Like any field, the world of theater has its own unique vocabulary. But don’t worry, it’s not too difficult to learn! Although most folks are familiar with theatrical terms such as “intermission” and “rehearsal,” people outside the curtain may not know some of the more specific terms. Here are some of the terms you might come across in the world of theater—either on stage, behind the scenes, or in the audience.
Behind the Scenes
Before the performance takes place—and behind the curtain while it’s happening—these concepts drive the production.
- Book: The non-musical elements of a musical. “Book” refers to the dialogue itself as well as the overall dramatic structure of the show. The person who writes the book is called a “book writer.”
- Call time: The time upon which company members (the cast and crew, etc.) are contractually obligated to be at the theater and checked in for work.
- Dresser: A person whose job is to maintain and assist with the theater’s wardrobe. Duties include washing, repairing, and maintaining costumes, assisting actors with styling and quick changes, and other related tasks.
- Libretto: All the word-based elements of a musical or opera. “Libretto” is a popular term in musical theater used to refer to the book and the lyrics combined, especially when written by the same person—who, in that case, can be called the “librettist.”
- Lyrics: The words in the songs. The person who writes them is called the “lyricist.”
- Score: All the musical elements in a musical, including songs to be sung and interstitial music and underscoring. The “composer” is the person who creates the score.
- Stage manager: The person who coordinates the performance from behind the scenes. Their varying duties encompass a wide swath of administrative and organizational tasks. They are also responsible for “calling” the show—in other words, ensuring that everyone is where they need to be at the right time and maintaining detailed records of every performance.
- Workshop: A nebulous term in the colloquial sense (but a strict one when applied to union contracts) referring to the period of time during which a show is being reworked and evaluated while being rehearsed in a controlled, private environment before it is performed for a paying audience.
On the Stage
These terms are associated with the actual performance that happens on stage and all the elements and hard work that go into bringing it to life.
- 11 o’clock number: A song performed by the protagonist of a musical at a moment of intense emotion near the end of the show. The stereotypical version of this song is a vocal powerhouse (See “Rose’s Turn” from Gypsy), but it may also be something more understated depending on the show’s style.
- Ballet: A dance sequence that specifically tells part of a story without the aid of dialogue or lyrics. In this context, the word refers to the nonverbal storytelling purpose of the sequence, not the actual dance style. The three main types of ballet are classical, neoclassical, or contemporary.
- Blocking: The movements on stage that are not dance-based. For example, a character might lean forward while saying a line, or two characters may nearly collide while walking: That’s blocking.
- Choreography: The dance elements of a performance.
- Stage left/Stage right: A phrase that denotes direction on stage. If an actor is standing at the back of the stage facing the audience, the direction to their left is stage left, and the direction to their right is stage right. (See “House left/House right” below.)
- Standby: A performer whose exclusive job is to cover a leading role in case of last-minute changes. Unlike understudies, standbys are not typically part of the ensemble when not performing as a lead. They only perform when called upon to cover a lead role.
- Swing: A performer whose exclusive job is to cover multiple ensemble tracks. Swings are essentially the understudies’ understudies: If an ensemble member is suddenly called upon to cover a lead role, a swing will take their place in the ensemble. Swings typically know several tracks in any given show as they might be called upon to cover any number of them.
- Track: A “role” for an ensemble member who is typically unnamed on stage. An individual performer’s track is all of the scenes and songs they’re in, the costumes they wear, etc.
- Understudy: A member of the ensemble who may also perform a lead role if necessary.
In the Audience
Here are some words and phrases you might encounter while attending a show.
- Box seats: A small, mini-balcony of seats along the sides of the theater that typically seat only a few patrons at a time. Historically, these seats contained aristocrats who cared more about being seen than actually seeing the show (Tip: The sightlines aren’t usually very good from box seats, so if you want to see the show sit closer to the stage.)
- Chimes: A sound effect that is broadcast through the theater building to signal that the performance is about to begin. Typically, chimes will sound at five minutes to curtain and again about two minutes later, warning patrons to reseat themselves so they won’t miss any of the show.
- Hold: A period of time during which patrons who are not in their seats are not permitted to re-enter the house and be re-seated. This often happens at the beginning of each act and/or during particularly tense or effects-laden sections of the show as a measure to ensure safety, minimize disruptions, and preserve onstage illusions. If you find yourself stuck during a hold, be polite to the ushers and follow their directions so you can get back to your seat as soon as possible.
- House: Another word for theater, specifically the inner portion of the building where the stage and seats are located.
- House left/House right: A phrase that denotes where seats in the house are located. If you are facing the stage behind the very last row of seats in the very center, “house left” is to your left, and “house right” is to your right. (See “Stage left” and “Stage right” above.)
- Mezzanine: An upper level of seating. Some theaters may call the second level the “mezzanine” or the “balcony,” while others with more than two levels might label the second level the “mezzanine” and the third the “balcony.”
- Orchestra: The lower level of seating on par with the stage, not to be confused with the “orchestra pit.”
- Program: A brochure that lists information about the performance. If you’re attending a major show (think Broadway) be aware that there may be two types of “programs.” Ushers usually hand out a free brochure called a Playbill, but commercial shows might sell a larger, more elaborate brochure that contains high-quality production photos, behind-the-scenes interviews, and more.
- Stage door: The entrance through which the cast and crew members enter and exit the theater. It is a popular custom for actors to informally greet fans at this door after certain special performances. However, this is not a guarantee. Always check with theater security if you want to find out what your show’s rules are.
- Standing room: A space behind the last row of seats that is offered for sale so that excess patrons can stand and watch the show at a discounted price. Different theaters have different policies for standing room ticket sales—always check with the box office.
- Usher: A staff member who scans or takes tickets, hands out programs, and directs patrons to their seats. Ushers are usually responsible for maintaining order and ensuring that everyone follows house rules during the show.