The Story Behind the World’s First Actor

Inside the Theater



Many aspects of live theater today get audience members’ hearts pumping.

Some feel a charge from the orchestra pit tuning, and the dimming of the theater lights. Others catch their breath at immense set pieces and glittering costumes.

As seamlessly as these come together, theater didn’t always include all of these magical elements.

It took major strides across hundreds of years for theater to become what it is today.

While audiences can’t experience all of this firsthand during The Smith Center’s temporary closure, the center launches a blog series today exploring the surprising ways that theater has transformed throughout the centuries.


The First Actor

Live theater began with a man and his love for stories.

Most theater and history buffs can name Thespis of ancient Greece, the world’s first known actor, and the origin of theater term thespian.

Some believe he was also a priest for the Greek god of food and wine, Dionysus.

“It helps to a have an event or festival to stage a performance around,” explains Elizabeth Jewell, a historian with PBS LearningMedia.

“The festival of Dionysus helped writing and performing blossom.”

While ancient Greek performances had long featured choreographed choral processions, Thespis sparked the idea for a show the likes of which none had seen before.

Using masks to slip between characters, he became the first to act out stories from Greek myth in 534 BC. This launched a new kind of performing that seeded the Western theatrical tradition.

“The Greeks invented theater as we know it, but their performances were really different from what we’re used to,” Jewell notes.

The style that developed from Thespis’ ideas involved actors performing alongside a group called a chorus, who reacted with dialogue, song and dance to the characters’ personalities and situations.

“Lines were chanted back and forth, in a call-and-response fashion,” Jewell says.

Thespis’ new trend caught on, possibly because of his popularity with Athens’ tyrant ruler Pisistratus. This followed with playwrights penning epic comedies and tragedies still performed today.

Performers of the day required robust vocals, to make themselves heard in open-air amphitheaters holding up to 15,000 people – the first performance spaces of this kind.

“A stage is central to theater, and the Greeks gave us that,” Jewell says.

Actors also had to make their performances memorable, with most plays only performed once.

Greek performers found they could please audiences, however, by simply making viewers a part of the show.

“In classical Greece, the actors might cajole, advise or challenge the spectators,” Jewell explains. “There was not such a clear division between actor and audience as in today’s performances.”

This likely nurtured his talent for drama, as the Greeks celebrated Dionysus with a rollicking annual festival, rife with music and performances.