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
C CLAMP Heavy metal clamp used for securing heavy items to a batten, pole, standard, etc. Requires a spanner/wrench to tighten.
CABARET A night club, restaurant, or the like, where performers dance and sing; the entertainment so provided. The audience is normally seated at small tables.
CABLE 1) Noun: Wiring, temporarily rigged, to carry electrical current. Depending on the size of the cable (current carrying capacity), cables are used to supply individual instruments, whole dimmer racks, or carry signals from a microphone etc. 2) Verb: As in "to cable," meaning to link two electrical elements with cabling.
CABLE GRIP A U-shaped clip and saddle used for terminating wire rope. Also known as a Bulldog, Dog Grip or Wire Rope Clip.
CABLE TIE Lockable (and sometimes releasable) plastic strap used to tie a bundle of cables together, among many other things.
CAD Computer-Aided Design. Using a computer to help with 2D plans and drawings, or increasingly for 3D visualization of how a set will look, and how lighting will affect it.
CALL 1) A notification of a working session, such as a rehearsal call. 2) The period of time to which the above call refers--for example, "Your call for tomorrow night's show is 7:00 p.m." 3) A stage manager's announcement to summon actors to the stage. A request for an actor to come to the stage because an entrance is imminent is a courtesy call and should not be relied on by actors - e.g. "This is your call for the finale Mr. Smith and Miss Jones") 4) An acknowledgement of applause (e.g. Curtain Call) 5) A technical staff person with the script (book) is said to be "calling the cues," especially in terms of stage lighting cues.
CAMEO ROLE A minor role with particularly attractive acting possibilities.
CAMLOCK (Trade Name) Single pole connector used on professional power distribution & dimming systems. A separate connector is used for each phase/neutral of the supply. Originally developed for touring concerts, as power demands increase it's finding more use in theatres.
CANTILEVERED STRUCTURE A concealed support behind an overhanging scenic piece onstage, such as a balcony.
CANVAS Sturdy material, usually heavy cotton, used to cover flats as a less heavy (and less expensive) alternative to plywood.
CAPACITY The total number of seats available for the audience, as in seating capacity.
CARDIOD A cardioid microphone exhibits an acoustic pickup pattern that, when graphed in two dimensions, resembles a cardioid shape.
CARPET HOIST In the counterweight system of stage rigging, a way of separately counterbalancing a scenic piece, or a property such as a carpet, so that it can be lowered and detached from its lines for use during a performance without the removal of the weights.
CARRY 1) To act so that the audience can see and hear clearly. "His voice carries to be back row." 2) To be the acting mainstay of a production, as in "The supporting actors are fine, but Cyrano really carries the show."
CAST LIST A list of actors with their roles.
CASTING The process of the director choosing actors to perform the characters in the play.
CASTING AGENT A person who engages to find actors for a production.
CASTING DIRECTOR A casting agent in charge of subordinate casting agents.
CASTING OFFICE A company that makes available suitable actors for a producer.
CASUALS Mostly British: Part-time temporary technicians (paid by the hour).
CAT CALL or CATCALL A noise, originally one like the cry of a cat, uttered or produced by an instrument, to show disapproval. Now generic to any sound of disapproval, usually from an audience.
CATHARSIS A Greek term for the emotional release (literally purgation or purification) in a spectator of a staged tragedy. Aristotle believed that tragedies were healthy outlets for emotion, and thus a deeply moving experience is often called "cathartic."
CATWALK An access walkway to equipment. Unlike a bridge, not necessarily across a void.
CEILING A flat, in one piece, or hinged in two or more pieces, or a cloth or drape, hung horizontally to form the top of an interior set, concealing the flies.
CENSOR To cause a dramatic piece or production to be suppressed or altered by governmental action, when it does not conform to legal requirements (now chiefly nudity or obscenity). Also the name of a government official charged with this responsibility--although commonly not so titled. Hence, censorship.
CENSORSHIP Strictly speaking, censorship is a governmental action, in which a play or production is altered or even banned because it violates certain statutes, such as for nudity, language, or blasphemy. While the term is often used loosely to refer to any changes to a script, or any decision not to produce a play, such usage stretches the meaning considerably.
CENTER LINE Imaginary line running down the stage through the exact center of the proscenium opening. Often marked as CL on stage plans. Normally marked on the stage floor and used as a reference when marking out or assembling a set.
CENTER OF INTEREST The point in a stage picture upon which the attention of the audience is meant to rest, shifting with the movements of the actors, lighting, or other reasons.
CHANNEL 1) A complete control path for signals in lighting or sound equipment. 2) In stereo recordings, the two outputs are referred to as left channel and right channel.
