Written by Kailey Hansen from Theatre Nerds and Ruthie Fierberg from Playbill
ARENA STAGE - An arena is a central stage surrounded by audiences on all sides. Technically, Broadway’s Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812 took place on an arena stage, which was raised above the orchestra and converted the traditional proscenium stage to accommodate more seating. BLACK BOX or FLEXIBLE THEATRE -In a flexible theatre, the seating is not predetermined but can chance from production to production. Because of this, the rooms are often painted all black so that any side can convert to a backstage area. Hence, a black box. Off-Broadway’s MCC Theater recently opened a new flexible black box at The Robert W. Wilson MCC Theater Space. BLOCKING – Rather than standing in front of someone so that they can’t get by, ‘blocking’ in the theatre world refers to the exact placement on a stage where an actor needs to be during a scene and their path of movement in scenes. The term came into popular use in the 1960s based on the tradition of 19th-century theatre directors who worked out their scenes on a mini model of the stage, using blocks to represent actors. Sir W.S. Gilbert was known for using blocks of different heights to represent men and women in his operas. The men were three inches high and the women two-and-a-half inches. The blocks were color-coded to illustrate the different voice parts—so Gilbert could create the correct sonic blend. Green and white were tenors, black and yellow were sopranos, red and green were contraltos. BREAK A LEG - “It’s bad luck to say good luck on opening night,” of course, but how did we land on “break a leg”? There are a few explanations. In Ancient Greece, audiences didn’t clap at performances, they stomped. The more they stomped, the more chance there was of breaking a leg; this tradition reappeared in Elizabethan England when audiences would stomp their chairs and, again, more stomping would break the leg of the chair. Wishing someone “break a leg” is wishing for thunderous applause. CALL TIME – The time in which an actor must be present at the theatre for an audition, rehearsal or show. No phones are involved with this kind of call. CHEAT OUT - This means you need to angle yourself towards the audience. This can feel a bit weird especially if you are in a conversation with another character. Part of performing is showing yourself to the audience. The audience will be cut off from your character and their story if you turn away from them. It helps to have a foot pointed in the direction of the audience. COLD READING – Put your tissues away. This simply means to read a script with little to no preparation. No rehearsing for you – you’re going in cold! CURTAIN CALL – That magical moment after a production when the cast comes out for a bow and applause. DARK THEATRE or DARK DAY - The majority of professional productions play eight shows over six days of the week. The day off is known as the theatre’s “dark day” for the simple fact that all the lights are off as there is no performance. DICTION - Speaking clearly by enunciating the consonants in words. Emphasizing the last letter in a word is important in diction. For example: the word "stop" would have a hard 'p' sound when speaking with diction. When a director says you need more diction it means that it sounds like you're mumbling. Your words need to be said clearly so the audience can follow the story. DOWNSTAGE – The front of a stage where performers are closest to the audience. Theatre pros coined the term due to the use of raked, or inclined, stages. The sloped architecture creates better sightlines and acoustics for audiences. But this also meant that as performers walked away from the house, they were hiking up the stage. DRAMATURGY – A study of the context in which a production takes place. Generally, a bunch of actors (or a person assigned to the role of dramaturg) research a play’s specific era, location, societal beliefs, traditions, etc. to gain a better understanding of the world where the story is set. DRESSER – A stagehand who aids in keeping costumes neat and tidy, as well as helping performers during costume changes. Not to be confused with a piece of furniture. ENCORE – That epic musical number that occurs after audiences have applauded the finale of a show and cast members have given a closing bow. ENSEMBLIST or CHORUS MEMBER -This term is typically reserved for cast members in musicals—not plays. They are performers who create the background and the world of the show. They don’t necessarily have lines or solo songs, but appear in group scenes and musical numbers to give a sense of context. They’re also the ones singing harmonies and dancing for their lives. FIND YOUR LIGHT - This means you are in the dark on stage and need to step into the light. FOURTH WALL – Sounds like something from the Twilight Zone but is really the conceptual barrier between actor and audience member. Performers that “break the fourth wall” address the audience. FRINGE – Thespian lingo for theatre that is out of the box, avant garde and experimental. FRONT-OF-HOUSE – Areas of a theatre or performing arts venue where the public can be. Antonym: backstage. GHOST LIGHT – A light that stays illuminated on a stage when the auditorium is otherwise unoccupied. Naturally this term was coined by a thespian and therefore super dramatic (and creepy). GOBO – A fancy term for light-based projections that are used during a theatrical production. HOUSE -The “house” can refer to a couple things in theatre: the actual auditorium, as well as the Front of House, which includes the lobby and box office and Front of House personnel like the house manager, box office attendants, and ushers. If you’re having a problem inside the theatre, you’ll want to speak to the house manager. You may have also heard the phrase “house seats”; these seats are reserved by producers (the heads of house). Typically in the orchestra are considered the best in the theatre, house seats don’t go on sale to the public unless they are unsold as the performance date approaches. IN THE LIMELIGHT -Limelight was the first gas lamp alternative for lighting theatres. Invented in the early 1800s, limelight was generated by heating calcium oxide with a blend of oxygen and hydrogen. Theatres first began using limelight in the 1830s as the first spotlight. Now, we continue to say that those in the limelight are the center of attention. LEAD - The main character in the story and generally a performer with multiple solo moments. LOGE – A section of boxed balcony seats located in a theatre. METHOD ACTING – When actors try to achieve complete emotional understanding of their character (i.e., adjusting their lifestyle to align with a