About This Page:
First, we have links to all sorts of sites (in no specific order) that deal with playwrights and the theater, plus, of course, The Bard, followed by a list of theater terms.
Glossary of theater terminology
Thanks to teacher Deborah Ward and her student, Carrie; Broadway Theater and History
The Guide to Musical Theatre -- synopses, chronology and revuews -- in alphabetical order
Musical Theater Dictionary -- all the lingo that will allow you to sound like a pro
Thanks to Jeannette Mercer and her student, Elaina, for this link: An Online Guide to the History of Theater
Outline of Aristotle's Theory of Tragedy
Information about ancient Greek theater
Information about ancient Roman theater
Information about Medieval Drama
General Theater History
Links to articles on the theater
Theater costumes -- history
Brief history of stage lighting
Theater History on the Web
Theater History Resources
Theater of the Absurd
Quotes on Playwriting
Links to Information on Costumes and Set Design
Aristotle's Theory of Tragedy
John Kenrick - The History of Musicals
Internet Broadway Database
Information About Blocking and Stage Direction
Rehearsal Guidelines for Actors and Directors
Source for buying copies of plays
Broadway Plays and Musicals on DVD
Haunted Theaters of London
Ghosts and Superstitions of the Theater
The Properties Directors Handbook -- Props for the Theater
The Bard (a.k.a. William Shakespeare)
Information about all things Shakespeare
The Shakespeare Resource Center
Shakespeare Concordance - words The Bard used
Link to all of Shakeapeare's plays
Theatre Resources -- covers a broad range of theater topics, including playwrights
The Abbey Theater
Scroll down to the bottom of the page to read an article by Steve Karp on the functions of a director
Theater Terms: Use the lingo and sound like a pro:
Stage directions are from the actors' point of view. Hence:
"Stage left" and "Stage right" are left and right from the actor's point of view as she faces the audience.
"Downstage" is towards the audience; "Upstage" is away from the audience. "Upstage" also has the second meaning of an actor drawing attention to himself while the focus should be on another actor. This can be done by positioning oneself in a way that places another actor "upstage" (i.e., farther away from the audience) or by doing something that draws attention to oneself (lighting a cigarette; fussing with a piece of clothing; hand gestures; etc.) that draws attention away from the actor delivering lines.
Moving upstage of actors or elements of the set is also called moving "above"; moving in front of the actor or prop is moving "below"
A movement of any length is called a "cross".
The basic elements of the stage are:
Proscenium space - defined by space in front of and behind a "proscenium arch" above the stage.
The space in front of the proscenium is called the "apron".
Most proscenium stages have "wings", spaces offstage left and right for actors to gather and scenery to be stored when not being used on stage.
The audience space is called the "house", which can be separated from the stage by the "orchestra pit".
Most stages are "raked"; i.e., they slope forward the better to allow the audience to see the actors.
Some theaters are constructed as "arena stages" - the stage at Long Wharf is a semi-arena stage. A true arena stage has the audience totally surrounding the stage; at Long Wharf the audience section is in more of a semicircle.
Many directors use a clock face to designate positions on the stage, with "12" being at the top ("up"); 6 being bottom ("down"); "3" being stage left; and "9" being stage right.
Although the term has many meanings (emotional; psychological; physical), "aesthetic distance" can basically apply to the distance between the audience and the actors. Two recent examples - Long Wharf's production of Clifford Odets' Rocket to the Moon "caged" the actors in a 4-walled set, enhancing the aesthetic distance; Stamford Theatre Works production of Bad Dates forced the actress to use the forward third of the stage, with her dressing table inches from the stage's lip.
All the stage curtains are often referred to as the "soft goods". The front curtain (if there is one) is the "main curtain"; the rear curtain (if there is one) is referred to as a "cyc" (for cyclorama) or "sky drop".
Stage locations where actors enter are called "in positions" and are often numbered.
A Play's Elements
Basically, you can approach and comment on a play by noting:
1. The script - the writing; the dialogue; images and themes; unity.
2. The direction - interpretation of the script; movement of the actors.
3. The acting - volumes have been written!
4. The setting - the set design and how it supports the play's themes.
5. The costumes - traditional or non-;
6. Lighting - how the lighting scheme adds or detracts from the overall presentation.
It is important to take note of the context in which the play is being presented. A production by a community theater with a limited budget should not be judged using the same criteria you would use for a Broadway production.
Wainscott and Fletcher's Theatre: Collaborative Acts lists six elements of a play:
~ thought (themes; ideas)
Another term for "plot" is "structure".