CHARACTER 1) One of the characters in a play. 2) A type of personality portrayed on the stage, as in "I need to get into character," or "Please, stay in character."
CHARACTER ACTOR An actor who specializes in one or more roles that call for characteristics quite different from his/her, as the roles of old men, gangsters, society matrons, etc.
CHARACTER PART An acting role calling for emphasis on the characteristic peculiarities (e.g., the amorous old man, the shrewish wife, the foreigner with an accent, etc.)
CHASE Repeated sequence of changing lighting states that gives the effect of the moving lights, as in "chase lights."
CHEAT SHEET 1) A smaller version of the lighting plan, used by the lighting designer during the lighting plot. 2) Any such version of a complete list, including a cheat sheet for costumes, sets, cues, etc.
CHECK 1) Opposite of Build; a smooth diminishment of light or sound level. 2) A test of an electronic or other technical system, as in to run a sound check.
CHEW THE SCENERY To overact, especially in emotional scenes. Sometimes, also scene chewer.
CHIEF ELECTRICIAN The senior member of the theatre's stage lighting team, although not necessarily the lighting designer.
CHILDREN'S THEATRE A theatre specializing in entertainment for children. The onstage participants may nor may not be children themselves.
CHINAGRAPH PENCIL Usually white, wax-based pencil used for marking magnetic tape prior to splicing. Also used for marking identifying numbers of lighting gels.
CHOREOGRAPHER One who designs (and often directs) the dances and stage movement in a musical production.
CHOREOGRAPHY The creation and preparation of stage dances.
CHORINE A former term for a chorus girl.
CHORUS 1) A group of singers and/or dancers performing as a unit; group singing or dancing; a song or part of a song to be sung by more than on person. 2) A group or even a single actor who provides commentary on the action of a play, as in a Greek tragedy. 3) In musical theatre, songs traditionally were constructed in verse-chorus format. The verse sets up the song and is often particular to character and situation; the chorus is the main tune and the one most people remember. For example, in "The Surry With the Fringe On Top," the verse begins "When I take you out tonight with me…." and the chorus begins "Chicks and ducks and geese better scurry" and continues to the end of the song.
CIRCLE The balcony with tiered seating above the stalls. Also known as Dress Circle or Grand Circle.
CIRCUIT 1) The means by which a instrument is connected to a dimmer or patch panel. Numbered for reference. 2) A complete electrical "loop" around which current can flow.
CIRCUIT BREAKER An electro-mechanical "fuse" that can be reset, rather than having to be replaced. Available in the same ratings as fuses.
CLAPTRAP or CLAP-TRAP Originally, a noisemaking device used to stimulate applause. Now, any exaggerated or artificial gesture, rhetorical delivery, or content.
CLAQUE A group of people hired to lead the applause.
CLASSIC ACTING An acting style marked by restraint and formality in the depiction of passion, by polished, stately movement, gesture, and delivery.
CLASSICAL DRAMA Greek and Roman drama; drama that imitates Greek or Roman models.
CLEAR A command by the stage manager before the curtain rises to get stagehands and unneeded actors off the stage. Also "Clear the stage."
CLEAT Piece of timber or metal for tying off a rope line. Used when flying or for holding scenic pieces together with a cleat line.
CLEAT LINE Rope passed through cleats on two adjacent flats alternately to hold the flats together.
CLIMAX The point in a dramatic work, or one of its parts, at which the interest or emotional effect is most intense. In acting, a rising climax is marked by quicker movement and a higher pitch of the voice, and a falling climax by no less suspense but by a seemingly calmer demonstration of intensity.
CLIPPING Distortion in a sound signal caused by an amplifier or mixer being unable to handle the level of signal being fed to it.
CLOSE 1) To conclude or end a production. A show closes at the end of its last performance. 2) To perform in the last number on a program, as in "She closed the show with a salute to the Armed Forces."
CLOVE HITCH Invaluable knot that every technician should know.
CLOWN WHITE A makeup material (now mostly zinc oxide) used by clowns and other performers who must appear pale or white-faced.
COLOR CHANGER 1) Scroller, where a long string of up to 16 colors is passed horizontally in front of a lamp. Remotely controlled by the lighting desk. 2) Wheel : Electrically or manually operated disc which is fitted to the front of a lamp with several apertures holding different color filters which can be selected to enable color changes. Can also be selected to run continuously. 3) Semaphore, where framed colors are electrically lowered into place in front of the lamp. Remotely controllable. Can perform additive color mixing by lowering two colors into position at the same time. 4) Magazine : Manual semaphore-type device used on the front of a followspot.
