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60+ Theater Terms Every Actor Should Know

60+ Theater Terms Every Actor Should Know
Photo Source: Pixabay

The list is seemingly endless: terms you, as a theater professional, should know. These may seem familiar but I believe they’re worth refreshing no matter where you are in your career, beginner or seasoned professional. This list is by no means comprehensive but it represents some of the most used and/or misunderstood terms in our daily vernacular. Also, some of these terms directly relate to or intersect with others.

Architecture: The Theater

Here I’m speaking about the actual physical space based on the audience’s perspective. Imagine you’ve entered through the lobby of the theater and you’re standing in the house, as it’s called, facing the stage.

Orchestra: The section of seats closest to the stage, on the main floor of the theater. These are often the most prized and expensive seats in the theater.

Mezzanine: The second seating tier, usually overhanging the orchestra at its midpoint. Not quite as large as the orchestra, front mezz seats are preferred seating for many theater-goers as they allow you to be close to the action while taking in a more complete stage picture.

Balcony: The third tier of seating, located farthest from the stage. The “cheap seats,” usually the most inexpensive in the house.

Orchestra Pit: A lowered area located directly between the stage and the orchestra section where the musicians perform.

Boxes: Tiered-seating located close to and on either side of the stage.

Directions: Facing the stage, your right is House Right. Your left is House Left.

Architecture: The Stage

The Fourth Wall: An invisible dividing “wall” between the stage and audience. Actors will sometimes “break the fourth wall” and interact with or speak directly to the audience.

Proscenium: The most traditional stage set-up. The stage is removed from the audience and framed by an arch that separates it from the audience.

Thrust: A stage that protrudes directly into the audience, shattering the fourth wall and allowing seating on three sides of the stage.

In the Round: A circular playing space in which the audience completely surrounds the playing space and the performers.

Environmental/Site Specific: An increasingly popular staging conceit that transforms the house into a location that directly supports the action of the piece. The Broadway revival of “Cabaret” did this very successfully by transforming the theater into the Kit Kat Club by removing the orchestra seating, adding tables and chairs, and adding a thrust stage.

Directions: Standing on the stage facing the audience, your right is Stage Right, your left is Stage Left. Center Stage is exactly that and it’s the most prominent spot on stage. Down Stage Center is as close as you can get to the audience from the center-most position of the stage. From the house, your right is Stage Left and your left is Stage Right!

READ: Actor Etiquette: How to Behave Every Step of the Way

The Text

No matter what anyone says, it all starts with the words the writer has put on the page. Remember: you are a storyteller and the playwright has created the map for you. You must honor him/her at all times.

The Play: A story written specifically for the stage, usually containing one or more characters, dialogue, and a story arc.

The Musical: Similar to a play, only it employs music to aid in the storytelling.

Book: The script of the musical: characters, dialogue, etc.

Music: The composer-written music in a musical.

Lyrics: The words to the song. Sometimes, this is also the book writer or the composer or a combination of all of the above.

Collaboration: No theater could be achieved without everyone working together, from the creative team to the audience. The team of a musical is a great example of collaboration because it takes many people working closely together to achieve a common vision. 

The Creative Team

Director: The captain of the ship, ultimately responsible for all creative and artistic decisions in the production.

The Producer: Plans and coordinates all aspects of a production, usually puts up and helps raise money to make the show possible.

Choreographer: Responsible for telling the story through dance.

Music Director: Oversees all musical aspects of the production.

Casting Director: Responsible for bringing actors to the director for potential roles in the production.

Dramaturg: Aids in the continuity, clarification, and storytelling of a production. Extremely helpful in period pieces for maintaining authenticity.

Designers: Responsible for all the physical and auditory aspects of the production.

Conductor: Sometimes also the Music Director, the conductor sets the musical tempos of each number, shapes phrasing, and leads the orchestra and the performers.

READ: 1 Theater Director’s Advice to Actors

The Cast

Leading Actor/Actress: The main character, protagonist.

Supporting/Character Actor/Actress: A secondary character whose role is support or conflict with the lead.

Ensemble: Sometimes called “the chorus,” members of the ensemble are called upon to sing, dance, and play smaller roles in a musical.

Understudy: Usually a member of the ensemble, this actor will be responsible for learning the part of a leading or supporting actor.

Swing: Usually off-stage, the swing is a multi-talented performer who's responsible for learning many ensemble tracks so that s/he can “swing on” when someone is ill, injured, or missing the performance for any reason.

Stand-By: An off-stage cover for the lead or star of a show, a stand-by is usually not in the show in any way and often doesn't need to be at the theater during the performance but must check-in at the half hour.

Dance Captain: Usually a member of the ensemble, the dance captain runs all understudy rehearsals and is responsible for maintaining the choreographer’s vision. They will often “swing out” to watch and note a performance during the run.

