7 Everyday Words With Lesser-Known Theatrical Meanings

Posted on Sep 5th, 2017 by Shuchi in Theatre Trivia

Everyday Words With Theatrical Meanings

You know these words. They come up in your conversations. They accost you in print. They form a well-used part of your active vocabulary.

And yet, do you really know these old familiars as well as you think you do?

For these ordinary words have a theatrical side, one they reveal only to the keen.

1. Cheating

Cheating is not always a vile act; in theatre, it can be a gesture of inclusion.

Sometimes actors on stage must talk to each other naturally while, at the same time, not alienate the audience by turning their backs on them. They handle this two-pronged demand with the practice of "cheating" – i.e. keeping the head facing the stage partner but turning the body towards the viewers.

Cheating helps the audience improve the sightline and connect better with the performance. Here’s a video example of theatrical cheating in Evam’s Five Point Someone – a play that coincidentally also deals with exam cheating.

2. Kitchen Sink

Kitchen Sink Realism

The humble plumbing fixture lends its name to a style of theatre: one that focuses on the dreary realism of working-class life.

The term first came to be applied to John Osborne’s 1956 play Look Back in Anger, considered a flagbearer of kitchen sink drama.

English painter John Bratby is credited with inspiring the coinage of this term: in 1954, art critic David Sylvester wrote an article about trends in art calling it The Kitchen Sink, in reference to Bratby’s painting featuring the apparatus in question. And the term stuck.

[Wikipedia tells me Bratby also made three paintings of toilets; thankfully those did not lead to any theatre genre labels.]

3. Apron

While on the topic of kitchen references, here’s another one.

Apron. The part of a stage that protrudes in front of the curtain. On most stages, the apron is curved slightly outward beyond the proscenium arch, extending into the seating area.

Apron

The apron is typically used by the theatre crew while the curtain’s down to introduce or conclude the play, or to share asides during scene changes.

4. Fourth Wall

The fourth wall isn’t just what your bookshelf rests against.

The term is used to describe the imaginary "wall" that separates the stage from the audience. While the audience can see through the fourth wall to watch the performance, the actors behave as if they cannot.

When actors talk with the audience during the performance or walk on/off the stage, they are said to be "breaking the fourth wall" – for example, Mullah Nasruddin inviting viewers to the stage for role-play, or the lawyer from Silence! The Court Is In Session walking up to women in the audience to deliver his condemnatory speech.

5. Strike

Strike = hartal of course, but in the context of theatre, it also means "to remove something from the stage, such as a prop, scenic element or piece of costume".

At the end of the show’s run, the production team strikes the entire set – i.e. disassembles it to clear the stage for the next show.

In some performances (Rage Theatre’s Love Letters and Just Theatre’s Hedda Gabler come to mind), the actors strike the props while the play is in progress.

TDF’s Theatre Dictionary has a slick video about this meaning of "strike":

6. Corpse

Forgive the morbid imagery – this word is actually fun when applied to drama.

In British theatre slang, to "corpse" is for an actor to have an unscripted giggling fit on stage.

Why "corpse"? Probably because the most inopportune time to giggle is when one is playing the part of a corpse.

In theory, corpsing sounds like a strict theatre no-no, and yet when it happens, it has been known to thrill and delight the audience. So says the Guardian theatre blog:

when an actor bursts out laughing in a scene, the audience usually responds in kind; the laughter tends to be gentle and accommodating rather than harsh. […] I don’t know precisely why laughing at the wrong moments in life should be rewarded with so little sympathy and laughing at the wrong moments onstage should generate so much. In part, I think such breaks in character remind us of the transformative work an actor has to do to ease into his or her role.

7. No

Mr. Bachchan, in the film Pink, gave us an expansive discourse on the word "No".

He did not tell us one thing, though.

"No" is also a form of traditional Japanese drama.

Japanese No Performance

The name comes from the Sino-Japanese word nō, meaning "talent" or "skill". No performances rely on iconic masks and stylized gestures to narrate tales from traditional literature.

[The word is also spelled "Noh", but there’s an obvious partiality for the shorter variant in some circles – I’m thinking of crossword setters who write clues such as this: One so thick-skinned audibly mocking foreign drama (5)]

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Article by Shuchi

Shuchi lives in Bangalore (mostly), when she isn't traveling out of town for work. She adores theatre and writes about plays she watches whenever she gets a chance.
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3 Comments to “7 Everyday Words With Lesser-Known Theatrical Meanings”

  1. A really interesting article! The “kitchen sink” is especially fascinating!

    September 5th, 2017 8:43 pm

  2. One learns something new every day. Thanks

    September 6th, 2017 11:06 am

  3. Glad you enjoyed the article, @Rachna Priyanka and @Kishore Rao.

    September 11th, 2017 9:17 pm

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