COLOR FILTER A sheet of plastic usually composed of a colored resin sandwiched between two clear pieces. The colored filter absorbs all the colors of light except the color of the filter itself, which it allows through. For this reason, denser colors get very hot, and can burn out very quickly. At one time, filters were made from gelatin, from which came the still-used name "gel."
COLOR MIXING Combining the effects of two or more lighting gels. 1) Additive : Focusing two differently colored beams of light onto the same area (e.g. cyc floods). Combining colors in this way adds the colors together, eventually arriving at white. The three primary colors additively mix to form white, as do the complementary colors. 2) Subtractive : Placing two different gels in front of the same lamp. Subtractive mixing is used to obtain a color effect that is not available from stock or from manufacturers. Because the ranges of color are so wide, the need for subtractive mixing is reducing. Combining colors in this way reduces the light towards blackness. The three primary colors mix subtractively to form black (or to block all the light).
COMEDY A play, varying over the centuries in its characteristics, but generally light and humorous, with a happy ending. Comedy is more thoughtful than farce, more realistic in character and situation.
COMEDY OF CHARACTER A comedy that relies on character study for its chief interest, as opposed to slapstick, farce or other stylistic approaches.
COMEDY OF HUMORS A realistic, satiric comedy in which the dramatic action evolves from a single dominant trait in the character of each person satirized. 17th & 18th centuries.
COMEDY OF MANNERS A comedy that is gay, witty, sophisticated, and usually set against a background of aristocratic or well-to-do society. The terms "comedy of manners," "drawing-room comedy" and "high comedy" are often interchangeable.
COMEDY-DRAMA A play somewhat heavier than comedy, but with a happy ending.
COMIC OPERA A musical dramatic entertainment consisting of dialogue both spoken and sung, with comic incidents and characters and a happy ending. Sometimes synonymous with musical comedy, but more often used to refer to late 19th century works such as those by Gilbert & Sullivan.
COMIC RELIEF A comic or farcical scene or incident introduced into tragedy or any serious play to give the audience a momentary respite from emotional tension before further tension is required.
COMMAND PERFORMANCE In Britain, a performance given at the royal family's request By extension, even in the U.S., it has come to mean a required event or activity.
COMMEDIA DELL'ARTE A comedy of stock characters with masks, in which the actors improve on a prearranged scenario. Developed in Italy, 16th to 18th centuries, but influential on acting and dramatic forms ever since.
COMMUNITY THEATRE "Community theatre" generally refers to a nonprofit theatre company that serves a locality, relies heavily on volunteers, and does not use Equity (union) actors on a regular basis. Community theatres tend to be operated for local recreation, education, and commonly seek to obtain the patronage and production participation of the community as a whole. Note that the spelling of "theater" or "theatre" is a matter of choice. "Theatre" is most common in Great Britain and France. In the United States, both spellings are used.
COMPANDER Outboard sound equipment. Combination of a Compressor and an Expander.
COMPANY 1) The cast, crew and other staff associated with a show. 2) The theatre organization, a theatre company. 3) A group of actors appearing together in one or more dramatic performances.
COMPLEMENTARY COLORS Pairs of colors which, when additively mixed, combine to produce white light. Examples are red + cyan, green + magenta, and yellow + blue.
COMPLIMENTARY A seat or ticket that is provided free, as to a reviewer, parents of a cast member, a contributor or other supporter.
COMPRESSOR 1) A device that pumps out liquids or air under pressure, usually for spraying paint or chemicals. 2) A piece of sound processing equipment that ensures all wanted signals are suitably placed between the noise and distortion levels of the recording medium. It evens out the unwanted changes in volume you get with close-miking, and in doing so, adds punch to the sound mix. A limiter is used to stop a signal from exceeding a preset limit. Beyond this limit, the signal level will not increase, no matter how loud the input becomes. A limiter is often used to protect speaker systems (and human ears) by preventing a system from becoming too loud.
CONCESSIONAIRE A person who buys the right to operate a refreshment stand or similar business supported by the purchases of theatre patrons.
CONDENSER LENS Loosely applied to any spotlight lens which condenses diverging rays into a beam, but more correctly to the short focus combination of two or more lenses in a jacket used for illuminating a slide or effect disc. Also used in some profile lamps and followspots to produce a smoother light (especially for gobo work).
CONDENSER MIC A microphone that uses the varying capacitance between two plates with a voltage applied across them to convert sound to electrical pulses. Condenser microphones need a power supply to provide the voltage across the plates, which may be provided by a battery within the case of the microphone, or it may be provided from an external phantom power supply. A condenser mic is more sensitive and has a faster reaction to percussive sounds than a Dynamic mic and produces a more even response.
