The theatre truly has its own vocabulary. But you can’t rely on Merriam-Webster to define show business colloquialisms—or let you know where they came from. Playbill put together this list of crucial terms to help you better navigate the world of the stage and theatre history.
While the list is not intended to be comprehensive, it will give you a start as to the meaning and origins of theatre staples. Why do we say “merde” to wish luck to dancers? Why is staging a show called “blocking”? The answers to these and more below:
Break a Leg
“It’s bad luck to say good luck on opening night,” of course, but how did we land on “break a leg”? There are a few explanations. In Ancient Greece, audiences didn’t clap at performances, they stomped. The more they stomped, the more chance there was of breaking a leg; this tradition reappeared in Elizabethan England when audiences would stomp their chairs and, again, more stomping would break the leg of the chair. Wishing someone “break a leg” is wishing for thunderous applause.
Theatre performers opt for “break a leg,” but dancers commonly wish each other “merde,” which directly translates to “shit” in French. The origin of this tradition traces back to 19th-century Paris when attendees of the Paris Opera Ballet would pull up to the famed Palais Garnier in horse-drawn carriages. The more audience members the more carriages, the more horses, the more... merde.
Toi, Toi, Toi … In Bocca al Lupo … Chookas
Around the world, there are yet more phrases to substitute for well wishes. “Toi, toi, toi” in Germany emanates from the German/Yiddish history of spitting to ward off evil spirits and bad luck. “In bocca al lupo” means “in the wolf’s mouth” and the correct response is “crepi il lupo,” which means “may the wolf die”—warding off a bad omen. Australians say “chookas,” which is believed to be a permutation of “chook” or chicken. In the old days, chicken was considered a delicacy; by saying “chookas” you are hoping the performance will go well and make money so that the performer can afford a gourmet meal.
In the limelight
Limelight was the first gas lamp alternative for lighting theatres. Invented in the early 1800s, limelight was generated by heating calcium oxide with a blend of oxygen and hydrogen. Theatres first began using limelight in the 1830s as the first spotlight. Now, we continue to say that those in the limelight are the center of attention.
This theatre phrase has now been incorporated into the greater colloquial lexicon, but when actors would “wing it” they were going on unprepared. It comes from the practice of playing a part without memorizing the lines, relying on the prompter in the wings or pages of text affixed to set pieces like the wing flats.
Dark Theatre or Dark Day
The majority of professional productions play eight shows over six days of the week. The day off is known as the theatre’s “dark day” for the simple fact that all the lights are off as there is no performance.
The Scottish Play
You learned in Playbill’s “8 Rules Every Theatre Person Must Follow” never to say Macbeth inside a theatre, but to call it “The Scottish Play.” Of course, Shakespeare was a British playwright, but the euphemism refers to the Scottish setting. The superstition also extends to calling the title character the Scottish King or Scottish Lord and his wife the Scottish Lady. A wildly popular play, The Scottish Play was often put on in theatres with financial troubles to attempt to reverse their fate. Thus began the association of the work with failing theatres.
The “house” can refer to a couple of things in theatre: the actual auditorium, as well as the Front of House, which includes the lobby and box office and Front of House personnel like the house manager, box office attendants, and ushers. If you’re having a problem inside the theatre, you’ll want to speak to the house manager. You may have also heard the phrase “house seats”; these seats are reserved by producers (the heads of house). Typically in the orchestra and considered the best in the theatre, house seats don’t go on sale to the public unless they are unsold as the performance date approaches.
Upstage and Downstage
While you probably know that upstage is farther away from the audience and downstage is closer to the edge of the stage, do you know why? Theatre pros coined the term due to the use of raked, or inclined, stages. The sloped architecture creates better sightlines and acoustics for audiences. But this also meant that as performers walked away from the house, they were hiking up the stage. (Speaking of stage directions: Stage Right and Stage Left always refer to the perspective of the performer when standing on the stage and facing the audience.)
The precise staging of the actors, their path of movement in scenes, is known as blocking. The term came into popular use in the 1960s based on the tradition of 19th-century theatre directors who worked out their scenes on a mini model of the stage, using blocks to represent actors. Sir W.S. Gilbert was known for using blocks of different heights to represent men and women in his operas. The men were three inches high and the women two-and-a-half inches. The blocks were color-coded to illustrate the different voice parts—so Gilbert could create the correct sonic blend. Green and white were tenors, black and yellow were sopranos, red and green were contraltos.
Named for the Latin vomitorium, a “vom” is a specific type of entranceway in theatre. They signify an entrance/exit for the actors that emerges beneath seating. In ancient Rome, vomitoriums were corridors built beneath or behind seats of a coliseum, stadium, theatre, or arena. The wide entryways were made to spew out or “vomit” people. (The Colosseum is designed so that 50,000 seats can be emptied in 15 minutes.) Broadway’s Circle in the Square Theatre as well as the Vivian Beaumont at Lincoln Center Theatre both use voms, which tend to be more common in thrust stages and in-the-round stages like these.
