Theatre terms – what is a dramaturg and what the heck is Commedia?

Here is a list of general theatre terms for those who might feel a little lost as HSPVA theatre students and faculty start throwing around phrases like “chewing the scenery,” “repertory,” etc. Click here for a list of technical theatre terms. For HSPVA-specific terms like “Happenings” and “Unifieds,” click here for help for new theatre parents.

Bard “The Bard” is a term used for William Shakespeare, “the Bard of Avon.”
Blacks Black clothing worn by the stage crew, also, curtains at the back and sides of the stage.
Blocking The prescribed movements for actors in a scene.
Break a Leg The traditional way to say “good luck” to actors (saying “good luck” is regarded as bad luck). There are many theories as to the origin. Dancers say, “merde” (its French and we can’t print the translation here, look it up for a laugh).
Call Time A time at which the cast and/or crew is expected to be at the theatre and ready to work, rehearse, prepare to go on, etc.
Call Board A bulletin board, usually in a backstage area, that is used to post audition notices, cast lists, etc.
Chewing the Scenery Acting in a very large and noticeable manner or overacting. See Ricardo Montalban in “Star Trek II, the Wrath of Khan.”
Commedia dell’Arte An Italian form of theatre with an emphasis on stock characters, sometimes in masks, where the actors play in a large style, frequently outdoors.
Comps Free tickets, as in “we got comps for the show tonight.” From the word, “complementary.”
Dark When a theatre is not operating, as in, “Most of Broadway is dark on Mondays.”
Dramaturg Prepares research materials for a production and usually writes a summary of the production for the playbill.
Dresser A member of the stage crew that helps actors change costumes between scenes.
Equity The actors union, formally called, “The Actor’s Equity Association (AEA).” Also includes stage managers. Directors, musicians, stage hands, etc. have their own unions.
Fight Director The choreographer for fight scenes.
Fourth Wall An imaginary wall separating the actors from the audience. When an actor talks directly to the audience, they are “breaking the fourth wall.”
Front of House The portion of the theatre open to the general public including the lobby and seating area.
Green Room A room close to the stage where actors can relax between scenes and receive invited guests before or after a show.
Ghost Light A traditional light always left on when a theatre is closed, also called the “Equity light.” One tradition says that the light is left on to keep people from falling into the orchestra pit in a dark theatre.
Goes Up When a show starts, as in “our show goes up in 3 days.” From the phrase, “when the curtain goes up.”
Ingenue A young female lead, very typical in musicals.
Off-Broadway Small theatres in New York City not located in the Broadway Stage district. Even smaller theatres, frequently in make-shift spaces, are “Off-off-Broadway.”
Off Book When actors rehearse without a script.
Playbill The program for a live theatre production (a trademarked term of Playbill, Inc.).
Repertory Theatre When a theatre company performs a set of two or more plays in a close or alternating series, very typical for summer stock companies. Frequently shortened to “rep.” HSPVA performs the Studio Series in repertory format.
Scenographer A set designer.
Slate Introductory comments by an actor prior to an audition, typically stating name and details about the monologue and/or song to be performed.
Summer Stock A type of repertory theatre performed in the summer, frequently outdoors.
Swing An actor who is the understudy for several roles.
Table Read A rehearsal early in a production where actors sit around a table and read through a script.
Tech Rehearsal A rehearsal where the emphasis is on getting all cues correct for lights, sound effects, music, etc.
The Scottish Play Macbeth by Shakespeare. An old and widely held theatre superstition is that the name “Macbeth” is never spoken in a theatre except in the dialog for “The Scottish Play.” If someone does say it, they have to leave the theatre and perform a series of tasks, such as spinning around three times, spitting, cursing, and knocking to reenter the theatre.
Tread the Boards  Be an actor. The “boards” refers to a stage.

Technical Theatre Terms

Theatre terms fly fast and furious at HSPVA, leaving us non-theatre-major parents a little lost at times.  Here is a quick glossary of the some of the more commonly used and least understood technical theatre terms:

Apron The area of the stage in front of the main curtain and/or the proscenium arch (see “proscenium” below).
Batten Also known as a pipe batten, a long pipe that the lights are attached to.
Cue Sheet A list of cues that the run crew works from during a production.
Cyclorama A large flat curtain hung at the rear of the stage, generally used to represent the sky.
Drop A large piece of cloth that usually contains painted scenes that is lowered and raised to set a scene.
Ellipsoidal An Ellipsoidal Reflector Spotlight is a type of theatre light that can be focused to cover more or less area on the stage.  The most common type of theatre light.
Flat A flat piece of scenery built from canvas stretched over a thin wooden frame.  Generally used to represent walls or buildings.
Flies The area high above the stage where the catwalks, drops, battens, and light grid are located.  Also known as the “fly loft.”
Follow Spot The traditional, large, manually-operated spot light used to showcase actors on stage by “following” them around.
Fresnel A kind of theatre light. Pronounced “fren-el.”
Gaffer The person in charge of lighting and electrical for a production.
Gaffer Tape Non-reflective black cloth tape used to secure cords and various items.
Gel Colored transparent polyester sheets placed in front of theatre lights.
Gobo A pattern placed in front of a light to generate a large pattern of light and shadow onstage.
Hang Place lights on a batten or grid (“hang and rough focus” is the first step in setting up lights for a show).
House The part of the theatre where the audience sits.
Leg Drop A drop in which the middle has been cut out.
Leko A kind of theatre light.
Light Plot The lighting plan for a production showing the types and locations of all theatre lights.
Mark A specific place on the stage marked with tape for actors. A “strike mark” is a place marked for scenery.
Pit The place where the orchestra is located, formally known as the “orchestra pit.”
Properties All the items used on stage for a production, this is where the term “prop” comes from.
Proscenium The large arch that frames the stage, generally covered with decorative elements.
Rough Focus The first step is setting up lighting for a production where the lights are focused for the first time.  They will be adjusted and refocused as rehearsals proceed.
Scrim A thin piece of cloth that becomes transparent when lit from behind but is opaque when lit from the front.  Used for dream sequences and to separate secondary action from primary action on stage.
Strike Take the set apart after a production.
Strip Lights A large strip of theatre lights that are typically used as backlights.
Teaser and Tormentor The Teaser is a curtain hung across the top of the stage to hide the light battens. Tormentors are side curtains hung behind the main curtain (the Grand Drape) to mask the sides of the stage (wings).
Tech Week The final week(s) of rehearsals when all lights, sound, props, scenery and other elements are used.
Vom An tunnel-like entry aisle for a theatre that is covered with seats above.  Short for the latin, “vomitorium” (no kidding – the Romans noted that these aisles “spew forth” people).
Wings The offstage side areas of a theatre, also refers to the curtains that are hung there to separate onstage from offstage.