Enrich your San Jose Rep experience … and impress your friends! Here’s a selection of theatre lingo to get you started.
“We do not go to the theatre like our ancestors, to escape from the pressure of reality, so much as to confirm our experience of it.” – Charles Lamb
Act - Well, that's what actors do on stage. But the term is also used to denote a division in the performance of a play, a concept that began in the Elizabethan era. Today, most plays are in one, two, or three acts. (If there’s no intermission we’ll warn you in advance so you’re prepared).
Actors Equity Association (AEA) - The professional union for actors and stage managers. The union negotiates contracts regulating pay scales and working conditions with Broadway producers and professional regional theaters such as San Jose Rep.
Ad lib – Short for the Latin “ ad libitum” meaning “freely.” In theatre it means improvising lines, though the audience generally shouldn’t know unless an actor is deliberately responding "ad lib" to a comment picked up from the audience. Of course, actors may simply ad lib because they’ve forgotten their lines. Oh, the joys of live performance!
Antagonist - Antagonists are present in almost every play. They oppose what the main hero, or protagonist of the play is trying to accomplish.
Artistic Director - The person who, in a non-profit professional theatre, chooses the plays, directors, and often the actors. The artistic director also carries out the creative mission of the theatre, oversees the artistic quality of the production,s and may also direct particular productions, as San Jose Rep’s Rick Lombardo often does.
Balcony - Strictly speaking, the second tier of seating in a theatre, elevated and protruding over the back rows of orchestra seating. The balcony at San Jose Rep is in fact the third seating section—the others are the orchestra and parterre—and gives an outstanding view of the stage. Unlike the balconies in many conventional theatres, ours is still close enough to the stage to provide an intimate experience.
Backdrop - A large drapery of painted canvas that provides the rear or upstage masking of a set.
Backstage - The area behind and around what you see on stage. “Backstage” may include the wings, dressing rooms, and other nifty out-of-sight places. Some plays, such as Michael Frayn’s farce, Noises Off, and Ronald Harwood’s poignant drama, The Dresser, actually portray life backstage. It can be pretty intense.
Batten – A tubular metal bar, sometimes known as a pipe, to or from which overhead lighting instruments can be attached or hung.
Blackout - A sudden, rapid darkening of the stage. A slow darkening is described as "fade to black."
Blocking - The movements and positions that the director works out with the actors in rehearsal for dramatic effect—and so they won’t bump into each on stage. The stage manager makes a careful note of blocking directions for later reference.
"Break a leg" – A friendly encouragement to performers prior to a show. The expression may derive from the idea of a performer, having left the stage, being called called back from behind the legs for an encore.
Bubinga Panels - A unique feature of San Jose Rep. These panels make up the sides of the proscenium (see below) and can be adjusted for artistic or technical purposes for each production.
Booth - An enclosed, windowed area, usually at the back of the auditorium, used for technical control purposes. Sometimes there is a separate booth for sound and lighting control and also—as happens at San Jose Rep—the stage manager may operate from the booth rather than from backstage.
Border – A narrow, horizontal masking piece above the stage. Borders serve to hide the lighting rig and flown scenery. They also define the upper limit of the audience’s stage view.
Box set - A scenic design that includes three walls and sometimes even a ceiling, usually to give a very realistic visual effect. It tends to emphasize the notion of a fourth invisible wall, the one through which the audience observes the action.
Broadway - The famous theatre district of midtown Manhattan in which 32 theaters are located.
Cast - The complement of actors in a play.
Catwalk - Narrow bridges above the stage from which scenery and lighting equipment can be handled. Next time you're at San Jose Rep, look straight up and you will see them.
Comedy - This term describes a play that is light in tone and designed to provoke laughter. The ancient Greeks are credited with inventing comedies as a way to comments satirically on domestic situations.
Costume - What an actor wears to evoke the appearance of a particular character. Costumes may be realistic or stylized. They may be “period”—appropriate to the historical setting of the play—or deliberately modern in look, even when the play is set in a past era.
Crew - The backstage team assisting in mounting a production.
Cue - A prearranged sign that indicates to a performer, crew member, or stage technician that it is time to proceed to the next line or action. Actors also listen for cues in the text so that they know when it's time to say or do something.
Commercial theatre - Theatrical productions—not actual plays—solely mounted to make money for their investors. Commercial productions and non-profit theatre productions are neither inherently better nor worse than each other. It's a matter of intent and financing.
Cove - A position in the auditorium where stage lighting can be placed and hidden from the audience.
Critic - Well everyone's a critic, as they say, and some get paid for it. A critic’s job is not necessarily to declare a production a hit or miss but to discuss it thoughtfully, with the advantage of broad theatrical knowledge and experience, in a way that may help elucidate it for readers. Here at San Jose Rep we love the critics, so long as they're fair!
