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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; it's 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 it's 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.)
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 in male roles are uncommon in film with notable exceptions: 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 1960s representation of Bob Dylan, for which she was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress. 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 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). 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 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. Felicity Huffman was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actress for playing Bree Osbourne (a male-to-female transsexual) in Transamerica.
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