Theatre words and phrases you might hear people say
Lots of people across Theatreland use some words and phrases that are only said around the theatre. Want to know from your backstage area from “opening the house” and the difference between stage left and stage right? Read all about some of the most prominent words in the theatre with us.
Words and phrases from the theatre
Backstage: Backstage is the area behind the stage, where the magic of a production often comes from. Backstage, actors will change costumes, as well as storing their props and prepare everything they need for each performer. Everything is kept behind-the-scenes to ensure nothing creeps out from behind the curtain into the audience’s view before it’s meant to.
Break a Leg: A common phrase to say to someone who is about to perform, “break a leg” translates to “good luck” in theatre slang. There are three theories for the popularity of this theatre saying. Actors are said to tell each other to “break a leg” and pretend to wish bad luck, so that the opposite will happen. It is also based on the “leg line”, an area behind the curtain that when actors stepped in front of it, audiences would see them and then they would get paid. Actors are also told to “break a leg” due to an enthusiastic audience reaction for their performance, which will mean performers have to bow continuously, resulting in broken legs.
Chewing the scenery: If you’ve ever seen a production where one performer stands out, you could say they are “chewing the scenery”. This theatrical phrase translates to someone who is a larger than life character, often over-acting when on stage. It can be a good or bad thing, depending on the performance.
Curtain call: At the end of the show, the company will take their bows and acknowledge the audience, often leading to applause for the cast, musicians as well as technicians. At the end of the curtain call, the lead cast members may take one final bow, or lead a cast bow where everyone will nod their head, curtsey or bow for the last time.
Down stage: When an actor performs down stage, they’re performing at the front of the stage, close to the audience.
House: The house can refer to either an empty auditorium or when an audience are inside the theatre. Using the word “house” in a theatrical sense can be applied to many phrases: whether an actor’s performance “brought the house down” or an emotional song meant “there wasn’t a dry eye in the house”. “House lights” are permanent light fittings in the theatre that won’t differ from production to production.
Limelight: If someone is in the “limelight”, they are the centre of attention throughout the entire production. The history of referring to a performer as in the limelight comes from stage lighting. In early productions, stage lighting was created through lighting flames at calcium oxide (quicklime). When the quicklime shone, the light was referred to as limelight.
Preview: A preview is a performance held before the show officially opens. A West End preview period can last from a few days to over a fortnight and allows the cast and crew to iron out any unsuspecting problems before the show opens. Tickets for preview shows are cheaper, so it’s worth going to a preview before a show can end up being a hit!
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Stage door: The stage door is the portal to the theatre world. Before a show, the cast, crew and production members will enter the theatre through the stage door, away from the busy streets. After a show, cast and crew will leave via the stage door. On some occasions, audience members may be able to meet the cast at the stage door to take pictures or have their merchandise signed.
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Stage Left and Stage Right: These two terms indicate the side of the stage the performer is, rather than the audience view. If an actor is performing stage left, it will look as though they are on the right-hand side of the stage from an audience perspective. When people are standing stage right, they will be on the audience’s left-hand side.
Swing: Rather than covering one role, a swing is someone who learns multiple roles for one production. When necessary, a swing will step in to perform a specific part. Swings must be able to remember different parts at one time, and may only perform one part a few times throughout their time in the show!
Understudy: An understudy is someone who learns another actor’s role in order to be able to perform the part at a short notice. Usually, lead roles will have an understudy who is available in case of an emergency, as well as actors who are able to cover roles.
Up stage: When an actor stands up stage, they’ll be performing at the back of the stage, as far away from the audience as possible. If a stage is at an angle, then performing up stage will take place at the highest part of the stage.
Wings: The wings are the area to each side of the stage, where performers will wait just before they are about to go on, as well as a place of storing props and costumes for quick costume changes. The side of the stage may also be taped to reflect the sightlines, as while actors may stand in the wings, they may stand in front of the sightline which means they can still be seen.
While there are many words that have a specific meaning in the theatre, there’s one word that you should avoid saying when you’re at the theatre.
Macbeth: While it’s a famous Shakespeare tragedy play, Macbeth is a cursed word in the theatre. Saying Macbeth is meant to bring bad luck to performers, so it is referred to as “The Scottish Play” to avoid uttering the title of this supposedly doomed production.