How did Greek theater start?


Greek theater started as religious ceremonies, and the first Greek plays were performed in Athens at a festival in honor of the god Dionysus called the Dionysia. According to, history and tradition suggest that the first actor was named Thespis, from which the term for a stage performer, "thespian," is derived.

Originally, around 700 BC, choruses of singers wearing ceremonial masks would chant stories in unison. Gradually, these performances evolved so that chorus members would sing special roles, but they were not true actors.

Thespis is credited as being the first to step out of the chorus and act independently, in approximately 535 B.C. To accentuate his story, he would switch masks to represent different characters. At the festivals, he would stand in the center of a stone stage in an amphitheater that could hold more than 15,000 people. In early productions, one actor would perform all the parts and direct himself as well. Later, up to three actors were allowed to perform at once.

Thespis is sometimes referred to as the father of tragedy, but authorities on theater history dispute this claim. The word "tragedy" literally means "goat song," possibly referring to the goat skins worn by performers during plays. Because of the limited number of players, choruses continued to be an important part of Greek theater, and because the amphitheaters in which plays were performed were so large, over-sized masks helped to accentuate emotion.

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