The Curtain's Going Up!

`THE play's the thing,'' wrote Wil-liam Shakespeare in ``Hamlet, Prince of Denmark.'' In this very famous play, Prince Hamlet discovers that his uncle, King Claudius, killed Hamlet's father. Hamlet hires actors to perform a play (this is called a ``play within a play'') that will reenact the king's evil deed. It works. The king gets very upset, and everybody knows what he did. ``The play's the thing wherein I'll catch the conscience of the king,'' Hamlet says.

Shakespeare wrote many of the greatest plays in the history of the English language. He was also an actor and a director. Shakespeare has Hamlet advise the actors how to perform their roles. He tells them to ``hold a mirror up to nature,'' in other words, to say their lines in a natural way - the way people talk and move in real life. It was great advice and it has been followed by actors for most kinds of theater performances ever since.

The theater in Shakespeare's time (called the Elizabethan Age after Queen Elizabeth I), was different in many ways from the theater of today. But there are many similarities, too. Theater has been around a very long time - long before Shakespeare. It is as old as history, and even older, because it existed before human beings started writing down the events that made up their histories.

Some historians think that the hunters in ancient times came home from the hunt and told their families and friends the whole story - ``acting'' out how the hunt had gone. Then, too, religious stories were acted out before written plays were ever developed. The art of theater is really another form of storytelling, using actors portray all the different people the story is about.

In ancient times, firelight and maybe animal robes, antlers, and weapons might have been all that the actors used to help them tell their stories. But over time, as the theater developed into an art, many wonderful things were added to make the storytelling more exciting. Today, the world of the theater is a place of wonder. Sometimes the theatrical production ``holds a mirror up to nature,'' and sometimes it makes a whole new world of fantasy.

WHEN you go to a play, you walk into a splendid auditorium, and an usher finds you your seat, the one printed on your ticket. Listen! There is a hum in the air from conversation. Then the lights dim a little. The hum begins to quiet down, and people turn with expectation to the curtain in front of them. The stage lights come up as the house lights go down.

If you have come to see a musical, the orchestra will tune up at this point, then strike up the overture. You are excited. You know this experience will be different from watching TV or going to the movies. The theater is unique - and everything around you reminds you that seeing a live performance of a play is very special.

As you watch the play, you may get so wrapped up in the story that you forget for a while that you're looking at a stage. Sometimes there are ``special effects'' - bright fireworks or mysteriously flying objects, perhaps. But no one can make scenes change instantly, the way the movies can. A lot of things that happen in movies and television that cannot happen on stage. Still, many things will happen to make you laugh, gasp, sigh, or sometimes even cry. If it is a good play and the production is good, you will have a wonderful time. But there is so much more to a theatrical production.

What does ``theatrical production'' mean? A ``play'' is a story told in conversation - people talking to other people. The actors take different parts or roles and pretend to be the different people in the story. The ``production'' is when all the actors perform in front of an audience - you and others sitting out in the theater looking at the stage.

Lots of work goes into creating a theatrical production - by lots of people you never see. First, there is a script. A script is the play written down. That script is written by a playwright - someone who is good at telling stories in dialogue (which is really conversation).

Before a play goes on the stage, a director must be chosen. The director is important, because he or she makes all the various elements work together. He chooses the actors who will play the characters in the play, and he works with them to decide how their characters will behave - how each part will be presented in order to make sense of the story.

For example, you can't have an angry Cinderella, can you? No, because in the story Cinderella is sweet and good. So if the actress playing Cinderella made her behave sort of nasty, the story about a good, kind, sweet girl wouldn't make sense. So, the director and the actor work together to give Cinderella the right attitude - the behavior that suits the story. The director also decides where the actors will move on the stage.

A scenery designer works with the director to build the right ``set'' for the world of the story. For example, if you wanted to put on a play about Rapunzel, you would need a tower from which she could let down her hair. The tower is part of the scenery on the set. The trees and lake in the background are part of the scenery. The set is the whole picture - all the scenery put together.

The ``properties'' are all the objects used by the actors. If Rapunzel were to look in a hand mirror, the mirror is called a prop (short for property). Anything carried by an actor is a prop. There's a prop room in the theater where all the props are kept. One person has the job of making sure that the props are ready for the actors before the show and that they are tucked safely in the prop room after the performance.

The costume designer makes the clothes the actors wear in the production. Costumes are every bit as important as the scene design for building the world of the play. If you saw Cinderella in shorts and a tank top, it would be a very different kind of play than if Cinderella were in a long tattered dress and then a beautiful ball gown.

The choreographer makes up the dances and sometimes the sword fights you may see in a play and then teaches those dances to the actors. The music director and the choreographer work together to get the dances right. If there is singing, the music director makes sure everyone sings well and in time with the orchestra.

One of the most important people in a theatrical production is the lighting designer; he or she designs the way all those lights hidden high above the stage will work. Lighting is very important for building the tone or feeling of the production. Not only does it illuminate the actors, but it directs your eye to the one spot on stage it ought to focus on in an important moment.

If Cinderella sits crying by the ashes in the fireplace, you might want her illuminated by a soft light that tells you where she is on stage but also helps you understand how sad she is. When the Fairy Godmother appears, she might be in a bright light that draws your attention immediately. Lighting on stage has many colors that reflect moods and help make the world of the play very special - just as the costumes and set do - so the lighting director works closely with the director to make that world full of wonder.

All the designers have people working for them, helping with all their tasks. Electricians, seamstresses, scenery builders and movers, sound technicians, and secretaries and assistants all help make the show you see on stage. They're all important.

But some of the most important people in the whole production are not on the stage or even behind the scenes. They are sitting out there watching the show - you, your parents, and your friends. There is no theater without an audience. What makes theater different from television or even the movies? It's the fact that human beings perform - live - right in front of you. They may be tall or short, thin or chubby, grown up or very young, but they are human beings performing for you.

And believe it or not, actors in the theater are always aware of how you feel about their production. If you don't like their performances or the play, they know it. They can feel it in your applause and in the whole atmosphere of the room - if you gasp or laugh or cry in the right places.

You, as part of the audience, matter as much as the actors when you go to the theater. The play couldn't happen without you and all the other people who have bought tickets to see the play. And whether you are watching a play about Cinderella or one written by William Shakespeare, the wonder of the theater is still that the theater tells us a little more about the world and ourselves than we knew before. `Kidspace' is a place on The Home Forum pages where kids can find stories that will spark imaginations, entertain with a tall tale, explain how things work, or describe a real-life event. These articles appear twice a month, usually on Tuesdays.

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