Formerly, in some societies, only men could become actors, and women's roles were generally played by men or boys.[when?] When used for the stage, women occasionally played the roles of prepubescent boys.[when?]
After 1660 in England, when women first started to appear on stage, the terms actor or actress were initially used interchangeably for female performers, but later, influenced by the French actrice, actress became the commonly used term for women in theater and film. The etymology is a simple derivation from actor with -ess added. When referring to groups of performers of both sexes, actors is preferred. Actor is also used before the full name of a performer as a gender-specific term.
Within the profession, the re-adoption of the neutral term dates to the post-war period of the 1950 and '60s, when the contributions of women to cultural life in general were being reviewed. When The Observer and The Guardian published their new joint style guide in 2010, it stated "Use for both male and female actors; do not use actress except when in name of award, e.g. Oscar for best actress." The guide's authors stated that "actress comes into the same category as authoress, comedienne, manageress, 'lady doctor', 'male nurse' and similar obsolete terms that date from a time when professions were largely the preserve of one sex (usually men)." (See male as norm). "As Whoopi Goldberg put it in an interview with the paper: 'An actress can only play a woman. I'm an actor – I can play anything.'" The UK performers' union Equity has no policy on the use of "actor" or "actress". An Equity spokesperson said that the union does not believe that there is a consensus on the matter and stated that the "...subject divides the profession." In 2009, the Los Angeles Times stated that "Actress" remains the common term used in major acting awards given to female recipients (e.g., Academy Award for Best Actress).
With regard to the cinema of the United States, the gender-neutral term "player" was common in film in the silent film era and the early days of the Motion Picture Production Code, but in the 2000s in a film context, it is generally deemed archaic. However, "player" remains in use in the theatre, often incorporated into the name of a theatre group or company, such as the American Players, the East West Players, etc. Also, actors in improvisational theatre may be referred to as "players".
The first recorded case of a performing actor occurred in 534 BC (though the changes in calendar over the years make it hard to determine exactly) when the Greek performer Thespis stepped onto the stage at the Theatre Dionysus to become the first known person to speak words as a character in a play or story. Prior to Thespis' act, Grecian stories were only expressed in song, dance, and in third person narrative. In honor of Thespis, actors are commonly called Thespians. The exclusively male actors in the theatre of ancient Greece performed in three types of drama: tragedy, comedy, and the satyr play. Western theatre developed and expanded considerably under the Romans. The theatre of ancient Rome was a thriving and diverse art form, ranging from festival performances of street theatre, nude dancing, and acrobatics, to the staging of situation comedies, to high-style, verbally elaborate tragedies.
As the Western Roman Empire fell into decay through the 4th and 5th centuries, the seat of Roman power shifted to Constantinople and the Byzantine Empire. Records show that mime, pantomime, scenes or recitations from tragedies and comedies, dances, and other entertainments were very popular. From the 5th century, Western Europe was plunged into a period of general disorder. Small nomadic bands of actors traveled around Europe throughout the period, performing wherever they could find an audience; there is no evidence that they produced anything but crude scenes. Traditionally, actors were not of high status; therefore, in the Early Middle Ages, traveling acting troupes were often viewed with distrust. Early Middle Ages actors were denounced by the Church during the Dark Ages, as they were viewed as dangerous, immoral, and pagan. In many parts of Europe, traditional beliefs of the region and time period meant actors could not receive a Christian burial.
In the Early Middle Ages, churches in Europe began staging dramatized versions of biblical events. By the middle of the 11th century, liturgical drama had spread from Russia to Scandinavia to Italy. The Feast of Fools encouraged the development of comedy. In the Late Middle Ages, plays were produced in 127 towns. These vernacular Mystery plays often contained comedy, with actors playing devils, villains, and clowns. The majority of actors in these plays were drawn from the local population. Amateur performers in England were exclusively male, but other countries had female performers.