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Ayrin Mackie & Andrew MacDonald-Smith in front of a cyclorama during Crazy for You (2017). Photo by David Cooper
From sitzprobe to periaktoi - 10 weird theatre terms and what they mean
Sometimes when we talk about the theatre, it can sound like a completely different language and we forget that not everyone knows what something like a proscenium is. For this post, we’ve chosen ten words you may have heard in the theatre before that you might be curious about.
No tape deck here! Did you know that most musicals are performed with a live orchestra? That means that the music to your ears during a show is all real and in-house, often with the musicians sitting directly below the stage in the orchestra pit.
So what is a sitzprobe? Well for starters, it has nothing to do with alien abduction, it's all about synchronicity. In order for the performers on-stage and the musicians off-stage to be in perfect sync with each other, they have to rehearse. The first time the two groups come together for a rehearsal, they will often have a sitzprobe. This is a rehearsal where the focus is entirely on the music and singing, with no set, costumes, or moving around on the stage. The word itself, sitzprobe, comes from the German for “seated rehearsal.”
Signage for the orchestra during Billy Elliot The Musical (2019)
2. Ghost Light
It shouldn’t be a surprise to learn that most theatres have a story about something haunting their hallways and greenrooms. Most stages around the world were built decades (if not centuries) ago, leaving plenty of time for a collection of spirits to gather that even the Ghostbusters would be jealous of. The Empress Theatre in Fort Macleod even affectionately named their ghost, supposedly of the former janitor, “Ed.”
It should also be no surprise that the theatre world is full of superstition (like saying “break a leg” instead of “good luck,” or muttering the real name of The Scottish Play). And while most theatres seem to have ghosts, the ghost light is technically supposed to get rid of them. A ghost light is one light that is on in the theatre at all times, when a show is not being performed, so that the space never falls completely dark. Usually placed on a stand and set in the middle of a stage when there is no performance, the ghost light is said to scare them away. There is also the belief that the light being on allows ghosts to perform on stage, making them happy and less likely to become vengeful spirits. Of course, the ghost light also serves a practical purpose, casting light on the many hazards that can exist backstage (like an open orchestra pit or props and scenery). Nobody wants to fall into a pile of music stands in the dark! Who knows, maybe Phantom of the Opera would have been a completely different story if they had just remembered to turn a ghost light on.
Proscenium is just a big scary word that means “the line that separates the stage and the audience.” While the proscenium is typically invisible to the naked eye, shows like our 2018 production of Twelfth Night use what is known as a false proscenium in the set design to create a frame for the action on stage. If you’re a fan of television and movies, consider the proscenium of the theatre like the fourth wall, the concepts are essentially the same. Our apologies, but before you get too comfortable with the idea of a proscenium stage, it should be noted that theatres can also be set up in many other configurations, such as thrust stages and arena stages (or theatre in-the-round).
Set design for Twelfth Night (2018) by The Old Trout Puppet Workshop. Photo by Trudie Lee
Behind every great work, there is almost always a dramaturg. Considered the most misunderstood field in theatre, dramaturgy can mean a lot of different things to alot of different people. We asked Theatre Calgary’s Artistic Associate, and resident dramaturg Jenna Turk about it, and this is what she had to say,
“For clarity’s sake, you should know that there are two kinds: First, Production Dramaturg –who works with the company during the rehearsal process on a pre-existing play, whose role is mostly in researching information pertinent to the play and its context. For example: If you set Shakespeare’s Macbeth in Hitler’s Germany, you might want to consider how time, place, cultural history, etc. impacts its presentation. Second, is the New Play Dramaturg –who works with the playwright during the development of an original work. This is what I do. The role has many parts, at once acting as advocate for the play, supporting the playwright through questions, readings, workshops, keeping an eye to the writing’s structure and form, clarifying theme, and ultimately asking “why this play?” and “why now”. Also, I use the German word dramaturg with the hard ‘g’, because in French dramaturge means playwright.”
