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acting, the representation of a usually fictional character on stage or in films. At its highest levels of accomplishment acting involves the employment of technique and/or an imaginative identification with the character on the part of the actor. In this way the full emotional weight of situations on stage be communicated to the audience. The actor must be a sharp observer of life and thoroughly trained in voice projection and enunciation and in body movement.

Evolution of Acting

In the ancient Greek theater, acting was stylized; indeed, the large outdoor theaters made subtlety of speech and gesture impossible. The actors, all men, wore comic and tragic masks and were costumed grotesquely, wearing padded clothes and, often, artificial phalluses. Nevertheless, there were advocates of naturalistic acting even at that time, and actors were held in high esteem. In the Roman period actors were slaves, and the level of performance was low, broad farce being the most popular dramatic form. The tragedies of Seneca were probably read in declamatory style, rather than acted on stage.

During the Christian period in Rome, acting almost disappeared, the tradition being upheld by traveling mimes, jugglers, and acrobats who entertained at fairs. In religious drama of the Middle Ages, an actor's every gesture and intonation was carefully designated for performance in church, and, as with the later pageants under the auspices of the trade guilds, the actors were amateurs.

Modern professional acting began in the 16th cent. with the Italian commedia dell'arte, whose actors improvised convincing and entertaining situations from general outlines. During the Restoration period in England, Thomas Betterton and his wife Mary were famous for their naturalness of delivery, as was Edward Kynaston. Their contemporaries, Charles Hart, Barton Booth, and James Quin, however, were well known for their lofty, heroic acting, a style that became dominant in the first third of the 18th cent. In the mid-18th cent. Charles Macklin and his pupil David Garrick introduced a more naturalistic style, and similar movements took place in France and Germany.

The old declamatory method did not really die out until the early 20th cent., and such great 18th- and 19th-century actors as Lekain, Sarah Siddons, Edmund Kean, and Junius Brutus Booth would probably seem overly histrionic to modern audiences. Part of the reason for the persistence of bombastic acting was the star system that existed until high standards of ensemble playing—common in popular repertory theaters since at least Shakespeare's time—were set by the Meiningen Players in 1874. Important late 19th-century actors, varying considerably in the naturalism of their acting styles, were Edwin Booth, Dame Ellen Terry, Henry Irving, Eleanora Duse, and Sarah Bernhardt.

Acting in the Twentieth and Twenty-first Centuries

Acting in the 20th and 21st cent. has been greatly influenced by the theories of the Russian director Constantin Stanislavsky. An advocate of ensemble playing, he believed that an actor must strive for absolute psychological identification with the character being portrayed and that this identification is at least as important as mastery of voice projection or body movement. Stanislavsky's theories were popularized in the United States by the Group Theatre and later by Lee Strasberg at the Actors' Studio, which produced a generation of extremely naturalistic actors, notably Marlon Brando. The emergence of motion pictures and television has offered unprecedented opportunities and challenges for actors, the sensitivity of camera and microphone making subtlety of voice, expression, and movement absolutely essential.

Related Topics


See T. Cole, ed., Acting: A Handbook of the Stanislavski Method (1955); C. Stanislavski, Building a Character (tr. 1962) and An Actor Prepares (tr. 1963); J. A. Hammerton, ed., The Actor's Art (1969); T. Cole and H. K. Chinov, ed., Actors on Acting (rev. ed. 1970); J. Grotowski, Towards a Poor Theatre (1970); T. Guthrie, Tyrone Guthrie on Acting (1971); M. Billington, The Modern Actor (1973); W. Worthen, The Idea of the Actor (1984); S. Mast, Stages of Identity (1985); J. H. Astington, Actors and Acting in Shakespeare's Time (2010).

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The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.



the art of theatrical performance, the creation of characters on stage. The specific artistic nature of theater—the reflection of life through dramatic action taking place directly before viewers—can be realized only by means of acting. Its goal is to act upon the viewer, to elicit a reaction in him. The performance before the viewer is the most important and conclusive act in the realization of the role, and each performance demands the reproduction of this process.

The actor’s artistry is derived from the elements of drama—its content, genre, and style, for example—which form the ideological and semantic basis of acting. However, there are also types of theater, such as the folk comedy of masks, where the actor does not have the full text of the play available to him but only its dramatic outline (scenario) which underlies his improvisation. Moreover, in musical theater, such as ballet, opera, and operetta, the acting is defined by the libretto and the musical score.

