Jargon Watch: The Language of Theater

Don’t let anyone tell you to stop being so dramatic.
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Jargon Watch: The Language of Theater

Oh, the theater — that playhouse of song and script, costume, choreography and time-honored rituals (don’t you dare say “Macbeth” inside one lest you draw the ire of superstitious actors and theater enthusiasts alike). If you want to get to know the theater and the art form that lives within it, what better way than to brush up on some of the most essential theater words?

Whether you’re looking to break out on Broadway or your crippling stage fright has kept you far out of the spotlight, you’ll likely find ways to sprinkle these theatrical expressions into your everyday speech. (Someone famous once said that all the world’s a stage, after all.) So don’t wait for your cue; get out there and start adding some dramatic flair to your vocabulary.

Theater Words For Your Repertoire

Blocking — blocking involves assigning actors places to stand, sit or otherwise occupy space on stage at certain points throughout a show — and how and when to move from one place to another (it’s usually done by the director).

Cheating out — to cheat out is to angle yourself slightly toward the audience (if you’re not already facing all the way out) so that your voice can be heard better from off the stage. It’s called “cheating” because you’re being a little more liberal with your body positioning outward than you would be if you were having an actual conversation and facing your partner, for example.

Callbacks — the second stage of auditions where a director or casting agent will “call back” an actor to try out more roles or script readings that might be a good fit. It can last more than one day, but it’s often the last round of auditioning before the cast is decided.

Off-book — to be off-book as an actor is to be able to recite your lines from memory without relying on a script (the “book”).

Playwright — no, this name for someone who pens scripts for the stage isn’t a goofy misspelling of the word “write” or “writer,” as phonetically close as they are. The “wright” is from a much older English word that actually refers to a person who crafts or builds something (like a wheelwright or a shipwright).

Stage right (or left) — this is the section of the stage on the actor’s right (or left) if they are looking out at the audience. (Stage directions are one example of how many theater words refer to the actor’s point of view, not the audience’s.)

Downstage — this is the section of the stage closest to the audience, or what’s in front of an actor on stage facing toward the crowd. Its opposite is, unsurprisingly, “upstage” — the part farthest from the audience.

In-the-round — a type of theater performance or venue in which the audience sits on all sides of the stage, which is located in the center.

House — the part of the theater where the audience sits (as opposed to the stage). If directional theater words weren’t confusing enough, “house left” refers to the left side of the theater if you’re looking at the stage (so, the same side as “stage right,” just not on stage).

Apron — an optional part of the stage that juts out in front of the curtain arch, closest to the audience.

Run-through — a full rehearsal of a play, musical or other performed piece, with or without the script and all of the technical elements (depending on how far into the rehearsal process the production is).

Dress rehearsal — one of the final rehearsals of a production that involves putting on a start-to-finish performance with all the elements of a live show — lights, sound cues, special effects, and all actors with their parts completely memorized — minus the actual audience.

Curtain call — the final part of a show after the curtains close in which the actors come on stage and take bows, usually in order of the least important roles to the most important or principal roles, while the audience applauds.

Dry tech — a rehearsal that features the technical elements and cues (like lights, sound and special effects) for the first time without the actors. Usually done a week or so before the opening night performance.

Wet tech — another tech-focused rehearsal, this time with actors (who usually aren’t in costume). It most often happens after the kinks have been worked out in the dry tech run-through.

“Places!” — a call to action, usually from a stage manager, that lets actors know that a production is about to begin or is coming back from a break so that they can put themselves where they need to be (their places). A common response is “Thank you, places!” a way for the actors to signal that they’ve registered that it’s go time.

“Break a leg!” — it’s considered bad luck to wish someone “good luck” before a performance (with those two words specifically). Instead, you’re supposed to say, “Break a leg!” which is recognized by most actors as endearing instead of morbid or ill-intentioned like it sounds on the surface.

“The Scottish Play” — this is a euphemism for Shakespeare’s Macbeth, one of dramaturgical history’s most recognizable and important works. A theatrical superstition says that to utter the actual name of the play is to bring bad luck or a curse upon the theater and those in it.

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