At the heart of the "plot" is "conflict" - the good guy (the "protagonist") wants something and the bad guy (the "antagonist") wants to stop him from getting it. As simplistic as this is, it forms the basis of most plays. If things just don't hang together - if you walk away from the play emotionally or psychologically dissatisfied, you can say that the play lacks "unity". What this means is that the play's elements did not cohere. Something was missing, or underdeveloped. In essence, the play was not true to itself.
Plays can be structured in many different ways, but the classic terminology for the development of a play is:
~ Point of attack - where the playwright chooses to start her play - at the beginning, the middle (in media res) or end of the story.
~ Exposition - delivery of information to the audience so they can understand who the characters are and what their relationship is to each other.
~ Inciting incident - an event that sets the whole thing in motion.
~ Rising action - simply put, the series of confrontations between the protagonist and antagonist that lead to the…
~ Climax - the emotional high point; the "final battle," if you will.
~ Falling action - the events that follow the climax leading to the…
~ Denouement - the wrapping up.
Obviously, playwrights "play" with this structure all of the time, but they can't stray too far from it without risking losing their audience. Even the most avant-garde playwright must give a nod to structure on run the risk of losing her audience.
Although a set designer has many options, basically they fall into two categories. The set can be "representational" or "presentational".
~ Representational - basically realistic - it attempts, as best as it can, to set the play in a "real life" setting. This often entails use of what is called the "fourth wall" - an imaginary wall that the audience can see through - i.e., there are three "real" walls in the library where the play is acted out - the "fourth" wall isn't there - if it was, the audience couldn't see what was happening.
~ Presentational - the set and scenery suggest, distort or contradict. This is a much more open interpretation of the space in which the actors interact. The possibilities here are vast but not endless. A presentational set must still, in some, way, support then themes and context of the play.
Light can fill or limit space, draw attention to a certain part of the stage, set a mood or make a statement. (By the way, the various lights you see hanging above you and set to your left and right should be referred to as "instruments".)
Lighting, obviously, helps the audience see what is happening on stage, but it does more than that. It can create primary and secondary focuses and can also, through intensity, color, placement and movement, support and enhance the actions and concepts being presented.
A good example of this is the lighting for the final moments of Old Wicked Songs staged at the Westport Country Playhouse. As the two characters in the play finally drew together - an ultimate understanding of each other - all side lights fell away and the actors were top lit, enhancing the focus and emphasizing that an apotheosis was occurring.
Many instruments are suspended from metal poles. The horizontal pipes are called "electrics"; single vertical pipes are called "booms"; double vertical pipes are called "ladders".
The basic lighting positions are:
~ Front light - does what its name implies: it lights from the front.
~ Down or top light - hung immediately above the actors.
~ Backlight - again, does what it implies
~ Hair light - a top or high backlight
~ Side lighting - again, does what the name implies - these can be mounted high, at mid-level or low(called "shinbusters" for obvious reasons).
~ Strip lights - fixtures with three or more large cells
~ A special - a light positioned for a singular purpose
~ Uplight - lights a subject from below
The major characters in a play should be "rounded"; i.e., there should be multiple levels to them (just as in real life).
Secondary characters are often "flat" characters - they represent a
"type" of person rather than a complete person.
Unlike in novels where the author can tell us about characters, in a play we learn about characters in three ways: what they say; what is said about them by other characters; and what they do.
Characters are given dialogue to speak. When a character speaks for an extended period it is called a "monologue"; if a character speaks alone on stage or if the other characters on stage "can't hear him," this is a "soliloquy"; if remark or dialogue directed at the audience is an "aside".
Things happen to characters - often outside forces will have an impact on them - but sophisticated drama usually calls for the "conflict" to arise from who the character is. The "conflict" in Miller's Death of a Salesman arises out of who Willy Loman is; the conflict in Hamlet arises out of Hamlet's nature.
Some additional terms you can throw around to impress your friends after you see a play together:
Antihero - a protagonist who lacks one or more of the conventional qualities of a hero (i.e., he's a cad but you like him anyway).
Asides - Lines spoken in an undertone or to the audience.
Bathos - What happens when a playwright attempts to achieve heightened dignity, pathos or elevation and fails miserably; i.e., he's going for the sublime but goes to far and it becomes ridiculous.
Burlesque - Containing ribald humor and antic situations.
Catharsis - A cleansing or purging; release of emotions. Aristotle, in his Poetics, suggested that catharsis is what occurs when a spectator views a tragedy (thus participating in the events vicariously) and is emotionally cleansed.