The actor’s creation is convincing and aesthetically valuable not just in itself but also to the extent to which it develops the main action of the drama and makes clear its general meaning and ideological direction. Each performer in a play is therefore closely connected to his fellow actors, taking part with them in the creation of that artistic whole which is the theatrical performance. Drama at times presents the actor with very complex demands, which he must fulfill as both an independent artist and a representative of a specific character. When he puts himself into the dramatic situation of the play and the role, the actor resolves the problem of character creation through theatrical transformation. In this respect acting is the only art form in which the artist’s own nature, his intellectual and emotional apparatus as well as his outward appearance, serves as raw material.

The art of the actor, who is aided by makeup and costume (in several types of theater by masks), encompasses the mastery of speech (in opera, vocal art), movement, gesture (in ballet and the dance), and mimicry. The most important elements of acting include attention, imagination, emotional and motor memory, the ability to relate to others on stage, and a feeling for rhythm.

The historical development of acting presents a complex picture of the search for artistic truth within developing and conflicting systems and trends. Having developed its primary elements from the communal ceremonies of primitive societies, acting survived its ties with cult rituals. This was true in ancient Greece during the formation of the democratic city-states in the fifth century B.C., when acting broke with the practice of religious cults. This schism became a prerequisite for the rise of theater and the art of acting in the true sense of the word. In ancient Greek theater the styles for performing tragedy and comedy were sharply delineated: the former utilized a majestic style with declamations leading to song and plastic movements containing elements of the dance; the latter was characterized by a grotesque, exaggerated, and deliberately degraded style. In both tragedy and comedy the actors wore masks. In ancient Rome the genre of pantomime arose; however, acting during the imperial period went into decline, and only wandering folk actors (mimes) maintained the traditional elements of theater up to the Middle Ages.

Medieval acting existed as a semiprofessional folk art spread by wandering actors (histrionists, buffoons). Condemned by the church for its anticlerical, satirical, and rebellious character, acting was at the same time assimilated into the genres of spiritual and moralistic performances which, however, displayed ever more insistently and broadly the comical and spontaneously realistic fundamentals of folk art. Folk art developed freely in the farce, a genre whose major acting techniques are caricature, a brisk, lively tempo of performance, buffoonery, the exaggerated expression of gestures and mimicry, and improvisation. The height of this form of folk street theater was achieved by the Italian comedy of masks (commedia dell’arte) in which acting expressed the force of satirical generalization, popular optimism, pageantry, and dynamism as well as lyricism and poetic flights. It proved to have a fruitful influence on the development of original national styles of acting during the Renaissance in Spain, France, England, and other countries.

The appearance of literary Renaissance drama made new demands on acting; it transformed to a significant degree the traditions of folk theater and faced the actors with the problem of expressing great ideas and creating individualized, psychologically complex characters. The most prominent representative of Renaissance realism in acting, combining brilliance and depth of feeling and thought with fidelity to nature and humanism, was Shakespeare.

Acting flowered again during the 17th and 18th centuries with French classicism, which subordinated the theater to the service of state interests. At that time the elements of acting were defined by the preaching of the civic spirit and by the restraint of individual passions in tragedy and the sharp ridicule of vices in comedy. Classicism brought to acting its notion of beauty as the ideal; thus, the expression of feelings was placed under the strict control of reason and good taste, speech and movement were subordinated to the laws of declamation, thereby guarding against the intrusion of mundane and primarily emotional elements into the actor’s performance (the art of the French actors Montdory, T. Du Parc, and others), and the performance was presented as an artistic whole strictly organized on decoratively plastic and declamationally poetic principles.

During the 18th-century Age of Enlightenment acting grew increasingly interested in personality; the ideal of the “natural man” was advanced, and feeling became the guide to the principle of social equality. The influence of reason and rationalism although defended by D. Diderot (Paradoxe sur le comédien, 1770–73), who urged actors to reproduce the images their imaginations had created while trying to merge fidelity to nature and social ideals, was increasingly displaced by spontaneity, in-depth character portrayals, and emotional intensity (for example, the work of the tragic actress M. Dumesnil). Acting, helped by bourgeois drama with its defense of the simple man, approached the essence of private, family life. In tragedy, acting began to follow an antityrannical, democratic direction, and the traditional classical division into “high” and “low” styles of performance was obliterated. The presentation of the human character became deeper and more complex, thereby presenting the actor with the problem of character transformation on stage for the first time.

