Theater Lore and Lingo: Don’t Whistle in the Theater… and Other Lore

“I believe that in a great city, or even in a small city or a village, a great theater is the outward and visible sign of an inward and probable culture.”
—Sir Lawrence Olivier

Although I am familiar with the stage, I am a relative newcomer to the world of musical theater. In the summer of ’75, I got my ears wet with West Side Story. Years later in college, more knowledge filtered through in my role as costume designer for a production of Hair. It was there, on a patchouli-scented stage, that my theater education truly began. I am now in my sixth month at the FACC and Sondheim Center for the Performing Arts and still learning the lingo, codes, and customs of the illusory world of musical theater. There is a whole Middle Earth’s worth of language and culture to dip into.

The Lingo

To begin, here are a few terms to wet your whistle. Speaking of whistle, it is supposed to be bad luck to whistle in a theater. Sailors often moonlighted as stagehands in the theater and it was well known they communicated by whistles, so it was not a great idea to whistle because you might get something dropped on your head.

Cyclorama: Also called a “cyc.” A plain, curved, stretched cloth or rigid structure used as a background to a setting, giving an illusion of infinity.

Dark Theater: A day or night when there is no performance.

Discovered: A person or an object on stage when the curtain goes up.

Front of the House: Refers to services including parking, concessions, ushering, and playbill distributing. The “house” refers to the theater itself.

Ghost Light: A light left on the stage overnight or when the stage is not in use for safety and also for superstitious reasons having to do with keeping a light on for the spirits of the building. Speaking of spirits, there are legends from all points—north, south, east and west—about the “lady in white,” a ghostly female presence that is often thought to inhabit theaters.

Green Room: A room backstage where the actors hang, prepare, and celebrate prior, during, and after a performance. While rooting about the Internet, I found the following theories that may explain this curious concept.

• The first written use of the phrase comes from 1701, indicating that it was in the theatrical vernacular during the 16th century. It is thought that it may come from the noble colors worn by early theater companies in honor of their royal patrons.

• Another theory notes that archaic slang for the stage is “the green.” Hence, the room that’s just off the stage may have been designated the “green room.” Green is also thought to have a calming influence and therefore the actors’ lounge area was painted green to sooth and relax pre-performance jitters.

• One of the more creative theories is that the green room was commonly used to store stage shrubbery and grass and was therefore a nice soothing place for a Shakespearean actor to adjust his dress and check his wig before heading out to woo Juliet.

Next month we will meet, here in the Source, for more Theater 101.

Open Heart: Robby Benson’s Irreverent Look at Life

Before I sign off, I thank you for taking time to explore the world of theater, and I extend an invitation to put this newly found knowledge to use by attending Way Off Broadway’s production of Robby Benson’s musical, Open Heart, June 20–29, in the Sondheim Center. It’s one man’s outrageously funny and poignant wild ride to rediscover life’s priorities. Starring Robby Benson, Karla DeVito, and Stan Brown from the original New York cast, Open Heart is eclectic in style and a tribute to individualism and love.

Check out for current event info.

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