An actor (or actress for females; see terminology) is a person who portrays a character in a performance. The actor performs "in the flesh" in the traditional medium of the theatre, or in modern mediums such as film, radio, and television. The analogous Greek term is ὑποκριτής (hupokritḗs), literally "one who answers".The actor's interpretation of their role pertains to the role played, whether based on a real person or fictional character. Interpretation occurs even when the actor is "playing themselves", as in some forms of experimental performance art, or, more commonly; to act, is to create, a character in performance.
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 theatre and film. The etymology is a simple derivation from actor with ess added. However, when referring to more than one performer, of both sexes, actor is preferred as a gender-specific term for male performers. 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 1950–1960s, the post-war period 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 ["actor"] for both male and female actors; do not use actress except when in name of award, e.g. Oscar for best actress."  The authors of the style guide 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). 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 U.K. 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 regards 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 and so on. 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. Actors in the theatre of ancient Greece acted 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, which left an actor forever condemned.
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 some 127 different 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.
There were a number of secular performances staged in the Middle Ages, the earliest of which is The Play of the Greenwood by Adam de la Halle in 1276. It contains satirical scenes and folk material such as faeries and other supernatural occurrences. Farces also rose dramatically in popularity after the 13th century. At the end of the Late Middle Ages, professional actors began to appear in England and Europe. Richard III and Henry VII both maintained small companies of professional actors. Beginning in the mid-16th century, Commedia dell'arte troupes performed lively improvisational playlets across Europe for centuries. Commedia dell'arte was an actor-centred theatre, requiring little scenery and very few props. Plays were loose frameworks that provided situations, complications, and outcome of the action, around which the actors improvised. The plays utilised stock characters. A troupe typically consisted of 13 to 14 members. Most actors were paid by taking a share of the play's profits roughly equivalent to the size of their role.
Renaissance theatre derived from several medieval theatre traditions, such as the mystery plays, "morality plays" and the "university drama" that attempted to recreate Athenian tragedy. The Italian tradition of Commedia dell'arte, as well as the elaborate masques frequently presented at court, also contributed to the shaping of public theatre. Since before the reign of Elizabeth I, companies of players were attached to households of leading aristocrats and performed seasonally in various locations. These became the foundation for the professional players that performed on the Elizabethan stage.
The development of the theatre and opportunities for acting ceased when Puritan opposition to the stage banned the performance of all plays within London. Puritans viewed the theatre as immoral. The re-opening of the theatres in 1660 signaled a renaissance of English drama. English comedies written and performed in the Restoration period from 1660 to 1710 are collectively called "Restoration comedy". Restoration comedy is notorious for its sexual explicitness. At this point, women were allowed the play the parts of women and not men. This period saw the introduction of the first professional actresses, and by the rise of the first celebrity actors.