Theatre

 

Live theatre was both the original mass medium and the first multi-media experience. In Athens, 2,500 years ago, a new production was the central cultural event of the city.  Everybody went. Everybody talked about it.  It knitted society together. In Victorian times, before cinema and television, theatre-going was a grand spectacle with huge venues - audiences in the thousands watched elaborate productions with live animals and explosive effects. Now theatre is more of a niche experience but it remains the source of much of the creative experiment which inspires other media.

The theatre extends the spoken word, often combining it with music and images. It is planned, directed and manipulated to tell a story in a compelling way.  A play communicates ideas and elicits an emotional reaction.  Theatre is an organized, public extension of fire-side narratives and religious ritual. It was also the first communications medium to persuade an audience to part with money to watch it.

Theatre is not always thought of as a medium as it does not provide an obvious transmission mechanism like ink on paper or a broadcast signal.  But in the days before printing presses and radio towers it was the main way to communicate ideas from the one to the many. The act of getting people together for a shared event made it the only mass medium before printing other than the Church pulpit. It was the channel through which ideas, ideologies, stories, characters and history reached a wide audience. And it is the origin of much current popular culture. The slovenly Homer Simpson and his cunning son Bart - who dominate many of the world’s television channels - can trace their characters back to the medieval players of the commedia dell’ arte and through them to their origins with Roman playwright Plautus. The Simpson’s have 2,000 years of theatrical heritage. Theatre is a robust medium and against the backdrop of social and technical change it has constantly re-invented itself.