30 Essential Elements for Contemporary Drama Performances
The elements of Western drama began with Greek philosopher Aristotle who stated in The Poetics (c.335BC) each dramatic performance (tragedy) must contain the six key elements of plot, character, thought (theme), diction (language), melody (music-dance, song, rhythm) and spectacle. This is history’s first surviving example of dramatic theory. In contemporary drama education, there is no set list of dramatic elements. State and national curriculum bodies differ in both content and terminology. In this post I have updated a very popular but outdated list of dramatic elements. Here is a list of 30 of the most common elements of drama with my own descriptors. Where similar terms mean the same (such as focus and emphasis), I have included both terms. Remember, there is no definitive list of the elements of drama! I trust this post may prove useful for both drama/theatre teachers and their students, alike. – Justin Cash
30 Dramatic Elements
Action, or dramatic action, refers to the propelling of the plot from one moment to the next in the play. This will naturally relate to the structure of the play, as the action moves forward from the early stages (exposition) to the inciting incident, rising action, one or more crises, the climax, falling action and then the conclusion. See the “Structure” card further down this list for more information on how plays are formed.
Without an audience there is no such thing as a performance, as a play without an audience should be considered a rehearsal. Therefore actors must always be aware the audience forms part of the act of performing. The element of audience can specifically refer to the engagement actors have with their audience through performance, known as the actor-audience relationship. This exact nature of this relationship can vary depending on the style of the performance. For example, a performer in a purely naturalistic drama may ignore the audience altogether (they may even have their back facing the audience), while a performer in a realistic drama may be aware of the presence of an audience but not perform directly to them, whereas a performer in an epic theatre play by Bertolt Brecht may regularly break the fourth wall and interact directly with sections of the audience. Manipulating exactly how a performer relates to and engages with the audience in performance can be both an academic exercise and fun at the same time.
Most dramas will have one or more crises in the development of the plot. A crisis is a key moment of dramatic tension and conflict in the play, usually occurring between two or more characters and having serious implications for the outcome of the plot. The ultimate crisis, or highest peak, is usually called the climax and often (but not always) occurs toward the end of a play. There can also be more than one climax in a drama, although this is uncommon. An anti-climax is also possible.
Playwright George Bernard Shaw once said ‘No conflict, no drama’. How right he was! Drama that lacks conflict is normally dull and uninspiring. As a rule, conflict should always be considered an essential ingredient for all dramatic performances. Conflict can be between two or more characters, or simply one (inner conflict). Many Elizabethan soliloquies contain inner conflict (‘To be or not to be…’ is an excellent example). Conflict on stage can be verbal, physical or non-verbal. Conflict differs from tension in that it is often a fixed and permanent part of the structure of a play embedded in the fabric of the drama, often from the outset, with characters destined to clash with one another.
Without the careful use of contrast a performance is boring and lacks tension. In simple terms contrast is a point of difference. An obvious example of contrast is a sad scene followed by a happy scene. But contrast can be created in more subtle and sophisticated ways, such as manipulating the drama to create a change in setting, pace or time. Contrast between characters should also be considered. Contrast can be created by changes in language, timing, mood, lighting, energy, relationships, situation, and more. A careful use of contrast in a performance can keep an audience engaged in the drama.
A convention is an acting or staging technique. Examples of conventions include the use of a narrator, an aside, a soliloquy, direct address, use of placards, song etc. Conventions are normally associated with a particular performance or theatrical style, often associated with one or more theatre practitioners. Sometimes conventions are linked more generally with the way drama was performed in a certain era, for example the conventions of Elizabethan drama.
A moment, or dramatic moment, is self-explanatory. It is a specific moment in the play, usually lasting only a short time, where the action is dramatic in some way. But being dramatic does not always mean loud noises and lots of moving characters. A dramatic moment can be a poignant moment of stillness or silence. Dramatic moments can also occur with only a single actor and even without sets and props, such is the power of drama. The tempo and rhythm of a play often change when a dramatic moment occurs. Tension is often manipualted when creating dramatic moments and the element of contrast is commonly employed.
