From Stage to Screen: The Rise of Cinema

Comedy Tragedy Masks

It is easy to notice the technological advancements that have occurred in theatre if we compare some of the first outdoor stages that were built by hand thousands of years ago to some of the most high-tech, multi-sensory cinemas that exist today. However, if we examine theatre purely as human performance and as a dramatic method to communicate meaning and emotion, we will notice that very little has actually changed. In 300 BC, Aristotle outlined the Six Elements of Drama: plot, theme, character, language/dialogue, music/rhythm and spectacle. These elements not only established the platform for Greek theatre, but also the framework of Shakespeare’s plays and the workings of modern movies.

It may be argued that technological advancements have actually harmed or distracted the audience from the true essence of drama and theatre. Although the six elements of drama existed successfully in many cultures for thousands of years, technology was necessary in order to help cinema rise to the giant media form it has become today. Technological advancements have allowed cinema to reach an infinitely large audience, much as in the same capacity that print forms allowed communication to spread across the globe centuries ago.

Religion and Performance

Performance in many cultures began with the need to communicate or celebrate religion or spirituality. According to Culturopedia, India has some of the earliest examples of dramatic performance with rituals that incorporated dance, mime and song before 2000 BC. In China, in 1000 BC, costumed shamans would sing and dance to dramatically call down spirits from heaven (Brandon). Indigenous African theatre, a combination of mime, speech, song and dance, was concerned with mirroring everyday life, but on a higher level, wanted to “perpetuate the virtues of society and purge all evil,” (Mabweazara). These early forms of performance may seem somewhat primitive by today’s standards, but modern stage and cinema perpetuate these very dramatic vocal and physical traits even if they are not directly associated with any religion.


Stage in Ancient Greece

Theatre is comprised of a surface or stage (including backstage) for performance and an area for spectators to view and listen to that performance. One of the earliest examples of staged theatre can be found in ancient Greece, 500 BC. Ancient Greek stages were originally designed and built for religious ceremonies and included an alter to the gods and an orchestra for religious chorus in the centre of the stage (Phillips). The Greek theatre was circular in shape, with the stage at the bottom or base and with the seats rising above the stage in a cone shape. This design allowed for the best sound conditions for large outdoor audiences. Masks worn by Greek actors also served audio assistance for large audiences, for inside these masks were “megaphones that improved the mechanical coupling between the voice-generating mechanism and the surrounding air,” (Lahanas). The masks also allowed better visual comprehension of emotions through the dramatically designed facial expressions. Although early Greek tragedies and Roman comedies may be considered melodramatic by today’s standards, exaggerations of these facial expressions and physical gestures were necessary in order to convey visual meaning easily to large audiences.

Merchant of Venice on the Globe Theatre Stage

The Shakespearean Stage

Almost 2000 years after the establishment of ancient Greek theatre, Elizabethan stage in 16th century England began to make its scene with Shakespeare’s plays in round stage houses. Unlike earlier theatre which originated out of religion and which had stories that revolved around spirits and gods, Shakespearean stages, whether tragic or comedic, were not religious and were constantly being stopped by police for being taboo (Chapman). Elements of early performance such as that which occurred in ancient Greece and on the Shakespearean stage not only influenced the culture of the time, but can still be seen in modern theatre productions around the world today.

The Silent Film Era

Projections of images can be done by playing with light and shadows, such as natural sunlight and one’s hands, utilizing virtually no technology at all. With the invention of writing materials, drawn images could be created and even appear to move if flipped by hand or with other simple tools such as string or sticks. The Museum of American Heritage, Technology and Development, outlines that the projection of images took a big technological leap in the 1800s with the invention of a variety of tropes, scopes and manual cameras and projectors that allowed images to appear to move when projected in a sequential order. These machine-generated moving pictures can be considered the first examples of cinematography.

These first cinematographic films however, did not accompany synchronized sound until the 1900’s. In order to help viewers understand the meaning or storyline of the images, it was necessary to use inter-titles or captions (messages read between scenes), and later, subtitles (messages transferred onto stills, to be read simultaneously with the movement of images) to support the comprehension of situation or plot and substitute the lack of narration and/or audio dialogue between characters (Ivarsson).

