for all aspects of the lighting equipment. They have their own lighting rehearsals and their own lighting concept. Light can change a lot of things in the scenery.


prompters whisper the lines to the actors in case they forget them. They often sit hidden next to or under the stage so that they cannot be seen by the audience, but can help if actors have a momentary "hang-up".


Actors play the role assigned to them by the director, bringing the play to life for the audience.
Other tasks in the theatre include, for example, cloakroom, ticket sales, buffet, cleaners, audience service, etc....

Possible tasks for the work in class

  • Dialogue with pupils about the different job profiles

  • Possible questions:

  • What job profiles are there in theatre and what is who responsible for?

  • How can one become an actor and what does this profession look like?

  • What does a stage designer do?

The history of theatre (in Europe)

People have probably always played theatre, even if this looked different in the past than it does today. The cave paintings of the Stone Age people already point to early forms of theatre. Theatre has always been directly connected with advanced civilisations. Theatre was and is played in every culture, everywhere in the world and at all times. Here we limit ourselves to European history.

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Die Schule von Athen – Wikipedia

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Our classical theatre goes back to the cult of Dionysius of the ancient Greeks. Festive songs and choruses were rehearsed in honour of the god of wine, from which a very clear structure of these "plays" slowly emerged and (at that time only men) took on certain roles. They wore masks and splendid costumes. Sophocles and Aeschylus are considered the forefathers of tragedy poetry, as their plays are still performed even today. Tragedy is about the tragic fate of a character and the concept of fate being bound, a central theme of the myths. Not only mythological motifs were found in tragedy, but also daily political themes. In addition to tragedy, there was also the form of comedy in the theatre of ancient Greece, of which especially the works of Aristophanes have survived to this day. In comedy (similar to today's comedy), characters were placed in ridiculous situations and their character flaws were parodied. Political criticism was also incorporated, although this was soon replaced by everyday themes. 

At the time, plays were performed on a dance floor called the Orchestra (from which the term orchestra is derived). Opposite was the theatron, the actual auditorium, which extended in a semicircle up a slope in steps. From the 4th century BC onwards, stages were made of stone. Before that, the audience sat on hills on the ground and watched the performances on a wooden stage. The best example of a classical Greek theatre is Epidaurus, built around 340 BC.

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Representation of men in ancient Rome as an example of the fashion of the time


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Syria Bosra Theater - Theater der römischen Antike – Wikipedia

When Greece fell to the Roman Empire, the Romans adopted some aspects of Greek culture, including theatre. But in ancient Rome, plays served less as a means of political discourse than as a representation of power and a distraction from defeat. While comedy became the most popular form of theatre, other forms developed, such as pantomime. In addition, masks were abolished and women were cast in female roles.

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In the Middle Ages, theatre was strongly influenced by Christianity. Parts of the church liturgy were expanded into dramatic reenactments of the life, death and resurrection of Christ, and there were so-called miracle plays dealing with the lives of famous saints. But gradually (around the 13th century) the theatre was detached from the liturgy and moved from the churches to the church forecourts, the language used was the vernacular instead of Latin, and the roles were also filled by lay people. Passion plays" (about the Passion of Christ) also developed, which at first served only to venerate Christ, and then finally in the 14th century placed a greater emphasis on the suffering itself. This reflected social developments, as well as the suffering of plague and famine, which was present in the lives of many people. This secularisation of the once ecclesiastical theatre went so far that in the late Middle Ages the "Fastnachtspiele" developed, a satirical form of theatre (as the name suggests, performed only at Shrovetide) that poked fun at church and state authority, among other things, and also contained sexual and faecal humour. A well-known author of the Fastnachtspiele is Hans Sachs. In contrast, in England, for example, there was the "Morality Play", a form of theatre dealing with the struggle between vices and virtues; one consequence of this tradition is the well-known play "Everyman".

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The Renaissance brought some further changes to theatre through the role of court culture. Great events were celebrated with plays at court, which also served to represent power. The "humanist theatre" rediscovered the classical drama of antiquity, whereby, among other things, the changing stage set also replaced juxtaposed locations for the action. Ancient theatre experienced a great revival during the Renaissance among the aristocracy, especially comedy. The Italian court of Ferrara soon became the centre for the revival of ancient comedy; the most famous Renaissance comedies were written by Niccolo Macchiavelli, who created a contemporary version. Other forms of comedy developed: the "commedia erudita" (a scholars' comedy), the commedia dell'arte, the impromptu comedy and the shepherd's play (which combined comedy, tragedy and utopian ideas). In the 16th century, the humanists discovered the educational effect of theatre and gave their plays a moral-didactic function.

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In England, at the time of the Renaissance theatre, there was a development all of its own, namely the "Elizabethan theatre", which flourished under Queen Elizabeth I (1558-1603), and later King James I. This era of theatre is called "Early Modern Theatre". With the construction of the first London theatre in 1576 (in a round shape, similar to the animal arenas of the time), the great age of theatre in England began. This was also thanks to Queen Elizabeth I, who promoted this boom. Many more theatres were built during this period. Actors' troupes were formed of men and boys who, because of their high voices, took over the women's roles. The proceeds were divided among them. Important playwrights from this period include Christopher Marlowe, Ben Johnson and, of course, William Shakespeare, who is still world-famous today. He was an actor himself and wrote a great deal of poetry as well as several comedies and tragedies that are still played and read all over the world, including Romeo and Juliet, A Midsummer Night's Dream and Hamlet. His plays were performed at the famous "Globe Theatre" in London, of which he was co-owner. In the era of "Early Modern Drama", about 5000 plays were performed in England, about 620 of which are still in print today.

