13 Theatrical Terms in Popular Usage

By Mark Nichol

The rich vocabulary of the theatrical world has inspired use of various terms of the art in other realms of human endeavor. Many of them are also employed in (or to refer to) politics — which, we note with various emotions, has always been an activity akin to theater. Here’s a list of such words and phrases.

1. Backstage

This term for the area behind and to either side of a stage where actors and technicians, unseen, perform tasks or await entrances and make exits now also denotes behind-the-scenes activities, especially ones that are secretive because of their unsavory nature.

2. Break a Leg

The origin of this traditional theater slang for “Good luck” is disputed: The prevailing theory is that theatrical folk, being superstitious, pretend to wish others bad luck before a performance so that doing the opposite will not provoke supernatural retribution. An alternate notion is that it refers to the act of bowing (which previously involved the bending, or “breaking,” of one’s legs) and is meant to convey a hope that one will be enthusiastically applauded for one’s performance.

3. Bow

The genuflection of a performer to acknowledge applause probably stems from when performances were presented to royalty. To take a bow, in common usage, is to figuratively do the same, to respond to positive attention received for some accomplishment.

4. Cue

A cue is a signal, as for an actor to go onstage or undertake some audible activity offstage that is part of the script, or for a technician to perform a task, such as activating a light source. In general usage, the word refers to responding to some stimulus or hint.

5. Curtain Call

When audience applause persists past the point at which the performance’s cast has taken a bow (or two or three), the principal performer may stride out onto the lip of the stage, in front of the curtain, which has fallen to the stage for the final time, to humbly incline one’s head and upper body in acknowledgment of adulation (or, in the case of a woman, to curtsy — that word, by the way, is a corruption of courtesy). The term also refers to any such final gesture in any arena.

6. Dress Rehearsal

The final run-through of a performance before presentation in front of a full audience is called a dress rehearsal because it is traditionally the first time that the production is presented in costume. In general usage, it can refer to practice for any presentation or activity.

7. Green Room

The green room refers to one or more areas backstage where actors can remain when they are not performing or about to go onstage. Supposedly, the term originated when a green material was attached to the walls of such a chamber to prevent costumes from being soiled by dirty surfaces and/or to muffle sound. It now refers as well to any staging area where one awaits relocation before a performance or activity.

8. House

The house, in entertainment parlance, is the auditorium or the audience within it. The word persists in this sense in the phrase “full house” and the expressions “brought down the house” (meaning “to produce an eruption of applause”) and “there wasn’t a dry eye in the house,” meaning that a performance was so affecting that everyone in the audience was brought to tears. (The word in the phrase “on the house” is similar but refers to a complimentary offering by an eating or drinking establishment.)

9. Limelight

Before the age of electricity, stage lighting was often produced by directing flame at a piece of calcium oxide, or quicklime. The illumination so produced was called limelight. Even though this method is obsolete, the term limelight persists in the phrase “in the limelight” to refer to one who is a center of attention.

10. Prop

A property, also known as a prop, is any handheld item actually used by an actor, as opposed to something that could conceivably be handled (such as a drinking glass or a candleholder) but, because the script does not call for it, is not. A prop is, by extension, also anything so used to obtain a reaction, such as when a public speaker brandishes a photograph of a person or object to evoke an emotional response in the audience. To prop up oneself or another person, or an object, and to give props (meaning “respect, recognition”), stem from different meanings.

11. Staging

This verb was originally used (and still is) to refer the mounting of a theatrical production, or, more specifically, the manner in which it is presented. By extension, when events are planned in such a way to derive a certain effect, we say that they are staged.

The stage manager of an entertainment, in contrast to the director, who is responsible for the creative process during preparation for a production, is the coordinator of all backstage activities during the actual performance. From this term has derived the verb phrase “stage managing” to refer to behind-the-scenes manipulation of events.

12. Upstage

In noun form, this word refers to the area toward the back of the stage. The term and downstage are relics of a time when some stages were raked, or tilted, for better audience visibility; later, the audience area was often raked instead.

As a verb, upstage refers to an actor moving upstage so that the audience’s attention is on him or her instead of a performer who is supposed to be the focus of the scene. One actor may also upstage another by otherwise calling attention to himself or herself. Either action, when deliberately done counter to the director’s instructions during rehearsal, is considered highly inappropriate and unprofessional.

In popular usage, the verb upstage is used in reference to anyone who calls attention to himself or herself at the expense of another person.

13. Wings

The wings are the areas to each side of the stage, generally not visible to the audience, where actors stand by before going onstage or where set pieces or props are kept ready to be brought onstage by technicians between scenes or actors during scenes. The phrase “waiting in the wings,” in general usage, refers to someone prepared to be available, either to take over for someone else or to come to their assistance.

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8 Responses to “13 Theatrical Terms in Popular Usage”

  • Ellen M. Gregg

    On “break a leg”: Another take on this saying is, actors and others in the biz are urging each other to break a legacy; that is, do better than those who have filled the role before them. That’s how my theatre peeps and I intend it.

  • Ray

    As a former theater major in college, I thoroughly enjoyed this post. I would, however, like to clarify something in your explanation of upstage.

    You say, “As a verb, upstage refers to an actor moving upstage so that the audience’s attention is on him or her instead of a performer who is supposed to be the focus of the scene.”

    While this is technically true, the reason upstaging is a problem is because the actor who is downstage now has to turn his back — and more importantly, his face — to the audience in order to maintain conversation with the upstage actor. This creates problems, not the least of which is loss of “limelight.”

  • Diane

    I heard that break a leg was referring to the wings which can also be called legs, and by breaking a leg you exit the wings and enter the stage.

  • Todd Everett

    You forgot “trouper,” which those unaware of the term often write as “trooper’ (as in “She’s a real…”)/

  • Lena

    The origin of the phrase Green Room is interesting, especially because such rooms are now usually not green in color.

  • Mark Nichol

    Ellen and Diane:

    In researching the phrase “break a leg,” I came across the theories of origin you describe. I find them plausible but not likely, but who knows? I don’t think we’ll ever know the definitive version.

  • Mark Nichol

    Todd:

    Thanks for the bonus term! (Phew — now we don’t have an unlucky thirteen items; you know how superstitious theater people are.) I’d forgotten about trouper, from troupe, a band of performers.

  • Adriana Pined

    Isn’t “it makes for better theater” another theater-related colloquial expression? I can’t seem to find it in any theater-related list. Is it an idiomatic expression? I would appreciate your response on the matter.

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