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Hume Cronyn and Jessica Tandy

Arts Days: July 18, 1911: An Actor's Actor
This 1986 Kennedy Center Honoree made many movies, a number of which alongside his wife Jessica Tandy. On more than one occasion, Cronyn also directed as well as acted in plays with Tandy. It was clearly the couple’s rich onstage and onscreen chemistry that made them a pleasure to watch.

Cronyn also enjoyed a successful career as a stage actor, playing roles in works by Shakespeare, Edgar Albee, and many others. Whether as Arthur Keats in The Postman Always Rings Twice or Joe in Cocoon, Cronyn was able to disappear into his roles creating many multi-layered, complex human characters.
Movies & Movie Stars, Theater

George Bernard Shaw

Arts Days: July 26, 1856: Voice of the People
Hmmm… could the fact that George Bernard Shaw started out as a newspaper arts critic have something to do with his interest in expressing his political and philosophical opinions freely?

In his 60 some plays, Shaw always found a way to criticize social mores by poking holes in the conventions of 19th century life. Pygmalion, upon which the smash Broadway musical My Fair Lady would later be based, examines class differences, while Major Barbara considers whether it is right to use money earned from the sales of weapons for charitable purposes.

Some of these satirical themes generated controversy among early theatergoers, but Shaw didn’t care. “My way of joking is to tell the truth,” he once said. Shaw’s “joking” earned him both a Nobel Prize for Literature and an Academy Award® for Best Adapted Screenplay for My Fair Lady.
Literature, Musicals, Playwrights & Plays, Theater

Playbill

Arts Days: July 06, 1934: Get With the Program
Go to any theater on Broadway, in Miami, or even St. Louis, and you’ll probably be handed a copy of Playbill. Part program description of the play you are about to see, part theater magazine, Playbill was first called the Strauss Magazine Theater Program, after its creator Frank Vance Strauss.

In 1884, Strauss started a company that created programs tailored to shows. It featured restaurant ads, feature articles on famous directors, and other related material. These days you can subscribe to the magazine, as well as have one customized for any given show. It lists the actors, the parts they play and their work in other shows, as well as the sequence of events that will take place on the stage.
Backstage, Broadway, Playwrights & Plays, Theater

Neil Simon

Arts Days: July 04, 1927: Simon Says, “Laugh”
Playwright Neil Simon is perhaps the person most responsible for celebrating the comic craziness of New York City with his entertaining stories of human trials, tribulations, and, of course, neuroses. In plays such as Brighton Beach Memoirs, The Odd Couple, Biloxi Blues, and more, Simon invented characters you simply can’t forget—whether they’re caught in hilarious situations or heartbreaking ones.

His valentine to New York aside, Simon is also the writer who has done the most to capture on the page and on the stage what it’s like to be a 20th century Jewish American, like himself. A nominee for 17 Tony Awards® and the recipient of three, Simon was also a Kennedy Center Honoree in 1995.

Oh, and one more thing. In 1966, Simon is the only playwright to have four productions on Broadway running simultaneously.
Theater, Playwrights & Plays, Broadway, Comedy

Arthur Laurents

Arts Days: July 14, 1918: From Brooklyn to Broadway
Arthur Laurents, the playwright and lyricist who wrote the book for West Side Story, one of the world’s most beloved musicals, had another source in mind when he conceived of the tragic tale of Maria and Tony. He was thinking of Shakespeare and his play, Romeo and Juliet, and this pair of lovers whose family conflicts stand in the way of their feelings for one another.

Though the theme wasn’t new, Laurents set his characters’ love affair in an urban setting, with rival gangs standing in for the families Shakespeare had put at odds. Laurents worked closely with composer Leonard Bernstein and lyricist Stephen Sondheim to create the Broadway version of West Side Story.
Broadway, Playwrights & Plays, Musicals, Theater, Shakespeare

Andrew Lloyd-Webber and Stephen Sondheim

Arts Days: March 22, 1930 and 1948: Two of a Kind
If you displayed the pages of music written by these two legendary Broadway composers who share a birthday, it would stretch around the block many times over—sort of like the crowds standing in line at their shows. Sondheim’s brought us Sweeney Todd, A Little Night Music, and Sunday in the Park with George, among others. He also wrote the breakthrough lyrics for West Side Story, which premiered in 1957 and marked his big break.

