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Theater Terms for the New Actor

The wonderful world of theater is chock-full of strange naming conventions and terms that your average person might not be familiar with, and might find confusing. If you're a new actor looking to jump into your first audition, you might find yourself face-to-face with an obscure new dialect to decipher.


I've decided to compile my knowledge of theatrical terms for new actors into one convenient list. Just save this page and, if you ever find yourself baffled about stage directions, theater part names, or rehearsal terms, you've got an easy reference guide - that way, you can walk in sounding like a professional from day one.


Parts of the Theater

Here are some terms for the anatomy of a theater building. This is a good place to start, especially because these might be terms you need to know before you audition so that you know you're in the right spot!


The House

The house is what we call the space in the theater where we perform. This is the auditorium, the large area of seating in front of the stage where the audience sits during a show. To have people "in the house" means that there are people sitting in the audience, so this usually means that the actors need to keep their voices down.


Incidentally, this is where the phrase "bring the house down" comes from - the idea that your performance was so good that the standing ovation you receive is so loud it could make the house collapse around you.


The Front of House

If the house is where the audience watches the show, then is the front of house the stage? No, theater terms could never be that reasonable and logical.


The front of house is what we call the entrance area of the theater, usually including a lobby, concessions, and potentially a table of merchandise. This is the general public entrance to the theater, where tickets are taken and ushers show people to the correct entrance so they can find their seats. The people who staff this area are often referred to as either the front of house staff or simply front of house.


Generally, front of house is well-respected by the actors; these are the people that make sure the show is organized from the audience's end so that the company can focus on making their performance as good as possible.


The Wings

The wings are what we call the sides of the stage that are hidden from the audience. This is where actors can enter or exit the stage, and where they wait before they go on - hence the phrase "waiting in the wings."


Here's a fun fact for you: the wings house long curtains used to hide actors and set pieces before they enter the sage. These curtains are called legs and the point at which they end is called the leg line. To "break a leg" is to get past the leg line and make an appearance onstage. This is one of the reasons that telling an actor to "break a leg" is wishing them good luck!


Backstage

Beyond the wings (and technically the wings themselves) is backstage, or the area behind the stage that the audience is not meant to see. This usually includes dressing rooms and set and prop storage. Actors and crew prep for the show backstage and spend their offstage time there.


Stage Door

Stage door is what we call the entrance to the theater that the actors and crew use. Stage door leads directly backstage, usually into the dressing rooms and the wings. This is also the door actors and crew use to exit the theater after a performance; sometimes, for larger professional productions like Broadway or West End shows, fans will gather at stage door to have a mini meet and greet with any cast members who are willing to meet with them, though of course this isn't required of the actors and is never a guaranteed event.


Parts of the Stage

Okay, let's get a little more specific. The theater itself has lots of parts, but what about the stage - the main attraction of a theater?


The stage itself is usually a raised platform at the front of the seating area (the house). It might be only a few inches raised or several feet up, depending on the size of the theater in question, and can either have a flat or rounded front edge. Most stages are painted, usually a matte black unless otherwise called for in the show, so that the lighting can be more easily controlled, though some stages that are used primarily for non-theatrical performances such as music halls or political spaces might be plain or polished wood.


The stage can be broken down into stage directions - these are how playwrights and directors tell actors where they're supposed to be relative to the audience, their fellow actors, and the set.


Stage Directions (Stage Left, Stage Right, Upstage, and Downstage)

The interesting thing about stage directions is that, as I mentioned, they're relative to the audience rather than the actor. This means that all of the directions are functionally backward.


To best explain, imagine that you are standing on the stage, facing the house, and I am standing in the house, facing the stage. If I point to my left, I would be pointing to your right. This is stage left - the audience's left. The opposite is true for stage right.


Slightly different is upstage and downstage. Upstage is toward the back of the stage, farther away from the audience. Downstage is toward the front of the stage, toward the audience. You might choose to remember it from the perspective of a balcony; a person sitting in a balcony seat would have to look up to see things further back and down to see things further forward.


Audition Terms


There aren't a lot of terms you need to know for an audition, so we'll just cover those quickly.


