AskDefine | Define actress

Dictionary Definition

actress n : a female actor

User Contributed Dictionary



  1. A female actor.

Usage notes

  • Actor may also be used to refer to a female actor.


female actor


Extensive Definition

An actor, actress, player or rarely thespian (see terminology) is a person who acts in a dramatic production and who works in film, television, theatre, or radio in that capacity. The ancient Greek word for an actor, (hypokrites), when rendered as a verb means "to interpret"; in this sense, an actor is one who interprets a dramatic character.


The word actor refers to one who acts, while actress refers specifically to a female who acts. The Oxford English Dictionary states that originally "'actor' was used for both sexes". The English word actress does not derive from the Latin actrix, probably not even by way of French actrice; according to the Oxford English Dictionary, actress was "probably formed independently" in English. As actress is a specifically feminine word, some feminists assert that the word is sexist. Gender-neutral usage of actor has re-emerged in modern English, especially when referring to male and female performers collectively, but actress remains a commonly used word.
The gender-neutral term player was common in film in the early days of the Production Code, but is now generally deemed archaic. However, it remains in use in the theatre, often incorporated into the name of a theatre group or company (such as the East West Players).


The first recorded case of an actor performing took place in 534 BC (probably on 23 November, though the changes in calendar over the years make it hard to determine exactly) when the Greek performer Thespis stepped on to the stage at the Theatre Dionysus and became the first known person to speak words as a character in a play or story. Prior to Thespis' act, stories were only known to be told in song and dance and in third person narrative. In honour of Thespis,a 6th century B.C poet, actors are commonly called Thespians. Theatrical legend to this day maintains that Thespis exists as a mischievous spirit, and disasters in the theatre are sometimes blamed on his ghostly intervention.
Actors were traditionally not people of high status, and in the Early Middle Ages travelling acting troupes were often viewed with distrust. In many parts of Europe, actors could not even receive a Christian burial, and traditional beliefs of the region and time period held that this left any actor forever condemned. However, this negative perception was largely reversed in the 19th and 20th centuries as acting has become an honored and popular profession and art. Part of the cause is the easier popular access to dramatic film entertainment and the resulting rise of the movie star—as regards both their social status and the salaries they command. The combination of public presence and wealth has profoundly rehabilitated their image.
In the past, only men could become actors in some societies. In the ancient Greece and Rome and the medieval world, it was considered disgraceful for a woman to go on the stage, and this belief continued right up until the 17th century, when in Venice it was broken. In the time of William Shakespeare, women's roles were generally played by men or boys. The British prohibition(Victor Andersen) was ended in the reign of Charles II who enjoyed watching female actors (actresses) on stage.



Acting and actresses employ a variety of techniques that are learned through training and experience. Some of these are:
  1. The rigorous use of the voice to communicate a character's lines and express emotion. This is achieved through attention to diction and projection through correct breathing and articulation. It is also achieved through the tone and emphasis that an actor puts on words
  2. Physicalisation of a role in order to create a believable character for the audience and to use the acting space appropriately and correctly
  3. Use of gesture to complement the voice, interact with other actors and to bring emphasis to the words in a play, as well as having symbolic meaning.
Shakespeare is believed to have been commenting on the acting style and techniques of his era when Hamlet gives his advice to the players in the play-within-the-play. He encourages the actors to “speak the speech ... as I pronounced it to you,” and avoid “saw[ing] the air too much with your hand” , because even in a “whirlwind of passion, you must ... give it smoothness.” On the other hand, Hamlet urges the players to “Be not too tame neither.” He suggests that they make sure to “suit the action to the word, the word to the action”, taking care to “o'erstep not the modesty of nature.” As well, he told the players to not “... let those that play your clowns ... laugh, to set on some quantity of barren spectators to laugh too,” which Hamlet considered to be a “villainous” and “pitiful” tactic.
The English critic Benedict Nightingale discussed and compared great classical actors of the long dead past, and the present, and their magical effects upon audiences, in this 1983 article from the New York Times, available online.