For his part, Lloyd Webber has no less musical theater credentials. In Cats and Phantom of the Opera, his songs “Memory” and “The Music of the Night,”  plus “I Don’t Know How to Love Him” from Jesus Christ Superstar, showcase Webber’s standard composing style, which melds together elements of rock, jazz, pop, and classical music.
Broadway, Musicals, Playwrights & Plays, Composers, Theater

John Kander

Arts Days: March 18, 1927: Razzmatazz On Broadway
Along with lyricist Fred Ebb, the composer John Kander created some of the most memorable tunes you’ll ever hum. Like “New York, New York”—Kander came up with that unforgettable melody and Ebb added the words. The men also collaborated on the musicals Chicago, Cabaret, Kiss of the Spider Woman, and others. Together they understood the conventions of musical theater better than just about anyone.

But it wasn’t always that way. Kander wrote the music for a show called A Family Affair in 1962. Kander clicked with the show’s producer Harold Prince, who thought he was a terrific musician and hired him and Ebb to write the music and lyrics for Flora, the Red Menace. In 1966, their work on Cabaret led to the Tony Award® for Best Musical. For nearly five decades, Kander and Ebb were the longest running musical/lyricist partnership in Broadway history.
Backstage, Broadway, Composers, Music, Musicals, Music Legends, Theater

The King and I

Arts Days: March 29, 1951: Culture Clash
Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II had collaborated on five other musicals, including The Sound of Music, by the time they turned out the words and music for The King and I. The musical starred Gertrude Lawrence as Anna, an Englishwoman hired by the King of Siam (today we call it Thailand), to teach reading, writing, and speaking English—to his children.

King Mongkut was played by Yul Brynner, a Russian actor who shaved his head for the stage role. Tackling a range of complex issues, from cultural clashes to gender roles, The King and I included the well-known “Getting to Know You,” a touching song about making new friends. The show ultimately went on to win the Tony Award® for Best Musical.
Broadway, Musicals, Theater, Popular Culture

Tennessee Williams

Arts Days: March 26, 1911: For Dreamers Only
Stanley Kowalski, Amanda Wingfield, Big Daddy, and Blanche Dubois are only a few of the memorable stage characters created by Tennessee Williams, one of America’s greatest playwrights. Born Thomas Lanier Williams, his brutish, traveling salesman father and traditional, Southern belle of a mother provided all the necessary emotional turmoil Williams needed to fuel his plays. No wonder Williams chose to write about people who are emotionally crippled by hypocrisy and illusion, lies and denial.

It was while waiting tables in New York in 1944 that Williams got his lucky break. The Glass Menagerie, his play about the complex relationships within the dysfunctional Wingfield household, opened to rave reviews. Williams followed with A Streetcar Named Desire, his highly-charged encounter between a woman haunted by her past and her crude, confrontational, working-class brother-in-law.
Playwrights & Plays, Controversial, Theater

Spotlight

Arts Days: March 16, 1912: Electrifying Art
It can be easy to overlook the role that lighting plays during a ballet or theatrical production, but you’d be surprised at how much a performance’s lighting design contributes to our enjoyment of it. From how well we are able to see the action to the emotions we feel as we watch, Jean Rosenthal helped make the position of lighting designer more important than it had been.

In her work lighting dance performances for Martha Graham and plays for Orson Welles, she not only used lights to illuminate the action for the audience, but to set the mood, advance the plot, or underscore the importance of certain characters. Nowadays, lighting designers work closely with the director and actors to figure out how to use light effectively before, during, and after a show. And, if you’ve seen a dancer or singer standing in a diagonal shaft of light during a big solo, you’re seeing a bit of Rosenthal’s influence at work.
Backstage, Dance, Innovators & Pioneers, Jobs in the Arts, Movies & Movie Stars, Theater

Masks

Arts Days: March 05, 984 B.C.E.: Party Hearty
If you ever go back in time, ask the ancient Greeks to throw you a crazy party.  For example, the Greeks spent every spring celebrating their god of fertility, Dionysus, in a festival called—you guessed it—the Dionysia, which was especially big in Athens. Entire towns would drop everything to dance, tell stories, and drink lots of wine.