Modern Cinema

Although modern movies can easily communicate a story line with a variety of audio and visual action, many movies continue to use subtitles for added stylistics. Subtitles used for translation allow foreign films to be appreciated around the world instead of being confined to their own language audience. Hearing impaired viewers may also benefit from closed captioning while enjoying a visual story. Although modern movies can communicate a story line with plain dialogue between characters or with background narration, sound effects and music are used to enhance tension and promote understanding of situations, such as classical music for a romantic scene or rock and roll for an action scene.

Unlike traditional stage, which is performed live, modern cinema is recorded, and so has the capabilities of having multiple takes on filmed scenes, editing to reach a desired level of perfection, and added visual and sound effects to ensure a certain sense of magic. Recordings, unlike a one-time, original live performance, may be distributed easily in a variety of formats or media so that there is no longer a need to follow a scheduled show time at a theatre. The audience, unlike when viewing a live stage performance, has the convenience of being able to stop, rewind and watch any part of a recorded film again. Wide distribution greatly reduces the cost and improves the convenience of viewing. Where staged performance was once reserved for nobility, elites or small social circles, modern cinema is now readily available in most parts of the world in a variety of formats. Unfortunately, technology has also made it easy to reproduce and distribute unauthorized copies of movies, so video piracy problems have become a major problem of the modern film industry.

shhhhhhhh! silence!

The End?

Continued advancements in audiovisual technology have undoubtedly helped cinema rise dramatically in the past century. Advances in multi-sensory technology now allow the audience to feel as if they are physically involved or interacting with what they are watching. Looking at the design of even the most state of the art movie theatres however, one can notice that the stage is merely substituted for a screen and the voices of live actors substituted with stereo equipment. One element that has not changed is the audience, viewing from seats similar to the way audiences did 2000 years ago in ancient Greece.

The human need to tell stories, to watch and hear the stories of others and to think about religions and philosophies is evident in the continued development of technologies for stage and cinema throughout history. Technology helped make stories accessible to more people and allowed more people to share their stories. However, despite the explosion of modern cinema and its technologies, the art of the original stage has not actually suffered. Amongst all the technological innovations of modern cinema, there is still a human desire to experience live oral performance as can be seen with plays, musicals and comedy shows performed in person all over the globe. Perhaps, no matter how far technology can take the viewer in modern cinema, there will always remain a longing to experience the allure of the old fashioned stage with its immediate oral performance. So it seems that for now, there will be no end for the stage.

“All the world’s a stage.” ~ William Shakespeare


“Aristotle’s Six Elements of Drama.” Retrieved on October 21, 2010:

Brandon, J.R. “Chinese Performing Arts. ” Retrieved on October 18, 2010:

Chapman, J. “The Greek Stage and Shakespeare.” Retrieved on October 17, 2010:

Ivarsson, J. “A Short Technical History of Subtitles in Europe.” Retrieved on October 17, 2010:

Lahanas, M. “Ancient Greece Theater Masks, Actors.” Retrieved on October 17, 2010:

Mabweazara, H. “Present day African theatre forms have filtered through from the past.” Retrieved on October 18, 2010:

Museum of American Heritage, Technology and Development, “The Mechanics of Moving Images.” Retrieved on October 21, 2010:

Phillips, K. “Ancient Greek Stage.” Retrieved on October 17, 2010:

“Theatre in India.” Retrieved on October 18, 2010:

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1 Response to From Stage to Screen: The Rise of Cinema

  1. danny says:

    Hi Irene,

    Nice work on the project.

    When we were working through the orality unit, I didn’t think of this, but your comment: “there is still a human desire to experience live oral performance as can be seen with plays, musicals and comedy shows performed in person all over the globe” really stuck out. Regardless of the increasing dependance on text, there always is that need to perform or watch others perform, and I doubt that need will ever go away.


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