Can someone strike the stage left flat?
Every profession and hobby has its own language, the words that make sense to those in the know, but sound like gibberish to everyone else. Social groupings have them as well, of course, but these seem to serve a different purpose. Professional jargon is what I’m talking about here, and specifically the jargon of the theatre. Every production I’ve done as an adult has been in a professional theatre of some size or other, so I’m becoming a fairly fluent speaker, and every production has involved at least one first-time performer who had to get up to speed on theatre talk very quickly.
Some theatre-speak aids the cast and crew during rehearsal (both in terms of people and the technical aspects), particularly the words which refer to places on the stage. Stage left and stage right refer, of course, to the stage as viewed from the actor’s perspective rather than an audience member’s perspective. If you really want to swap sides, you can refer to house left and house right, but it’s very rarely necessary. Then we have upstage and downstage. Down-stage is near the audience, up-stage is away from the audience. This is because stages used to be (and sometimes still are) raked (another theatre word, which means sloped), and someone who went up-stage really would be going ‘up’, at least a little bit. It’s much simpler for the director to say ‘come in from up-stage left’ than to have to negotiate which left he or she means. Plus the actors, stage manager and all the rest can just note down ‘USL’ and everyone knows what they mean.
Others refer to things and actions in the theatre. A tab is not a key on the computer keyboard, but the theatre word for curtains. Treads have nothing to do with tyres, as they are steps or stairs. You can’t generally live in flats – they are bits of the set which form walls. If something is flown, it doesn’t quite fly really, but is attached to ropes above the stage and goes up and down. An apron is not an item of clothing, but the area of the stage in front of the proscenium arch, which is itself the frame of the metaphorical window between the audience and the actors. A barn door is actually much smaller than it sounds, as it’s attached to the front of certain lights (properly called lanterns) to allow the crew to adjust how far the light (as in photons – see why the things that create light are called lanterns?) spills across the stage. Striking something doesn’t mean attacking it, but simply removing it from the stage. Pancake is sadly not edible, as it refers to a type of make-up. And most important of all to stage crew, gaffer tape seems to mean much the same as ‘deity’, as certain techies certainly seem to worship the stuff.
Why? Why do we use such a bewildering array of words? Surely curtains, steps, walls and so on would do just as well? Actually, no. Using a strict set of words is vital for clear communication and for the safety of all concerned, both the technical crew and the warm props (a term which originally referred to extras, which has evolved to become a mildly derogatory name that some crew use to refer to all actors). Steps could just as easily refer to the dance steps. Walls would be more likely to refer to the permanent walls of the theatre. And so on. And so tabs will never mean anything other than curtains. Treads will never mean anything other than steps. In an environment where things need to happen quickly and accurately, often in the dark, this strange set of words aids the process no end. It may sound like nonsense to the outsider or the newcomer, but it helps the entire bunch of theatrical madmen and madwomen to be referring to exactly the same thing. A few seconds of explanation eliminated can help a production flow much more quickly, and can almost certainly save life and limb on occasion.
If this fascinates you, the best web-based glossary of theatre terms that I have managed to track down is at scenography.co.uk, but there are numerous others out there.