Theater in the United States

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This article is about stage theater in the United States. For information about the movie industry see Cinema of the United States.

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Theater of the United States is based in the Western tradition, mostly borrowed from the performance styles prevalent in Europe. Today, it is heavily interlaced with American literature, film, television, and music, and it is not uncommon for a single story to appear in all forms. Regions with significant music scenes often have have strong theater and comedy traditions as well. Musical theater may be the most popular form: it is certainly the most colorful, and choreographed motions pioneered on stage have found their way onto movie and television screens. Broadway in New York City is considered the pinnacle of U.S. theater, though this art form appears all across the country. Regional or resident theatres in the United States are professional theatre companies outside of New York City that produce their own seasons. Even tiny rural communities sometimes awe audiences with extravagant productions.

Note: Both "theater" and "theatre" are common spellings in the U.S. when referring to stage productions, and "theatre" is often encountered when there might be some doubt as to whether someone is discussing cinema or the stage.


Early history

The birth of professional theater in America is usually thought to have begun with the Lewis Hallam troupe which arrived in Williamsburg, Virginia in 1752. Before this, ametuer productions were rare. Theater was often discouraged by Puritans and other religious groups, and it was banned in most states during the American Revolutionary War at the urging of the Continental Congress.

A serious rivalry between William Charles Macready and Edwin Forrest mirrored the sports rivalries of later years. The Astor Place Riot of 1849 in New York was sparked by this rivalry, and brought about the deaths of 22 people.

The 19th century

In the early 19th century, theater became more common in the United States. There existed both local theater companies and touring groups, and many celebrity actors from Europe toured the United States. There were even a few famous American actors, such as Edwin Forrest and Charlotte Cushman.

Productions were much more rudimentary then, and sometimes plays would be staged in barns or dining rooms when no theater was available. Shakespeare was the most commonly performed playwrite. Throughout the 19th century, many preachers continued to warn against attending plays as being sinful. One of the country's most famous presidents, Abraham Lincoln, was shot in Ford's Theater while watching a play.

A popular form of theater during this time was the minstrel show, arguably the first uniquely American style of performance. These shows featured white actors dressed in blackface and playing up racial stereotypes. These shows became the most watched theatrical form of the era.

By the 1880s theaters on Broadway in New York City, particularly on 42nd Street, took on a flavor of their own, giving rise to new stage forms such as the Broadway musical (strongly influenced by the feelings of immigrants coming to New York with great hope and ambition, many of whom went into the theater).

The 20th century

Vaudeville was common in the late 19th and early 20th century, and is notable for heavily influencing early film, radio, and television productions in the country. (This was born from an earlier American practice of having songs and novelty acts perform between acts in a standard play.) George Burns was a very long-lived American comedian who started out in the vaudeville community, but went on to enjoy a career running until the 1990s.

Some vaudeville theaters built between about 1900 and 1920 managed to survive as well, though many went through periods of alternate use, most often as movie theaters until the second half of the century saw many urban populations decline and multiplexes built in the suburbs. Since that time, a number have been restored to original or nearly-original condition and attract new audiences nearly one hundred years later.

By the beginning of the 20th century, legitimate (non-vaudville) theater had become decidedly more sophisticated in the United States, as it had in Europe. The stars of this era, such as Ethel Barrymore and John Drew, were often seen as even more important than the show itself. Acting styles became more subdued, presaging the influence that motion pictures would have on acting styles later in the century. Even by 1915, actors were being lured away from theater and to the silver screen, and vaudville was beginning to face stiff competition.

The advance of motion pictures led to many changes in theatre.

The Federal Theatre Project was a New Deal program set up by Franklin Roosevelt.

American theater today

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