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Essay/Term paper: How were the greek and roman theaters designed?

Essay, term paper, research paper:  Theater

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How Were The Greek and Roman Theaters Designed?

The designs of theatres during the last five-hundred centuries b.c.
varied in many ways of construction and design. The technical advances in
acoustics and construction were enormous. The placement of the seating and
construction of the stage and even sizes of the theatres varied from theatre to
theatre. They varied from open-air to roofed, both columned and free-spanned
roofs. The versatility of uses of these auditoriums varied from holding sports
events to speakers and plays.
Some of the main architectural points of a theatre were the pit or
orchestra, cavea, skene, stage, and the parodoi. The pit or orchestra was
usually a circle marked out by a stone perimeter directly in front of the stage
for spectators to use. The cavea was the seating which was usually a range of
steps or terraces for the spectators to view the performance from. Generally,
the natural slope of the hill was used and the pit was located at the bottom of
the hill. The skene was a stage, dressing room, and usually a backdrop all in
one, it was generally a building built of stone immediately behind the stage
that extended to both sides of the stage with two to three doors in it to
provide access to the stage. The parodoi were ramps that lead from the pit to
the outside the theatre to provide access to the spectators (Molinari, 57).
The book written by Picard and Cambridge entitled Theatre of Dionysus in
Athens describes the theatre as an open-air theatre that was built into a
hillside as many of the theatres of that time were. It was cut into the slope
of the hill and used the natural slope of the hill to terrace the seating area.
The Dionysus used wooden benches which were very practical because of the ease
of construction and they were mobile. The orchestra was surrounded on the
audience side by a stone terrace. It was approximately eighty-five to eighty-
eight feet in diameter which was normal for that time period. The alter was
placed in the center of the terrace which made it a perfect location for
speakers and it could be removed for plays. During the early years of this
theatre there were no stage buildings. The buildings would be erected for each
particular event, perhaps a backdrop of wood or canvas and a dressing room that
is a tent or hut. The stage sets for the plays did not require extensive
backdrops and so backdrops were not a problem. The theatre was eventually
renamed Pericles and was renovated in which the orchestra was moved farther
north and the seats were backed up by a steeper slope. This gave the stage more
room for backdrops and sets as was demanded by the plays of Sophocles. The
terrace and supporting walls were also redone to accommodate the steeper slope
and they remained as such for the remainder of the theatre's life. The long
hall was constructed behind the stage and underneath the hall a drainage system
was constructed to drain the orchestra of water. The drainage system was a
channel approximately two feet wide which was connected to the channel that ran
around the outside of the orchestra. The theatre was again remodeled during the
fourth century B.C. and renamed Lycurgus. In this renovation the wooden seating
was replaced with a stone auditorium. The theatre was remodeled and renamed to
the Hellenistic Theatre in the second or first century B.C. During this time
the scene was built, it was two stories with two or three doors and a few
columns with wooden panels between them where paintings were placed during plays
to serve as a backdrop. The theatre stayed in this form until it's demise (5-
In Izenours book on roofed theatres he states that the design and
building of roofed theatres originated with the columned hall. The Telestrion
or Hall of Mysteries was one of the first columned halls. The exterior walls
were laid of stone that were penetrated by windows to provide both lighting and
ventilation. The columns and cross braces for the roof were made almost
exclusively of timber. The maximum span between columns was twenty-four feet
from center to center to accommodate the timber braces. The roof probably had a
high opaion with three bays on each side for center lighting. The building most
likely sighted three to four thousand people but there were problems with sight
lines to the stage in the center of the room. The large columns obstructed
about sixty percent of the viewing area (21-29).
Izenour also wrote that the Odeum of Pericles at Athens was cut into a
hillside with three heavy retaining walls on the sides. The seats in this
theatre were probably wood and could therefore be moved to accommodate the event
taking place. The interior was flat floored with a raised stage and probably
some risered seating. The roof was most likely double hipped judging from the
lack of engaged piers in the sidewalls which were essential for supporting
rafters. The maximum column span was probably twenty-four feet to accommodate
the roof supports. There is no permanent evidence of windows so there placement
could be any body's guess. Seating capacity was about three to four thousand
with a little better sight lines that allowed about sixty percent of the
audience able to see the stage (30-32).
The Thersilion at Megalopolis described by Izenour as being the first
large hall of classical antiquity. From the outside this hall resembled the two
columned hall previously described, but on the inside there were many
differences. Once inside everything but the forest of columns was different.
The floor was sloped towards a flat off-centered area that was square with
columns at all four corners. There was a tremendous improvement in sight lines
due to the stage being off-centered and having the sloped floor. The columns
were also placed in successive concentric rows, one behind the other. The
seating was probably fabricated of wood, provided that there was any. The roof
was made of wood and supported by columns with a high opaion over the stage.
Although the theatre could fit ten thousand people while standing only one-third
to one half would have been able to see the speaker but that still leaves five
thousand that could (36-38).
Izenour states that the clear-spanned auditorium came about in about
three hundred b.c. This innovation came about because of the problems with
sight lines in the theatres. The Eccleesiasterion at Priene was completed about
two hundred b.c. and seated about six to seven hundred people on a steep, three
sided, rectangular stone radius. There were six huge timber trusses that
supported a gabled roof. There still columns but the number of them was reduced
greatly. There were also windows in the side walls but none in the roof. The
sidewalls were made of stone with two of them adjoining the theatre to two other
There were great advancements made in the building and design of
theatres in the five hundred years b.c. There were also as many similarities as
differences in the theatres built then. Many great playwrights had their
productions performed in these theatres and many great speakers spoke in them
and so they are a massive part of our history. Even though we don't know fully
what the designers had in mind when they built these theatres, we do know that
they learned from their mistakes which has helped designers build better
buildings since their time.


Cheney Sheldon. The Theatre: Three Thousand Years of Drama, Acting, and
Stagecraft. New York. David McKay Co. 1958.

Izenour, George C. Roofed Theatres of Classical Antiquity. New Haven. Yale
University Press. 1992.

Molinari, Cesare. Theatre Throughout the Ages. New York, McGraw-Hill Book Co.

Pickard, A.W. and Cambridge. The Theatre of Dionysus in Athens. London. Oxford
University Press. 1956.


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