If asked, most of us probably have a very similar view of what theater is, but despite this universal idea of something acted out, usually on a stage, for our entertainment, there are many types of theater specific to various cultures around the world. In some countries, like Japan for example, the types of theater are defined by very specific styles and conventions, even rules. Traditional theater anywhere, has usually developed through many centuries, yet retains many of its original characteristics even when being performed on modern stages. Here’s some interesting types of theater from around the world.
Japan has various types of theater each easily distinguishable once you know the nuances. Noh theater is a performance of song and dance and having originated in the 14th century, remains steeped in its traditions. All performers in Noh theater are male who act in rich, heavy costumes in slow movements with a monotonous dialogue, poetic in its tone. Themes often to relate to the supernatural, the spiritual world and dreams, with plots and stories drawn from history, legend and literature. The lead character (Shite) most usually wears a mask carved from Japanese Cypress which tells the audience what kind of character he is. Noh takes place on a specific type of stage which is square with a roof supported by 4 corner pillars, open on 3 sides, with a back wall painted with an image of a pine tree.
The name may not be familiar but translate it to English and it becomes Javanese puppet theater. Thought to date back to the 1st century when it was imported from India or China, there are some regional variations with forms of Javanese Wayang and Balinese Wayang, but the principles of the performance remain the same. The most well known is Wayang Kulit where the puppets are made from buffalo hides mounted on bamboo sticks which are moved in front of a light to cast shadows on a white screen. You need to have endurance to attend a Wayang Kulit performance as many go on for a whole night as the puppet masters act out their dramas.
Many cultures have catholic festivals which might feature parades and reenactments, or offerings to saints. Among these are the dramas known as Passion Plays. These specifically relate to the Passion of The Christ – i.e. his trial, suffering and death, and in fitting with the relevant festival period, are performed during Lent. The plays developed from early Christian rituals until it became quite a spectacle with music adding to the drama. The most famous of the Passion Plays takes place every 10 years in Oberammergau in Germany. It was first performed in 1634 and the next performance will be in 2020. It is an occasion when half the village gets involved, so the multitudes of tourists who visit usually get to watch around 2,000 performers as they dramatize the life of Jesus from his entry to Jerusalem to his Resurrection.
We all know that the people of India love to be entertained and are passionate about movies and song and dance. It’s no surprise there that India has many styles of theater. A number of these remain synonymous with certain regions and many of the traditional theater styles present stories based on the Mahābhārata – one of the two major Sanskrit epics (Ramayana is the other). One such style is Kathakali. Originating in the southern state of Kerala in the 17th century, Kathakali is characterized by elaborate costumes and make up, and its distinctive gestures and body movements performed in perfect timing to music. Drumming and percussion have developed over the years to be a major feature of the music. There are 101 Kathakali stories, but less than a third of them are performed today.
I am a fan of traditional opera, but I have to say that Chinese opera totally defeats me. I’ve never had a problem with subtitled movies or opera in a foreign tongue, but I would say that Chinese opera is very definitely an acquired taste for the western ear. Chinese opera has evolved from a large collection of plays from the time of the Song Dynasty (960-1279). During the Yuan dynasty, the acrobatic and musical performances became more sophisticated and regimented with a 4-5 act structure. This Yuan drama became diversified by regionality as it spread across China. It is believed there are 368 styles of Chinese opera. One of the most common and popular styles, which is in fact, not a theater playhouse but a form, is Beijing Opera.
Although there are many types of theater in Africa, they are fairly homogenous in form, being based on the ethnic and tribal stories and dances handed down through centuries. Some have defining characteristics such as the masks used in Igbo drama. Yoruba theater however, is a newcomer, having developed in the 1940s. It is a variety of folk opera which combines mime, brightly colored costumes, traditional drumming and folklore. Generally, the performances fit to one of three themes – fantastical folk tales, stories with a historical tradition passed down orally, or farcical social satire. It is mostly performed by professional traveling troupes.
Lakhon bassac is one of the most popular forms of theater in Cambodia. It is folk theater taking many of its characteristics from Vietnamese opera (not surprising as the area in which it developed was part Cambodia/part South Vietnam). It also includes Indian-based theatrical elements. Unlike some forms of Cambodia lakhon, which are specific to male or female groups of performers, bassac is performed by males and females. The male costumes are reminiscent of Vietnamese opera costumes while the female characters sport traditional Cambodian dress. It is identified by exaggerated, melodramatic and comic gestures which portray scenes from ancient Khmer literature, with a particular emphasis on the battle between good and evil spirits.
Have you ever been to a performance of any of these theatrical forms? I’d love to hear if you have any types of theater in your own country or region.
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