During the first decade of the 19th century the development of romanticism (a movement founded on the liberating rebellion of dissatisfied democratic masses against the bourgeois revolution) led to a period in which acting was dominated by impulsive, stormy emotionalism, inspiration and fantasy, and a cult of brilliant creative individualism. Actors (E. Kean in England, Frédérick Lemaître in France, P. Mochalov in Russia, and others) created characters which embodied the spirit of protest against bourgeois norms as well the contrasts of tragedy and comedy, de-monism and lyricism, living truth and the grotesque. Acting during the romantic period showed the influence of democratic philosophy, sympathized with the sufferings of simple people, and employed elements of social satire.

Romantic acting in many ways prepared for the realism which dominated the European stage in the second half of the 19th century (the art of T. Salvini and E. Duse in Italy, Sarah Bernhardt in France, and others). Realistic drama demanded that acting expose the regularity of societal development and interpret the character within the context of his social environment and time. The realistic school of acting, having conquered the subjectivism of the romantics whose interest lay in the exceptional and in exotic, brilliant theatrical characters, achieved psychological unity and a socially moral resolution in its images. Realistic acting attained great ideological force and psychological subtlety in Russia during the second half of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century, where it developed under the banner of democratic social and political tendencies (the work of M. S. Shchepkin; A. E. Martynov; P. M., M. P., and O. O. Sadovskie; P. A. Strepetova; V. N. Davydov; V. F. Komissarzhevskaia; and others). The turn of the century was marked by experimentation in acting by the free theaters as well as the Moscow Art Theater.

Indeed, it was in the Moscow Art Theater that the theory of K. S. Stanislavsky matured and his method for actor training, which had a tremendous worldwide influence, developed. In the hands of Stanislavsky and V. I. Nemirovich-Danchenko a galaxy of the most prominent actors was educated in the Moscow Art Theater—I. M. Moskvin, V. I. Kachalov, L. M. Leonidov, O. L. Knipper-Chekhova, and others. Realism in acting and the ability of the actor to reproduce the “life of the human spirit” were for Stanislavsky the fundamental values of theatrical art. Stanislavsky continued his innovations in this field with the young actors of the Moscow Art Theater. It was there that the so-called second generation of actors of this school grew up; they included N. P. Khmelev, B. G. Dobronravov, M. I. Prudkin, A. K. Tarasova, K. N. Elanskaia, O. N. Androvskaia, M. M. Ianshin, A. N. Gribov, B. N. Livanov, and others. The work of E. B. Vakhtangov was also closely connected with the workshop of the Moscow Art Theater. Modeled on the aesthetic principles of the Vakhtangov school, the life-affirming art of B. V. Shchukin, R. N. Simonov, Ts. L. Mansurova, V. P. Maretskaia, and others echoed the mood of the times and was especially theatrical in form. The principles of Stanislavsky and Vakhtangov received a distinctive and original interpretation in the sharply grotesque and tragic art of the actors of the second Moscow Art Theater; they were M. A. Chekhov, S. G. Birman, A. D. Dikii, I. N. Bersenev, and S. V. Giatsintova. The second theater was created from the first studio of the Moscow Art Theater. A. Ia. Tairov created a system for training the synthetic actor in the Kamernyi Theater (the art of A. G. Koonen and others), and V. E. Meyerhold called for open bias in his actors, recognizing the necessity for a militant agitational theater. Such actors as M. I. Babanov, I. V. Il’inskii, E. P. Garin, M. M. Shtraukh, L. N. Sverdlin, D. N. Orlov and others matured in this theater.

