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An actor (alternatively actress for a female; see terminology) is a person portraying a character in a dramatic or comic production; she or he performs in: film, television, theatre, or radio. Actor, ὑποκριτής (hypokrites), literally means "one who interprets"; an actor, then, is one who interprets a dramatic character.
After 1660 in England, 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. Within the profession, 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. Actress remains the common term used in major acting awards given to female recipients.
With regards to the cinema of the United States, the gender-neutral term "player" was common in film in the early days of the Motion Picture Production Code; it is now generally deemed archaic. However, 'player' remains in use in the theatre, often incorporated into the name of a theatre group, or company, (such as the East West Players).
The first recorded case of a performing actor occurred 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 to become the first known person to speak words as a character in a play or story. Prior to Thespis' act, stories were only expressed in song, dance, and in third person narrative. In honor of Thespis, actors are commonly called Thespians. To this day, theatrical legend maintains Thespis is a mischievous spirit; disasters in the theatre are sometimes blamed on his ghostly intervention.
Traditionally, actors were not of high status; therefore, in the Early Middle Ages traveling acting troupes were often viewed with distrust. In many parts of Europe, traditional beliefs of the region and time period meant actors could not receive a Christian burial, which left an actor forever condemned. In the 19th and 20th centuries, this negative perception was largely reversed as acting became an honored, popular profession, and art.
Method acting is a term created by Lee Strasberg after leaving the Group Theatre to create his own Actors Studio. The Group Theatre first became known in the 1930s; its practices were 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. The techniques developed in the work of the Group Theatre were based on the acting theory of Konstantin Stanislavski. In the early 20th century, he created his work at the Moscow Art Theatre and its studios. In Stanislavski's system, an actor analyzes the character to play him or her with psychological realism and emotional authenticity. Using this Method to identify with the portrayed character an actor may recall emotions or reactions from his or her own life.
Method actors sometimes immerse themselves so completely in a character such that she or he continues to portray a character off-stage or off-camera for the duration of the project. Although some actors employ this approach, it is generally not taught as part of the Method. Stella Adler, who, along with Strasberg, was a member of the Group Theatre, emphasized a different approach to using creative imagination.
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. (Shakespeare's use of punning and wordplay, for example, often has this function of indirect contact.)
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Formerly, in some societies, only men could become actors. In ancient Greece and Rome and the medieval world, it was considered disgraceful for a woman to go on stage; this belief persisted until the 17th century, in Venice. In the time of William Shakespeare, women's roles were generally played by men or boys.
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 oft credited as the first professional actress on the English stage. This prohibition ended during the reign of Charles II in part due to the fact that he enjoyed watching actresses on stage. The first occurrence of the term actress was in 1700 according to the OED and is ascribed to Dryden.
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 continues. However, some forms of Chinese drama involve women playing all roles.
In modern times, women occasionally played the roles of prepubescent boys. For example, the stage role of Peter Pan, 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 Hänsel und Gretel, Cherubino in The Marriage of Figaro and Octavian in Der Rosenkavalier.
Women playing male roles are uncommon in film, with notable exceptions. In 1982, Stina Ekblad played the mysterious Ismael Retzinsky in Fanny and Alexander, and Linda Hunt received the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress for playing Billy Kwan in The Year of Living Dangerously. In 2007, Cate Blanchett was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress for playing Jude Quinn, a 1960s representation of Bob Dylan, in I'm Not There.
In modern times, women playing men in live theatre is particularly common in presentations of older plays, such as Shakespearean works with large numbers of male characters in roles where gender is inconsequential.
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—who then pretends to be a woman, such as 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). Similarly, in the aforementioned example of The Marriage of Figaro, there is a scene in which Cherubino (a male character portrayed by a woman) dresses up and acts as a woman; the other characters in the scene are aware of a single level of gender role obfuscation, while the audience is aware of two levels.
A few modern roles are played by a member of the opposite sex in order to emphasize the gender fluidity of the role. Edna Turnblad in Hairspray was played by Divine in the 1988 original film, Harvey Fierstein in the Broadway musical, and John Travolta in the 2007 movie musical. Felicity Huffman was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actress for playing Bree Osbourne (a male-to-female transsexual) in 2005's Transamerica.
Actors working in theatre, film, and television have to learn specific skills. Techniques that work well in one type of acting may not work well in another type of acting.
To act on stage, actors need to learn the stage directions that appear in the script, such as "Stage Left" and "Stage Right". These directions are based on the actor's point of view as he or she stands on the stage facing the audience. Actors also have to learn the meaning of the stage directions "Upstage" (away from the audience) and "Downstage" (towards the audience)
Theatre actors need to learn blocking, which is "...where and how an actor moves on the stage during a play." Most scripts specify some blocking. The Director will also give instructions on blocking, such as crossing the stage or picking up and using a prop. 
Theatre actors need to learn stage combat, which is simulated fighting on stage. Actors may have to simulate "hand-to-hand [fighting] or with sword[-fighting]." Actors are coached by fight directors, who help them to learn the choreographed sequence of fight actions. 
D. W. Griffith first developed of acting that would "suit the cinema rather than the theater." He realized that theatrical acting did not look good on film. Griffith required his actors and actresses to go through weeks of film acting training.
Film actors have to learn to get used to and be comfortable with a camera being in front of them. Film actors need to learn to find and stay on their "mark." This is a position on the floor marked with tape. This position is where the lights and camera focus are optimized. Film actors also need to learn how to prepare well and perform well on screen tests. Screen tests are a filmed audition of part of the script.
"Unlike the theater actor, who gets to develop a character during...a two- or three-hour performance, the film actor lacks continuity, forcing him or her to come to all the scenes (often shot in reverse order in which they'll ultimately appear) with a character already fully developed."
"Since film captures even the smallest gesture and magnifies it..., cinema demands a less flamboyant and stylized bodily performance from the actor than does the theater." "The performance of emotion is the most difficult aspect of film acting to master: ...the film actor must rely on subtle facial ticks, quivers, and tiny lifts of the eyebrow to create a believable character." Some theatre stars "...have made the theater-to-cinema transition quite successfully (Olivier, Glenn Close, and Julie Andrews, for instance), others have not..."
"On a television set, there are typically several cameras angled at the set. Actors who are new to on-screen acting can get confused about which camera to look into."  TV actors need to learn to use lav mics (Lavaliere microphones). TV actors need to understand the concept of "frame." "The term frame refers to the area that the camera's lens is capturing." 
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