Theater 101

I am always honored to work with students on stage, and as a guide. I was fortunate enough to cut my teeth at Upper Darby Summer Stage, which is celebrating its 40th season. In 6 weeks, Summer Stage presents more than 35 performances, including the Children’s Theater and Mainstage performances, an evening of scenes and one-act plays, a dance troupe performance and cabaret production. You can read more about them here.

This month, I am serving as a guest artists for a small performing arts camp with Cornerstone Music Studios, teaching about the basics of theater and the subtleties of G&S. This summer, they are putting on Pirates of Penzance. I’ve always thought that theater was a lot like a Pirate ship, where everyone has their own specific job to do, and when everyone does their job well, things run smoothly and everyone has a good time, but, when people don’t do their jobs, or try and do OTHER people’s jobs, the ship is sunk. I’ve worked on a few productions now that were a combination of professionals and aspiring professional young actors, and have been disappointed by the lack of guidance given to them. Here they are, DYING to be instructed, and then are expected to learn things only by watching? That makes no sense to me. How are you supposed to just know to be quiet backstage, or figure out the traffic patterns of “If you see someone running for an entrance or quick change GET OUT THE WAY!” You will be knocked over, because you shouldn’t be congregating backstage anyway. With that in mind, I did a little write up about the basic rules of the theater.

Hierarchy of the Theater:

The Captain of this ship, and every theater vessel is the Director. They are in charge of telling people where to go on stage and when, and to help them with characterization (aka make believe aka acting) and learning of their lines. If you overstep your bounds and tell another student where they SHOULD be on stage or what they SHOULD be singing in your opinion, you have overstepped your duties and its off to the plank with yee!!

Your Quarter Master, who on a pirate ship, has the same authority as your Captain (just like on a pirate ship) is your Musical Director also known as the Conductor; they have a big job to do as well in helping you with your music. Once the show starts running, the person conducting the show is commonly referred to as Maestro.

The Sailing Master, who in Pirate days oversaw the navigation of the ship, is the Stage Manager. Once the show is up and sailing, The Stage Manager is in charge of making sure everything runs smoothly, everyone makes his or her entrances on time. Backstage, The Stage Manager is in charge.

Just like on a pirate ship; where the Sailing master has a Boatswain to help take care of the ship and supervise supplies, the Stage Manager has assistant, known as the ASM (or Assistant Stage Manager) who is also in charge of making sure props are in order and no one gets hurt backstage. Have a question about an entrance? Ask the ASM. Want to know the schedule? Ask the ASM. Need to use the bathroom? Ask the ASM. The Director needs to focus on their job, directing. The Stage Manager and ASM are in charge of everything else that happens backstage. And just like a pirate ship, backstage can be a dangerous place. It’s dark, there are sets, people and props flying around, but if you follow the orders of the Director and the Stage Manger, it all comes together seamlessly. Often you will see the Stage Manager and ASM with a headset on so they can communicate to each other backstage, quietly.

Actor, or continuing with the metaphor is nothing more than a common sailor. In the hierarchy of a Pirate ship, you are a team that works together, following the orders of your Captain, Quarter Master, Sailing Master and Boatswain who work together to keep the ship afloat.

Parts of the stage or getting to know your ship:

Stage Left—the actor’s left facing the audience

Stage Right—the actor’s right while facing the audience

Upstage—towards the back wall (away from the audience)

Downstage—towards the audience

* In older theaters, the stages were built on a slant, so when traveling up stage, you were literally climbing up a small ramp.

Theater terms:

Blocking—the process of creating the movement and action in a show (who goes where, when, and does what).

Track- The path you take during the show. This should be consistent, for everyone and everything. That’s right, every set piece, prop and person have their own track for the show that once set, never changes.

Cheat out—keep your face pointed towards the audience even if you are speaking to someone next to you or upstage of you, so that the audience can hear your lines.

Project—speaking loudly and clearly. Pretend you are trying to be heard across a large room or outdoors yelling for a taxi in Times square.

Enunciate—OVER emphasize consonants. This is especially important in G&S (short for Gilbert & Sullivan) which is done with the RP Dialect.

RP Dialect– Short for Royal Pronunciation, the same style of speech used by the BBC and seen on Downton Abby and Harry Potter.

Shtick—a type of movement or line delivery intentionally and crassly designed to get a laugh, a very common tactic when performing G&S. If you’ve ever seen a Monty Python, Three Stooges or Abbot & Costello act where someone pulls out a rubber chicken, or gets a pie in the face, that is Shtick.

Underscoring—(music playing underneath dialogue)

Principle (also Lead)—an actor with solo speaking lines. Speaking and singing.

Pick up your lines– This refers to the space in between lines of the actors. If you have lines in the show you have to not just know your line, but all the lines in the scene, especially your cue. Not picking up your cue or line can add up to 30 min to the show, with the exception of waiting for the audience to laugh (and hopefully they will, it is a comedy).

Cue– the line before your line.

Finding your light- Go into the light my child. This is especially important for leads, if you find yourself there, get into the light. You should feel this light on your face or in your eyes. The show is much less enjoyable if we the audience can’t see you.


Some rules for backstage

  1. Quiet Backstage.
  2. Don’t talk with anyone backstage unless it is essential to the show.
    1. Whispered conversations are distracting to the crew waiting for cues, the actors on stage, and can even be heard in the house.
    2. If you have something you must communicate to a crew member because it affects the show, then do so, in a confidential, quite tone of voice. If they’re on headset, assume they’re listening to the stage manager as you approach them and say excuse me.
  3. Do whatever the Stage Manager or ASM tells you without arguing, especially in performance. Remember, backstage, they are the boss.
  4. Don’t hang out in the wings watching the show.
    1. Space is limited, and every inch is needed. Things can happen pretty quickly backstage, and you could find yourself causing a disaster by blocking the view of a visual cue or being in the way of a quick entrance or exit.
  1. Stay put until you’re called for your cue.
    1. The crew can’t call you if they can’t find you.
    2. Find some place where you’re comfortable and out of the way and make that your spot for the run of the show.
    3. If you must use the restroom or run back to the dressing room, tell someone where you’re going and let them know immediately that you’re back.
  1. Don’t touch a prop that isn’t yours.
    1. Just they way you have a track for a show, every prop, and set piece needs to be exactly where it needs to be and not move until it needs too.
    2. Picking up a prop and playing with it often results in it being broken. “Actor breaks irreplaceable prop, Stage Manager replaces replaceable actor.”
    3. Check your props before each performance, including any that are set for you to use onstage.

I hope this is helpful for my students getting into theater, and for audience members to start to appreciate all the work that goes into the theater.