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An actor is a person who acts, or plays a role in an artistic production. The term commonly refers to someone working in movies, television, live theatre, or radio, and can occasionally denote a street entertainer. Besides playing dramatic roles, actors may also sing or dance or work only on radio or as a voice artist. A female actor may be known as an actress, although an increasingly large group prefer the term "actor" because of its gender-neutrality.
See: List of male movie actors, List of female movie actors (A-K) and List of female movie actors (L-Z), List of male theater actors and List of female theater actors
For information on the artistic craft, see acting
However, the word actor can be used in more general terms - for example in the analysis of policy, an interested person, party, group or an organization is often known as an actor.
The first recorded case of an actor performing took place in 534 B.C. (probably on November 23rd, though the changes in calendar over the years make it hard to determine exactly) when the Greek performer Thespis stepped on to the stage at the Theatre Dionysus and became the first person to speak words as a character in a play. The machinations of storytelling were immediately revolutionized. Prior to Thespis' act, stories were told in song and dance and in third person narrative, but no one had assumed the role of a character in a story. In reverence to Thespis, actors are formally referred to as thespians. Theatrical myth to this day maintains that Thespis exists as a mischievous spirit, and disasters in the theatre are sometimes blamed on his ghostly intervention.
During the Rennaissance, and for much of the subsequent century, deceased actors were buried at a crossroads, with a bowl and, in some cases, a stake through the heart, in much the same manner as a Vampire. They were also often distrusted because of their apparent supernatural ability to take on the persona of another individual.
In the past, the term "actor" was restricted to men. Women did not begin performing commonly until the 17th century. When they did the term "actress" was used. In the ancient and medieval world, it was considered disgraceful for a woman to go on the stage, and this belief continued right up until the 17th century, when in Venice it was broken. In the time of William Shakespeare, women's roles were played by men or boys, though there is some evidence to suggest that women disguised as men also (illegally) performed.
Today, the term "actor" is often used to refer to both men and women, as some consider the term "actress" to be sexist. However, the term actress also remains in common use.
An actor usually plays a fictional character. In the case of a true story (or a fictional story that involves a real person) an actor may play a real person (or a fictional version of the same), possibly him- or herself.
See also: gender-specific job title, non-sexist language
Actresses in male roles
Women actors sometimes play the roles of prepubescent boys, because in some regards a woman has a closer resemblance to a boy than does a man. The role of Peter Pan, for example, is traditionally played by a woman. The tradition of the principal boy in pantomime may be compared. An adult playing a child occurs more in theater than in film. The exception to this is voice actors in animated films, where boys are generally voiced by women. Opera has several 'pants roles' traditionally sung by women, usually mezzo-sopranos. Examples are Hansel in Hansel und Gretel, and Cherubino in The Marriage of Figaro.
Mary Pickford played the part of Little Lord Fauntleroy in the first film version of the book. Linda Hunt won an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress in The Year of Living Dangerously, in which she played the part of a man.
Having an actor play the opposite sex for comic effect is also a long standing tradition in comic theatre and film. Most of Shakespeare's comedies include instances of cross dressing, and both Dustin Hoffman and Robin Williams appeared in hit comedy films where they were required to play most scenes dressed as men dressed as women. A better example would probably be Divine in all of his roles.
Techniques of acting
Actors employ a variety of techniques that are learnt through training and experience. Some of these are:
- The rigorous use of the voice to communicate a character's lines and express emotion. This is achieved through attention to diction and projection through correct breathing and articulation. It is also achieved through the tone and emphasis that an actor puts on words
- Physicalisation of a role in order to create a believable character for the audience and to use the acting space appropriately and correctly
- Use of gesture to complement the voice, interact with other actors and to bring emphasis to the words in a play, as well as having symbolic meaning
- Letters to a Young Actor by Robert Brustein (Basic Books, 0465008062, 2005).