Energy is the intensity of a character’s actions in a drama. Many plays contrast one or more high-energy characters with low-energy characters. Energy therefore refers to both vivacious and vibrant characters as well as slow, dispirited, or tired characters. Before a character can be portrayed with a certain type of energy, the performer must possess this energy. In general terms, energy can also refer to the intensity of a specific performance or the type of show being performed (e.g. a musical).
FOCUS / EMPHASIS
Focus has multiple meanings in drama and performance. While it can often be used interchangeably with the term concentration, as an element of drama, focus is more often associated with emphasis. Unlike the movies or television, where the filmmaker can zoom into the actor or area in question, in the theatre we need to employ other techniques to attract the focus of the audience. How do we channel the attention of the audience to a certain area of the stage in order to give this particular space appropriate emphasis? How do we focus the lens of the spectator to the small bird in the hand of the actor downstage left? What directorial techniques can we employ to place focus on the two pirates sneaking onto the ship upstage? How can we use theatrical lighting to ensure emphasis is placed on the character who is singing? These are all challenges associated with focus and emphasis in performance.
LANGUAGE / TEXT
The use of language in performance can be verbal, vocal or non-verbal. Language is normally the spoken text. It is the written script realised in performance. While normally spoken by the actor, language can also be chanted or sung. Language can also deliberately be nonsensical for dramatic effect. The choice of language in performance is crucial, as it forms a major means of communicating the story of the drama to the audience. Exactly how the actor in a performance chooses to use language is usually determined by the expressive skill of voice. However, language can also be non-verbal, commonly referred to as body language. The elements of voice and language should not be confused. Using the voice is the process of speaking verbal language.
Metaphor in drama involves a second reference in order to enhance the meaning of the first. For example “The man is a goose”. The description of the qualities of the first reference (the man) is enhanced by knowledge of the second reference (the fact that a goose is considered a silly waterfowl by its looks, big feet and awkward behaviour). Another example can be found in Arthur Miller’s play The Crucible, set in the Salem witch trials of 1692-93, but actually about the spread of Communism in 1950s America (the time and place of the play’s writing). Bertolt Brecht employed a similar dramatic metaphor in his work The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui, a play set in 1930s gangster-ridden Chicago that was really about Hitler’s Germany. George Orwell’s Animal Farm was not about the animals at all, but Russia and the Soviet Union under Communist Party rule. Dramatic metaphors, however, should not be confused with the use of symbols. When an object is used as a symbol, it is replaced by the symbolic meaning – for example the red rose is now replaced by the feeling of love. However, with dramatic metaphor, the second reference enhances this meaning without replacing it.
MOOD / ATMOSPHERE
Mood is the feeling or tone of a performance and is naturally associated with atmosphere. It refers to ambience or aura and is often created through a combination of several elements of drama and production areas working in harmony. The atmosphere of a performance is closely linked with everyday feelings such as fear or desire. Mood in drama can be created via sound, lighting, movement, setting, rhythm, contrast, conflict, and more. It is also possible to create a particular mood or atmosphere in just one moment or scene in a play. Therefore you can have more than one mood presented in a single perofrmance.
Movement is the self-explanatory act of a performer moving in the drama according to the character’s objective, motivation, surrounding circumstances and interaction with other characters. The physical action of movement often defines character relationships and situations. While certain types of movement can involve walking (and the hundreds of different ways of doing just this), running, sliding, falling etc, stage space needs to be used, including upstage, downstage, stage left, stage right, etc.
Plot is the action of the drama. Many plays have more than one plot, often consisting of a main plot and one or more (less important) plots known as subplots. Shakespeare’a dramas are classic examples of plays with multiple plots keeping the audience engaged at every turn. The “story” of a drama is usually considered any action referred or implied to on stage, but not seen. This is often the backstory of various characters revealed in the early part of the drama (exposition). Story differs from plot in that the plot of the drama must be seen by the audience.
Posture is the position in which a character holds their body when standing or sitting (not moving). Posture can define a character’s attitude, social status, inner feelings, rank, and more. Posture is similar to a character’s pose or stance.