As opposite sex

Historically, acting was considered a man's profession; so, in Shakespeare's time, for instance, men and boys played all roles, including the female parts. However when an eighteen year Puritan prohibition of drama was lifted after the English Restoration of 1660, women began to appear on stage. The first occurrence of the term actress in the OED being by Dryden in 1700.
In Japan, men (onnagata) took over the female roles in kabuki theatre when women were banned from performing on stage during the Edo period. However, some forms of Chinese drama have women playing all the roles.
In modern times, women sometimes play the roles of prepubescent boys. The stage role of Peter Pan, for example, is traditionally played by a woman, as are the principal boy and dame in British pantomime. This is uncommon in film, however, except in animated films and television programmes, where boys are sometimes voiced by women. For example, in The Simpsons the voice of Bart Simpson is provided by Nancy Cartwright. Opera has several "pants roles" traditionally sung by women, usually mezzo-sopranos. Examples are Hansel in Hänsel und Gretel, and Cherubino in The Marriage of Figaro.
Having an actor dress as the opposite sex for comic effect is also a long standing tradition in comic theatre and film. Most of Shakespeare's comedies include instances of overt cross-dressing, such as Francis Flute in A Midsummer Night's Dream. The movie A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum stars Jack Gilford dressing as a young bride. Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon famously posed as women to escape gangsters in the Billy Wilder film Some Like It Hot. Cross-dressing for comic effect was a frequently used device in most of the thirty Carry On films. Dustin Hoffman and Robin Williams each appeared in a hit comedy film in which they played most scenes dressed as a woman.
Several roles in modern plays and musicals are played by a member of the opposite sex (rather than a character cross-dressing), such as the character Edna Turnblad in Hairspray — played by Divine in the original film, Harvey Fierstein in the Broadway musical, and John Travolta in the 2007 movie musical. Occasionally the issue is further complicated through a woman acting as a man pretending to be a woman, like Julie Andrews in Victor/Victoria or Gwyneth Paltrow in Shakespeare in Love.

Acting awards

See also

Further reading

  • An Actor Prepares by Konstantin Stanislavski (Theatre Arts Books, ISBN 0-87830-983-7, 1989)
  • A Dream of Passion: The Development of the Method by Lee Strasberg (Plume Books, ISBN 0-452-26198-8, 1990)
  • Sanford Meisner on Acting by Sanford Meisner (Vintage, ISBN 0-394-75059-4, 1987)
  • Letters to a Young Actor by Robert Brustein (Basic Books, ISBN 0-465-00806-2, 2005).
  • The Alexander Technique Manual by Richard Brennan (Connections Book Publishing ISBN 1-85906-163-X, 2004)
  • The Empty Space by Peter Brook
  • The Technique of Acting by Stella Adler
  • Acting Power by Robert Cohen, (McGraw-Hill, 1987)
  • Acting Professionally: Raw Facts About Careers in Acting by Robert Cohen (2003). (McGraw-Hill, ISBN 0-072-56259-5, 2003)

Works cited

  • Elam, Keir. 1980. The Semiotics of Theatre and Drama. New Accents Ser. London and New York: Methuen. ISBN 0416720609.
  • Weimann, Robert. 1978. Shakespeare and the Popular Tradition in the Theater: Studies in the Social Dimension of Dramatic Form and Function. Ed. Robert Schwartz. Baltimore and London: The John Hopkins University Press. ISBN 0801835062.


External links

actress in Tosk Albanian: Schauspieler
actress in Arabic: ممثل
actress in Asturian: Actor
actress in Bosnian: Glumac
actress in Bulgarian: Актьор
actress in Catalan: Actor
actress in Czech: Herec
actress in Welsh: Actor
actress in Danish: Skuespiller
actress in German: Schauspieler
actress in Modern Greek (1453-): Ηθοποιός
actress in Spanish: Actuación
actress in Esperanto: Aktoro
actress in Persian: هنرپیشه
actress in French: Acteur
actress in Scottish Gaelic: Actair
actress in Galician: Actor
actress in Korean: 배우
actress in Croatian: Glumac
actress in Ido: Aktoro
actress in Indonesian: Pemeran
actress in Italian: Attore (spettacolo)
actress in Hebrew: שחקן
actress in Georgian: მსახიობი
actress in Latin: Actor
actress in Lithuanian: Aktorius
actress in Hungarian: Színész
actress in Macedonian: Актер
actress in Malay (macrolanguage): Pelakon
actress in Dutch: Acteur
actress in Japanese: 俳優
actress in Norwegian: Skuespiller
actress in Norwegian Nynorsk: Skodespelar
actress in Novial: Aktore
actress in Uzbek: Aktyor
actress in Polish: Aktor
actress in Portuguese: Actor
actress in Romanian: Actor
actress in Quechua: Aranway pukllaq
actress in Russian: Актёр
actress in Albanian: Aktori
actress in Simple English: Actor
actress in Slovak: Herec
actress in Slovenian: Filmski igralec
actress in Serbian: Глумац
actress in Serbo-Croatian: Glumci
actress in Finnish: Näyttelijä
actress in Swedish: Skådespelare
actress in Tagalog: Artista
actress in Thai: นักแสดง
actress in Vietnamese: Diễn viên
actress in Tajik: Ҳунарпеша (филм)
actress in Turkish: Aktör
actress in Ukrainian: Кіноактор
actress in Yiddish: אקטיאר
actress in Chinese: 演員

Synonyms, Antonyms and Related Words

Roscius, actor, antagonist, bad guy, barnstormer, character, character actor, character man, character woman, child actor, diseur, diseuse, dramatizer, feeder, foil, heavy, histrio, histrion, ingenue, juvenile, matinee idol, mime, mimer, mimic, monologist, mummer, pantomime, pantomimist, playactor, player, protean actor, reciter, soubrette, stage performer, stage player, stooge, straight man, stroller, strolling player, theatrical, thespian, trouper, utility man, villain
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