CONDUIT Metal or plastic pipe used to carry electrical conductors as part of a permanent electrical installation. Also used to add weight to the bottom of a flown cloth.
CONFIDANT or CONFIDANTE The role of a close friend of a principal character, used dramatically for purposes of exposition, characterization, or development of dramatic action. The lead character can thus express ideas, explain feelings, or outline plans of action in a very natural way.
CONTACT MIC A microphone that directly picks up the sound transmitted by a solid material.
CONTRACT To secure the rights to perform a work, a theatre company must sign a binding legal document in which your company agrees to all stipulations therein. When you sign the contract and it is approved, you will be granted a license to perform the play. Read the contract carefully before signing, since it sets forth the number of performances, the performance venue, cost of tickets, and production dates that you provided the playwright's representative. When you are granted a performance license, by law the show you license must be performed "as is." Otherwise, any changes violate the authors' rights under federal copyright law. (See below) If you offer more than the contracted number of performances, or charge more than the contract says, or if your theater holds more people than you stated in your application, you are liable to legal action.
CONTRAST Diversity, variation, used to heighten interest, as in dramatic construction, acting, lighting, set design.
CONTRIVED Said of a character, and ending, etc., which is arranged by a dramatist, perhaps artfully, without concerns for plausibility.
CONVENTION 1) A method or style of production that acknowledges the artificiality of the stage, rather than reproduce the conditions of actual life outside the theatre. 2) Short for Stage Convention (which see).
CONVERSATION PIECE A play that emphasizes dialogue rather than action or movement.
COOL COLOR Generally, a color that is in the blue/green/purple range, as opposed to a warm (yellow/orange/red).
COPYRIGHT A legal privilege enabling the owner of a dramatic piece to control its performance and publication during a fixed period of time. Also to register work for copyright. Playwrights protect their ownership of their work by copyrighting it. This allows them or their representatives to decide who may perform the show, where it may be performed, how it may be performed, and how much will be charged for licensing the work. Copyright also allows the author to demand that you present the play as written, with no changes, unless granted by the playwright or representative. Without prior permission your actions will subject you to legal action for breaching the terms of your license. If you feel you must experiment with re-conceiving a show, there are many already in the public domain (Shakespeare, Gilbert and Sullivan, Oscar Wilde) that are no longer protected by copyright. Note the spelling with "right," not "write." The word "copyright" literally means owning the rights to making a copy.
Copywrite Incorrect spelling for copyright (which see).
CORNER PLATE A triangle of plywood used to strengthen the corners of a flat.
COSTUME DRAMA A dramatic piece that requires clothing not now current, and especially of a much earlier period.
COSTUME FITTING The trying on of a costume for fit and appearance, in the presence of a costumer.
COSTUME PARADE Cast members appear in costume, on stage and under state lighting, so that the costume designer and costume assistants can see how they look. At the same time, the director and lighting designer usually are present for their input as well.
COSTUME PLOT A list of characters, showing the costumes to be worn in a production, scene by scene.
COSTUMER Usually the costume designer, but sometimes the designer's chief assistant.
COUNT THE HOUSE 1) Determine the number of seats sold. 2) To stare at the audience while acting.
COUNTER In acting, to maintain the balance of the stage picture by moving across the stage in a direction opposite to that in which another actor has moved or is moving. For example, if two actors are standing stage left and a third joins them, one of the original two may cross in the other direction. This is, of course, if it also fits the sense of the scene.
Counter-Rake (or Counter Rake)

Refers to the modification of furniture or props by shortening the upstage legs (or lengthening the downstage portion in the case of solid units). so that they can stand level on a raked stage. 

COUNTERWEIGHT A standard weight (60 or 30 lb.) used in a counterweight flying system.
COUNTERWEIGHT SYSTEM Method of flying scenery which uses a cradle containing weights to counterbalance the weight of flown scenery.
COUP DE THEATRE 1) A Theatrical success. 2) A showy or sensational device in stagecraft. 3) A sudden and unforeseen--but not necessarily illogical--turn of events in the course of a play. A French expression, meaning "a theatrical stroke."
COVE Front of house catwalk lighting positions.
CREATE A ROLE To play in an acting role in the first production of a dramatic piece.
CREPE HAIR or CREPE WOOL An artificial, braided hair, commonly made of wool or vegetable fiber, in various colors, used in creating facial hair. It can be cut, combed and glued bit by bit to the face to form a beard, a mustache, sideburns, and eyebrows.
CRESCENT WRENCH An adjustable wrench, named for the curved shape of the tool. Sometimes called a C-wrench.
