Quick History Of Theater in America
The history of theater in the United States has had quite a turbulent journey to get where it currently stands. From laws prohibiting performance art during the colonial era, to the deeply racist minstrel shows, theater has had quite the growth period, but it now sits a pretty good spot with something for just about everybody.
Let’s take a look at how the different periods got us to where we are today!
1700-1800 – Theater did not get off to the best start for a number of different reasons. One is many of the newfound colonies were led by religions who disagreed with the moral implications that arose from performance art. Another being that theater had a significant British influence, and these colonizers were trying to stray away from those ideals. In fact, one performance during the early 1700s incited a riot after the crowd found out an actor was a British soldier.
The first playhouse popped up in Virginia in 1716, and soon after, in 1730, there was another in South Carolina. The rest of the colonies began to pick up on the trend, but as previously mentioned, it was slow going because of the laws restricting this form of art. In fact, these laws compared both performing and watching said productions to vices like gambling or animal fighting. Typically viewed in a negative light, actors and their careers were not deemed respectable throughout this period.
1800-1900 – Post-independence, popularity with theater grew (slowly) as questions surrounding its morality declined. It wasn’t until the mid-1850s where actors finally gained a foothold in the public’s eye. Some of the key actors were Wiliam Charles Macready, Edwin Forrest and Edwin Booth (older brother of John Wilkes Booth). Around this time theaters started popping up around the country, but nowhere seized the opportunity quite like New York. These New York theaters included Anthony Street Theatre (1813), the Chatham Garden Theatre (1824), the Lafayette Theatre (1826), the Bowery Theatre (also 1826), the Opera House (1833 – becoming the National Theatre in 1836), the Franklin Theatre (1835), and the Broadway Theatre (1847 – the first of that name).
As excitement grew, so did the number of American playwrights and homegrown American actors. No longer were Shakespearian plays the most popular, instead, they were rip-offs of Shakespeare where the “bad” guys were British characters. The audience and public loved it. Looking back, it wasn’t all positive; many shows included racist portrayals of African-Americans through “minstrel shows.” You can learn more about these types of shows through the Crash Course video below:
As time went on, minstrel shows became less and less popular, and stepping in were vaudeville productions which consisted of many unrelated acts all performing at the same show. Acts that encompassed everything from trained animals, to comedians, to singers to even the great Harry Houdini. The vaudeville acts had a prominent foothold in society until the 1930s. Traditional theater was entering its “golden age” too. From the early 1900s to when cinema started in the 1930s, actors of this time were held in as high regard as modern day movie stars.
1930-Present Day – Theater has gone a number of different ways through several different mediums. As vaudeville acts died off, musical theater and realism became increasingly popular. The realism productions had a more serious and mature tone to them. On the other hand, as the hype around musicals ensued, so did the growth of Broadway. Broadway had a massive influence until the 70s when many theaters were forced to shut down. In 1990, however, the city of New York wanted to make a change, so they cleaned up the area and converted it to what it is today, an entertainment district specializing in lavish musicals and glitzy hotels.
So what state is theater in today? Let’s see some facts!
- In the 2017/2018 season, Broadway had revenue of $1.7 billion.
- Attendance rates at nonprofit theaters exceed 30 million people annually.
- There are 3,533 live performance theaters in the US. Take a look at some of the coolest ones here.
We might be biased, but we definitely think our fabulous Snowy Owl Theater belongs on that list. Don’t you? We hope you enjoyed this week’s blog and we can’t wait until we can see you in our theater again! Until then, stay safe!