To begin your audition, you'll want to slate - say your name, audition number if you have one, and sometimes the character you're auditioning for. You'll then usually perform a short monologue - a spoken piece of work around 30-90 seconds long - and a short musical cut - a piece of a song that shows your vocal skills. After that, you'll slate again.


Sometimes, there will be a dance call - where you'll learn a short dance routine with a group and perform it for the casting director - or a movement call - a much easier version of a dance call for non-dancers.


When you've finished the audition, you'll just wait for the cast list - quite literally a list of the cast members and their assigned roles - to be posted.


Technical Terms

Now that you know how to make your way around a stage, you'll want to know some working terms for actions and other things associated with actually putting on a show.


Roles in a Cast

So it's likely that you already know that a person performing in a show is called a cast member, but you might not know that there are lots of different kinds of cast members.


Principle actors play the most essential roles in a show's plot (Jean Valjean in Les Mis, Tracy in Hairspray, Veronica in Heathers, etc.). Supporting actors play the named characters with fewer lines (Cogsworth and Lumiere in Beauty and the Beast, the various named Elders in Book of Mormon, etc.). Ensemble actors play the unnamed characters that fill out the rest of the cast and tie the show together.


However, there are also roles that don't necessarily appear onstage at all times. Those are understudies, covers, swings, and standbys, who all fill different needs.


  • An understudy has a role in the show, but also learns a particular principle role and can play that role if the principle performer is unable to or on those performers' dedicated days off.

  • A cover usually has a designated role but also learns one or more "tracks" or roles (either principle or ensemble) so that they can fill those as needed. Covers typically take over an understudy's role if they take up a principle performance.

  • A swing learns multiple "tracks" and moves between them depending on the needs of a particular show night; they generally do not have a designated character and may not appear onstage at all if all of the roles are filled as normal. Swings take on a cover's role if they're covering an understudy.

  • A standby learns a principle role and stays in the theater, offstage, in case of an emergency so that they can cover a role mid-show if needed; only the most intense roles in a show are provided with standbys (think Elphaba in Wicked).


Readthroughs

A readthrough is pretty much exactly what it sounds like. The entire cast gets together with the director, sits around a large table (or sits on the stage, depending on the theater), and reads the entire script out loud to get used to the material.


This is typically the first rehearsal; it's a chance for all the actors to get familiar with each other and for the director to get their first clear indication of what the show is going to sound like with everyone together. Readthroughs don't typically involve any moving around on the stage; you're just reading the script to make sure everyone knows the story you're going to tell.


Blocking and Staging

Once you've done the readthrough, you'll want to start blocking and staging. To block a scene is to set the movements of the actors. This can also be called staging and some people use the terms interchangeably, although I typically think of staging as setting up the set pieces and props before the scene starts.


A tip: during your first few rehearsals, keep your script and a reliable pencil (not a pen) with you onstage. Whenever the director gives you a movement or you make a deliberate acting choice, write it down in your script. Scribble it on the appropriate word, draw diagrams, do whatever you have to do to remember how you move. Erase and change things as the scene changes. You'll thank yourself later when you can't remember if you had to move stage left or stage right to storm out dramatically.


Side note bonus terms! To be "on book" is to have to read your lines from your script while you're on stage because you haven't memorized them yet. To be "off book" is to have fully memorized your lines and no longer need your book with you on stage. Usually, the director will give you a set time when you should be off-book. During later rehearsals, you might have a crew member in the audience whom you can call "Line!" to and have them read you your line so that you can be off-book even if you're not 100% confident yet - this person is considered to be on book for the cast.


Marking or "Hitting Your Mark"

A mark is a specific place on the stage that an actor should be standing when they deliver a certain line or perform a certain action. These spaces are sometimes designated with actual marks, usually a piece of tape on the floor. Therefore, hitting your mark is making it to your designated space at the correct time.


Later on in the rehearsal process, when you are closer to getting off-book, you may have a run-through of the show where you aren't fully acting out every single movement, focusing more on the words and technical aspects, and instead, you're simply moving to your marks. This is called marking a show and is helpful when particular marks are time-consuming, resource-consuming, or particularly energy-consuming and you need to do them over and over again.