Somewhere along the way, a man named Thespis thought it would interesting to act out the stories that were always told at these gatherings; he is thought to be the first person to ever appear on a stage pretending to be someone else and speaking lines of a play. In other words, he may well have been history’s first actor, though we will never know for sure. In time, the Dionysia was a place where both sad plays (tragedies) and funny ones (comedies) were performed for and enjoyed by a crowd of thousands.
Greece, Theater, Tragedy, History, Geography

Elizabeth Taylor

Arts Days: February 27, 1932: The Eyes Have It
Her striking beauty was undeniable and unmistakable, thanks to her piercing violet eyes and a double set of lashes. (Once, as a child actor, a director told her to “take off that mascara,” only to learn that her thick lashes were in fact real!) Not just a pretty face though, this 2002 Kennedy Center Honoree is a quintessential Hollywood legend.

As a young girl, Taylor moved to the United States and began acting, immediately turning studio heads with her lead performance in National Velvet. Her career skyrocketed and she went on to break film ground in movies including Butterfield 8, Cleopatra, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Over the course of more than 50 films and two Academy Awards® for Best Actress, Taylor radiated Hollywood glamour. Her lasting legacy also includes her advocacy and humanitarian work in the fight against AIDS.
Theater, Movies & Movie Stars

Vaudeville Theatre

Arts Days: February 28, 1883: Make ’em Laugh, Make ’em Cry
Vaudeville was a type of variety show with a bunch of back-to-back quick skits: A singing, tap-dancing man up first, then a dog riding a bike, then a few folks doing a comedy routine. And on and on for hours. If you could spin plates, sing well, or imitate various animal sounds, you, too, might have wanted to jump up on stage!

At its peak, thousands and thousands of performers worked the vaudeville circuit—a series of shows held at venues around North America. With everything from Yiddish theater to minstrel shows and contortionists to jugglers on the bill, vaudeville showcased the cultural diversity of 20th century America.

But vaudeville could not compete with the “moving picture show”—the form of entertainment we now call movies. Vaudeville shows went into a steep decline as movies became more popular.
America, Art Venues, Musicals, Theater, Comedy

Minstrel show

Arts Days: February 06, 1843: Minstrel Stage Debut
As a uniquely American form of musical entertainment in the 19th century, minstrel shows would shock most people today for the racist caricatures they exploited. White performers uses burnt cork to darken their faces and hands, mocked black people as lazy and ignorant, and, pretending to be slaves working for white masters, danced and sang songs about life on the plantation.

On this day, at the Bowery Theater, the Virginia Minstrels—four performers led by Dan Emmett—performed what’s considered to have been the first full-length minstrel show, or “minstrelsy."
Controversial, Theater, Musicals, America

Our Town

Arts Days: February 04, 1938: Our Town Hits the Big City
So you’re sitting in a darkened theater watching actors play their parts on stage, talking to one another, while paying absolutely no attention to the spectators. Suddenly, one of them turns and speaks directly to you, the audience. A bit startling, isn’t it?

This technique is called “breaking the fourth wall,” and it was used to great effect by the Stage Manager character in Our Town, a play Thornton Wilder wrote that explored life in a small New England town. The Stage Manager comments to the audience on the words and actions of other characters like Emily Webb and George Gibbs.

When rave reviews poured in, Wilder was delighted that his play, which turned many theatrical conventions on their heads, was a success. His bittersweet message that the beauty of even the mundane details of life is all too fleeting has been heard all the way to the balcony and beyond.
Broadway, Playwrights & Plays, Theater

Death of a Salesman

Arts Days: February 10, 1949: The Death of a Dream
When the curtain rose at the Morasco Theater this night, Broadway audiences were introduced to Willy Loman, a middle-aged traveling salesman, on the verge of a breakdown.

