Theatre Terms

image of question markHere you'll find over 1000 definitions of theatrical terms, from Aside, Beam Angle, and Camlock, to Upstaging, VU Meter, and Wagon.  Fully searchable, our glossary is helpful for technical staff, directors, actors, producers, or anyone wanting to better understand the inner workings of theatre.

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Term Definition Link
BABY SPOTLIGHT A small spotlight used at a short distance to give sharp illumination to an actor's face, or to a limited portion of the acting area.
BACK (verb) To invest in a prospective production.
BACK DROP or BACKDROP A large curtain, usually painted to represent the sky, a landscape, or some other background, dropped upstage to form the back of a wing set and to mask the backstage space; now commonly supplanted by a cyclorama.
BACK FLAT A flat used at the back of the stage.
BACK LIGHTING or BACKLIGHTING The illumination of a scene from behind the actors, usually from the back of the stage.
BACK OF THE HOUSE The parts of the theatre behind the proscenium, or behind the stage setting.
BACK PIECE or BACK-PIECE A wig for the back of the head only.
BACK STAGE or BACKSTAGE Collectively, the parts of the theatre that lie behind the proscenium arch (or behind the back wall of the stage setting), including the stage, the workshops, the dressing rooms, and the areas and spaces beside, above, or under the stage. Sometimes used only to refer to the dressing rooms and green rooms, or even just the off-stage areas.
BACK WALL The rear wall of the stage or stage setting.
BACKER A person who invests in a prospective production; an angel.
BACKFLAP A pin hinge capable of being turned back on itself, used to join flats.
BACKGROUND 1) The setting or scenic display before which actors perform (short for scenic background). 2) In a script, previous events, environment. 3) Background music.
BACKGROUND SCENE An expository scene in which the events and dialogue indicate the time, the place, or other information needed by the spectator.
BACKING 1) Scenic piece as a backing behind an opening in the set (window etc.) which hides the technical areas beyond. 2) The money invested in a commercial production (by a Backer).
BACKING LIGHT A low-wattage light, used to give diffused illumination to the space beyond openings such as doors, and placed behind, or less often in front of a backing.
BACKLIGHT Light coming from upstage, behind scenery or actors, to sculpt and separate them from the background.
BAD LAUGH An audience's laugh at the wrong moment.
BAFFLE 1) A sheet of material used to prevent a spill of light in a instrument or in part of a set. 2) A panel in a loudspeaker cabinet or a board or sheet of other material used in sound equipment to limit echo or sound spill. 3) A panel in an auditorium positioned so as to reduce sound reflections and improve the acoustics of the space.
BALANCE The equalization of the stage picture, composition, and action, so that the position and movements of the actors, the design of the set, lighting and costumes all are in a well-proportioned relationship.
BALCONY A seating area above the orchestra section of the auditorium. Sometimes a part of this area, particularly in front, is the location for equipment, hence the term "balcony lighting."
BALCONY FRONT The vertical front face of a balcony to which is fastened lighting equipment.
BALCONY STAGE In Elizabethan theatre, an area of the balcony used for a playing area.
BALLAD A song, usually, simple, sentimental, short, and narrative, used in musical comedy.
BALLAD OPERA A light satirical comedy, consisting of dialogue in verse or prose, plus songs set to popular and folk tunes. 18th and early 19th centuries. "The Beggar's Opera" is the best-known example.
BALLAST An electrical apparatus that limits the electrical current in a particular circuit, usually a circuit containing an arc source. An "arc" is light caused by an electrical discharge between two electrodes in a gas such as xenon, argon, or air.
BALLYHOO Moving a followspot beam around in a figure-eight pattern.
BANK A group of lighting units or dimmers arranged in rows.
BARN DOORS An apparatus with adjustable flaps, usually 2, 4 or 8, that attaches to the front of a lighting instrument. It is used to block or shape the beam--for example, to keep light from hitting the front or side edge of the stage.
BASIC SITUATION The central dramatic situation in a play.
BASS Lower end of the musical scale. In acoustics, the range (below about 200Hz) in which there are difficulties, principally in the reproduction of sound, due to the large wavelengths involved.
BATTEN A narrow strip of wood used to make or reinforce the frame of a flat, to fasten flats together, to stiffen a drop, to suspend a hanging piece of scenery or equipment. A length of metal pipe is sometimes used for the latter purpose, called a batten or pipe batten.
BEAM Light rays, particularly the width of light projected by a lighting instrument.
