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Ancient Olympic Games

Greek Theatre

Greek Theatre

There are three ancient terms having to do with the theatre still used today, but with a different meaning.

The orchestra is a round or semi-circular paved area where the chorus sings and dances.  The word itself means ‘place for dancing’.  The shape of the orchestra may have been determined by a round threshing floor used for threshing grain, which at festival time was used as a dancing floor in the Greek countryside. In the centre of the orchestra was a sacrificial altar of Dionysus, the god of drama.  

Skene (‘tent’, ‘stage building’) is a wooden construction with a flat roof in front of which actors acted out their roles. The skene usually represented a palace (sometimes a temple), although the occasional play that required a natural setting could be accommodated with a set representing rocks.  The skene was also used as a dressing room and storage area for props.  The actors performed on a shallow apron in front of the skene which was connected with the orchestra by stairs only a few feet high.  These stairs allowed the actors to join the chorus in the orchestra when necessary.  

Parodos is a gangway leading into the orchestra over which the chorus and actors made their entrances’.  There are two parodoi, one on each side of the orchestra.  Parodos is also the name of the song chanted by the chorus as they entered the orchestra at the beginning of the play.  

The seating arrangement of the Theatre of Dionysus is an aesthetically pleasing arrangement of tiers of seats consisting of concentric arcs rising up the slope of a hill.  Radial staircases separate the viewing into wedge-shaped sections (kerkides).  The radial staircases were necessary for the quick entrance and exit of a large crowd.  It has been estimated that the Theatre of Dionysus in the late fourth century could hold up to 17,000 spectators. The people from each district were separated and each had their own block of seats to ease congestion and prevent fights.  Important people sat at the front e.g. priests, and less important sat behind.


Ekkuklema – nobody knew what it was like. Some say it was a large platform on wheels that could be pushed out through a large doorway in the centre of the skene. Others say it was the section of the skene pivoted in the centre so it could be completely revolved. Normal scenery would have been painted on the side facing the audience, on the other side was a platform on which actors could be carried. The purpose of the ekkuklema was to show the bodies of the people who had killed themselves or had been killed because violence was not allowed to be shown on stage. (Although they could be as brutal as they liked in the Olympic Games!)  

Mechane – In many Greek plays, characters had to fly through the air. For example in one tragedy, a queen escapes from her enemies in a chariot pulled by winged horses. They probably used a pulley system with ropes and poles controlled from behind the skene by slaves or young boys.        

Special Effects – In larger theatres the noise of thunder was made by rolling stones down a tunnel beneath the audiences’ seats. Other sound effects were two wooden cups clapped together (horses feet), dried peas shaken in a pot (rain) and very thin pieces of wooden sticks crumpled together (fire). The actors also made sound effects e.g. frogs, buzz like wasps etc.      



        Separates people e.g. royal boxes etc.



        G was outside nowadays generally inside

        G all semi circular, nowadays different shapes

        G on a hill for acoustics, different sections to sit, now fixed

        G Orchestra for dancers

        G God of drama, Dionysus, now nothing

        G ekkuklema, now you can show violence

        G used harnesses, now safer

        G rolling stones, now live music/tapes  

        G all male actors.

        G wore masks rather than make-up



        Members of chorus were “amateurs”

        Chorodidaskaloi – chorus directors

        12-15 members

        Function: to comment, respond, witness, compare, help public make sense of events, NOT to advance the plot

        Often they were used to provide time for the actors to do anything off stage (e.g. go to another country)

        Moved in “military” formation

        Koryphaios - chorus leader

        Parados - entrance to orchestra

Arrangements for the competition

Preparations for the play began well in advance.

Competitors submitted an outline of their plays to the magistrate or archon. Each tragic poet had a choregos to act as a sponsor and they added their own actors. The archon had a free choice over who could be picked – although he had to justify his decision, which made it difficult for new people to be chosen.

At first, the poet himself chose the actors, but as the compression became more regulated, the three protagonists were chosen by the state. The poet was the teacher and trained the chorus himself.



All public businesses and law courts were closed during the festival. First of all, the statue of Dionysus was taken in a procession to the theatre. All the plays were publicised in advance. The sponsors (choregoi) paraded with their casts and the playwrighters announced the thieves of the play. The actors also performed scenes from the plays.   

The following day animal sacrifices’ were made and people brought offerings to the god, Dionysus. In the evening there was a party where everyone got drunk. Just before the plays were performed, special announcements were made e.g. the names of the citizens who had won special crowns for various duties; boys who fathers had been killed in battle paraded in the theatre; citizens also used this time to announce the freedom of a slave. The ten strategoi, generals, attended the festival as a group and offered libations. The plays were then performed and lasted for four days.

At the end of the festival, the judges wrote their decisions on a tablet. These tablets were then placed in an urn. The archon drew out five of the tablets to decide who had won. The prizes were traditionally ivory wreaths and later they may have got a bull.  

The other main festival was the Lenaia festival for comedy. This was held in Athens in January.

The choregos

It was customary in Athens for a rich man to be able to choose not to pay taxes for any one year. Instead, they had three choices

i)   Pay for all the equipment for a religious festival

ii)  Fit out a warship for active service

iii) Hire and train a chorus for one of the festivals and pay all the production costs.

The reason why a rich man may do one of these things is for popularity. As well as providing for the chorus he had to provide costumes, masks, arrange rehearsals, and train the musicians and the chorus. If he was unable to train dancers, he would have to get the playwrighters to do it. In addition to all of this he had to arrange the props, scenery and special effects. The title and author of the play was kept secret till the day of the performance so there would be no favouritism in the competition. The order that they were to be performed would be decided by a lot. The first play to be chosen by five judges was the winner. The best actor got a crown and the winning cast got a banquet by the choregos, but the author of the play got nothing.      



Comedy actors wore an all over body stocking in pink or red. Over this they wore a roly-poly costume. On top of that they wore ordinary stage clothes and an extra large phallus. They also wore grinning masks. Comic actors had to move about quite quickly so the costumes left their legs and arms free

For a tragic actor, the basic garment was an ankle length robe called a chiton. Over this was a cloth called a himation.  They either wore calf length boots or went bare foot. They were usually dull colours and heavy materials so that the actor had to move around slowly and solemnly.


Masks were worn so the audience could immediately recognise who was who very easily – especially if they were sitting at the back. The leading actor played one part and the other two could have up to six parts, so having masks made it easier to switch roles. The masks were made of very thin clay or stiffened cloth and others were beaten gold or silver. The mouths were huge and as a result gave the same effect as speaking down a cardboard tube (As they didn’t have mikes in those days – surprisingly!) The disadvantages of wearing such masks were;

i)                    you could only have one expression

ii)                   they were hot to wear

iii)                 they were heavy

iv)                 if made from wood, you could get splinters.

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