I once worked at a youth theater program, where at the end of each rehearsal, we asked all the kids to put their props and costumes on the apron of the stage so we could pick them up later. They always did. The apron of the stage is the front part that sticks out from the rest of it, but we never explained that. So when I had a private rehearsal with one young actress and I told her at the end to place her mask on the apron before she went home, she just stood there, panicked. I reassured her that it was ok, I’d put it away, she just needed to put it down on the apron. She burst into tears, wailing, “I don’t know what that is!” For weeks, she had just been following everyone else, thinking there must be an actual apron around that everyone else was seeing that she wasn’t, and afraid that we were going to find out that she was stupid. I felt really bad, so I’m going to share with you some of the terms that we might use without explaining. This is not a glossary or an exhaustive list- there is one of those HERE, but there are some things that are even missing from that. This is just a smattering of what I’m thinking you will probably come up against regularly as an actor.
Ad Lib– Short for “At Liberty.” It means to make up lines that are not in the written script. Ensemble and crowd scenes will sometimes call for ad libs, some directors are against using them at all ever and prefer that crowds say “peas and carrots” or just wordless vocal reactions. It comes in handy when things go wrong.
Amateur– This term has several meanings, and you can take and use it as any. It can be to describe an artist who is not paid in money for their work, as the counterpart of a professional. It can also mean someone who doesn’t do a very good job, or doesn’t understand the business well. It comes from the same Latin root as Amour, or Ami, the root meaning “to love.” It came about as someone who does what they do for the love of it rather than for the profit. Which I think describes most of us, whether we are paid or not.
Apron– The front part of the stage that sticks out in front of the arch, toward the orchestra pit. Not all stages have one.
At Rise– The way the stage will look “at the rise of the curtain.” In the absence of a curtain, of course, when the lights first come up. It’s where everyone and everything should be placed at the very beginning of the story.
Avant Garde- Something daring or unusual, it can be a whole play, or a concept, or a set or costume choice. Something new and exciting and edgy.
Backdrop– A large painted fabric scenery piece, hung at the back wall of the stage. Something you will see less and less of as projections become more popular, but many theaters, especially in schools, still use them.
Ballad– A slow, dramatic song. A pretty song. Slow tempo, elongated notes, lots of emotion.
Ballyhoo– Moving a followspot in a figure-8 pattern, like a searchlight or a concert light.
Barn Doors– Little flaps that attach to the frame of a lighting instrument to direct and contain the light. They are hinged, so you can open and close them to various points, like barn doors. Hence, the name.
Black or Blacks- Two meanings- 1- The black curtains used to mask parts of the stage. 2- The black clothing worn by crew during performances.
Black Box– A small theatre, usually a large room (painted black, hence, the name) with four walls. Often there is no specified seating or playing or backstage areas. Those areas are built differently with each production. In some black boxes the seating can be configured in many different ways, with actors on the floor, or on a platform; the audience can also be seated on the floor or on platforms. Some high schools only have a black box, some only an auditorium stage, some lucky places have both.
Blackout– No onstage light. Usually at the end of a scene, act or production. Backstage lights stay on, and sometimes there is a little bit of blue light for a scene change to happen. A Dead Blackout is when the only lights on are the exit or emergency lights.
Blank– A blank is a cartridge fired from a stage gun. It contains basically all the components of a bullet except the bullet tip itself- there is gunpowder and a compressed wad of cotton, which is sometimes expelled with a shot. Blanks should always be handled and treated as if they are true bullets. More on that later.
Blocking– Where actors move during a scene. You will be blocked to move, and sometimes you will be blocked to block someone from moving. Go figure.
ClearCom- The brand name for the most popular headsets that stage management and crew use to communicate. Even if it’s not the kind they are using, they will often refer to any headset as Clearcom or just com.
Comp– Short for “complimentary,” a comp is a free ticket. You will usually (outside of school) get a certain number of comps for family or friends. You can sometimes ask for “professional comps,” specifically for your agent, someone you want to be your agent, a voice teacher or coach who is coming to see you. Those can be negotiated as in addition to your regular comps.
Cyc– (Pronounced “Sike”) Short for cyclorama. This is the big blank curtain-like drop at the back of the set in some theatres. It’s there to mask crossovers in the absence of a backdrop or other scenery, and to put special lights and/or projections on. Very expensive. Don’t tear or touch.