BEAM ANGLE The angle of the cone of light produced by a instrument. Defined as the angle within which the lowest intensity in a beam of light from a instrument is not less than one-tenth of the maximum.
BEAM PROJECTOR Flood instrument which uses a parabolic reflector and a low voltage high intensity lamp to produce an intense near-parallel beam. Also known as a Beamlight.
BEDROOM FARCE A farce in which a risque bedroom scene is exploited.
BELOW 1) Downstage. 2) Under the stage.
BENEFIT A theatrical performance, the profits of which are given to some cause or person.
BETWEEN ENGAGEMENTS Unemployed as an actor.
BILL A playbill or program distributed at a theatre.
BILLING Acting credit, particularly on a poster, marquee, or in an ad.
BIRDIE A compact display lighting instrument containing a Par 16 lamp. So called because it is similar to, but much smaller than, the Parcan, and is hence (in a play on golf terms) "one under Par."
BIT A very minor speaking or silent role. Hence, bit actor, bit part.
BLACK Black velvet or velour curtain or drape used to mask the sides or tops of the stage.
BLACK BOX An unadorned performance space, typically a large room with four walls and no assigned seating or playing areas. Walls are typically painted black, hence the name. The black box is popular because it can be configured in many different ways, with actors on the floor, or on a platform; the audience can also be seated on the floor or on platforms.
BLACK LIGHT When everything else is dark, a black (ultra-violet) light makes certain objects glow in the dark. This is because certain objects "fluoresce" under ultraviolet (UV) light, which is what a black light emits.
BLACKFACE A face covered by black makeup, to represent a person of color. Used extensively in minstrel shows from the 19th century well into the middle of the 20th century, but now considered offensive.
BLACKOUT or BLACK-OUT or BLACK OUT 1) To darken a stage suddenly, enhancing the effect of stage action and permitting a swift change of scenery. 2) Complete absence of stage lighting. Blue working lights backstage should remain on and are not usually under the control of the board, except during a Dead Blackout (DBO), when there is no onstage light. Exit signs and other emergency lighting must remain on at all times.
BLACKS 1) Black clothing worn by stage management during productions. 2) Any black drapes or tabs, permanently or temporarily rigged. Used for masking technical areas.
BLANK A gun cartridge with powder but no metal tip, allowing for the sound of a gunshot without a bullet.
BLEED Dimmers which are incorrectly trimmed are said to bleed. That is, the dimmer still gives a small output, causing the instrument to glow, when the control signal is at a minimum.
BLEED THROUGH Transformation from a scene downstage of a scrim to another scene upstage, by slowly crossfading lighting from downstage to upstage. If a scrim is lit steeply, or from the sides, it will appear solid. If this light is turned off and light added to the set upstage of it, it will disappear.
BLEND 1) To smooth out makeup. 2) To dry-brush freshly painted scenery, so that two colors are irregularly smoothed together, avoiding color monotony. 3) To adjust body movement, acting style, or vocal mannerisms to those of other actors for a more harmonious effect. Hence to blend in. 4) To adjust state lighting, so as to favor an even illumination as an actor passes from one stage area to another.
BLIND SEAT A seat from which a spectator can see only part of the stage.
BLOCK 1) A wood or steel frame, in which turn one or more pulleys to take fly lines. 2) A number of theatre seats, taken together. 3) The director's work of positioning actors onstage and setting their entrances, exits, and other movement, as in "to block a scene." The director usually does this by making notations in a working script, then uses these notes to work with the actors early in the rehearsal period. Blocking provides the framework for the movement in a scene, and is recorded in the prompt book by the stage manager, assistant director, or even the director him/herself.
BLOW In acting, to forget one's lines or business, as to blow the scene (from 'to blow up').
BOARD The main control for the stage lighting. Originally known as the switchboard or dimmer board, it is now usually remote from the dimmers. The lighting operator for a show is said to be "on the board".
BOOK 1) Script. One is said to be "off book" when a script is no longer permitted onstage during rehearsal. 2) The spoken lines in a musical, as distinguished from the music and lyrics.
BOOK FLAT Two-fold piece of scenery. Book flats are free-standing when angled open, allowing quick setting and compact storage. Booking describes the action of opening or closing a book flat.
BOOK SHOW A musical with a plot or storyline, as opposed to a revue.
