City Dionysia

The Ancient Roots of Modern Theater


Age range: 13 - 15

Estimated Time: Allow about 1 hour to explore all of the pages in the site. Then spend from three to five 45 minute session to create your own tragedy

Key Technology: Technical Requirements

This interactive requires the Flash Player 9.124 (or more recent). Speakers are needed for audio (headphones are recommended for use in group settings like libraries or computer labs). Connection to a printer is necessary for printing student creations.

City Dionysia: The Ancient Roots of Modern Theater is an engaging Web interactive focused on the historical development of theater in Ancient Greece. Designed to support high school studies of theater, literature and world history, the site leads students though the development of ancient ideas and contemporary theater practice, then on to write and stage their own original play while demonstrating an understanding of the rules and structure of Greek tragedy.

Think About...

Ready, Set, Learn!

Before you get started, think of what you already know about ancient Greece and theater, it’s probably more than you think. Keep this in mind as you explore the site. Take a break now and then to sum up what you have learned or reread a piece to stop and think about what it means to you. Be sure to check out the glossary for explanations of some of the Greek terms. Think about how your experience and what you already know about theater matches with what the site offers. Are you surprised by anything you’ve encountered? Does something you’ve read feel familiar to you or validate your own observations?

First Things First

Students are encouraged to explore the entire site, start to finish, before attempting the option to “Stage your own Tragedy,” as there is information important to understanding the interactive throughout the site. The site is broken down into five areas: prologue, theaters, playwrights, players, and plays.

Part 1: Prologue

Overview of Dionysian Festival

This is where it all starts, not just interactive site but theater as we know it today. As you read the historical information about Dionysian Festival consider any arts festival you’ve ever attended from a street fair to a theater or music festival and notice how its roots were established in ancient Greece. What exactly happened at the Dionysian Festival? What do you think the atmosphere was like?

The Ancient World

On this page you can drag your cursor to any of the shaded regions on the world map to learn what was happening elsewhere in the world while ancient Greece was celebrating storytelling. Why do you think the ancient Greeks created dramatic theater while other peoples focused on religion and tool making? What is it about the Greek model of tragedy and comedy that endures?

It’s a Celebration

Both in ancient times and today these festivals display a heightened sense of celebration and celebrity. Some people are famous when they arrive; some are famous when they leave. What do you think it is about the atmosphere of a festival that draws such a crowd? Why do you think this is an effective way to produce an arts event?

Contemporary Festivals

Some festivals are annual events in a well established location while others travel the nation like a circus bringing their brand of entertainment to communities large and small. Each festival represents a particular genre from Shakespeare to Indie films from choral music to jazz, pop and rock and roll. Hundreds of thousands of people attend these art venues year after year. What festivals take place in the region where you live? What do you think these contemporary festivals have in common with the Dionysian Festival? What ways do you think they are different?

Part 2: Theaters


You can just imagine it, sitting in an open air theater with the panoramic backdrop of the Greek landscape, anticipation of the entertainment to come both onstage and off. There would be discussions of the plays, the performers, speculations about who would win, then the vote and the awards. All taking place in a structure designed to bring the masses into a single minded focus. Who were the people who attended the theater in Greece? What do you think they had in common? What do you think their differences were?

Theater Anatomy

On this page you can drag your cursor over the drawing of the theater to learn the Greek names and descriptions of the parts of a theater. Beauty was highly valued by the ancient Greeks and there is an elegant symmetry to the design of the theater. It was also functional with each aspect of the architecture having a specific purpose. What do you think of the design? Describe the balance of form and function built into the theater design.

Contemporary Theaters

Today’s theaters are designed for a variety of purposes. Live plays, movies, concerts, indoor and outdoor performances. Modern theater builders have taken many cues from the ancient Greeks while updating design to include modern amenities and technologies. It’s a lot more comfortable to sit on cushioned seats for that three hour performance! Think of the theaters you’ve visited. Some maybe you don’t even notice except to choose the best available seat while the design of others are so beautiful that they help create a mood of anticipation for the entertainment to come. Which theater stands out as a favorite of yours? What is it about that theater makes it memorable? How do you think a theater makes your experience more or less enjoyable?

Think about what you’ve learned so far about the history of the theater architecture. How do you think this knowledge will affect the way you think the next time you go to the theater? What questions will you ask yourself or what will you look for in theaters going forward?

Part 3 : Players


Imagine the Dionysian stage filled with 50 men and 50 boys singing and chanting the playwright’s words in unison. With the volume of 100 voices raised together it is no wonder the people sitting at the top of the theater could follow the story (without amplifiers and sound systems!) When the format of the play evolved so that individual players would perform separate from the chorus they would by necessity have to exaggerate or “act” out their roles to be understood by anyone watching the play from a distance. Think about the people involved with producing and performing in these early theatrical events and imagine how one idea might have led to another and another until the elements of compelling theater were unified into successful format. Do you think that there might have been failures along the way that would have forced them to try something new and different? What might they have been? How do you think the audience response helped them to shape the format of the play?