Closet drama - A play designed to be read aloud rather than performed.
Comic Relief - Brief moments of comedy in an otherwise serious/dramatic play that lighten the atmosphere and balance the somber with the humorous.
Deus ex machine - Literally, the god from the machine - In many classic Greek/Roman plays the situation was resolved by one or more gods intervening at the end of the play. Machinery was used to lower the gods onto the stage.
Dramatic irony - A special kind of suspenseful expectation - the audience understands the implications but the characters do not.
Expressionism - A powerful movement between 1910 and 1924 in Germany: against realism's focus on surface details, expressionism emphasizes dreamlike, subjective realms often in intense, extreme states.
Farce - A type of comedy featuring exaggerated character types in improbably situations rife with pratfalls and knockabout horseplay.
Impressionism - An Artistic movement that originated with French painters (Manet, Monet, Renoir) and extended into the language arts - explored inner lives of characters rather than the reality they inhabited.
In media res - "In the midst of things."
Monologue - Extended speech by a single character.
Naturalism - A school of drama in which the characters are presented as products or victims of their environment and heredity.
Surrealism - An early 20th-century European movement in art and literature that tries to model creation according to the irrational dictates of the unconscious mind. Founded by French poet Andre Breton, it sought to reach a higher plane of reality by abandoning logic for the seemingly absurd connections made in dreams and other unconscious mental activities.
Theater of the Absurd - a postwar European genre depicting the grotesquely comic plight of human beings thrown by accident into an irrational, meaningless world.
Tragic flaw - A fatal weakness or ignorance in the protagonist that brings him or her to a bad end.
A Director's Notebook
By Steve Karp
What does a director do?
A director is an interpretive artist who uses the collaborative gifts of designers, actors, and technicians to tell a story, written in the form of a play, by someone we know to be a playwright. It has been my habit to respectfully delight in referring to the playwright as God, because the playwright is always “the first cause.” But unlike a novelist whose novel can stand alone, a playwright’s play is written to be performed, and is therefore totally dependent upon the collaboration of contributing theater artists. Chief among these artists is the stage director, whose distinct vision of the play, knowledge of dramatic structure, and gift for organization, uniquely equip him to dramatize the play’s story. It will be the director’s thoroughness of preparation and quality of dramatic choices that best insures a strong, if not always a fully successful production.
After thoroughly familiarizing himself with the script of the play - a process that may take many weeks and sometimes many months of analytical and imaginative contemplation of all the play’s requirements, including casting, set design, lighting, sound, costumes, and props - creative discussion with each of the play’s assigned designers will ensue. This process will culminate in a pre-rehearsal production meeting to insure that all collaborators are focused on a single, unifying vision, originally advanced by the director, but which by now may have surely changed and/or expanded to include many of the designers’ own creative contributions.
It is said that “casting” accounts for a considerable portion of a play’s success, and one of the most important set of decisions a director will make. I agree. Choose wrong, and, at best, all of a director’s most brilliant staging in the world won’t lift the play beyond hopeless mediocrity. Choose right, and you give the play a bottom-line starting point for artistic success.
But casting a play is tricky business. On the one hand, there is the obligation to fulfill the playwright’s intentions. On the other hand, if a director’s function is interpretive, then the playwright’s intention and the director’s vision may not always coalesce. Much of the disagreement between playwright and director, I would venture to say, occurs over the issue of casting. Of course, if the playwright should be deceased, then obviously the director’s vision and casting choices are much less likely to be challenged - hence it is not unusual to hear a director say that his “most favorite playwright is a dead playwright.”
Directors will differ in their structure and time-management of the rehearsal process (generally determined by the length of allotted rehearsal time), but clearly the director’s efficiency in using the rehearsal period will be critical to any director’s production success. At Stamford Theatre Works, the rehearsal period extended for three and a half weeks. It typically began with a “read-through” and discussion of the play on the first rehearsal day, and finished with dress rehearsals and preview performances in advance of the play’s Opening Night. In between, the play would be staged, re-staged, and perhaps re-staged again, as the actors explored the motivations of their characters and became sufficiently comfortable with their lines, on their way to getting “off-book.” I tended to structure the core of my rehearsal period by loosely staging the play in Week One; in-depth scene-work and re-staging of scenes in Week Two; refinement of scenes and full “run-throughs” in Week Three. One full day and night was devoted to a grueling technical rehearsal in which lights, sound, costumes, and acting would all join together for the first time, followed by three days of dress-rehearsals and preview performances that would conclude the day before Opening.