Curtain call - What happens at the end of the play—even if there isn’t an actual curtain to signal the end—when the actors acknowledge the audience’s applause. Actors at San Jose Rep are really, really good at curtain calls!
Dark – We say the theatre is dark when it’s closed to the public, as between productions or on non-performance days. Of course, there’s lots still happening.
Denouement - The concluding scene of a play where the drama of the action gets resolved and brought to some sort of conclusion, happy or otherwise. Some playwrights deliberately avoid a traditional denouement, leaving the drama effectively open-ended.
Dialogue - Conversation in a play.
Director - The person responsible for interpreting and bringing the script to life on stage, as well as the overall artistic unity of the production.
Downstage - The front of the stage closest to the audience.
Drop - A large piece of fabric hung down onto the stage floor.
Dry Ice – Is frozen carbon dioxide. It’s so cold that when a lump of the stuff is lowered into boiling water it produces clouds of heavy steam that can be pumped on stage to produce a low-lying mist.
Exposition - The part of a play that fills in things that have already happened so you can make sense of who's who and why they're doing whatever. Sometimes playwrights use actual narrators to do this. Other times it's cleverly woven into the opening dialogue without you really
Flashback - A playwrighting device that enables the audience to capture scenes from the past through the recollection of an actor.
Flat - A flat piece of painted scenery consisting of a wooden frame covered with stretched fabric, usually canvas.
Flex Zone - Something we uniquely designed into San Jose Rep. It's the area above and to the sides of the stage opening and extending towards the audience. It can be used for a variety of technical and artistic purposes.
Flown – Means that a piece of scenery is suspended so that it can be lowered into view or raised out of sight as required.
Fly loft - The space above the stage into which scenery can be flown. San Jose Rep's fly loft is as high as the stage, so scenery and drops can be fully flown from view.
Flyman - The person who operates the fly system, which is a counterweighted pulley mechanism.
Footlights - Once a common feature in theaters, this row of lights across the front edge of the stage is rarely employed today. Even so, you may still hear someone say of an actor: "He really projects across the footlights."
Front of House – Usually refers to the public areas of the theatre but strictly includes everything in front of the proscenium. A front of house manager oversees staff servicing this area.
Gobo – Is an etched plate, usually metal, put in front of a spotlight so that it casts a pattern on stage. Gobos can be used in all kinds of neat ways, for example, to imitate the effect of light filtered through foliage or to create the effect of a neon sign.
Green room - A room in the theater—rarely painted green—where the actors and crew members can relax or receive instructions. The term may come from ancient Greek theatre where actors would stretch out on the lawn before stepping onstage.
Grid - A floor high above the stage and often made of metal on which hardware is mounted to facilitate the raising and lowering of scenery and other objects.
Grip - A colloquial term for a stagehand.
Hamming - Something you'll never see at San Jose Rep! It means over-acting and it's nasty.
House - The place where the audience sits; thus the much-loved expression here at San Jose Rep: "Full house."
Houselights - The lights in the house or auditorium.
Intermission – The time between acts when you can get a drink and visit the washroom. In exceptional cases where there is no intermission, you will be warned in advance.
Legs - Vertical curtains or flats used to hide the wings from view and frame the audience’s view.
Lines - What actors learn and speak on stage. The word is also used technically to refer to the counter-weighted ropes or wires that are attached to flown scenery.
Load In – This is what happens when the set and props are moved into the theatre. The reverse is a “load out” when the sets and props go into storage.
Managing Director - The person in charge of the business and general non-artistic operations of a non-profit theatre, such as San Jose Rep. This person also has some of the duties provided by a producer in commercial theatre since he or she is in charge of the fund-raising efforts required to make the artistic director's vision come to fruition. Our Managing Director is Nick Nichols.
Masking – Basically scenery or other visible material designed to hide backstage stuff the audience is not supposed to see, such as the wings or the back wall.
Modified Thrust – A working stage area that thrusts out towards the audience from the regular limit of the stage opening. In traditional theatres the stage is seen through a proscenium. Some theatres go to the other extreme with a fully thrust stage—no proscenium and the audience sitting on three sides. San Jose Rep's modified thrust projects forwards from the stage opening and above the orchestra pit. The thrust part of the stage can be removed if the orchestra pit is required or, instead, extra seating rows can be added.
Monologue - A lengthy speech by a single character delivered to other characters in a play; not to be confused with a "soliloquy" (see below).
Off-Broadway - Professional Manhattan theatres not located on Broadway's famous "Great White Way." Generally, off-Broadway productions are smaller in scale and tend to be more experimental, although off-Broadway shows that turn into big hits are often "transferred" to Broadway itself.
Off-off-Broadway - Really small, often subsidized theatres in unusual New York City venues that tend to focus on experimental plays and staging approaches.
Offstage - All areas outside the acting area.
