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Stage Show

The backwoodsman vaulted onto the stage just after the War of 1812, prominent citizens and common folk enjoyed en masse a stage show. It was the thing to do. Oscar Hammerstein I, the great theatrical impresario of the turn of the century, once famously said that "there is no limit to the number of people who will stay away from a bad play." Of course in Hammerstein's time the opposite - that there are strict limits on the number of people who can come to a good play - was equally true. Only about eighteen hundred people can fit into even the largest Broadway theater, so a sellout show has to run well over a year before a million people can see it.

What eventually became known as vaudeville had its origins in minstrel shows, concert-saloons, and beer gardens. Unlike the minstrel show, which appealed to broad audiences of both sexes, early variety or vaudeville was designed for men only. The name "vaudeville" largely replaced variety by the 1890s, but the word "variety" continued to be used as a synonym. Both terms referred to a program constructed from separate acts of several different types.

The English have continued to use the term "variety" for the same theatrical experience and have rarely employed "vaudeville." The term "music hall" has been customarily used for a British form of variety with strong emphasis on songs sung by individual performers. "Music hall" is also found in the United States, but here it is simply another name for variety. To foster a respectable image, many buildings that housed vaudeville shows were named music halls rather than theaters. This continues a tradition of naming legitimate theaters "academies" or "museums with lecture halls." In this way, the long-standing puritanical aversion to theater held by some in this country was assuaged.

Vaudeville is an American term that dates from the 1840s. Its origin is generally traced to a French form of nineteenth-century pastoral play that included a musical interlude. The term rarely appeared until the 1890s when it was used, like "variety," to describe brief, varied acts without a narrative plot, scenario, book, or connecting theme. Nevertheless, these vaudeville acts were carefully structured according to tried-and-true formulas that helped provide rhythm, pace, and a kind of subliminal unity. This recipe proved remarkably successful until the rise of movies as a dominant form of popular entertainment in the early 1930s.

A typical vaudeville show offered the audience a little bit of everything in eight to fourteen acts or "turns." The average show had about ten turns and included magic segments, musical numbers (especially solo and duet vocals), dance numbers, combination song-and-dance acts, acrobatics, juggling, comic routines (monologists were popular), animal acts, celebrity cameos, and appearances by criminals, pugilists, and others in the news.

In 1923, writing for "Variety", vaudeville impresario Edward Albee gave his view of vaudeville's popularity: "In vaudeville, there is always something for everybody, just as in every state and city, in every county and town in our democratic country, there is opportunity for everybody, a chance for all." Vaudeville retained some popularity until 1932, when New York's Palace Theater replaced live acts with films.

Burlesque refers to a satiric, comic, and spectacular form of American popular entertainment. In its heyday, burlesque bore little resemblance to earlier literary burlesques which parodied widely known works of literature, theater, or music. The popular burlesque show of the 1870s though the 1920s referred to a raucous, somewhat bawdy style of variety theater. It was inspired by Lydia Thompson and her troupe, the British Blondes, who first appeared in the United States in the 1860s, and also by early "leg" shows such as "The Black Crook" (1866). Its form, humor, and aesthetic traditions were largely derived from the minstrel show. One of the first burlesque troupes was the Rentz-Santley Novelty and Burlesque Company, created in 1870 by M.B. Leavitt, who had earlier feminized the minstrel show with her group Madame Rentz's Female Minstrels.

Burlesque rapidly adapted the minstrel show's tripartite structure: part one was composed of songs and dances rendered by a female company, interspersed with low comedy from male comedians. Part two was an "olio" of short specialties in which the women did not appear. The show's finish was a grand finale. The popular burlesque show of this period eventually evolved into the strip tease which became the dominant ingredient of burlesque by the 1930s.

Broadway theatre is often considered the highest professional form of theatre in the United States. Broadway theatre, or a Broadway show, refers to a performance (usually a play or musical) staged in one of the thirty-nine larger professional theatres located in New York City, with 500 seats or more, that appeal to the mass audience. Along with London's West End theatre, Broadway theatre is usually considered of the highest level of English language theatre.