CREW The stage crew, the team of workers who handle technical chores during a performance.
CREW CHIEF or CREW HEAD The chief of the stage staff, in charge of building and shifting scenery.
CROSBYS A term for saddle and "U" cable clamps (from the manufacturers name).
CROSS To move across the stage from one position to another, especially when passing in front of another actor. Sometimes, a stage direction, as in "When Ellen enters, cross left."
CROSS FADE 1) Bringing up a new lighting area onstage while at the same time bringing down another area somewhere else on stage. 2) Also applies to sound effects/music.
CROSSLIGHT or CROSS-LIGHT To illuminate the stage with two crossing beams of light. Thus, to cross-light, and crosslighting.
CROSSOVER 1) A route leading from one side of the stage to the other, out of the audiences view. 2) An electronic filter in a sound system that routes sound of the correct frequency to the correct part of the speaker system. Different speakers handle high frequencies (tweeters) and low frequencies (woofers). Sometimes known as a crossover network. An active crossover splits the signal from the mixing desk into high, mid and low frequencies which are then sent to three separate amplifiers.
CSI Compact Source Iodide : A high intensity discharge lamp. Most often used in followspots, because it has a color temperature (approx. 4000K) close to that of the tungsten halogen lamps.
CUE 1) The last words of one actor's spoken dialogue, which the next actor to speak needs as a signal to begin. When actors leave dead space before beginning their lines of dialogue, a director may ask them to "Pick up your cues." 2) The spoken or written command given to technical staff to carry out a particular operation during a performance. A cue may indicate a change in lighting levels, run a sound effect, or close the main drape. Normally given by stage management, but may be taken directly from the action (i.e. a Visual Cue).
CUE LIGHT System for giving technical staff silent cues by light. Red light means stand-by or warn, green light means go. Ensures greater precision when visibility or audibility of actors is limited. Sometimes used for cueing actors onto the set. For technical cues, lights are normally now used just as a backup to cues given over the headset system.
CUE TO CUE Cutting out action and dialogue between cues during a technical rehearsal, to save time.
CUEING A standard sequence for giving verbal cues : "Stand-by Sound Cue 19" (Stand-by first) "Sound Cue 19 Go" (Go last).
CURTAIN A movable drape or screen of cloth used to conceal all or part of the stage. Sometimes short for the 'main curtain,' which rises or parts at the beginning of a performance, and falls or closes, at the end. In this sense, it is different from the act or scene curtain. By extension, the start of a performance ("What time is curtain on Sunday?")
CURTAIN CALL The appearance of the actors at the end of a performance, to accept the applause of the audience.
CURTAIN MUSIC Music played just before the beginning or resumption of an act.
CURTAIN SPEECH A speech at the beginning or end of a performance, usually a short acknowledgment delivered in front of the closed main drape by the author, manager, or an actor. Prior to curtain, it may be used to welcome the audience, specify emergency exits, rules on photos and electronic devices, and to promote the producing theatre's programs.
CURTAIN TIME The time when a performance is scheduled to begin. Often shortened to "curtain," as in "What time is curtain?"
CURTAIN WARMER Soft light projected onto the grand drape or main curtain when the audience is being seated.
CUT 1) To omit lines or business provided in the script, usually intentionally. Also, such an omission. Thus, "This version of 'The Taming of the Shrew' cut the prologue." And "I checked, and the cuts in the first act were significant." 2) To shut off lights or sound, as in "Cut the spot!"
CUT DROP A drop, painted and then cut out so that the spectator sees a scene formed not only by the drop, but also by whatever is placed behind it.
CUT VERSION A script with dialogue deleted.
CYC BORDER A strip of border lights used to illuminate the cyclorama from above.
CYC FLOOD Floodlight, usually with an asymmetrical reflector, designed to light a cyc or backcloth from the top or bottom. In the US, a flood at the top of the cyc is a CYC OVER, and a flood at the bottom is a CYC UNDER.
CYCLORAMA Usually just "cyc" (rhymes with 'bike'). A plain cloth or plastered wall filling the rear of the stage. The term is often loosely applied to a blue skydrop, or any flattage at the rear of the stage. May be curved at the ends--and indeed the original sense of the word was a curving or u-shaped curtain. Typical made of canvas or heavyweight cotton duck, suspended from the grid, and reaching to the floor. The term "cyclorama" is also used to refer to the lighting instrument that covers the actual "cyc" with light. Newer models of these instruments include LED styles that require far less energy, and produce far less heat. Some are multifunction devices: dimmer, infinite-shades color changer, light source projector, strobe effect and optics with precision adjustment.
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