This is a list containing some terms which you will come across quite often, and others which are less likely to appear, but which may still be useful. Please note that this list concentrates on the theatre. Other dramatic forms like TV shows and films have extensive vocabularies of their own, though there will be some overlaps in usage.
Stage direction A stage direction (SD), describes in writing what is meant to take place on stage at a given moment in the performance of a play. Stage directions come in many shapes and forms. Some are bound by convention, like “Enter” and “Exit” or “Exeunt”, which, together with the names of the characters explain when someone comes or goes. Other stage directions can be reminiscent of prose and may contain lengthy descriptions of characters and events. The modern convention is to put stage directions in [square brackets and italics].
At-rise description This explains what the stage looks like at the rising of the curtain or when the lights come up. In modern plays with complex sets, these can be quite detailed, whereas older plays or plays of a more minimalist bent tend to have no, or shorter, at-rise descriptions.
Dramatis personae List of characters in the play.
Speech header or speech prefix Tells the reader who is speaking.
Act From the Latin, meaning ‘something that is done’, an act is a portion of a play. Plays tend to contain one to five or more acts. Breaks between the acts allow stage personell to rearrange the sets and for the actors to change costumes.
Scene From an old Latin and Greek word for ‘stage’ or ‘background’, a scene is a further subdivision of a play. Acts may consist of several scenes. In renaissance theatre, a scene ends when all the characters have left the stage. The lights and curtains (in places where there are lights or curtains) do not have to come down between scenes.
Act, scene and line numbers In many types of drama it is common to refer to line numbers instead of pages. For renaissance drama one cites the act, the scene and the line in this fashion: (Titus Andronicus 3.2.11-15)
Through-line numbering Instead of dividing the play up into acts and scenes, through-line numbering simply counts the lines from number one to the end of the play, and is cited like so: (Titus Andronicus 1455-1459)
Many modern dramas use page numbers instead. If there are no line numbers of either kind, page numbers are what you should use.
Chorus In Greek drama, a group of people speaking or singing in unison, commenting on the action of the play and making value judgements of characters’ behaviour. In later plays often reduced to one stage person, or even intergrated into another character.
Blocking Term used to describe where characters and objects are in relation to one another at a given moment in a play. Blocking is often meaningful in and of itself, but is not always indicated fully by the stage directions. Readers (and theatre directors) may find that different types of constellations on stage might give different kinds of meaning to certain key moments in plays.
Stage areas The practice of blocking divides the stage into several areas, which are sometimes indicated in stage directions. These are:
- Stage left The actor’s stage left. From the audience’s point of view this is called House right.
- Stage right The actor’s stage right. From the audience’s point of view this is called House left.
- Up-stage The rear of the stage.
- Down-stage The front of the stage.
Within is used in stage directions where the speaker cannot be seen, because they speak from somewhere “inside” the set.
Above is used for when someone speaks from an elevated position, like a balcony.
Types of theatre
There are four main types of theatre stages, depicted here in simplified form.
The proscenium arch is the most common nowadays. The arch functions as a ‘frame’ though which the audience views the action.
A theatre in the round is a (roughly) circular stage, surrounded by the audience on all or most sides. These are often used for outdoors performances.
A thrust stage extends (‘thrusts’) into the audience who are able to watch the action from three sides. This was the typical form of renaissance playhouses.
The amphitheatre is less common nowadays, but was the dominant type in ancient times.
All kinds of variations or combinations of these types of theatre can be found around the world.