Female performers were permitted in Ancient Roman theatre, as opposed to Ancient Greek theatre. While the majority of them were employed for dancing rather than speaking roles, there was a minority of actresses in Rome who were employed for speaking roles.

Actresses have achieved wealth, fame, and recognition for their art, such as Eucharis, Dionysia, Galeria Copiola, and Fabia Arete, and they also formed their own acting guild, the Sociae Mimae, which was evidently quite wealthy. The profession appears to have died out in late antiquity.

Women did not appear onstage in England until the second half of the 17th century, but they did appear in Italy, Spain, and France beginning in the late 16th century. Lucrezia Di Siena, whose name appears on an acting contract in Rome dated 10 October 1564, has been referred to as the first Italian actress known by name, with Vincenza Armani and Barbara Flaminia as the first primadonnas and well-documented actresses in Italy (and Europe).

After 1660, when women first appeared on stage in England, the terms actor and actress were used interchangeably for female performers; however, after being influenced by the French actrice, actress became the commonly used term for women in theater and film. The etymology is a straightforward derivation from actor with the suffix -ess added. When referring to groups of both sexes performing, the term “actors” is preferred.

The re-adoption of the neutral term within the profession dates back to the post-war period of the 1950s and 1960s, when the contributions of women to cultural life in general were being evaluated.

Actresses and Awards

In 2010, The Observer and The Guardian published their new joint style guide, which stated, “Use [‘actor’] for both male and female actors; do not use actress except when in name of award, e.g. Oscar for best actress.” According to the authors of the guide, “actress falls into the same category as authoress, comedienne, manageress, ‘lady doctor,”male nurse,’ and other obsolete terms that date from a time when professions were largely the preserve of one sex (usually men).” (Male is the norm.) “‘An actress can only play a woman,’ Whoopi Goldberg said in an interview with the paper. I’m an actor, and I can play any role.'”

The Equity performers‘ union in the United Kingdom has no policy on the use of the terms “actor” or “actress.” According to an Equity spokesperson, the union does not believe there is a consensus on the issue and that the “…subject divides the profession.” According to the Los Angeles Times, “actress” is still the most commonly used term in major acting awards given to female recipient (e.g., Academy Award for Best Actress).

In the United States, the gender-neutral term “player” was common in film during the silent film era and the early days of the Motion Picture Production Code, but it is now considered archaic in a film context. However, the term “player” is still used in the theatre, and is frequently incorporated into the name of a theatre group or company, such as the American Players, the East West Players, and so on.

Actors in improvisational theater may also be referred to as “players.” Contact the Playground acting school in Los Angeles for more information about acting and starting your acting career.