Denoument– Means “pulling it all together.” It’s the end of the story, when the climax of the story has happened and all the loose ends get tied up.
Deus Ex Machina– Greek for “God of the Machine.” Used to describe an unlikely or unusual solution to the main conflict of a play. It means basically a god stepped in and fixed things.
Downstage– Toward the audience. Stages used to be tilted (raked) toward the audience so that everyone could see the whole stage. Today’s audiences are raked and the stage stays flat; but downstage is still downstage.
Dramaturg– A person whose job it is to research the play historically and socially, and provide interesting and helpful material about the time the play is set, or the writing of it, or the social and political norms of the time, etc, to the actors and the entire production team. Read your dramaturgy packet, if you are lucky enough to get one.
Dry Tech– When the tech crew and stage manager will work through the show technically without the actors.
Dumb Show– Not the worst play you ever did. This is a pantomimed or danced mini-story. It is used most often in Shakespeare, but often used when a character is telling a dream or a story of importance to the play.
Equity– Actors Equity Association, the labor union for actors and stage managers. check out www.actorsequity.org for more information.
False Proscenium– Sometimes shortened to “False Pros.” The proscenium is the opening at the front of the stage; if there is something built onto that that changes the shape and size of the arch, that’s the false proscenium.
Feed Lines– To “feed lines” means to give an actor a line that has been forgotten. In rehearsal, the only person feeding lines should be the person on book. It can also mean to speak a cue line to lead into the next action.
Fly– And flyspace, fly bar, anything connected with flying. Usually not people- that’s referred to as “Foy” or “Flying by Foy.”Flying is usually meaning scenery, props, backdrops, etc. attached to bars (sometimes pulleys or other apparatus) that go up into the air.
Fourth Wall– You’ll hear a lot about this. It refers to the “wall” between the actors and the audience. Originally coined because of the three walls that encase the actors, the fourth wall being the invisible one downstage. Consider it more like a bubble that encloses the story, if you are in a different space. There are times when you are asked to “break the fourth wall” which means to go ahead and acknowledge the audience, speak to them or interact with them. Do not do so unless specifically directed.
French Scene– A portion of a scene marked by the entrance of exit of a character or group of characters. Directors will sometimes break up long scenes or acts without scenes for rehearsal this way. A French scene plot or breakdown will tell you exactly which pages your character is actively onstage, and is often used to determine when you are called for rehearsals. If your stage manager gives you one, hold onto it and use it.
Front of House– Everything that happens with the audience. Box office, seating, ushering, programs, signage for the audience, all that.
Gaff or Gaff Tape– Special heavy-duty tape about 2-3″ wide. Usually black or white. Can be used to fix or hang or cover just about anything. Expensive and not to be played with. NOT to be confused with duct tape.
Ghost Light– The one light left on at night, usually in the middle of the stage. Superstition is to keep friendly ghosts company and to keep unfriendly ones away. For practical reasons, it keeps people from injuring themselves in a dark theater while trying to figure out how to turn on the lights.
Green Room– The area where actors can hang out before and during a show. Originally painted green because green is a calming color. Seldom green these days. Go figure.
Ham– An overactor, someone who plays more for the laughs than to serve the story. Don’t be one.
House– The auditorium and the seats within it.
Improvisation– Making it up as you go along. A valuable skill, also an entire art form in its own right.
Instrument– A stage light.
Legitimate– An odd way to refer to a non-musical play, produced on a stage. As opposed to theater in the park, variety shows, movies, etc.
Linethru (or Line Through)– A rehearsal just for lines, usually no blocking or other movement.
Mark– Two definitions: 1. As in “hit your mark”- to get to the correct spot on the stage to do your thing, usually where the light is. 1. As in “mark it this time”- just going through the basic motions of a dance, fight, or stunt, rather than actually doing it fully. If there has been no fight call, or someone is missing or injured, you might mark. You can also mark vocally, if one is vocally tired or ill, or if you are going to be doing a song several times in a row for tech.
Method Acting- Refers to the Stanislavski Method of Acting; loosely used it describes an actor who taps into their personal experiences to endow a character, or who creates an experience for themselves to mimic that of their character’s in order to understand the perspective of the character. More on the Method later.