BOOM 1) A light tree or vertical scaffolding pole on which horizontal boom arms can be mounted, carrying instruments. Often used behind wings for side-lighting etc. Booms have a base plate or stand at the bottom and are tied off to the grid or fly floor at the top (not always necessary for short booms). Booms can also be fixed to the rear of the proscenium arch or hanging from the ends of lighting bars. 2) An arm mounted on a microphone stand.
BOOTH A place, usually enclosed and at the back of the auditorium, from which an electrician can operate lighting and sound equipment.
BORDER 1) A strip of curtain stretched horizontally across the front top of the stage behind the proscenium arch, fastened to a batten and fixed, used to form the top of a setting and mask the flies and lights. When several are used, they are often numbered towards the upstage area (first border, second border, etc.) or named for the scenes painted on them (foliage border, sky border, etc.)
BOUNCE 1) Diffuse light that has been reflected from the stage, walls, cyc etc. 2) Describes the fast in/out movement of "bouncing" the flown house curtain or drape, used during curtain calls. This can also apply to the fast blackout/lights up cues that happen at curtain calls.
BOX BOOM A front-of-house vertical lighting position (predominantly sidelight).
BOX OFFICE or BOX-OFFICE An office in a theatre, commonly in the outer lobby, where tickets are sold.
BOX SET Naturalistic setting of a complete room built from flats with only the side nearest the audience (the "fourth wall") missing.
BRACE 1) Angled strengthening timber within a flat. 2) Support for scenery (flattage) on stage. An extendable brace hooks into a screw eye on the flat and is weighted to the floor (commonly known as a "Stage Brace") A French brace is a right-angled non-adjustable triangular frame, made from timber, and attached to the flat with pin hinges. Often swung flush to the flat for storage or flying.
BRACE WEIGHT Cast iron weight placed on foot of extendible or French brace to prevent movement. Often referred to as a "Stage Weight" or "Pig" (as in pig iron).
BRAIL A rope, wire or chain attached at either end of a piece of scenery or lighting bar pulling it upstage or downstage of its naturally hanging position to allow another flying item to pass, or to improve its position.
BRAVO A shouted word of applause, meaning "Excellent!" The Italian forms "brava" (for an actress) and "bravi" (for two or more actors) are also used.
BREAK A LEG A superstitious and widely accepted alternative to "Good Luck" (which is considered bad luck in the theatre).
BREAK CHARACTER In acting, saying or doing something that is not in keeping with the character one is portraying. Most often this is accidental, as when an actor forgets a line or bit of business, or when distracted by an occurrence in the audience or offstage.
BREAK UP Too play a joke on a fellow actor so as to interrupt the delivery of his/her lines. Hence, an interruption caused by such a joke.
BREAKAWAY Prop or item of furniture designed to break/shatter with impact. Breakaway furniture and some props are usually capable of restoration to be "broken" again.
BRIDGE A walkway, giving access to technical and service areas above the stage or auditorium, or linking fly-floors.
BRING UP THE LIGHTS To increase the illumination.
BROADWAY The principal avenue running through the theatre district of New York City near Times Square, and thus the district, and collectively the theatres on or near this avenue; by extension, the commercial theatre of New York. The British equivalent is the West End.
BUILD 1) During lighting plotting, to construct a state from blackout, or to add to an existing state. 2) An increase in light or sound level. 3) The act of constructing a set or a costume.
BUMP To change the intensity of a lighting instrument or group of instruments instantaneously, usually for a short duration of time, and often to the beat of music as if to create a pulsing effect. Also, to turn up the lights, as in "Let's bump up the lights."
BURLESQUE 1) Originally, a play parodying drama or other literature in the 17th and 18th centuries. Later, a lighter, less literary, more absurd satire, with song and dance, well into the 19th century. Now any comic entertainment or revue sketch that pokes fun at current manners and mores. 2) A low comedy show featuring women in scanty costumes, bawdy humor, well into the middle of the 20th century.
BURNT CORK A makeup material used for blackening the skin.
BURNT OUT A colored gel that has lost its color or melted through due to excessive heat in front of a instrument. Dark blues and greens etc. are most susceptible, and may need replacing during a long run.
BUTTON In staging musicals, the "button" is a final stage picture usually before a blackout or fadeout. It is a visual clue to the audience that works much like an exclamation point at the end of a sentence. It's also an obvious way to beg for applause and, in effect, the applause becomes the "button." Thus “buttoning a scene” means finding a satisfactory conclusion that also leaves the audience wanting more.
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