Stage Crew

Production Stage Manager (PSM): The hardest job in show business, responsible for coordinating every aspect of the production from scheduling to calling all of the cues during a performance to maintaining the director’s artistic vision of the show once performances have begun.

Assistant Stage Manager (ASM): Assists the PSM in all of the above aspects.

Production Assistant (PA): Usually involved in a production from pre-production through opening, a PA helps get the space ready, runs errands, sets props, and does anything necessary to support the SM team.

Running Crew: These are all of the men and women backstage during a show who help set scenery, props, and costumes during the course of a performance.

Rehearsal

The time for everyone to learn the show from top to bottom and get a sense of how it works, what is needed to tell the story, learn the music and the blocking, etc.

Call Time: The time you are to show up for rehearsal or performance, as dictated by your SM. This will either be sent to you via call, text, or email. It is non-negotiable.

Blocking: The path the actors take on stage as decided upon by the actor and director, and notated by the SM. Once blocking has been solidified, it's not to be changed for any reason without approval from the director.

Breaks: If it is an AEA (Actor’s Equity Association) Production, actors are required to receive a five-minute break after 55 minutes of rehearsal or a 10-minute break after 80 minutes of rehearsal.

Tech

The most amazing and stressful part of the process. These are the days when all of the collaborators are in the theater working to put the pieces together and create a (hopefully) cohesive vision.

10 out of 12: Some days in tech will be designated a 12-hour work day, 10 of those hours spent working with 2 hours allowed for meals and breaks.

Sitzprobe: A German word that describes the first time the performers sit and run through the full score with the orchestra. Time is taken to incorporate the two elements until the Music Director is satisfied.

Wandelprobe: Much like a sitzprobe, only this usually happens while performing the blocking. It could mean there’s not enough time in the process to sit down with the orchestra and really integrate the two elements.

Invited Dress: The last night of tech when members of the production are allowed to invite one or two guests to view the show. It’s the opportunity for everyone to do a run in front of a “friendly” house before paying customers arrive.

READ: 5 Reasons All Actors Should Do Stage Crew

Previews

Performances that occur directly after tech in which paying audience members come to see the show before it’s officially open but rehearsals and fine-tuning happen during the day.

Frozen: At some point in previews, the director will “freeze” the show, meaning no more physical changes will be made. The director will still give performance notes.

Critics: Once the show is “frozen,” critics from various news agencies are then invited to see the show. Their reviews will be released the late in the night or the day after...

Opening Night: The show is frozen, most of the major critics have come, and this is the evening when your family, friends, and management teams come to see the show and celebrate your achievement. A big party usually happens after the performance.

The Run

Half Hour: Every actor needs to be in the theater at least a half hour before the performance time, if not earlier.

Fight Call: If there is any kind of physical altercation in the production, a specific amount of time will be set prior to half hour to run this, overseen by SM, to make sure everyone is comfortable and safe.

Limited Run: Meaning for some reason a show has a set closing date, usually due to an actor or theater’s availability.

Open-Ended Run: As long as the show is selling tickets and making money, it will continue to run.

House Seats: A certain number of prime seats, usually in the orchestra or front mezz, that are held aside for special guests and/or friends of the creative team. These seats are sold at face value.

Rush: The producer of a production sets aside a certain number of seats for each performance that are sold at a highly discounted rate.

Superstitions and Sayings

Ghost Light: Before the entire theater is closed for the evening, all lights except for a single, exposed, incandescent bulb are left on stage. For practical purposes, to allow the first person in the next day some light to find the main switches. For superstition, to give the ghosts who inhabit the theater some light to perform by.

Macbeth: Never say the title of this Shakespeare play in the theater unless you’re performing it. It is believed to be cursed. If you do say it, you must leave the theater, spin around three times to your left, spit, curse, and then knock to be admitted back in.

Break a leg: I have no idea as to the origins but don’t ever wish a performer “good luck!”

Other

Repertory Theater: Some companies will rehearse and open a show and immediately begin rehearsals on another, ultimately playing the two or more productions on alternating performances.

Suspension of Disbelief: The ability of both the actors and the audience to commit to the action on stage. An actor must believe that her co-star is her brother or sister or mother, etc. Her ability to commit to that allows the audience to do that as well. If the actor playing Elphaba doesn’t believe she can be green and fly, the audience won’t either.

Dramatic Action vs. Physical Action: Dramatic Action constitutes the major events that propel the action of the play. It’s the storytelling. A physical action is a movement or a gesture, like an entrance or an exit.

JV Mercanti is the head of acting for the musical theater program at Pace University’s School of the Arts, author of the monologue book series, “In Performance,” and a Backstage Expert. For more information, check out Mercanti’s full bio!

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The views expressed in this article are solely that of the individual(s) providing them,
and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of Backstage or its staff.

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