To strike the set means to take down the set and make way for the next production. On a smaller scale, you can strike an object from the stage, as in “strike that ladder,” in order to remove it from the stage. This is actually one of the dozens of dictionary definitions for the word “strike,” meaning “to haul down; to dismantle and take away.”
Another term with German origins, sitzprobe translates to “seated rehearsal.” This is typically the first rehearsal when the orchestra and the cast sing through the show in its entirety while sitting at music stands. A wandelprobe is a similar rehearsal, joining the instrumentalists and onstage performers, but as the actors wander through their blocking on stage.
A medley of tunes from the score of a musical, the overture plays after the lights go down and before the curtain goes up as an introduction to the show. The term comes from the French ouverture, which means “opening.”
11 O’Clock Number
Back in the day, shows typically began at 8:30 PM. When 11 o’clock rolled around, it was time for the big showstopping number, the penultimate song in the show. There are three general types of 11 o’clock numbers as TDF defines it: the soul-barer, the group toe-tapper, and the solo toe-tapper. A soul-barer like “Rose’s Turn” from Gypsy or Lola’s “Hold Me in Your Heart” from Kinky Boots marks a massive emotional shift or coming-to for the main character; the group toe-tapper is a trademark of older musicals like “Sit Down You’re Rocking the Boat” from Guys and Dolls or “Brotherhood of Man” from How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, and was the composer’s chance to give people a buoyant tune to hum on their way out of the theatre; the solo toe-tapper is even rarer nowadays, but includes songs like Hello, Dolly!’s “So Long Dearie.”
READ: First-Timer’s Guide to the Theatre
If you’re a newer theatre fan or have never been to the theatre, there are some additional 101 vocabulary to help you get acquainted.
Types of Stages
This is the most common orientation of a theatre. The stage is framed like a picture by the proscenium, with the stage on one side opposite the audience.
A stage “thrust” into the audience, with the audience on three sides. As mentioned in the description of a vom, Broadway hosts two thrust stages: the Circle in the Square and the Vivian Beaumont. Productions presented on these thrust stages are blocked with the three-sided audience in mind, so that you don’t miss any action. And while an actor may have his or her back to one side of the audience at times, directors work to balance face time, action, etc.
An arena is a central stage surrounded by audiences on all sides. In Washington, D.C., the Arena Stage is aptly named for its main playing space, The Fichlander Stage, which is a four-sided theatre. Technically, Broadway’s Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812 took place on an arena stage, which was raised above the orchestra and converted the traditional proscenium stage to accommodate more seating.
Flexible Theatre or Black Box
In a flexible theatre, the seating is not predetermined but can chance from production to production. Because of this, the rooms are often painted all black so that any side can convert to a backstage area. Hence, a black box. Off-Broadway’s MCC Theater recently opened a new flexible black box at The Robert W. Wilson MCC Theater Space.
Seating (based on a Proscenium stage)
The ground level of seating, these tickets are closest to the stage. In fact, the stage is often raised above the orchestra, so sitting in the front row means you’ll be craning your neck a bit.
The mezzanine is a higher seating section that hangs over the orchestra. The mezzanine hangs over a different orchestra row in every theatre, so check the seating charts to see how far away the first row of the mezzanine is. The mezzanine is often as desirable as the orchestra. For shows with a lot of height (like The Lion King or Harry Potter and the Cursed Child), audiences may prefer the mezzanine.
Some theatres only have an orchestra and a mezzanine while others have a third level: the balcony. These seats are the highest up and generally the farthest from the stage.
The main character in the story and generally a performer with multiple solo moments.
Ensemblist or chorus member
This term is typically reserved for cast members in musicals—not plays. They are performers who create the background and the world of the show. They don’t necessarily have lines or solo songs, but appear in group scenes and musical numbers to give a sense of context. They’re also the ones singing harmonies and dancing for their lives.
A member of the ensemble who performs in their own role every performance but also knows the material for one or more leading roles. The understudy can be called upon when a lead actor is out of the show.
If an understudy goes on in a principal role, that means they will not go on in their usual ensemble track. A swing knows every single ensemble track in a production and goes on when an ensemblist calls out or is moved up to a principal.
A standby is a performer who knows all of the material for a lead role—and goes on if the principal actor is out—but does not otherwise perform in the show.
The first performances of a professional run (certainly on Broadway and Off-Broadway) are preview performances. These are full performances presented with all of the full elements of the show—the billed cast, costumes, lighting, sets, etc. Previews indicate that the show is in flux. The creative team may make changes to the show night to night. During this time, the company performs by night and rehearses by day. For example, on Wednesday night a director might realize a line is not getting the laugh it needs. He lets the musical’s book writer or playwright know. The next day the writer has a new script page with a new line. During Thursday rehearsal the performer practices the scene with the new line and Thursday night the cast performs the show with that change. There is no way to know how many changes will be made between the first preview and when the show is frozen and no more changes can be made, typically four days before opening night.
After preview performances, there is an official opening night. This performance is the production as it will be performed from here on out. Reviews for productions are published only after the curtain goes up on opening night.