Paper the House– Give away a bunch of free tickets to bolster audience numbers. Done for a variety of reasons- low ticket sales, hope for a large word of mouth campaign, as a courtesy to the company, and others.
Pickup Rehearsal– A rehearsal after the opening of the play, usually the day before the next scheduled performance. Usually done with young casts, musicals and highly physical plays.
Pratfall– A silly, comedic, exaggerated fall. Requires choreography and fight calls.
Proscenium– The opening from the stage to the audience. Also known as the proscenium arch.
Quickchange– A costume change that needs to happen very quickly. Usually the rule of thumb is anything under one minute for theater, but it’s anything that might need assistance in order to make it back onstage in time, or needs to be changed backstage as opposed to the dressing room. For opera, it’s anything under 20 minutes. Not sure why.
Rake– Slope or tilt. A whole stage can be raked, or just parts of it. There are regulations as to how steep a rake can be for safety reasons.
Rig– A prop, set piece, or costume can be rigged, that is built to do something that it normally wouldn’t do. A costume can be rigged for a quick change, or to be “torn” onstage; a knife might be rigged to bleed; a wall can be rigged to be torn down or broken through.
Run Plot or Run List- The plan for how the show will run from backstage in terms of scenery moving, props being moved around, costume changes that have to happen outside of the dressing room. It’s a stage management responsibility, but any actors assisting in scene or costume changes or anything else backstage should have and refer to a run plot. If stage management doesn’t give you one, ask for it till you get it.
Scene Shift (or just Shift)- Moving from one scene to the next, all actors, scenery, props.
Scrim– A translucent fabric used for special effects. The fabric appears solid when lit from the front, but effectively disappears when lit from behind. It’s really cool and can be creepy and/or magical.
Slate– When the actor states their name and the information about their audition material prior to auditioning. In silent film screen tests, an actor used to hold a slate with all of that written on it for the camera. Hence, the name.
Spike– Not in the least sharp or dangerous, unless it is missing. A spike is a mark made in colored tape on the stage floor to show where to place set pieces, large props, and sometimes actors.
Stage Right/Left- The direction on the stage from the point of view of the actor facing the audience.
Step on- You can step on lines, laughs, or applause; it means to cut the next thing short. Sometimes OK, but only if directed. Usually we like applause, laughs and lines to go on as long as they are supposed to.
Strike– Two definitions: 1. Taking anything off the stage. 2. Tearing down the set, putting away costumes and props, basically putting the show to bed. Always volunteer to help with strike, and do everything you can to help.
Swing– An ensemble member who understudies multiple lead roles. They usually don’t have a named character in the ensemble.
Tabs– Also known as “legs”- the vertical curtains that hang in the wings.
Teaser– The little curtain that hangs along the stage ceiling or in line with the top of the proscenium arch, usually to mask lighting instruments or hanging set pieces.
Tracking- This means many things, but in general it usually means to keep track of props, costume pieces, set pieces, etc. But it also means when a prop or other piece comes off the stage in one place and it needs to come back on from a different place. Then it needs to be “tracked” from the one place to the other.
Tracking Sheet– Made by each actor to make a “map” of their movements, costume changes, prop needs, and any scene shifts they are assisting with. More on those later.
Upstage– Three definitions: 1. The area/direction away from the audience, toward the back wall. 2. To draw focus away from the action or another character. Flapping around in a corner can upstage a love scene down center. A wine glass at the edge of a table can upstage an entire musical number. A cute dog onstage can upstage the entire cast. 3. You can also upstage yourself by turning away from the audience to speak to another character or in other ways minimize the audience’s ability to see, hear or understand you.
Vom– Short for vomitorium. An entrance/exit point that is through the audience at the floor level, usually going out to the lobby or down to the dressing room area. The name comes from the idea that the audience area is sort of vomiting actors onto the stage. Weird, but it stuck.
Wagon– A rolling platform with scenery and sometimes actors that can go out as a ready-set scene.
That’s what I have for you. In general, like I said, if you don’t understand a term, ASK. Some things seem to be straightforward, but often not so much. So ask. That’s one of the ways we learn.