2007 Schools Wikipedia Selection. Related subjects: Theatre

Actors in period costume sharing a joke whilst waiting between takes during location filming.
Actors in period costume sharing a joke whilst waiting between takes during location filming.
Two actors performing.
Two actors performing.

An actor or actress is a person who acts, or plays a role, in a dramatic production. The term commonly refers to someone working in movies, television, live theatre, or radio, and can occasionally denote a street entertainer. Besides playing dramatic roles, actors may also sing or work only on radio or as a voice artist.

An actor usually plays a fictional character. In the case of a true story (or a fictional story that portrays real people) an actor may play a real person (or a fictional version of the same). Occasionally, actors appear as themselves, as in John Malkovich's performance in the film Being John Malkovich.


"Actor" is directly from the masculine Latin noun actor (feminine, actrix) from the verb agere "to do, to drive, to pass time" + the suffix -or "so./st. who performs the action indicated by the stem". Alternatively from Greek ἂκτωρ (aktor), leader, from the verb ἂγω (agō), to lead or carry, to convey, to bring . "Actress" is still sometimes used as the feminine form of "actor", especially in awards shows where "actor" is still used in its traditional masculine sense. For example, at the Academy Awards only male actors qualify for Best Actor or Best Supporting Actor; female actors instead compete for Best Actress or Best Supporting Actress. In other modern usage, however, "actor" is commonly deemed gender-neutral.


The first recorded case of an actor performing took place in 534 BC (probably on 23 November, though the changes in calendar over the years make it hard to determine exactly) when the Greek 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. Prior to Thespis' act, stories were told in song and dance and in third person narrative, but no one had assumed the role of a character in a story. 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 honored and popular profession and art. Part of the cause is the easier popular access to dramatic film entertainment and the resulting rise of the movie star — as regards both their social status and the salaries they command. The combination of public presence and wealth has profoundly rehabilitated their image.

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 Venice 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 female actors (actresses) on stage.


As in other art forms, acting has a theoretical foundation. Stanislavsky and the Moscow Theatre were among the first founders of modern acting theory. Meyerhold and his theory on biomechanics and physicality was a revolutionary idea back in early 20th century Russian theatre. Since then, Americanized forms of these theories brought about by Lee Strasberg, Stella Adler, and other variations brought about by Sanford Meisner and Viola Spolin can be seen.

Techniques of acting

Actors and actresses employ a variety of techniques that are learned through training and experience. Some of these are:

  1. The rigorous use of the voice to communicate a character's lines and express emotion. This is achieved through attention to diction and projection through correct breathing and articulation. It is also achieved through the tone and emphasis that an actor puts on words
  2. Physicalisation of a role in order to create a believable character for the audience and to use the acting space appropriately and correctly
  3. Use of gesture to complement the voice, interact with other actors and to bring emphasis to the words in a play, as well as having symbolic meaning

Shakespeare is believed to have been commenting on the acting style and techniques of his era when Hamlet gives his advice to the players in the play-within-the-play. He encourages the actors to “speak the I pronounced it to you,” and avoid “saw[ing] the air too much with your hand” , because even in a “whirlwind of passion, you must...give it smoothness.” On the other hand, Hamlet urges the players to “Be not too tame neither.” He suggests that they make sure to “suit the action to the word, the word to the action”, taking care to “o'erstep not the modesty of nature.” As well, he told the players to not “...let those that play your clowns...laugh, to set on some quantity of barren spectators to laugh too,” which Hamlet considered to be a “villainous” and “pitiful” tactic.

The English critic Benedict Nightingale discussed and compared great classical actors of the long dead past, and the present, and their magical effects upon audiences, in this 1983 article from the New York Times, available online .

Actors playing the opposite sex

Historically, acting was considered a man's profession; so, in Shakespeare's time, for instance, men and boys played all roles, including the female parts. This was the case until the Restoration of the theatre in 1660, the first occurrence of the term actress in the OED being by Dryden in 1700.

In Japan, 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 females playing all the roles.

Today, women sometimes play the roles of prepubescent boys, because in some regards a woman has a closer resemblance to a boy than does a man. The role of Peter Pan, for example, is traditionally played by a woman. The tradition of the principal boy in pantomime may be compared. An adult playing a child occurs more in theatre than in film. The exception to this is voice actors in animated films and television programmes, where boys are generally voiced by women, as heard in The Simpsons where the voice of Bart Simpson is provided by Nancy Cartwright. Opera has several ' pants roles' traditionally sung by women, usually mezzo-sopranos. Examples are Hansel in Hänsel und Gretel, and Cherubino in The Marriage of Figaro.

Mary Pickford played the part of Little Lord Fauntleroy in the first film version of the book. Linda Hunt won an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress in The Year of Living Dangerously, in which she played the part of a man; this was the only Oscar ever awarded for playing a role of the opposite sex.

Having an actor play 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 cross-dressing, such as Francis Flute in A Midsummer Night's Dream, and both Dustin Hoffman and Robin Williams appeared in hit comedy films where they were required to play most scenes dressed as women. The movie A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum stars Jack Gilford dressing as a young bride, among other slapstick comedy. 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. Several roles in modern plays and musicals are played by a member of the opposite sex, 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. Sometimes the issue is further complicated through the role of a woman acting as a man pretending to be a woman, like Julie Andrews in Victor/Victoria or Gwyneth Paltrow in Shakespeare in Love.

The words actor and actress

The word actor may be used to refer to a male or female performer; this was the original use of the term. Some modern style guides recommend using actor as a gender-neutral term for both male and females, regarding actress as sexist, although this may lead to confusion because of the long-established use of actress. Some female performers prefer the term actress, while others prefer actor.

Acting awards

  • Academy Awards, also known as the Oscars, for film
  • Cannes Film Festival Awards, international French festival for world wide films and documentaries
  • Golden Globe Awards for film and television
  • Emmy Awards for television
  • Genie Awards for Canadian film
  • Gemini Awards for Canadian television
  • British Academy of Film and Television Arts Award for film and television; also known as BAFTA
  • Tony Awards for the theatre (specifically, Broadway theatre)
  • European Theatre Awards for the theatre
  • Laurence Olivier Awards for the theatre
  • Screen Actors Guild Awards for actors in film and television
  • Indian National Film Awards for the Indian cinema.
  • Filmfare Awards honours excellence in the Indian Film Industry ( Bollywood) - limited to Hindi language films only.
  • César Awards for French film
  • AFI Awards for Australian film.
  • Berlinale German film festival in Berlin (Golden and Silver Bear)

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