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, but there are numerous others out there.

  1. Gosh, that brings back memories. I was in a drama club thingy at the local theatre when I was in my early teens, and obssessed over the jargon I suspect. In the way you do.

    Interesting point about its necessity too. I think our trainees get irritated with us for being pedantic about our jargon, but it is necessary if we are all going to be sure you are talking about the same thing. And quicker too, once they’ve learnt it. Although not quite as necessary as in not dropping bits of the set on people’s heads.

  2. ‘In the way you do’ sounds odd. I meant ‘in the way _one_ does at that age’. I think that’s the first time I’ve ever used the word ‘one’ like that in anger. Deary me.

  3. It’s an interesting thing, theatre jargon. I take the technical theatre class at school and I’ve worked on a couple plays. I’ve found that even within theatre tech jargon there are even more specific fields — lighting lingo is seemingly a law unto itself sometimes…

  4. Lighting lingo is very complicated indeed. I can speak rudimentary ‘lightingese’ but tend to need a translator after a while. I haven’t done any backstage work for about eight years, so I tend to know more words for things the closer to the stage they are!

    And Sol, I apologise for causing you to use the word ‘one’ in anger. I do it quite often, I’m afraid. How I wish we had more than just the word ‘you’ for the second person. French (to take the example I know best) may be complicated with ‘tu’, ‘vous’ and ‘on’, but it’s certainly clearer.

    • Katja
    • December 16th, 2006

    It’s funny how these things become second nature – I read your post and must admit to mentally going, ‘huh? Why would this be wierd to anyone?’ The language is evidently totally ingrained in me after 7 years as a professional and however many decades before that as a keen amateur.

    I’d never heard house-left and right before, though, so you’ve educated me on that one!

  5. I’ve only ever heard house left and right used once, and it confused everyone mightily. It was because some people were coming in from the auditorium, but in the end we had to stick to stage left and stage right to avoid everyone’s heads exploding.

  1. January 17th, 2007
  2. December 17th, 2009
  3. November 29th, 2010

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