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Essay/Term paper: Design of greek and roman theatres

Essay, term paper, research paper:  Theater

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DECEMBER 7, 1994

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 (5-154).
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 buildings.
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. 1975.
Pickard, A.W. and Cambridge. The Theatre of Dionysus in Athens. London. Oxford University Press. 1956.


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