Masks, Costumes and Props

Masks, costumes and props served many purposes both practical and artistic. Many details about a story need to be communicated in a very short time in a play. It would be a waste of time, and not very interesting, to explain every detail with dialogue when a mask, costume or prop can get the job done in an instant and add some dimensionality to the performance at the same time. These tools would also have helped the players “get in character.” Can you think of a time when wearing a mask or a costume helped you to “get in character?”

Contemporary Players

In drama there are character types or archetypes that appear time and time again; the hero, the villain, and the clown are just a few examples. In the Dionysian festival, the masks and costumes helped the players and the audience to know instantly which type was on the stage. In our examples the modern actors, Will Smith, Jack Black and Alan Rickman can communicate these “types” even before an audience sees their performance. Because of their track record you know before you buy a ticket that if Jack Black is in it you’re in for a comedy or Will Smith will save the day or you will love to hate Alan Rickman. Think of some other character types and actors whose performances have embodied them? What about actors who have portrayed these conventional types in unconventional ways? Can you come up with some advantages and disadvantages of being good at portraying a particular character type?

Part 4: Playwrights


Historian, humorist, culture shaper, satirist, storyteller, entertainer, these have all been roles of the playwright from the ancient Greeks to today. Do you think that people have been drawn to become a playwright because they are naturally good at these skills or do you think they develop these skills because in order to become a good playwright?

Four Ancient Playwrights

Of the hundreds of plays written and performed at the Dionysian Festivals the work of only a handful of playwrights survive today. Why do you think only a fraction of the playwright’s work survived? Why do you think that some survived while others did not?

The Test of Time

Each of the playwrights we feature in the site excelled in a particular genre of theater and all of them achieved remarkable success. How many people can you think of whose name and work has endured more that 2300 years? What do you think made these playwrights so successful?

Contemporary Playwrights

Of the hundreds of famous playwrights of our time, this site highlights the work of 3 modern playwrights. If you had to guess which cotemporary playwrights work would survive 2300 years into the future, who would you choose? Why would you choose this playwright? All three of the playwrights considered here, Arthur Miller, Lorraine Hansberry, and Tennessee Williams wrote tragic plays that dealt with heavy social issues. What affect do you think these playwrights’s work had on the people who saw them when they were first produced? What about today, do you think there has been a lasting affect? What do you think it took for them to present these stories?

It’s rather amazing that any work from Dionysia exists today for our enjoyment and education. The fact that it does tells us that the ancient Greeks wanted their plays to continue to be known past the annual Dionysian festival. Do you think that they dreamed of it enduring as long as it has? What do you think these ancient playwrights would think if they knew you were:

  • Reading about them and their work today?
  • Getting this information on a computer?

Part 5: Plays


Today the ancient Greek masks of comedy and tragedy are known the world over and have become a symbol for theater itself. Within the broad categories of comedy and tragedy there are many genres of theatrical entertainment. Think of some plays you have seen, read, or performed. In what genre and category of theater would you place them? What elements do you think they may have shared with the plays at the Dionysian festival?

Explore the Tragic Structure

Ancient Greek theater was serious business. An established structure was used with great success much like following a recipe to make a meal. Ingredients might change with the seasons, but there are definite steps of hunting or harvesting, preparation, cooking, eating, and cleaning up. In a Greek tragedy you have a presentation of the topic, an introduction, a plot, a commentary, and a moral. Why do you think the early dramatists developed such a structure? What purpose did it serve? Do you think this structure inhibits creativity or supports it?

Contemporary Interpretations

Using short video clips from performances at the Kennedy Center the site gives example of 4 ways in which modern theater uses devices that originated in ancient Greece: anagnorsis, chorus, deus ex machine, and hubris. As modern audiences we have seen these elements used so many times on the screen and stage they might seem a very normal part of storytelling, nothing unusual. If however, you watched a story that didn’t have these elements, you might think how boring or wonder where’s the action, the drama? Have you ever sat through someone telling or performing a boring story? What do you think it needed to be more exciting?

At this site you have had a chance to explore a lot of information about ancient Greek culture and the origins of the theater. What do you think you learned? Now that you know some history of the development of the play, what will you look for when you go to the theater in the future? How will you use this knowledge when you visit the Stage Your Own Tragedy Option?”

Stage Your Own Tragedy

This interactive is broken down into 6 segments: title, prologue, parados, episode, stasimon and exodus. After you select a title you can click on the segment tabs to create your play. Select players, masks and props by clicking, dragging and dropping the icons onto your stage. The directional buttons can help you get just the size and position that you want to tell your story. Experiment with perspective and composition until you create a page that pleases you. Use the Pinakes option to select your backdrop. Use the dialogue option to write your dialogue for your players and chorus. There is a delete option to toss out what you don’t like and a help option to guide you through the options. When done you will be prompted to save and print or email your creation.

Quiz Yourself!