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In the Baroque period, theatre played a significant role. In this context, the world was seen as a stage in which all people have an assigned role and God acts as director.... Glamorous theatricality and representation were important at the absolutist courts of Europe. Commercial theatre developed in the big cities, and soon popular theatre emerged as a contrast to courtly theatre, attended by audiences from all walks of life. Theatre companies travelling through Europe often consisted of up to 80 members. Unfortunately, only a few manuscripts survive from this period. The plays contained comedy, tragedy, violent scenes and dance interludes. Commedia dell'arte" was a particularly popular form, while classical comedy and opera, which had been considered a high form of theatre since the 16th century, dominated at the aristocratic courts.

Spanish theatre was strongly Catholic, in contrast to the Baroque theatre at the other European courts. In the early 16th century, Italian acting troupes came to Spain and performed their plays in the courtyards of religious confraternities. This led to the spread of theatre throughout the country and the construction of stages. The most successful and best-known form of these genres worldwide was the "cloak and dagger" play, which had love intrigues in court society as its theme. Spanish baroque theatre was less concerned with realistic everyday themes, but functioned more on a parable basis. Well-known Spanish playwrights of this period include Lope de Vega and Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra.

In the French Baroque, both classicist drama and courtly theatre were to be found, i.e. both forms that were popular in the rest of Europe at the time. Magnificent performances took place at the court of Louis XVI, sometimes even featuring the king himself. The literary high point, however, was the French classical full stop. Soon the exact structure of the "regular drama" was established at the "Académie française". A well-known exponent was the poet Pierre Corneille, who created the prototype of the French Baroque protagonist: a tragic hero free of individual traits, characterised by simplicity and respectability. Corneille's great rival was Jean-Baptiste Molière, who wrote various comedies that are still performed today.

Molière is best known for his "character comedies", in which a characteristic of the main character is personified and exaggerated, and thus drawn into ridicule.

In the Romantic period, theatre (due to the advance of poetry and the novel) largely receded into the background; the performances that did exist were dominated by the emotional world. The modern era saw, through the liberalisation of theatre, a real boom in the theatre world again, which lasted until the 1930s. New forms, such as the operetta or the cabaret, also emerged, which shows that the aspect of entertainment played an ever greater role. The Second World War brought a radical change, after which new forms emerged again, such as post-war theatre, modern theatre and post-dramatic theatre.

Building a theatre

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How is a theatre actually structured? The theatre has always had a separate area for the audience and one for the performers, musicians and technical staff. If you compare the two pictures above, you can clearly see that some of the rows of seats for the audience still look very much like they did in ancient times.

What has changed in the structure since the beginnings of classical theatre? 

Ancient Greek theatre took place on an open-air stage built on a hillside. It consisted of three parts: Orchestra, Theatron and Skéne. Orchestra refers to the place where the plays and dances were performed (what we understand as the stage today), Theatron to the semi-circular audience seats and Skéne to the space behind the stage where the actors changed their costumes. The ancient theatre also included: parodoi (side entrances to the theatron) and mechana (a crane through which the action on stage could be intervened from above). 

Founded in 1599 by Shakespeare's company of actors, the theatre was most likely round or octagonal (the exact shape is still disputed today) and three storeys high. The theatre was not roofed, so the audience standing in the courtyard (the cheapest seats) were not protected from the weather. Audience members who paid more were allowed to sit in the surrounding covered galleries. The best seats could be reserved and were in the boxes, the gallery seats to the right and left of the stage. The special feature of this type of theatre was the proximity of all spectators to the stage. The stage itself was roofed and also served for the actors' appearance; they were often lowered from the roof (also called heaven) with ropes and thus "flew" onto the stage. Under the stage was a cellar (cellarage) from which both props and actors could appear on stage through a trapdoor. There were also entrances backstage, one of which was closed with a curtain that could be opened and used for scenes. The galleries at the back above the stage were also sometimes used for parts of the performance or for the musicians. Directly behind the stage were the resting rooms (tiring rooms) where the actors stayed between scenes. 

Contemporary theatre has taken much from the structure of classical theatre, but some things are different. For example, the audience seats are often arranged in a slope-like manner, as in classical Greece; however, the space is usually no longer round but square. Between the stage and the auditorium there is usually an orchestra pit in which (if there are any) the musicians sit. From the Elizabethan theatre (such as the Globe Theatre) one can recognise the gallery seats with the various tiers, as well as the boxes once occupied by rulers and the aristocracy. The rear part of the audience seats is called the stalls, the front part, with which the audience has a better view of the stage, the parterre. Behind the parquet and under the balcony with the gallery seats there are the cheap standing places.

The stage is separated from the auditorium and orchestra pit by a curtain which is raised at the beginning of the performance and lowered or drawn during scene changes, the interval and at the end of the play.

Possible tasks for class work

  • Visit a theatre hall with your pupils

  • Have your students draw or paint a theatre

  • Create a quiz from the information above with questions such as:

    • What were the seats in the stalls called?

    • What is the name of the area in front of the stage where the orchestra sits?

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