The Play's the Thing: Drama versus Theatre

    Lary Opitz, Associate Professor of Theatre


Tom Stoppard told the following story at the University of Pennsylvania in 1996:
    Years and years ago, there was a production of The Tempest, out of doors, at an Oxford college on a lawn, which was the stage, and the lawn went back towards the lake in the grounds of the college, and the play began in natural light. But as it developed, and as it became time for Ariel to say his farewell to the world of The Tempest, the evening had started to close in and there was some artificial lighting coming on. And as Ariel uttered his last speech, he turned and he ran across the grass, and he got to the edge of the lake and he just kept running across the top of the water -- the producer having thoughtfully provided a kind of walkway an inch beneath the water. And you could see and you could hear the plish, plash as he ran away from you across the top of the lake, until the gloom enveloped him and he disappeared from your view.

    And as he did so, from the further shore, a firework rocket was ignited, and it went whoosh into the air, and high up there it burst into lots of sparks, and all the sparks went out, and he had gone.

    When you look up the stage directions, it says, "Exit Ariel."


Drama vs. Theatre

    Just what is the difference between drama and theatre? The simple response is that drama is the printed text of a play while theatre refers to the actual production of the play text on the stage.

    Are plays read the same way in which novels are read? A painter speaks directly to his or her audience through the medium of paint on canvas. The composer, however, requires musicians to interpret his or her work. A novel is written in order to be read. Much like the painter, the novelist or poet speaks directly to the reader, in this case, with words, not paint. A play, however, is not intended for a reading audience. The playwright knows that his or her work will only be properly received by the audience in a theatre after it has been interpreted by directors, actors, and designers. These are the professional readers -- the theatre artists who will transform the play text or written words into the theatrical event which will be seen and heard in a theatre by an audience.


Play text vs. Performance Text

    The actual text of the play is much less than the event of the play. It contains only the dialogue (the words that the characters actually say), and some stage directions (the actions performed by the characters). The play as written by the playwright is merely a scenario which guides the director, designers and actors. The phenomenon of theatre is experienced in both sounds and visual images. It is alive and ephemeral -- unlike the novel, it is of the moment -- here today, and gone tomorrow.

    We see and hear a play: The word theatre derives from the Greek word theatron, or seeing place. In Shakespeare's day people talked of going to "hear a play" -- Hamlet says of the Players, "we'll hear a play tomorrow."

    When reading we only take in one impression at a time. In the theatre, however, we respond simultaneously to the words, the movement of the actors, their expressions, their voices, the silences, the sound effects, the lighting, the scenery, the costumes, the gestures, the groupings of characters, the rhythms, the space, the atmosphere, and so on. All of these elements and more have been carefully selected, unified, and honed by the collaborative effort of actors, director, playwright, designers, and technicians.

    When reading a play we imagine as much as possible about a performance of that play -- to see the play in the "mind's eye." The playwright's stage directions and the description of the stage setting help us to begin the process of imagining the performance, but they are severely limited. Compare the experience of actually looking at a painting by Rembrant to that of merely reading a description of the same painting.


Elements of the Play and Interpretation

    How does one begin to interpret a play? A play consists of many elements including characters, action, language, plot, setting, costume, lighting, gesture, and structure. When analyzing a play text, a theatre artist seeks the answers to many questions. This quest leads to an interpretation of the play -- an understanding of the intent of the playwright coupled with a conceptual approach that makes any given production of the play unique.

Among the questions asked by the theatre artists are the following:
    The ultimate task of the theatre artist is to attempt to answer these questions and more, and, through an engaging and exciting interpretation, to reveal the answers to an audience. What began as a play text is thus transformed into a performance text.


Reading the Play

    It is best to read a play in one uninterrupted sitting without any distractions (such as television, music, or the telephone). This, of course, is the way in which the theatre audience will eventually experience a play. Before reading the play study the cast list in order to best understand the relationships of the characters. When reading the play seek to understand the storyline and to develop a visceral, or gut reaction to the play. Don't worry about understanding the play -- it is only with time, reflection, and subsequent repeated readings that the answers to all of the pertinent questions can be answered. If necessary, look up any words, terms or allusions with which you are unfamiliar. After completing this reading, write down your first impressions. After some time and thought, additional readings can be very enlightening.

    Staged readings performed by trained actors enable us to better visualize a performance. We hear the actors speaking the words and, to a limited extent, we might see them moving about the stage. Although we are still missing many elements of performance, the play can be better revealed through this method.


Lary Opitz is a playwright, director, designer and actor who has worked extensively in professional theatre and dance throughout the world. He teaches in the Skidmore Theatre Department and the Liberal Studies Program and is director of The Shakespeare Programme, Skidmore's innovative London-based study-abroad program.