National schools of acting sprang up in the 1920’s in the theaters of the Uzbek, Tadzhik, Kazakh, Kirghiz, and Tatar Soviet republics, and a great flowering of the art of acting took place in the theaters of the Ukraine, Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Byelorussia. The variety of national performing traditions influenced the formation and development of socialist realism in acting. At the same time the actors of the peoples of the USSR integrated the best traditions of the Russian realistic school. During this time all artistic currents, developing in close interdependence and enriching each other, were manifested in acting. Representatives of various theatrical generations and performing styles appeared on the stage of Soviet theater: from the older generation of the Malyi, the Arts, and the Leningrad academic theaters—for example, A. A. Ostuzhev, P. M. Sadovskii, V. N. Ryzhova, V. N. Pashennaia, V. O. Massalitinova, V. I. Kachalov, I. M. Mockvin, O. L. Knipper-Chekhova, Iu. M. Iur’ev, E. P. Korchagina-Aleksandrovskaia, V. A. Michurina-Samoilova, and I. N. Pevtsov—to the young artists trained during the Soviet period. During the Great Patriotic War acting became to an even greater extent politically provocative, topical, and didactic. Later, this striving for greater philosophical generality, revolutionary zeal, and political agitation became hallmarks of theater during the 1950’s and 1960’s. Characters created by Iu. V. Tolubeev, I. M. Smoktunovskii, Iu. K. Borisova, M. A. Ul’ianov, E. A. Lebedev, S. Iu. Iurskii, T. V. Doronina, E. A. Evstigneev, and others were marked by their ideological depth and artistic maturity.

During the 20th century new principles of theatrical imagery came into use. Concomitant with the stylization inherent in the so-called conventional theater, demands arose for more acuity and crystallization in acting and the strengthening of its agitational and analytical functions (the works of V. E. Meyerhold, B. Brecht). In contemporary Western theater acting has reached a high level of development in the work of J. L. Barrault, J. Vilar, M. Casares, G. Philippe (France), J. Gielgud, V. Leigh, L. Olivier, P. Scofield (England), E. Weigel (GDR) and others. In Eastern countries such as Burma, India, China, Japan, and others, original systems of acting have also evolved.


The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.


great actress, whom the narrator sees in her prime and in her decline. [Fr. Lit.: Proust Remembrance of Things Past, in Benét, 99]
Meeber, Carrie
small-town girl finds work on chorus line and matures into a successful actress. [Am. Lit.: Sister Carrie in Magill I, 895]
Players, the
acting troupe employed by Hamlet. [Br. Drama: Shakespeare Hamlet]
first individual Greek performer; whence thespian. [Gk. Drama: Espy, 46]
Trelawny, Rose
young actress sees married life as dull and returns to the stage. [Br. Drama: Arthur Wing Pinero Trelawny of the “Wells” in Benét, 1022]
Vitus, St.
patron saint of actors. [Christian Hagiog.: Brewster, 291]
Woffington, Peg
married and unmarried men admire her stage talents and fall in love with her. [Br. Lit.: Peg Woffington in Magill I, 724]
Allusions—Cultural, Literary, Biblical, and Historical: A Thematic Dictionary. Copyright 2008 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.


1. intended for stage performance; provided with directions for actors
2. the art or profession of an actor
Collins Discovery Encyclopedia, 1st edition © HarperCollins Publishers 2005
References in classic literature ?
"If you are resolved on acting," replied the persevering Edmund, "I must hope it will be in a very small and quiet way; and I think a theatre ought not to be attempted.
"No, as to acting myself," said Edmund, "that I absolutely protest against."
Can we be wrong if Mary Crawford feels the same?" And Edmund, silenced, was obliged to acknowledge that the charm of acting might well carry fascination to the mind of genius; and with the ingenuity of love, to dwell more on the obliging, accommodating purport of the message than on anything else.
As more organizations sever people abruptly, actings have become the transitional step of choice.
If there is even a hint that actings are short-lived and unprotected by top management, you need to know.
After investigating, he learned that two other actings had left the organization with severance after outsiders were brought in.
Instead of hiring people permanently, health care organizations have begun to use "actings," i.e., acting medical director, clinic director, administration, even vice president.
If this seems an excessively negative take on what looks like a simple, if temporary, solution to filling a job, consider a positive side: Some actings like the role so much they'd like to play it over and over in different settings.
"Acting" has become the new hurdle managers must jump over before they are promoted - or are finally rejected.
Los Angeles, CA, September 25, 2013 --( Disney starlet Brittany Ross is joining the faculty of award-winning acting school for kids in Los Angeles.
Brittany Ross begins instruction at 3-2-1- Acting October 5th.
“Brittany epitomizes what we do here at 3-2-1-; she's positive, nurturing, enthusiastic, a great acting coach and a consummate professional with a substantial body professional experience on camera and teaching for the camera.