The element of relationships refers to the interrelationships between characters in a play. Character connections affect the way the plot evolves. These relationships may be friendly, conflicting, romantic, of equal status, or otherwise. Some relationships in a drama may be fixed, while others may be variable and subject to change as the plot evolves.
Rhythm is more commonly a musical term, but in drama it refers to timing and pace. It also means the beat or tempo of the whole performance. As a rule, rhythm should never be the same throughout the drama, regardless of its length. Rhythm can follow the emotional state of one or more characters or the atmosphere of the play at particular moments. The element of rhythm is closely linked to movement. An everyday ritual presented on stage, such as getting ready for work in the morning, can involve repetitive and rhythmic actions and gestures. What is the rhythm of the long line of people in the unemployment queue? What is the rhythm of the classroom scene where students are misbehaving for the substitute teacher? How does the rhythm contrast in these two examples? Rhythm can also have a place in the delivery of dialogue. The most obvious example is the text of Shakespearean dramas delivered using iambic pentameter. But all character dialogue, no matter how informal, should have a particular rhythm attached to it.
ROLE / CHARACTER
Role and character lie at the heart of all drama because without them, drama would not exist. Role and character are often used interchangeably to mean the same, while sometimes these terms are separated. Role is normally associated with role-playing in drama, which can occur at any level. Taking on a role often occurs as part of the process of drama and not always the product (performance). However, it is also entirely acceptable to ask an actor what his or her role is in the play? Role-playing is popular in drama improvisation games and often involves quick transitions into roles with little or no preparation, sometimes involving a stimulus. While adopting a role is critical in understanding the essence of drama, it is often considered less complex than portraying a character. Characters often have sophisticated backstories and undergo changes during the development of the plot. Portraying a character involves the application of expressive and performance skills. In professional theatre, there are numerous acting methods for developing and sustaining character (e.g. The Method).
SETTING / PLACE
Setting refers to the location of a scene, play or musical. Many dramas have more than one setting. Productions with physical sets normally have clearly defined settings, but smaller dramas and one-person plays (monodramas) may have little or no sets or props to help identify locations. In these examples, the performer will use dialogue and other expressive skills to denote a setting, including any changes. This is known as an implied place or setting.
Situation in drama refers to the given circumstances of the dramatic action happening in the play. This is a straightforward concept. What is the setting of the play (time, location, etc)? What are the circumstances of the given scene (an argument, marriage proposal, a betrayal of friendship, medical emergency, school assembly, election campaign, etc)? Clearly conveying the situation in the play at any particular time makes the drama coherent for the audience.
SOUND / MUSIC
Modern theatrical practice relies on sound and music to assist in a number of ways. While theatre has traditionally used lighting to create atmosphere in performance, sound and music is being increasingly manipulated to create mood. Use of sound can involve the implementation of technology, such as sound effects and soundscapes. Actors and their bodies can also construct effective sound in performance. Small props can create sound effects that can be used live during a show. Sound in drama can even involve the absence of sound!
This element refers to the effective use of available space in a performance. Space can be both horizontal and vertical. Performers can be upstage or downstage, stage left or stage right. Different levels of space can also be utilised such as sitting, bending over, lying down, crawling or physically using another level of a stage set. In order to use space effectively, movement becomes an important factor. Use of space also involves clearly communicating to the audience where the action is taking place. This may include any changes in location that occur in the performance, particularly if little or no sets or props are being used and there is a heavy reliance on the audience’s imagination – otherwise known as implied space in the drama. Sometimes theatre buildings or specific productions can created using a particular space such as traverse staging, proscenium arch, thrust staging or arena/in the round.
Spectacle is an old-fashioned term that was one of the key elements of a tragedy as defined by Aristotle in The Poetics. Historically, Aristotle referred to spectacle elements as costumes, scenery, gestures made by actors, and the sensory effects of the resonance of the performers’ voice (sound). In a contemporary context, spectacle refers to all the visual elements of a play – those incorporating theatre stagecraft and production areas. These can include stage sets, lighting, costumes, props, make-up, special effects and multimedia. Spectacle in contemporary theatre is probably more important today than it was centuries ago due to the advent of technology and its integration into all levels of theatre.
