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An actor (sometimes actress for female; see terminology) is a person who acts in a dramatic production and who works in film, television, theatre, or radio in that capacity.[1] The ancient Greek word for an "actor," (hypokrites), means literally "one who interprets";[2] in this sense, an actor is one who interprets a dramatic character.[3]



After 1660, when women first appeared on stage, actor and actress were initially used interchangeably for female performers, but later, influenced by the French actrice, actress became the usual term. The etymology is a simple derivation from actor with ess added.[4] The word actor refers to a person who acts regardless of gender, and "is increasingly preferred", while actress refers specifically to a female person who acts. Actress "remains in general use",[4] although in a survey of a "wide cross-section of current British English", compiled in 2010, actor was almost twice as commonly found as actress.[5] Within the profession, however, the re-adoption of the neutral term dates to the 1950s 60s, the post-war period when women's contribution to cultural life in general was being re-evaluated.[6] Actress remains the common term used in major acting awards given to female recipients.[7]

The gender-neutral term "player" was common in film in the early days of the Motion Picture Production Code with regards to the cinema of the United States, 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).


Actors Jim Brochu and Steve Schalchlin performing in The Big Voice: God or Merman play.
Actors Jim Brochu and Steve Schalchlin performing in The Big Voice: God or Merman play.
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 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 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.[8]


Method acting

Method acting is a technique developed from the acting 'system' created in the early 20th century by Konstantin Stanislavski in his work at the Moscow Art Theatre and its studios. The Group Theatre first popularised the Method in the 1930s; it was subsequently advanced and developed in new directions by Stella Adler, Sanford Meisner, Uta Hagen, Lee Strasberg (at the Actors Studio in the 1940s and 50s), and others.[9] In Stanislavski's system', the actor analyzes the character in order to play him or her with psychological realism and emotional authenticity. Using the Method, an actor may recall emotions or reactions from his or her own life and use 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.[10]

Method acting offers a systematic form of actor training in which the actor's sensory, psychological, and emotional abilities are developed; it revolutionized theatre in the United States.

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.[11] (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."[11] The illusion of the fourth wall with the audience as voyeurs is striven for.[12]

As opposite gender

In the past, only men could become actors in some societies. In the ancient Greece and Rome[13] and the medieval world, it was considered disgraceful for a woman to go on the stage, and this belief persisted 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.[14]

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.[15] This prohibition ended during the reign of Charles II in part due to the fact that he enjoyed watching actresses on stage.[16] The first occurrence of the term actress was in 1700 according to the OED and is ascribed to Dryden.[7]

In Japan, men (onnagata) took over the female roles in kabuki theatre when women were banned from performing on stage during the Edo period. This convention has continued to the present. 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 H nsel und Gretel, Cherubino in The Marriage of Figaro and Octavian in Der Rosenkavalier.

Women in male roles are uncommon in film with the notable exceptions of the films The Year of Living Dangerously and I'm Not There. In the former film Linda Hunt played the pivotal role of Billy Kwan, for which she received the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress. In the latter film Cate Blanchett portrayed Jude Quinn, a representation of Bob Dylan in the sixties, for which she was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress. Women playing men in live theatre is particularly common in presentations of older plays, such as those of Shakespeare, that have large numbers of male characters in roles where the gender no longer matters in modern times.

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 films, 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 Supporting 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 male-to-female transsexual) in Transamerica.

See also

  • Acting
  • Bit part
  • Body double
  • Cameo appearance
  • Casting (performing arts)
  • Cast member
  • Celebrity
  • Character actor
  • Charisma
  • Child actor
  • Drama school
  • Dramatis person
  • Ensemble cast
  • Extra (actor)
  • GOTE
  • Improvisational theatre
  • Leading actor
  • Lists of actors
  • List of awards in theatre
  • List of film awards
  • Master of Fine Arts
  • Matinee idol
  • Method acting
  • Meisner technique
  • Mime
  • Movie star
  • Movie studio
  • Pornographic actor
  • Practical Aesthetics
  • Pre-production
  • Presentational acting and Representational acting
  • Q Score
  • Stunt work
  • Supporting actor
  • Thespis
  • Understudy
  • Vaudeville
  • Viewpoints
  • Voice Actor



  • Csapo, Eric, and William J. Slater. 1994. The Context of Ancient Drama. Ann Arbor: The U of Michigan P. ISBN 0-472-08275-2.
  • Elam, Keir. 1980. The Semiotics of Theatre and Drama. New Accents Ser. London and New York: Methuen. ISBN 0-416-72060-9.
  • 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 Johns Hopkins University Press. ISBN 0-8018-3506-2.

Further reading

  • An Actor's Work by Constantin Stanislavski
  • A Dream of Passion: The Development of the Method by Lee Strasberg (Plume Books, ISBN 0-452-26198-8, 1990)
  • Sanford Meisner on Acting by Sanford Meisner (Vintage, ISBN 0-394-75059-4, 1987)
  • Letters to a Young Actor by Robert Brustein (Basic Books, ISBN 0-465-00806-2, 2005).
  • The Empty Space by Peter Brook
  • The Technique of Acting by Stella Adler

External links

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