Teching

Once all the actors know where they're supposed to be, it's time to bring in the other elements of production: lights, music and sound, props, and other technical elements. This stage of the process is called teching a show (pronounced teck-ing). During a tech run, the actors are generally not asked to go all out, so they'll mark the show as the director works with the crew to get the technical aspects lined up. They may run the same scene multiple times to adjust lighting or get sound cues right and may skip other scenes entirely if there are no tech elements to rehearse.


Dress Rehearsal

You've got actors, costumes, lights, sounds, props, and set - you're ready to go! Well, almost.


The final step in the rehearsal process is the dress rehearsal. These rehearsals are performed exactly as if they were full productions - full costumes, makeup, prop use, technical elements, no stopping, no one on book, no breaking character - except there are no paying customers in the audience.


Now, that's not to say there's no audience at all. Actors may be allowed to invite close friends or family members to dress rehearsals, and usually, press coverage will happen during the final dress rehearsal before performances start, so that media professionals can get pictures without disturbing a paying audience.


Once the dress rehearsals are finished, it's time for opening night.


Bonus Technical Terms

Here are a couple of bonus terms that might benefit you.


  • Places. If your director calls "places," you should go to the spot where you begin the show or the scene you are rehearsing.

  • 5-minute call. Five minutes before a production begins, the actors will get a heads-up from the stage manager so that they can get to their places and be ready to go when the curtain comes up. 

  • Call time. This is the time that you need to be at the theater before a performance to get ready. Usually, this is one or two hours before the production begins, depending on the complexity of your costume and makeup.


Funny Terms

Now that you've got all the serious, technical terms under your belt, it's time to add in some of the more fun terms you might hear thrown around by your company. These are a couple of my favorites.


Corpsing

"Corpsing" is the act of breaking character to laugh while on stage. I can't tell you the number of times I've corpsed, especially because it's almost a tradition among castmates to try and make each other corpse at inopportune moments. It's almost never done during a real performance (well, unless you know someone can recover quickly) but it can definitely make the rehearsal process a lot funnier.


One of my favorite instances of corpsing happened during a high-school production in my sophomore year. One of the lines in the show was, "Quick - everyone, take off your labcoats!" Mid-rehearsal one day, our unfortunate lead actor accidentally yelled, "Quick - everyone, take your clothes off!"


The rehearsal had to stop for ten minutes because no one could catch their breath without giggling.


Hell Week

This is how the cast and crew lovingly refer to the week of technical rehearsals that typically happens just before opening. As you can guess from the term, tech week is typically a grueling, boring, and annoying process of starts, stops, flubs, and frustration from all sides. The actors can't get into the flow of a scene because they're stopping constantly, the lighting team has to make adjustments over and over again, the sound team has to account for actors' unpredictable movements for cues, the props team has to figure out which side of the stage gets which props and when the set needs to move, and the poor director needs to keep everyone from ripping everyone else's heads off. That being said, if you can survive hell week, you can breeze right through performances (mostly).


The Scottish Play and Other Superstitions

While not exactly "terms," it feels appropriate to mention superstitions, an integral part of any theater experience. Here are some of my favorites.


  • It's bad luck to mention the name of Shakespeare's Macbeth outside of the scripted performance while inside a theater, especially if there is a show actively running, and especially if that show is Macbeth. Instead, we refer to it as "The Scottish Play."

  • Never whistle in a theater. This stems from, among other superstitions, when set change and sound cues were delivered via whistle, so an unplanned whistle could cause chaos. Even now that most cues are given via radio, whistling is still considered bad form among actors.

  • You should always leave a light on in a theater at night. This "ghost light" is said to appease the ghosts that haunt the theater, as it can help guide them through the space if they are pantomiming phantom performances or looking for the beyond. Most professional theaters in the West End still use ghost lights!


Conclusion

And cut! I hope this list of theatrical terms helps you as a new actor or old, or even simply as someone interested in the world of theater. Knowing these terms might even help you feel more confident and prepared when you walk into an audition or a theater for the first time. Just keep the whistles to yourself, okay?

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