Structure, or dramatic structure, refers to the backbone of a drama. A typical structure of a play involves the exposition and initial action at the beginning, an inciting incident where the conflict and point of attack within the play is revealed, rising action involving conflict and one or more crises, the ultimate crisis known as the climax, then the falling action towards the latter part of the drama leading to the conclusion, which is not always a happy resolution. The French word denouement is often used to define a play’s ending. Translated into English, denouement means the untying or unravelling of the knot, in other words the untying of all the complexities of the plot into a conclusion. Non-typical structures involve cyclical plots that end where they began, evident in some absurdist plays. The simple fact that Shakespeare and his contemporaries always wrote plays in a five-act format is also an example of structure. In later years, a three-act format was common, further reduced to two acts. Today, short one-act plays consisting of numerous brief scenes is a common dramatic structure in contemporary theatre.
The use of symbols in dramatic performance can be one of the simplest and also most complicated of all techniques. Symbolism implies a greater meaning than the literal suggestion. Props are the easiest to work with because objects in everyday life are symbols in society (a rose symbolises love; a cross symbolises Christianity). Symbols can also be found in the use of colour. We often symbolise purple with royalty, red with anger or desire, black with evil and darkness or white with purity and innocence. Colour association can be worthwhile symbols with costumes, sets and props. But the most sophisticated use of symbols occurs with the application of gesture and movement. A particular gesture performed by a character early in a performance can be repeated under another context and have a very different meaning. Used only once, a gesture can also be a powerful symbol. All of these examples can be combined for even better effect.
Tension, or dramatic tension, often lies with the development of suspense in a drama. As the audience anticipates certain outcomes in the plot, the tension builds. Tension differs from conflict in that it is usually a transient occurrence that may take place multiple times in a single play. An obvious example of rising tension occurs in a mystery play or whodunit. In these instances, the audience is left in a constant state of suspense trying to determine the real culprit. The development of tension therefore usually parallels the advancement of the plot, leading to a crisis or climax. Tension is closely linked with the element of timing.
Theme refers to what a play is about (often the central idea), while what specifically happens on stage is the plot. Through the dramatic action of the plot, the deeper meaning of the play is revealed. A single play can consist of multiple themes. Extracting a theme from a play involves viewing it with a wider lens and seeing the bigger picture. Is the play about a group of friends from different cultures really about racism? Examples of themes in plays are power, revenge, mateship, love, greed, nature, good versus evil, coming of age, family, isolation, redemption, injustice, etc.
The notion of time is important in most drama performances. In period drama, time may be as broad as a particular era, such as the 1880s. Other dramas loosely convey a modern or contemporary portrayal of time. Some plays contain a more specific time that must be conveyed to the audience. These may involve the season of the year, month, day, or even hour. A more generic use of time involves the use of the future, although this can also be specific by stating the actual year. Time can also refer to how long the drama takes to perform. This can be of particular importance in naturalistic dramas where the length of stage time in a play may equal real time in the theatre. Flashforwards, flashbacks and other disjointed time sequences in a drama can also refer to changes in time. Alternatively, plays can deliberately appear timeless within the world of the play. Some absurdist dramas deliberately follow this structure.
Timing in performance refers to the dramatic timing of movements and gestures. We often take our movements for granted in everyday life, but when performing, the use of our body must be carefully considered and controlled. Timing can be manipulated to demonstrate authentic, stylised or non-realistic movements and gestures. The timing of movements for a tired old man will differ from those of an energetic young schoolboy. Similarly, the gestures of a tyrannical dictator will differ from the suppressed people living under his regime. Rhythm, pace and movement are particularly affected by timing in drama.
Voice is a key element in most dramatic performances. A drama without the use of voice is considered a movement piece or a mime. While some would place voice in the category of a performer’s expressive skills, it is nevertheless an element essential to nearly every drama. Vocal variety can be achieved via the use of projection, pitch, tone, rate (pace), emphasis, diction (articulation/enunciation), rhythm (beat), pause, intonation, tempo, subtext, and even silence.