Theatre History: Not Just for Drama Nerds

Theatre History isn’t a subject common to general education programs, except for here and there as possible elective, and then maybe it’s only taught by an interested adjunct instructor, or maybe included in the elective options to help in justifying the existence of a Drama program.

Looking at the facts of a historical timeline and its major events (often limited to political regime changes or major military exploits) usually gives a very flat perspective of history. Making the push and pull of opinion, philosophy and public discourse come alive; drawing out the rich complexity of human experiences that make up a single dot on that factual timeline can require looking through a particular lens.

Theatre History = Our History

The History of the Theatre is really just…History, the human story, as seen through a specific lens. The chronological structure of Dr. James Ruscella’s course The History of Theatre Arts emphasizes this. From the time of preliterary Oral Tradition to the Broadway Musical and the Cinema, this course looks at history through this specific filter and provides a different way of understanding the people and perspectives through unexpected details.

The first actor was a man named Thespis (now you can see where we get our word ‘Thespian!’). Greek ‘theatre’ of the time was more of a choral performance–stories were sung by a group, a structure originating in religious ceremonies that eventually evolved into entertainments. In the 6th century BC, Thespis changed the game by going solo; he stepped out from the crowd, and became the first person to speak to the audience–the first protagonist. Soon enough, the second (deuteragonist) and third (tritagonist) followed, and the art of theater first became distinctive as a unique form of storytelling.

Telling Stories is How We Learn

Dr. Ruscella discusses the transcendent storytelling structure that will be familiar to anyone who has studied storytelling for writing their own short stories, books, or movies. But I was fascinated to find that the storytelling structure was actually created in the context the Ancient Greek theatre! All of the structural ideas we find in Aristotle’s Poetics about ‘the hero’s journey’ are placed in context of the theatre, the primary storytelling vehicle of Aristotle’s time. In fact, he used a popular play of the period, Oedipus Rex, as the primary example to illustrate his thoughts. The philosophy that underlies most of Western art forms and defines the way we understand stories originated from the Amphitheaters of Ancient Greece.

So it’s not only for Drama nerds–anyone obsessed with any kind of story or way of telling stories, from animation to design, to content marketing, to the fine arts and visual arts has something to gain from viewing history through the lens of theatre.

More than just understanding the dates and what plays were produced in what time period, Dr. Ruscella carefully weaves into the course opportunities to draw on your own experiences and tell your own stories, creating your own characters and imagining your own theatre designs. In fact, the entire course results in a theatrical portfolio of characters, plotlines, theatre designs, staging techniques, and even a one-act play. As Dr. Ruscella explains, “Point of view, very simply, is how one person sees or perceives a set of facts….and perhaps more important than what we perceive from our senses and the facts and details is understanding our point of view on them.”