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Gilded Serpent presents...
Theater Terms

by Ken James
February 1999

Part of our mission at GS is to educate about the dance tradition. Each issue we will bring you a section on technical dance terminology. In this, our premier issue, we bring you a list of stage terminology and pertinent questions to ask when staging a performance written by Ken James. Ken is an Artistic Director and performer for the Fellow Travelers Performance Troupe. His background in choreography and theatre brings us the wisdom of 20 years of practical staging experience.

Theater Types
roscenium stage: A stage in which the stage space is directly in front of the audience and doesn't project into the audience. Generally, in theaters they are raised up a bit and have a curtain to separate then stage form the house. In studio theaters, the curtain and raised stage is lost, but the direct front viewing is the same.
Thrust stage: This stage projects into the audience a little. In a large theater, there may be an area called an apron in front to the stage (say over the orchestra pit) that would be the thrust stage area. This allows the audience to see things from the sides also, perhaps up to a 180 degree view of what is on-stage.
In the round: Exactly as it sounds. The audience surrounds the performance. There is no front to the stage

Theater Directions

assume the directions are as you stand on stage and face the audience.
stage left, stage right are to your left and right. (If you are in the audience looking at the stage, stage left is your right)
upstage: the back of the stage. (stages used to be raked, that is raised in the back and sloping down to the front so audiences could see better. So upstage was more literal then)
downstage: The area towards the audience
The house: The audience

Theater Lighting
Lighting instruments:
ellipsoidal (alias: ellipses, leiko, source 4): provide a light that can be shaped through shutters, but may need a longer throw (distance between instrument and stage) to cover large areas.
Fresnels: good area lights, diffuse and not very shapable
Par lamps: straight forward light. not shapable, but good for general washes.
Circuits: each light is plugged into a circuit, basically a electric socket but somewhat mobile. More than one lighting instrument can be plugged into a circuit.
Dimmers: Dimmers are where the lights are run from. Circuits get plugged into dimmers, which control the level of electricity running to the lights. The dimmers are then adjusted to make the lighting look you want. Good things: Circuit to dimmer theaters- this means each circuit is on its own dimmer (this is rare), allowing for amazing control and variation. More likely: you are limited to between 6 and 24 dimmers, meaning choices in which lights will be tied together on the same dimmer arise. This limits the amount of looks you can get. Good thing to ask before renting, "How many dimmers do you have?"

What to know when renting
A theater is rented to present a show. It is also hopefully a way to break even on your costs or, better, make money. So be careful that the theater you rent is right for you. A 500 seat house may only be $750 a night, but there are other costs. It will probably cost more like $5,500 before you can perform*. This is fine if you plan to sell out the theater at, say, $15 a seat, you would still have $2000 to work on something new. But is that realistic?

Ask yourself some questions:

  • How big is your audience really? It is considered better to sellout and turn away a few people rather than have half the seats empty. The range is from 50 seats to 1,500 generally, where do you fall?
  • How much space do you need? You are performing a piece of work, a concert or something, will it fit?
  • If you need wings do they have them? If you need wings, scrims screens or other special things, does the theater have them and do they come with the rental?
  • Do you have special lighting or sound needs?
  • Do you get a technical person with the rental and for how much time? Will they run the show?
  • What set up time do you have before the performance for spacing, technical rehearsals and dress rehearsals?
  • If you need special area lights can they supply them? what do they have for lights, dimmers, specials etc.?
  • Your music is on CD, cassette, dat and they have ... what? not everyone can accommodate many sound needs especially in the smaller houses.

On the more practical and decidedly inartistic side, can you pay for the theater costs with the audience you bring in? Or are you willing to take a monetary hit for the amount of the rental? This can be important. There are many pieces that need certain physical requirements. The artists then rent a space in which they know they will lose money in order to do the work right

Having run theaters as well as producing my own work, I also have some recommendations:
If you are doing a large show or know nothing about the technical side of things and the person at the theater who is (possibly) working on your show doesn't seem to be understanding, find your own
technical person / lighting designer. They can be fairly cheap (ask around to other performer) and will act in you best interests at all times. Especially in a larger theater this is important. They will hire people, insure everything goes as it should and generally take the load off of your mind. It limits how many people you need to deal with in the theater. They will make many decisions for you (talk things over first), so you can concentrate on performing or the performers.
If you have a lot of props that need moving, sorting or have a complicated show of people in and out, different groups or just a lot of stuff, hire a
stage manager. Their job is to organize the show and run it, making sure everything and everyone is where they need to be. Also worries you don't need.
The less you have to do during a show outside of the performing, the happier you will be. It is often worth the money to have that space and peace of mind. I know how to do all these things, and I still hire people to do it for my shows. Using friends and relatives is great, but the less they know the more they will come to you to ask. They are best used in very clear roles.

* three days in the theater, first spacing and technical, second lighting and dress rehearsal, third performance = $2,250, Lighting Designer =$800, Technical staff (5 to load in and out, three to run the show) =$1,980, programs = $120, House manager = $100 +$250 misc. (big houses mean big bills)

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