role as part of the rehearsal process). OFF BOOK – When actors can finally toss the script aside because they have their lines memorized. OPEN AIR THEATRE – An outdoor theatre. OPENING NIGHT -After preview performances, there is an official opening night. This performance is the production as it will be performed from here on out. Reviews for productions are published only after the curtain goes up on opening night. ORCHESTRA – While even non-theatre folks know that the orchestra can refer to live instruments accompanying a show, the term also defines a venue’s main floor seating. OVERTURE -A medley of tunes from the score of a musical, the overture plays after the lights go down and before the curtain goes up as an introduction to the show. The term comes from the French ouvreture, which means “opening.” PREVIEWS -The first performances of a professional run (certainly on Broadway and Off-Broadway) are preview performances. These are full performances presented with all of the full elements of the show—the billed cast, costumes, lighting, sets, etc. Previews indicate that the show is in flux. The creative team may make changes to the show night to night. During this time, the company performs by night and rehearses by day. For example, on Wednesday night a director might realize a line is not getting the laugh it needs. He lets the musical’s book writer or playwright know. The next day the writer has a new script page with a new line. During Thursday rehearsal the performer practices the scene with the new line and Thursday night the cast performs the show with that change. There is no way to know how many changes will be made between the first preview and when the show is frozen and no more changes can be made, typically four days before opening night. PROJECT - Vocal projection is speaking loudly with proper breathe support (use of diaphragm). This is not yelling. Yelling will hurt your voice, projecting will not. When a director asks you to project, it means they can barely hear you. PROSCENIUM STAGE – This is the most common orientation of a theatre. The stage is framed like a picture by the proscenium, with the stage on one side opposite the audience. QUICK CHANGE – A really, really, really, really, really, really fast costume change. RUN THROUGH – When a cast rehearses their entire show from beginning to end. SCRIM – A piece of cloth that’s used as a backdrop on-stage (often lit from behind to create the scene). SITZPROBE – Another term with German origins, sitzprobe translates to “seated rehearsal.” This is typically the first rehearsal when the orchestra and the cast sing through the show in its entirety while sitting at music stands. A wandelprobe is a similar rehearsal, joining the instrumentalists and onstage performers, but as the actors wander through their blocking onstage. SOLILOQUY – When a character expresses internal thoughts or emotions verbally for the benefit of the audience. Basically, when a character talks to themselves. STAGE DIRECTION – When a play’s text includes instructional movement or gestures. STAGE DOOR – The secret place where theatre nerds fan-girl and get Playbills signed after a show. STAGE MANAGER – (Noun) A magical device usually fueled by caffeine that brings order to chaos. This person is responsible for calling the cues and making the show run. STAGE MOM – Those super-moms that aid their thespian offspring in line running, costume sewing, prop making, shoe shopping, choreography watching, snack supplying, makeup applying, fundraising and more. STRIKE – When the run of a show is done and everyone involved congregates to destroy the set. Tears are probably shed. On a smaller scale, you can strike an object from the stage, as in “strike that ladder,” in order to remove it from the stage. This is actually one of the dozens of dictionary definitions for the word “strike,” meaning “to haul down; to dismantle and take away.” SUPERNUMERARIES – While this word reminds us of superheroes, it is the Individuals who are onstage during a show to fill in crowd scenes but aren’t actually actors, singers or dancers. (They may have superpowers as well.) SWING – A thespian ninja who has the ability to jump into multiple roles as an understudy at any given moment. If an understudy goes on in a principal role, that means they will not go on in their usual ensemble track. A swing knows every single ensemble track in a production and goes on when an ensemblist calls out or is moved up to a principal. TECHIE – A loving term of endearment for those who make the magic happen offstage (aka theatre technicians who work with lights, props, sets, etc.) THE SCOTTISH PLAY - Never say Macbethinside a theatre. Instead call it “The Scottish Play.” Of course, Shakespeare was a British playwright, but the euphemism refers to the Scottish setting. The superstition also extends to calling the title character the Scottish King or Scottish Lord and his wife the Scottish Lady. A wildly popular play, The Scottish Play was often put on in theatres with financial troubles to attempt to reverse their fate. Thus began the association of the work with failing theatres. THEATRE-IN-THE-ROUND – A theatre with seats surrounding every side of the stage. They are also known as arena stages. THE BARD – What ultra-theatre nerds call William Shakespeare. THRUST STAGE – A stage that “thrusts” into the auditorium; there are seats surrounding three sides. TYPECAST – When you’re just ALWAYS cast in a nerdy role. Or ALWAYS the villain. Or ALWAYS that cool sidekick who owns a hairless cat. UNDERSTUDY – It’s like substitute teaching but one step closer to winning a Tony. A member of the ensemble who performs in their own role every performance but also knows the material for one or more leading roles. The understudy can be called upon when a lead actor is out of the show. UPSTAGE – The back of the stage farthest from the audience. Theatre pros coined the term due to the use of raked, or inclined, stages. The sloped architecture creates better sightlines and acoustics for audiences. But this also meant that as performers walked away from the house, they were hiking up the stage. UPSTAGED – This word also refers to that theatre kid who constantly tries to outshine everyone. *Cue Beyoncé’s “Diva”* WING IT - This theatre phrase has now been incorporated into the greater colloquial lexicon, but when actors would “wing it” they were going on unprepared. It comes from the practice of playing a part without memorizing the lines, relying on the prompter in the wings or pages of text affixed to set pieces like the wing flats. WINGS – The area to the sides of the stage where all things important happen: quick changes occur, props await their moment in the sun, and performers enter onstage.