The Greek theater initially appeared around the seventh century B.C. Built from materials ranging from wood to stone, theaters were usually located on a sloping hillside in order to give spectators an overview of the ceremonial altar and the surrounding chorus and dancers, and to aid with acoustics. Like modern theaters, the Greek theater was divided into three spaces: the stage, orchestra or chorus, and the amphitheater. Each element is important to other to create a dramatic and spiritual event for both performers and viewers.
In modern times the stage is larger and is the focus of attention, similar to later Roman theaters, but the stage of the Greek theater was less dominant. The depth of the stage was roughly 7 to 12 feet, hardly enough room for any actor to perform his part, so actors also used the chorus as a performance area. Single acts were generally performed by one actor who stood in the center of the orchestra, on the steps, or around the vicinity of the altar. Within the orchestra, actors and chorus members danced, walked, and acted out their parts, in the view of everyone in the amphitheater. Making the orchestra among the most dynamic spaces in the theater.
The Greek orchestra was built in a complete circle in front of the stage, separating the spectators from the stage. The orchestra was sometimes delineated by simply drawing a circle on the ground, although orchestras also have been found marked by rough-hewn stones. The orchestra was considered sacred ground with an altar placed in the center to honor the gods and goddesses. Sacrifices were made on the altar before and after the performances, marking them as sacred events.
Performances were generally acted out in the middle of a festival, such as the Pythian Games at Delphi, in honor of a god or goddess. Ancient Greeks believed that the god was present through the entire duration of the festival. The god’s idol was displayed within the theater by the god’s priest, who sat in the seat of honor. The performance itself was not depicted as an act of free will, but rather as a religious duty. The theater was a sacred place, actors were sacred persons, performances were sacred acts, and shows were generally performed at a sacred time. The actors were to perform in state of purity, free from sexual intercourse and fasting before the main ceremony. Their attire consisted of a cloak that belonged to the sanctuary’s treasury, a head wreath, and cosmic representations of figures such as animals, stars, or flowers. Aristotle stated that “theatrical performance effects purification of those present.” Public members that took part in or attended the festival were believed to be taking part in divine worship; excluded from this religious festival were foreigners and women. When theaters first began to be constructed, wood was generally
used for the amphitheater. This wood was taken down after each performance, but as more and more citizens began to attend the performances, the need arose for larger and more stable architectural structures. In ancient times, the public would customarily stand around the performance area, with seats reserved for only the most renowned people, such as priests. These festivals and religious ceremonies called for admiration and the viewers stood before the performance to show reverence in the same way that a wife in this time stood before her husband, servants stood before their lord, and as worshiper stood before the oracle. As time passed, this tradition was abandoned, leading to the modern-day amphitheater.
Greeks designed theaters to have excellent acoustics. Sound quality is greatest at the performance area and bounced off the hard pavement of the orchestra and skene to disburse evenly and clearly throughout the audience. By not enclosing the walls there is no reverberation from outside sources so there is no loss of sound quality. The design became standard to create excellent hearing conditions, good speech quality, and a still atmosphere that enabled a clear and successful projection of sound to the audience.
Most of the first ancient theaters were located around the area of a sanctuary. The Delphic theater is an open air structure that was constructed in the 4th century B.C., northwest of the Sanctuary of Apollo. Musical performances, contests, and dramatic performances took place within these hollowed out slopes of hillsides. The transition from wood to stone seating was made around 160 B.C. It is divided into two uneven sections by paved landings, 28 tiers of seats in the lower section and seven in the upper portion. Six staircases divide into seven cunei for the upper and lower sections. Seating could usually hold 5,000 citizens. Inscriptions located on the theater walls can be correlated to the emancipation of slaves. Located on the stage was a relief that depicted the Labors of Heracles. The theater itself was constructed from limestone, but today it is in rather poor condition with the remains scattered throughout the temenos.