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The first large scale theatres were constructed in the 5th century B.C during the classical period of ancient Greece. The theatre spaces were formal structures that were placed in various prominent and significant locations within a city. Some theatres were able to accommodate thousands of spectators and they were characterized by good view of the stage and clear actors’ hearing. These earliest theatres were placed in strategic locations which aided the sitting and acoustics. In addition, these theatres are documented to have had an audience, skene and orchestra which were the most important parts. The audience was the area for spectators, orchestra was a neutral area for the actors and the skene was the point of focus which supported the scenic embellishments. This essay discusses the development of the Greek theatrical building from the Classical down to Roman times.

Development of the Greek theatrical building

The Greek theatrical buildings can be grouped into three categories which are Athenian, Hellenistic and Graeco-Roman.  Through each of these categories, there were slight structural variations of the performance as well as the performance styles change (Redmond, J, 1979). The Greece’s city states were the Rome’s significant early conquest. The Romans borrowed an aesthetic sensibility from Greece as an artistic reinforcement of the future profile empire. For instance, the records underscore the respect the Romans had for the Greece’s art and theatre whereby the classical Greek theatre was studiously imitated by the Roman Empire and the revived during the Italian renaissance period. For instance, the important Greek format of orchestra, auditorium and skene were maintained and they served as the basis for further development.

The Athenian theatre took place during the 5th century and the performance space/building was a simple circular space/ orchestra where the performances were made. The orchestra had a diameter of about 78 fts and was built on a flattened terrace at the foot of the hill which was a watching place. Later, the whole area with the orchestra, theatron, scenery and the skene was called theatre. During this, time, all theatres were built on very large scale so as to accommodate very large numbers of people on the stages as well as in the audiences. When these theatrical buildings were being constructed, the artists used mathematics in the creation of acoustics such that the actors’ voices could be heard in the while theatre including the top most rows of seats. The first Greek theatres’ seats were made of wood but they designers started to build stone seats around 499 BC and these stone permanent seats became common in Greek theatres. In 465 BC, the actors started to use the scenic wall which hung behind the orchestra which was being used as an area for changing costumes. The scenic wall referred to as paraskenia which had long projections became a common supplement to the skenes. There was a proskenion behind the paraskenia which was similar to the present theatrical proscenium which separates the stage from the audience. Ai addition, the Greek theatres had parados which were the entrances for the audience and they had tall arches through which the audience entered into the theatre. At the end of 5th century BC, the skene was two stories high whereby the upper one was referred to as the episkenion. Also, the raised speaking places called logeion were introduced in some theatres. Some of the theatres of the classical period include the theatre of Dionysus in Athens, Chaironea, Delphi and isle of Delos.

            During the 14th century and onward, the Hellenistic theatre took place. The theatre was characterized by basic parts that similar to the ones in classical theatres. For instance, the parados, the skene and the orchestra were similar. These theatres shared the same symmetrical layout. The columns that were between 8 and 13 feet were placed near the skene and the paraskene was used to close them. Behind the column referred to as pinakes, there were printed boards. In other words, the Hellenistic theatres were made of pillars, auditorium, proskene, circular orchestra and a skene that was divided into various rooms.Some examples of Hellenistic theatres include Odeon of Agrippa, Theatre of Dionysus, Theatre at Epidaurus and Odeon of Pericles

During the end of Greek civilization, the Roman ideas were spreading in Greece which led to the immergence of Graeco-Roman theatre. The Graco-Roman theatre was quite different from the classical and hellenistic theatres because it included some Romans’ ideas into the Greek theatre. This led to some variations in the design as well as the associated plays. For instance, these theatrical buildings had very large audiences with bottom level of seats lowered to the orchestra’s level. The background and orchestra’s front edge was more elaborate and decorated although the columns were replaced by a plain stage area. During this time, many inventions of machines were made especially the crane that allowed the actors to be flown in and out in a manner that fitted their specific roles in the play. There were also rolling platforms called ekkuklema that were used for bringing the dead bodies into the theatre. Other inventions available during this time include the trap doors through which the actors entered and exit from.An example of the Graeco- Roman theatre is the Greco- Roman Theatre of Taormina which was very popular. It was built on a lofty hill that extends along the coast. It was rebuilt on the foundation of a theatre from the classical time.  For instance, this theatre is the most remarkable monument that is remaining in Taormina

