Theatre Terms | AACT

Theatre Terms

image of question markAs a service to the theatre community, AACT provides over 1000 definitions of theatrical terms.  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
M.C. Abbreviation for master of ceremonies.
MacGuffin (McGuffin)

A MacGuffin (or McGuffin) is an object, device, or event necessary to the plot and the motivation of the characters, but typically unimportant or irrelevant in itself. Usually, the MacGuffin is revealed early on, and becomes less important once the storyline is set in motion.

Primarily a film term, it was popularized by Alfred Hitchcock, who called it "the mechanical element that usually crops up in any story. " Examples in his films include the meaning of "The 39 Steps" (also key in the stage version), the uranium granules in Notorious, and the stolen money that motivates all of Marion Crane's actions in Psycho. These are known as "pure MacGuffins" because they follow Hitchcock's strict criteria: they must be incredibly important to the characters, but otherwise quite vague and sometimes meaningless. Some non-Hitchcock films use the same device:  The Maltese Falcon has the falcon itself, and Citizen Kane has "Rosebud," uttered by a dying Charles Foster Kane.

While not always named as such, a MacGuffin-like element can be found in plays and musicals. In Into the Woods, for example, there are the four items the  Baker and his Wife must collect to break the family curse. The items themselves are of minimal value. The only thing that gives them importance is that they're all required for the Witch's potion. And yet, from a structural perspective, the four items connect all major characters and drive the main plot.


MAHL STICK A short stick used by scenic painters to steady the hand by resting its padded end against the surface being painted.
MAIN STAGE or MAINSTAGE The principal performance space for a theatre company.
MAKE AN ENTRANCE The act of walking onto the stage in view of the audience.
MAKE FAST To tie a rope line, or to tie off, in order to secure a flat, curtain, or other stage object.
MAKEUP or MAKE-UP 1) verb. To change the appearance of one's face and other exposed surfaces of the body for acting through cosmetics, false hair, etc., as in "Where do we go to make-up?" 2) noun. The cosmetics themselves, as in theatrical makeup. Thus, make-up table, make-up room, make-up kit (a portable box for carrying make-up supplies).
MANUSCRIPT The unprinted text of a dramatic composition, often in the handwriting of the author. Some scripts are available from publisher/agents as photocopies of typewritten or computer printed pages. Normally this indicates an older or seldom-performed title. The word "script" is a shortened form of this word, but now refers to the printed text.
MARIONETTE A puppet controlled by strings.
MARKING OUT Sticking tapes to the floor of the rehearsal space to indicate the groundplan of the scenery. Also for marking position of furniture etc. within a set.
MAROON An electrically detonated pyrotechnic device giving the effect of a loud explosion. Made from gunpowder encased in stout cardboard or string. Must be used within a metal bomb tank. Originally developed in the second half of the last century to simulate the sound of cannon. It was often used to call out the volunteer lifeboat crew in an emergency.
MARQUEE A canopy or roof that projects over a theatre entrance towards the street, usually bearing a sign that advertises the names of the theatre, current production, actors, etc. Now, often used to mean only the sign.
MASK 1) A covering worn by an actor to conceal his/her face or head. 2) To conceal part of the stage from the audience, by means of a masking piece.
MASKING Neutral material or designed scenery which defines the performance area and conceals the technical areas. (e.g. Masking flat)
MASKING TAPE Paper-backed tape used to mark out the boundary of a surface to be painted or sprayed.
MASKS OF COMEDY AND TRAGEDY The masks represent two of the nine Greek muses. Comedy is represented by Melpomene [mel-po-men-ee] and tragedy by Thalia [thay-lee-a]. In Greek mythology, the nine muses were goddesses of the arts and sciences, and were daughters of Zeus, the king of the gods, and Mnemosyne, the goddess of memory. Melpomene, the goddess of tragedy, is usually shown holding a tragic mask, the club of Hercules and a wreath of vine leaves. Thalia, the muse of comedy, is depicted holding a comic mask, a shepherd's crook, and a wreath of ivy. The muses were worshiped throughout ancient Greece.
MASQUE Originally, a procession of masked figures in medieval performances; later, an entertainment (particularly the first half of the 17th century) presented as part of a special celebration, with or without dialogue, usually mythological or allegorical, with music, songs, dances.
MASTER 1) An overall control on a lighting or sound control board. The Grand Master takes precedence over all other controls. See Submaster. 2) An original (e.g. Master tape, master plan) which should be used only to make a copy from which to work. 3) A Department Head (e.g. Master Carpenter, Master Electrician).
MASTER OF CEREMONIES The person who announces the various parts of a program.
MATRIX OUTPUT Set of outputs on a mixing desk which allows the user to preset a number of output configurations. e.g., on a 8 x 8 matrix, each of the 8 group outputs from the channels can be routed to any or all of the matrix outputs.


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