All too aware that he is at the end of his career, Loman takes stock of the work he’s done, the money he’s made, the relationships he’s formed—and finds that much of it leaves him feeling defeated and disappointed. With actor Lee J. Cobb starring as Loman, and Elia Kazan directing the play, viewers sadly watched as Willy is forced to recognize himself as a failure.

In its review, The New York Times noted that Miller “has looked with compassion into the hearts of some ordinary Americans and quietly transferred their hope and anguish to the theater.” Today, Miller’s play is studied in schools across the country.
Broadway, Playwrights & Plays, Controversial, Theater, Tragedy

James Earl Jones

Arts Days: January 17, 1931: The Man with the Velvet Voice
It's hard to believe but actor James Earl Jones--known for his smooth, deep basso voice--once suffered from a severe stutter.

At college, where he planned to study medicine, Jones enrolled in acting lessons to conquer his speech impediment. A stunning improvement gave Jones an appetite for further theatrical experiences and he switched his focus to theater. After graduation, he moved to New York City to pursue acting, supporting himself with behind-the-scenes manual labor jobs.

In 1957, Jones made his Broadway debut, which caught the attentions of both stage and film directors and launched him to star status. In 1969, he won a Tony Award for The Great White Hope, and garnered an Oscar nomination for the film adaptation. He won a second Tony Award in 1987 for his work in Fences, and was also a 2002 Kennedy Center Honoree.
Broadway, Movies & Movie Stars, Theater

Romeo and Juliet

Arts Days: January 29, 1595: The Greatest Love Story Ever Told
William Shakespeare's tragedy Romeo and Juliet was and remains one of the English playwright's most popular works. The story of the young, "star-cross'd" lovers from feuding families premiered on this day in 1595 at The Theatre, performed by the Lord Chamberlain's Men.

That’s right, the acting company was made up entirely of men, so roles like Juliet, the nurse, and Juliet's mother were given to actors who could muster high, feminine voices. Women were not permitted to take the stage in England until the beginning of the 17th century.
Playwrights & Plays, Shakespeare, Tragedy, Theater

Harold Prince

Arts Days: January 30, 1928: Theater Royalty is Born
Harold Prince, American theater producer and director, is associated with many of the best known Broadway musicals of the 20th century.

Born on this day in New York, NY, Prince landed his first job out of college in the office of legendary theater mogul George Abbott. Under Abbott's guidance, he learned the craft of creating original musical theater productions.

Prince co-produced a number of popular musicals in the 1950s and 60s including The Pajama Game, Damn Yankees, West Side Story, Fiddler on the Roof, and Cabaret. In the 1970s, he met composer Stephen Sondheim and almost exclusively produced all of Sondheim's musicals.

In 1976, Prince directed his first of many operas for the New York City Opera. Since then he has directed two of Andrew Lloyd Webber's musicals, Evita and The Phantom of the Opera. Prince has received 21 Tony Awards, more than any other individual, for his work as both a producer and director.
Broadway, Innovators & Pioneers, Musicals, Theater

Gladiators Fighting

Arts Days: January 01, 404 C.E.: The Day the Crowd Went Silent

Believe it or not, the ancient Roman practice of pitting professional fighters against one another, wild animals, or condemned criminals for the viewing pleasure of a live audience, is considered one of civilization's earliest forms of social entertainment.

The first known gladiatorial competitions were held in Italy in 310 C.E. to impress the public with reenactments of exciting military battles and demonstrations of individual soldiers' strengths.

Over time, the games evolved into a much more elaborate spectacle. The games were popular with members of all social classes, prompting the construction of a new, larger kind of venue--the amphitheatre, or open air arena--a design still used today.

But hold on, not everyone appreciated the gore-filled competitions. Christians objected to the immorality of the viewers who happily observed the violence. Nearing the fall of the Empire, when numerous wars led to an economic recession and Christianity continued to spread, gladiatorial games began to decline.

