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Classics Teaching Resources

The Parts of a Greek Theatre

The word 'theatre' comes from the Greek word 'theatron' meaning a place for watching.

The earliest theatres were just a round flat space in the open air, with a place, often a hillside, where people could sit and watch.

Ephesus diagram When theatres were specially built, they still had much the same shape.

Three groups of people, the Chorus, the actors and the audience, all needed their own special space in the theatre.

  1. The Chorus

    OrchestraThe round flat dancing floor in the middle of the theatre Delphi theatrewas called the 'orchestra.' This is a Greek word meaning 'dancing floor.' In the middle of the orchestra was an altar to the god of theatre, Dionysus.

    The Chorus entered the orchestra by two passages, one on each side of the stage, called 'parodoi'. One passage is called a 'parodos.'

  2. The Actors

    The three actors used a stage called a 'skene.' The word 'skene' means a tent, and in the earliest theatres the actors probably acted on the ground beside the orchestra, and went into the tent when they needed to change masks, to come on as another person.

    Later, when the actors became more important and the chorus a little less important, the stage was raised a little above the ground. Later still, the stage was built higher and higher. The links to computer reconstructions at the foot of this page illustrate the growth of the stage.

    The skene or tent then stretched behind the whole length of the stage, and as time went by it was built more solidly, in wood, and finally, very much later, in stone. It had one or more doors for the actors. If the actor was supposed to be coming from inside a house, he would come out of the skene door. If he was coming from the country he would enter on one side of the stage, and if we was coming from the town he would enter on the other side.

    Aeschylus, who wrote the earliest plays that still exist, invented scenery. He got painters to paint a palace, or wherever the play took place, on the skene building. That is why our word scenery comes from the Greek word skene.

    If the play needed a character such as a god to appear high up, the actor could stand on the skene building. If a character had to fly, there was a kind of crane called a 'mechane' that could lift the actor up and swing him over the skene building.

    Sometimes the audience needed to see what was happening inside the house or palace. Then the 'ekkuklema' was used. This was probably a kind of trolley that could be wheeled out through the skene door with a dead body, for example, on it.

  3. The Audience

    GangwayMany Greek theatres were at the foot of hillsides. The Greeks found that you could hear every word of a play when you were sitting on a slope looking down on the orchestra and the skene. seats When they built theatres specially, they looked for hillsides that they could adapt for the audience to sit on. Then they made the seats in rows, and divided up the block of seats with passages going from the top row to the bottom, and passages going from one side to the other. A passage was called a 'diazoma.'

    Important people's seats Important Priest's seatpeople like priests and foreign ambassadors had the front seats, and when the theatre was built from stone, their seats were very grand. All the small pictures in this section are of the Theatre of Dionysus in Athens.

    Ephesus from the air The whole seating area, seen from above, was like a semicircle. This theatre is in Ephesus. The Greeks used the word 'theatron' for the seating area as well as the whole theatre, but we usually call it by the Latin name 'cavea.'

Click here for computer reconstructions of the Theatre of Dionysus - click on 'Gallery' and then on 'Theatre at Athens' to see the theatre in the 4th century BC and at later times.

Another good series of computer reconstruction pictures can be found here

and also here.

Return to Theatre home page
For a good list of links to Greek theatre information, try here.


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