English of subcultures

Acting up – and down

Following on from Ben Trawick-Smith’s post earlier in the week, freelance author and lexicographer Andrew Delahunty continues the discussion of the sublanguage of theatre.


I’m a member of an amateur theatre group. Drama is, of course, all about language, the words of the play. But there is also a particular variety of language used by the people putting on a play, during rehearsals and backstage while a performance is actually taking place.

Many theatrical terms relate to direction, and I don’t mean the kind that a director gives. I’m talking up, down, right, left, that kind of direction.

‘We’re going up in a couple of minutes’ are words that make me nervous just writing them, never mind hearing them. They are the words whispered by the stage manager to tell the actors, probably murmuring their first few lines to make sure they are still in their head, that it is nearly time for the play to begin and for them to make their first entrance on stage.

When a show goes up, it starts. This comes from the idea of a curtain going up as a play begins. You could also say ‘an hour to curtain up’ or ‘curtain up at 7.30’. Even if a theatre doesn’t have a curtain (and ours doesn’t), you still talk about ‘going up’ or ‘curtain up’. In our theatre, the actors usually make their entrance by coming down a set of stairs from a landing by the dressing rooms. So, confusingly, if we’re going up in a couple of minutes, I’m actually about to go down.

Then there’s downstage and upstage. Downstage is the part of the stage towards the front, nearest to the audience. Upstage is the part of the stage towards the back, furthest from the audience. Stages used to be raked, that is they sloped upwards away from the audience. So the back of the stage was higher than the front. In theatrical parlance, if one actor upstages another, they move towards the back so that the other actor is forced to turn their back to the audience to address them while the upstage actor remains facing the audience. This led to the idea of an actor drawing the audience’s attention away from a fellow actor. In general usage, to upstage someone is to do something so that you get more attention than they do.

I used to get upstage and downstage mixed up. I think this was because I associated the idea of upstaging someone with standing in front of them (hogging the limelight, as it were). But on stage you upstage someone from behind them, not in front of them.

It has also taken me a while to get a grip on the terms stage right and stage left. Stage right is the right-hand side of the stage from the point of view of an actor facing the audience. Stage left is the left-hand side. Of course, when you are looking at the stage (as a member of the audience, or perhaps as the director during a rehearsal) stage right is the side of the stage on the left as you look at it.

There’s a similarity here, I think, with the use in sailing of the terms port, starboard, fore, and aft, to designate left, right, front, and back respectively. The reference point is the direction in which the boat or ship is pointing, just as in stagespeak it is the direction in which the stage is ‘pointing’ or facing. And, come to think of it, sailing and the stage do seem to share a good deal of their vocabulary and paraphernalia: wooden boards, large sheets of cloth being raised and lowered with ropes, rigs, crews … And, with that thought, I bring down the curtain.

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Andrew Delahunty

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