After the last known gladiatorial competition was held on this day in Rome, Italy, audiences turned their attention to theater performances.
Controversial, Sports, Theater, World Cultures

Circus

Arts Days: January 09, 1768: Send in the Clowns
Though acrobats, clowns, trapeze artists, and trained animals all existed before the modern circus, they’d never been under the same roof until Englishman Philip Astley, a former cavalry sergeant major, discovered his ability to perform stunts while standing atop his horse's back.

Realizing his talent’s potential entertainment value, he drew a ring in the ground and invited the public to witness his daring act. His display proved to be popular and Astley readily hired other trick riders, as well as clowns, and musicians to join his show. He built a roof over the ring, which he named Astley's Amphitheatre. Over the next thirty years, Astley took his show on the road and established 18 other circuses in major European cities.
Inventions, Art Venues, Innovators & Pioneers, Stunts & Special Effects, Animals, Europe, Popular Culture, Theater

Arthur Miller

Arts Days: June 21, 1956: Just Said “No”
Sitting in the hot seat before the U.S. Congress’ House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), playwright Arthur Miller was pressed to reveal his alleged ties to Communists. Or at least to name people Miller considered sympathetic to Communism and the Soviet Union.

Miller’s 1953 play The Crucible, ostensibly about the 17th century Salem witch trials, raised eyebrows among senators like Joseph McCarthy. McCarthy was also suspicious of where Miller’s sympathies lay, knowing that the playwright had attended several meetings of the Communist party in the 1940s. McCarthy and others were on high alert for Communists thought to have infiltrated the government, the arts, and other institutions in the U.S.

Miller, one of numerous writers, actors, and others suspected of having Communist ties, refused to identify anyone and was ultimately convicted of holding Congress in contempt.
Controversial, Playwrights & Plays, History, Theater

Ice Capades

Arts Days: June 16, 1940: Theater on Ice
There was a time when seeing an Ice Capades show was the hottest ticket in town for a family night out. The show featured Olympic skaters and other national champions acting out plays, TV shows, and other stories in elaborate costumes and on skates.

It all started when a group of ice arena managers noticed how much applause the ice-skating demonstrations between hockey segments generated. On this day, Ice Capades mounted its first show in New Orleans. Skating stars of the day were along for the ride on this debut tour of 40 cities across the U.S. As children flocked to these shows with their parents, demand for ice-skating lessons surged. Still, with so much competition for leisure-time activities and dollars, the show’s popularity faded.
Theater, Popular Culture, Stunts & Special Effects

Globe Theatre

Arts Days: June 29, 1613: Global Warming
Before it went up in smoke, most of Shakespeare’s plays debuted at The Globe located just outside London’s city limits. The building, erected in 1599 by Shakespeare’s theater company, is probably the best known theater of the Elizabethan era.

With room for about 3,000 people, the Globe had a stage at one end and a couple of areas for viewing the plays: covered balconies with seats for the wealthy, and bare ground for those who didn’t have much money but were willing to stand up for the duration of the show (the standing folks were called “groundlings”).

The Globe had its own motto: “The whole world is a playhouse,” which might sound a little bit familiar. That’s probably because Shakespeare adapted this motto for As You Like It when he wrote the lines, “All the world’s a stage/And all the men and women merely players.”
Art Venues, Shakespeare, Theater, Playwrights & Plays

Oliver

Arts Days: June 30, 1960: The Boy Who Asked for More
Drawing on themes and characters Charles Dickens created in his 1838 novel Oliver Twist, composer Lionel Bart wrote the words and music to a stage version of the story, which he called Oliver!

Dickens’s book was about Oliver, a lonely orphan boy, the adults who abused him with too much work and too little compassion, and a few kind people he meets along the way. Despite the serious subject matter, the infectious melodies of songs like Food, Glorious Food and Consider Yourself became lodged in listeners’ memories. In fact, Oliver’s modest request for more porridge—“Please sir, I want some more”—became one of the best-known lines to go straight from Dickens’s pen to Bart’s libretto.

Ultimately, Oliver’s happy escape from a cruel life to a happy one with his long-lost grandfather, delighted audiences.
Broadway, Musicals, Theater, Literature

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