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Theatre is an English noun or an adjective with a wide range of meaning. Also written Theater in the American convention, but this encyclopaedia uses the traditional British spelling. (See "Language and Style" under Basic Principles of Editing and Using ESAT[1] )


It is one of the (many) quirks of the English language that the term theatre has long had multiple meanings, and interestingly enough, few of the standard "companions" or "dictionaries" to theatre and/or drama actually provide a definition for the word Theatre (Teater in Afrikaans) or its companion, Drama. It appears to be accepted that everyone knows what is meant by it - or at least knows and accepts the usual dictionary explantations of it. (e.g. "1: An open air edifice for viewing of dramas or other spectacles, 2: a building for viewing dramatic spectacles, playhouse.. , 3: Dramatic literature or art”).

In fact the term the may refer to many more issues, including the notions of a "a theatre of battle or theatre of war". However, for our purposes there are four distinct, though related, matters:

Theatre as a physical structure or venue used for performances

A theatre can refer to some kind of physical space or structure, i.e. a space set aside for dramatic or theatrical performance. Often also referred to as a Venue, particularly in the case of non-dramatic events and performances, and at festivals. This is the simplest of the the uses, and perhaps and most straightforward of the meanings, and seldom gives problems - excedpt perhaps in countries where the notion of theatremaking and performance as an art form are themselves alien concepts. (See African Theatre)

Theatre as a specific kind of human activity

Theatre can however also refer to a specific kind of human activity that takes place in such a venue (i.e. a performance or event in a specifically designated space or venue, utilizing performers).

This is a fundamental issue, for this second meaning in particular can and does seems to display enormous regional and even national differences in context and conventions – particularly in non-European contexts. (For example, see South African theatre) and African Theatre). This would refer to all aspects of the activity, whether in a single event (e.g. a performance of The Doll House in the SAtate Theatre) or as a general activity. (Included, besides acting and directing would be aspects such as management, artistic, technical and receptive processes and the role of all participants in the overall impact. It is therefore inclusive of what was traditionally called “drama” and in the 20th century came to be rteferred to as “performance”).

Theatre as a system of activities within a country or community

In addition to the concept described in the previous section, it can also be used as a broad, non-specific term (eg. as it is used in the title to and body of this work), and refer to the entire cultural activity (everyone and everything involved in all the theatrical events – i.e. live stage performances done before audiences in order to amuse, instruct or as part of a ritual event). This in strong contrast to drama (which has long had a similar but somewhat more restricted meaning). Thus “South African theatre” (see above) refers to all theatrical events or performances taking place in South Africa – formal, informal, traditional, African, European, musical, tragic comic, etc., and all aspects of it: management, artistic, technical and receptive processes and participants. (It is therefore inclusive of “drama” and “performance”). Similarly “British theatre” would to all such performances and events done in Britain, etc. It is however one of the (many) quirks of the English language also traditionally used in a more specific sense, to to refer to the building or space in which performances take place (as in The Market Theatre). Inevitably it is used in this way here as well, where the preferred term (venue) is inadequate or misleading or it appears in the name of a venue (the Market Theatre, the State Theatre).

Theatre as an academic discipline

Derived terminology

Theatrical , Theatrical event, Theatricalization, Theatremaking, Theatricals

Related terms used in South Africa

Toneel, Drama, Performance, Theatremaking, Play, Playmaking,Production, Theatrical, Theatrical Event, Show, Concert .

Elements of the theatre as venue

The following basic elements or terms refer to the traditional European theatre venue as it manifested itself in South Africa in the past two centuries.




See also The wardrobe, Costume design, Costume designer, Costumier.





See also Lighting design, Lighting designer , Lighting design in South Africa

(Stage) Props or Properties




See also Performance spaces




The Theatre as the name for a specific venue

Many theatre over the years, notably in the 18 and 19th centuries as well as 20th century theatre complexes , have simply referred to as "The Theatre" by locals, journalists and even in adverts and other publications.

See for example The African Theatre in Cape Town.

However a venues few were actually named The Theatre or The Drama

The Theatre in Harrington Street, Cape Town

However Sefton Parry's theatre in Harrington Street, Cape Town was actually named The Theatre. Built in 18** by Sefton Parry?*, and simply called “The Theatre”. [Popularly referred to as “the Harrington Street Theatre”. ??**] *** Pantomime by Sefton Parry, 1857. **

The Theatre in Commerce Street, Port Elizabeth

A theatre opened in Commerce Street, in the store of the Port Elizabeth Boating Company which was formed with Daniel Phillips as Managing Director in 1841. The first professional acting company to visit Port Elizabeth, under Sefton Parry, got to work immediately after their steamer arrived. Their season consisted of 12 different performances. The first show at the new Theatre was Henry Thornton Craven's The Post Boy, a two-act drama which was followed by the farce The Bonnie Fish Wife by Charles Selby. These productions created great interest in theatre. A family ticket for four people cost £10/10/0. The populace recognised the need for a proper theatre and funds were collected for the “New Theatre”. The Sefton Parry Company had a very successful three months.

The Drama in the Nico Malan Theatre (Artscape), Cape Town


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