Features of Greek theatrical building

The Greek theatre buildings were large and they were located on the sloping land to enhance terraced seating. Further, the buildings were built near sanctuaries due to the close connection of drama and religion. For example, the theatrical building on Mt. Parnassus was built near the famous temple of Appolo and the theatre of Dionysus was situated in the sacred precinct of Dionysus at Acropolis. The main feature of the Greek theatre is the dancing place referred to as an orchestra which was located in the hollow of a hill. The orchestra might be a circle or a flat area and it was a place where the chorus was performed and danced. The theatres had wooden or stone theatrons that were on semi circular rows. The theatrons were built in natural hollow place called a koilon whose sides were reinforced with stones. The seating in an ancient Greek theater is referred to as cavea which is a latin word. The sections of seats were divided by stairs mounting to the highest levels. Although there is emphasis on sight, the actors and chorus would look rather small even from the seats a way up. Although the name theatron suggests an emphasis on sight, in reality actors and chorus would look rather small even from the seats partly away up. People would see the movement patterns and colors rather than the costuming. In the buildings, the acoustics are magnificent and the words that are spoken softly in the orchestra can be clearly heard by the people at the top rows.

On the side of the orchestra was a skene. This is a stage building which a covered structure was made of wood. This was a place where the actors could perform. It showed the background and it has a scene like picture. Inside the skene, there were various machines. For instance, there was a machine called Aeorema which was a crane that enabled the gods appear on stage. The second machine was the Periactoi placed inside pillars on the right and left side of the stage. The Periactoi changed the background of the skene. Another machine was called the Ekeclema. This was a platform on wheels that was used to bring the bodies of the dead out. This action was necessary because murder never took place in front of the audience.

The buildings have parados which is the space between the audience and the skene where the chorus entered. Scenery was stationary as the façade of the skene but aome scene changing elements were developed. There was ka pinake which was a frame covered by a fabric and painted with various scenic elements. The theatre’s pirioaktoi was three sided and the sides were painted with scenic elements such as plants. It is believed that these features were developed later on.

Evolution stages of the Orchestra, the Koilon and the Skene

The evolution of the Greek theatrical buildings was a gradual fact. At the start, the theater of Dionysus was rectangular and it later became circular. This circular shape was connected with the early greek folks fests dances. Also, the koilon/cavea was rectangular at first and it took a long time for it to gain a circular form which was created by digging the hill. At the start, the skene was a woodshed in the outskirt of the orchestra and it was used as a store and backstage for the actors. The koilon separated the scene building from the orchestra. Later, the skene was incorporated in the act which made the entrance and exit of actors to and from the theater easy. Initially, the acting area was flat but it was raised over the orchestra level later.


In conclusion, the evolution of the Greek and roman theatrical building took place throughout history and there were great variations between the involved stages. However, the Roman’s ideas were greatly influenced by the Greek ideas. Constant improvements were made in the theatre which enhanced the spread of popularity among the involved cultures and others to come.  It is evident that the ancient theatrical buildings mainly consisted of the theatron which was the actual building’s structure and the orchestra which was the dancing floor. Due to continuous modifications of the ancient theatres, there is very little evidence about the nature of the performance space of the classical actors. During the Hellenistic time, the stage remained basically the same but the paraskenion was modified to be used as a temporal storey. The theatre started to become more advanced following the building of Pericles and machines such as the crane. Finally, the Greek and Roman theatre developed over a long period of time and many of the ideas that existed during that time also exists in today’s theatres. It is evident that many of the roman’s ideas came from earlier Greek designs but the evolution of the theatre became more advanced as time went on. 

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