Arts 101: Theater Lingo

Are you a triple threat or merely essential? If you’re the former, you’ll probably want to have a zits probe. After that, you may be required to stand in a vom line.

Confused?

This is the first in a series of posts that explore unusual behind-the-scenes lingo from various areas of the arts. Remarkably, all of the boldfaced words above are examples of real terminology used in live theater. Let’s have a closer look:

Triple Threat

Originally a term from Broadway, a triple threat is a performer who is equally proficient in singing, acting and dancing. Performers who fit this description include such luminaries as Gene Kelly, Julie Andrews, Zac Efron and Hugh Jackman.

Essentials / Supernumeraries

The funny thing about essentials is they’re not. “That’s kind of the irony of that word,” says director Peter Rothstein. “If it involves doing anything essential to the play happening and you’re a union theater, then you need to hire a union actor to do that.”

Peter Rothstein directs a rehearsal of Doubt, A Parable

Peter Rothstein directs a rehearsal of Ten Thousand Things Theatre’s Doubt, A Parable, a play with a small cast and no “essentials.”

People who fill out crowd scenes in a stage play but don’t have any lines can be called extras, essentials or supernumeraries. Rothstein says he uses the terms interchangeably. Whatever the job is called, it gives inexperienced performers opportunities to get experience and stage credit — important qualifications for eventual membership in an actors’ union.

Swings

Most of us think of swings as a type of playground equipment, but to Peter Van Johnson and Randy Ingram of the production department at the Ordway Center for the Performing Arts in St. Paul, a swing is a kind of hyper-understudy who has to know five or six different parts. “In a lot of shows, the understudy might be a secondary character, so if the understudy goes on [in a main role], then the swing will go on for the part that the understudy would have normally played,” Ingram explains.

“And then another swing has to cover what that swing did,” Van Johnson adds, gesturing the cascade effect this can have on a cast.

Randy Ingram and Peter Van Johnson of the Ordway's production team

Randy Ingram (L) and Peter Van Johnson of the Ordway’s Production Department

Park and Bark

On Midmorning on Dec. 16, Allan Naplan, the incoming president of the Minnesota Opera, explained the term “park and bark” to substitute host Tom Crann. “It’s an industry term where people just move downstage and sing loud and have absolutely no theatricality to what they’re doing,” Naplan said.

Vom Line

Fortunately, this term has nothing to do with people getting sick. “In order for there to be sightlines for everyone to see the action at all times, you work on what we call the vom line,” explains Rothstein, who is currently directing Ten Thousand Things Theatre‘s upcoming production of John Patrick Shanley’s Doubt, A Parable.

Taken from the ancient vomitorium, the contemporary term “vom line” is used in productions on thrust stages or in the round (like Doubt). Vom lines are imaginary continuations of the aisles into the performance space, providing axes of action that help guide the actors’ movements.

The Guthrie Theater's Wurtele Thrust Stage with illustrated vom lines

Photo of the Guthrie Theater’s Wurtele Thrust Stage, retouched to show the approximate vom lines. (Photo credit: Gallop Studios)

Subway Grate

The Ordway’s Ingram and Van Johnson know the subway grate doesn’t refer to New York City’s underground train network. A subway grate — also known as the gridiron or the high steel — is a series of beams from which all the pulleys, scenery and lighting in a theater are suspended.

The Ordway is well equipped for elaborate lighting and scenery. “We have 70 line sets in our theater,” Van Johnson says. “It all goes up to the gridiron, which has to be able to support 100,000 pounds.”

Block and Fall / Tripping

Scenery changes, which seem to happen by magic, can often be credited to the block and fall, i.e. the pulley system used for lifting scenery. Tripping, meanwhile, is nothing to do with pratfalls or psychotropic drugs; it simply refers to bundling a large piece of scenery in half so it can be tucked out of sight of the audience.

Zits probe

Probably the oddest-sounding term in the batch, zits probe comes not from dermatology but from opera. “That is the first rehearsal that the actors or the performers have with the orchestra,” Ingram says.

It’s an anglicized form of the German word sitzprobe, which literally means “seat preview.” Ingram says at the Ordway, a zits probe is more commonly called a wander probe. “Typically in opera, they are just sitting,” he says. “The reason we call it a ‘wander probe’ is because we let the actors get up and wander around, so if they feel like moving around on stage, we let them.”

Next Tuesday, visit State of the Arts for unusual words from the world of dance.

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