Orchestra – Not just a group of musicians; orchestra can also mean the seating area immediately behind the orchestra pit. And, by the way, if you're buying a ticket in a British theatre, forget about the orchestra seats. Ask for a seat in "the stalls."
Orchestra Pit – This is an enclosed area generally extending across the breadth of the stage and at a lower elevation so that the musicians do not block the audience’s view. The floor of most modern orchestra pits, like San Jose Rep’s can, be elevated so that when not being used for live music it can either accommodate more rows of seats or, at full elevation, enlarge the working area of the stage.
Playwright - The person who writes the play. In the case of living playwrights they sometimes direct and even act in their own work.
Prompt - This is what someone gives to actors when they forget their lines. Some theatres have fulltime prompters standing by in the wings. Actors will also help out other actors. Naturally, no one needs prompting at San Jose Rep!
Props - Objects on the stage, such as furniture, that are not part of the actual scenery. Hand props are objects the actors actually handle such as swords, books and cups.
Proscenium – Sometimes known as the “proscenium arch," this is an opening through the wall separating the stage from the auditorium. It is often ornately decorated to frame the stage. Modern theatre design, in order to allow greater flexibility, has tended to modify this design. You could say San Jose Rep doesn’t have a proscenium, certainly not a conventional one. Our unique arrangement includes adjustable wooden sides and a cross section that actually “explodes” out into the house at the forward limit of the flex zone. If you want to get a good view of it, walk right to the back of parterre seating.
Protagonist - The character that generates the main action of the story.
Repertory - A much-abused term that is now used in a variety of ways. All the plays in a season could be called the repertory. Strictly speaking, when we speak of a "repertory theatre" we mean a company of actors performing different roles across a number of productions running "in rep," that is rotating from show to show. However, San Jose Rep and most other "repertory" theatres today stage one or perhaps two productions for a specific "run," then move on to the next. Just imagine if the sets had to be rotated and changed on a daily basis!
Scrim - A gauzy curtain, often painted, through which lighted objects can be seen but which becomes opaque when lit from the front. By balancing lighting levels, the audience may see both what's painted on the scrim as well as a hazy image of what's behind.
Set - The scenery for a scene or entire production.
Sight lines - The imaginary line drawn from the furthest seat on the side in the house to the stage. This determines where the action is placed onstage for optimum viewing.
Soliloquy - A speech directed to the audience by an actor in which personal thoughts are shared. Shakespeare gave Hamlet a famous one that started: "To be, or not to be?" And, of course, Hamlet never did quite make up his mind.
Smoke – Is produced on stage by the vaporization of mineral oil. Smoke machines or “foggers” direct this non-toxic material on stage to create various mysterious effects.
Stage Left - The left side of the stage from the actor's perspective, looking out towards the audience.
Stage makeup - Not what you'd likely want to put on for a party. Stage makeup may be simple or elaborate, involving wigs and prostheses, and generally has to "carry" over a distance.
Stage Manager - A very important person who gives instructions or “calls” for just about everything that happens on stage. Because directors usually leave soon after a show has opened, stage managers are also responsible for seeing that a production continues to be performed just the way the director wanted. Stage managers lurk unseen by the audience, either just out of sight in one of the wings or in a booth at the back of the house. This is where San Jose Rep’s stage manager works during a show although there will also be an assistant stage manager backstage.
Stage Right - The right side of the stage from the actor's perspective, looking out towards the audience.
Strike – In theatre doesn’t mean the actors or crew are walking out. It refers to the act of disassembling the set when a production closes.
Tabs – An expression that comes from “tableaux” curtains, drawn back and up to reveal a scene. Nowadays tabs describe various curtains hung on stage. In theatres that routinely have curtains that hide the stage when the performance is not in progress, these are called the “house tabs.”
Tormentors – Narrow, adjustable masking flats on each side of the stage opening. Combined with a teaser they frame the audience’s window onto the stage.
Trap - An opening in the stage floor. A trap can be used for all kinds of things. San Jose Rep’s stage is fully “trapped” but in fact this facility is rarely used.
Trap Room – The space below the stage used for accessing traps. Often it becomes a useful storage area.
Upstage - Toward the back of the stage, away from the front edge.
Wings – The hidden areas to either side of the stage.
Now that all the world’s a stage to you, here’s an anonymous riddle to think about the next time you check out San Jose Rep:
In is down, down is front.
Out is up, up is back.
Off is out, on is in
And of course,
Right is left, left is right.
A drop shouldn’t,
And a block and fall does neither.
A prop doesn’t, and
A cove has no water.
Tripping is okay.
A running crew rarely gets anywhere.
A purchase line will buy you nothing.
A trap will not catch anything.
A gridiron has nothing to do with football.
Strike is work (in fact, lots of work!)
And a green room usually isn’t.
Now that you’re fully versed in theatrical terms, break a leg!
(But not really…)