  • Who was the first person to be awarded a prize at Dionsyia and how is he honored today? (Thespias, actors today are called thespians)
  • Persia, the nearest neighbor to ancient Greece created which of the 7 wonders of the world? (The hanging gardens of Babylon)
  • What were the Celtic people working on when they were defeated by the Romans? (developing a writing system)
  • Which famous Chinese and Indian philosophers’ teachings are still practiced today? (Confucius and Buddha)
  • In Africa, clay sculptures take what form? (the human form)
  • In South and Mesoamerica what kind of structures were built? North America? (temples)
  • North America imports what product from Mesoamerica? (corn)
  • How many people could an ancient Greek Theater hold? (up to 20,000)
  • What is the “dancing place” of the theater? (The orchestra)
  • What is the Greek name for the place where the poor people sat? (Analemmata)
  • Which Greek playwright used social commentary more than his contemporaries? (Euripides)
  • _____________quit acting to write because he had a weak voice. (Sophocles)
  • Which Greek playwright won top festival honors more than a dozen times? (Aeschylus)
  • Which Greek playwright made fun of his fellow playwrights in his plays? (Aristophanes)
  • Until Thespias invented the role of the individual actor, ancient Greek plays were performed by ________________. (choral groups)
  • The two main categories of theater are_______________ and __________________. (tragedy, comedy)
  • Greek actors sometimes played several different roles in one play. They helped to distinguish these roles for the audience through the use of ________, ____________, and _____________. (masks, costumes, and props)
  • Name the five sections of a Greek tragedy. (prologue, parados, episode, stasimon, and exodus)

Learn More

Dig Deeper!

Wondering more about the ancient Greeks? Check out History For Kids.

Get Creative

Make your own mask and toga


  • Get a piece of cardboard (a pizza box works)
  • Draw the outline of a face shape, make it nice and big
  • Trim the outline to make the mask shape
  • Cut out holes for the eyes, nose and frown or smile
  • Score it lengthwise in 3 sections to make a gentle curve to fit around your face
  • Paint it, decorate it, add hair (yarn or strips of fabric or butcher paper will work)


  • For a toga you’ll need 4 - 5 yards of fabric (depending on how tall you are)
  • Wrap the fabric one and a half times around your waist for guys, for gals wrap around your chest, then secure it with safety pins as needed
  • Throw the rest over one shoulder
  • Cinch it with a belt, adjust the fabric folds for comfort and style
  • Optional: paint/draw a decorative border on the hem

For the Educator

Getting Ready

Take some time to preview the information and experiment with the interactive before presenting this lesson to the class/student. Think about questions/comments your students may have when they view it to be ready for a group discussion of the content.

After an initial introduction and group discussion of the topics, this site would be best explored by individual students at their own pace.

This interactive presents a history of ancient Greek theater and how it connects to contemporary theater. It also provides an engaging template for students to write their own Greek tragedy.

Instructional Strategies

How to Teach It

There are many ways you can use this site and interactive. Think about these options:

  • An introduction to a theater field trip
  • For a unit on creative writing and storytelling
  • For a unit on ancient Greece
  • Before a field trip to an antiquities museum
  • For a unit on playwriting

Topics for Discussion

Prologue – discuss with your students the origins of the Festival of Dionysis, and its significance as a social event as well as a performing arts competition. Note how the importance of the festival helped preserve many of the plays written for the competition. Compare how modern arts festivals bring people and the performing arts together.

The Theaters – discuss how the architecture of Greek theaters influences the performing arts venues throughout history. Evaluate other types of structures as performance spaces.

The Players – Review the evolution of the performers in Greek theater, including dancers, chorus and actors, and discuss how Greek playwrights would have used each. Discuss how masks and costumes were used to create characters, and how modern type-casting helps today’s actors communicate their characters to their audience. This section will help students make informed selections of props and costumes.

The Playwrights – Explain how ancient Greek playwrights would incorporate social commentary into their work, and how modern playwrights frequently do the same. Refer to this section to assist students in understanding their role as playwright.

The Plays – review the structure of ancient Greek tragedies, comedies and dithyrambs, focusing on the purpose of each part of the tragic structure. Watch the video clips and discuss contemporary examples of ancient Greek theatrical concepts of anagnorsis, chorus, deus ex machine, and hubris. “Explore the Tragic Structure” in the Plays section contains information critical to successfully demonstrating an understanding of ancient Greek tragedy via the “Stage Your own Tragedy” interactive.

Stage Your Own Tragedy – This section provides a self guided interactive template to help students craft their own tragedy. When students have completed staging their tragedy, they can either print it or email it to a teacher or classmate for review. If students require additional time to work on their project, they can email a link to themselves that allows for further editing.

Think about the stories and the storytellers whose works and personalities have become part of history and culture through the genre of theater. Is the play or the playwright more important to remember?

Glossary – this page will help students understand some of the Greek terms in the site.




Veronica Alvarez
Original Writer

Ann Reilly

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