Generally those productions housed in Off-Broadway theatres are less expensive, less publicized, less well-known and feature less-famous performers. The smaller scale often allows more experimental, challenging work to be presented. Many groups which produce Off-Broadway shows are non-profit rather than commercial producers, meaning they can more easily afford to take chances on plays which might not be commercial hits; however, they still have to ensure enough interest in their plays to have a large enough subscriber base to keep them financially sound. Some commercial productions have found a profitable niche in Off-Broadway venues which allows long runs in their original theatres.

Off-Off Broadway developed in the early 1960s as a reaction to Off-Broadway, which had, in the estimation of many in the New York theater community, grown conventional and safe. Among the first venues for what would soon be called "Off-Off-Broadway" (a term supposedly coined by critic Jerry Tallmer of the Village Voice) were coffeehouses in Greenwich Village, particularly the Caffe Cino, operated by the eccentric Joe Cino, who early on took a liking to actors and playwrights and agreed to let them stage plays there without bothering to read the plays first, or to even find out much about the content. Also integral to the rise of off-off broadway were Ellen Stewart at La MaMa, and Al Carmines at the Judson Poets' Theater, located at Judson Memorial Church.

Many resident theatres operate two stages: a main stage for shows requiring larger sets or cast, and a second stage (often a studio theatre or black box theater) for more experimental or avante-garde productions. Regional theatres rely on donations from patrons and businesses, season ticket subscriptions, and grants from organizations, in addition to ticket sales. Some have criticized regional theatres for being conservative in their selection of shows as theatre staff must consider the demographics of their subscribers and donors. Due to audience feedback, artistic staff, and a theatre's history, each theatre may develop its own reputation both in its city and nationally.

Repertory or rep is a term from Western theatre. It is traditionally applied to the practice of a single company putting on a variety of plays successively for short runs, typically from a week to a fortnight. In the form repertory company or rep company it may also apply to a theatre company which takes this approach. These are to be distinguished from a company performing a single play for a long run; and from a number of different companies (and hence different actors) putting on short-lived plays in the same theatre one after the other. The repertory system of theatre flourished in Britain in the twentieth century.

Summer stock theatres frequently take advantage of better weather by having their productions outdoors. The reliance on stock often leads summer theaters to specialize in a particular type of production, such as Shakespeare plays, musicals, or even opera. Some notable summer theaters include: Utah Shakespearean Festival, Santa Fe Opera, Oregon Shakespeare Festival, Williamstown Theatre Festival,Berkshire Theatre Festival Calgary & Toronto Summerstock Theatre Festival and Glimmerglass Opera.

Community theatre, known as amateur dramatics or amdram in the United Kingdom, is a very popular form of theatre in which all or most of the participants are unpaid or "amateur" in the most literal definition of the word. Community theatre generally resembles professional theatre in all ways except in the unpaid nature of the artists. Though community theatres are generally more traditional in nature, all forms of theatre are practiced in these non-professional venues. They are especially well known for producing musical theater and children's theater. It is not a technical definition, and many companies that are made up of unpaid members do not identify themselves as community theatre; usually the distinction between a "standard" theatre group and a community theatre is made by the company itself. Community theatre provides the opportunity for diverse individuals, many of them in other professions, to create plays and have the satisfaction of being part of an active social and artistic community. Often this involves individuals who have little or no background in theatre or the arts but who wish to get involved and to develop skills in theatre.

Improvisational theatre allows an active relationship with the audience often absent from scripted theatre. Frequently improv groups will solicit suggestions from the audience as a source of inspiration, a way of getting the audience excited and involved, and as a means of proving that the performance is not scripted, a charge often aimed at the masters of the art, whose performances seem so effortless and detailed that those new to improv are convinced it must have been planned. Much of this success can be attributed to the level of cooperation and agreement these improvisers bring to the stage.

Dinner theater is an entertainment that combines a restaurant meal with a staged play. Sometimes the play is incidental entertainment secondary to the meal, in the style of a night club, or the play may be a major production. Audience participation may be a factor in dinner theater, in which the diners may be encouraged to sing or dance with some of the actors. In some cases, diners may be included in a minor way in the plot by exchanging small talk or otherwise interacting with the actors. Dinner theaters are located all over the United States. Professional actors and technicians work there to gain resume experience with amateurs who are there for a hobby. If someone wants to learn how a real professional theater works, and usually get paid for it, a dinner theater would be a good place to start.

The Library of Congress. American Variety Stage. Vaudeville and Popular Entertainment, 1870-1920. am 10-31-96.


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