While flipping through a house programme for any musical, you’ve probably seen the word swing under an actor’s name and wondered either what it meant, or why on earth so many musicals seem to have a character named ‘Swing’” that never makes an appearance. In the world of the theatre, there’s often a series of different words that mean the exact same thing (or something very similar) and the term swing is a part of one of these groups that includes understudy.
For performers in musical theatre, a swing is simply an understudy for a number of different roles. Now bear with us, because this is going to sound confusing but it is important to know that an understudy is also different to a swing. While an understudy is ready to fill in for just one of the lead roles, a swing is ready to fill in for a number of chorus or dancing roles if an understudy gets called up. Touring musicals will often have what is called a universal swing or super swing along for the ride.
6. Fight Call
The first rule about fight call is that we DO talk about fight call. Have you ever felt like a fight during a play or musical you’ve seen seems to have a rhythm to it? This is not a trick of your eyes, this is because every punch, kick and jab that you see is part of a piece that is carefully choreographed. This choreography, specifically fight choreography, is an important part of the overall production design of a show and keeping the actors safe.
Fight calls play a big role in this safety, and communication is key. Before every performance of a production with a fight sequence, actors will gather for a fight call to go over the movement, comments from the previous performance and any notes there might be. Fight calls happen for things as small as a slap, to full-cast brawls with swords and other weapons. While the fight on stage looks as real as possible, the goal of any theatre is to make sure that the injuries are not.
The wings of the theatre are where all the action happens that you can’t see (and no, they aren’t served with a side of ranch and celery). Found on the left and right-hand side of the stage, wings are spaces that can vary in size and shape. Typically masked with legs (this will make sense later, we promise), the wings are home to actors preparing to enter the stage, set pieces, quick-changes and technical equipment. Larger wings come in handy when a production has multiple moving parts and a large number of people involved.
For example, at Theatre Calgary, our wings on stage-right are substantially larger than our wings on stage-left. This proved to be helpful during our production of Billy Elliot The Musical because the orchestra was too large for the pit, it had no space to play until we put them in the stage-right wing.
A look into the wings (and legs & borders) of Belgrade Theatre. Via Twitter.
8. Legs & Borders
Two of the many different kinds of drapery in the theatre, legs and borders are used primarily to mask (or block) spaces from the audience’s view. Hung parallel to (and behind) the proscenium, the legs frame the acting space and create different alleys for things to happen off-stage. While legs are hung to the right and left of the stage, borders are a type of curtain that hang above.
Spanning the width of the stage, borders are short (and like all drapery, fire-proof) curtains used to mask the audience’s view of equipment and lighting that is above the stage. If these legs and borders are made out of anything other than drapery, like the brick in The Secret Garden, they are referred to as hard masking.
Another form of drapery in the theatre is called a cyclorama. Popularized in the 19th century, cycloramas not only sound cool, but they also look cool (or warm, depending on what mood you’re trying to set).
A large, full-stage drape at the very back of the stage, cycloramas may be curved or have ends that wrap-around to create an endless looking background. It is most often lit to create a sky or background colour of a specific mood and used primarily in musical and dance productions. Shows at Theatre Calgary that have used cycloramas include Crazy for You and A Thousand Splendid Suns. We like to think that the cyclorama is the ‘mood ring’ of a show (but much more accurate).
Ayrin Mackie & Andrew MacDonald-Smith in Crazy for You (2017). Photo by David Cooper
"You spin me right round, baby, right round...."
If you’ve seen a high school drama production, there is a really good chance that you’ve also seen a periaktoi. Used for centuries and like most of the roots of modern day theatre, it comes from the Greek meaning “revolving.”
One of the easiest (and most cost effective) ways to change a set, periaktois are triangular shaped pieces of scenery with different images or locations painted on each side. Typically 3-4 periaktois are arranged side-by-side to create one large image with actors or stage-hands spinning them around to create the right image for that scene. Periaktois assemble!
Image via whitman.edu