The Actor-Director Relationship
A productive actor-director relationship is based on trust. Because the actor, generally, has a much shorter time-period to familiarize and learn his role - relative to the director and most designers, who are almost always hired before the actors - the actor depends on the director to openly and clearly communicate the director’s vision. The actor also depends on the director to help him in making behavioral choices that will lead him to the most appropriate and optimum performance results. This is the work that constitutes the core of the rehearsal process between actor and director, and often proceeds on a trial and error basis.
But for this process to move ahead “creatively,” it requires a fundamental trust that must exist or be developed between actor and director during the rehearsal process. For the actor, trust is developed when he knows what the director wants, and when he has confidence in the director’s understanding of the play. For the director, trust develops when he knows the actor is taking risks on behalf of his own character, thus insuring, to the fullest extent possible, the delivery of an honest, un-hackneyed, and accomplished performance.
Staging or “Blocking” the Play
The staging of a play, often called, “blocking,” is one of those fundamental responsibilities of the director that is basic to the play’s performance structure. In dance, it would be called choreography. In order for a play to work, it must visually and aesthetically proceed with dramatic tension and a “suspension of disbelief,” both of which are the director’s exclusive responsibility.
Directors may differ in their approach to staging a play, but generally, the best and most effective staging is organic - which is to say that all of a play’s action, or physical movement, is motivated by necessity. To impose movement upon an actor purely for the sake of theatricality, or as is more commonly the case in the hands of new or untalented directors, to impose movement for movement’s sake, may often invite un-suspended disbelief, thereby undermining the believability of the entire play.
While it is the actor’s responsibility to motivate his own movement and “blocking” with honesty, intention, and requisite emotional intensity (which, of course, is what constitutes the actor’s talent), it remains the director’s responsibility to structure - or stage - the actor’s movements so as to best fulfill the play’s narrative, and to maintain the play’s dramatic interest.
There are times when a director’s knowledge of the play, or at least, his knowledge of a particular sequence of the play, is so understood, that he may feel quite confident in imposing his staging ideas on his actors. But most of the time, skilled and experienced directors who have a good understanding of the “acting process,” will make the staging of a play more of a collaborative effort. Rather than imposing the staging of a scene on an actor, for example, the director may call upon the actor to initially “act out” the scene without any direction whatsoever. This allows the actor the opportunity to express his own ideas of how his character might “instinctively move,” thus giving the staging process an “organic” beginning that will serve the play’s overall organic development. The scene will proceed in rehearsal with considerable trial and error, until the director and actor are comfortable in knowing that they have worked out a workable road-map that achieves the scene’s intentions. While the actor’s focus will be on meshing his movement with his character’s practical objectives and emotional needs within the scene, the director’s responsibility is to make sure that the scene is staged and performed with a logical relevance to the entire play, and with optimal imagination and dramatic interest.
Parenthetically, one of the reasons I believe in “loosely” blocking the play as quickly as possible (in Week One), is because I believe, particularly in a short rehearsal period, it is helpful to the actor in learning his lines. As a former professional actor myself, I always felt more confident when I knew the basic blocking structure of the play, sooner rather than later. Knowing the character’s geographical location and physical circumstances on stage, therefore, becomes a triggering mechanism for knowing what the character needs to say, not to mention what he needs to do. And while this way of working is not inconsistent with the goal of organic development, in a longer rehearsal period, I would probably not choose to block so early, allowing more time for the analytical discussion of the play and the play’s characters.
Who is responsible for what?
In the course of witnessing the performance of any play, it is difficult to know who is really responsible for anything. Such is the nature of the collaborative process. To be sure, the writing, the acting, the lighting, the sound, the set, the costumes, can all be evaluated for their specific and individual effect and contribution. As a director, however, I have always felt bad when an actor or designer has been criticized for a result that emanated from a choice that was mine. Conversely, there are those times when an actor or designer’s work has been praised for a particular result that emanated also from a choice that was mine. Nonetheless, it seems to be in the nature of the beast for us to assign responsibility, whether we know who is responsible or not.
But if any one person ought to be assigned overall responsibility for the success or failure of any given theater production, that one person ought to be the director. Notwithstanding the importance of the playwright as God, the director, unarguably in my opinion, occupies the most artistically influential position of responsibility in the theater-production hierarchy. It is ironic, therefore, that the work of a theater stage director is so little known or understood. Hopefully, my thoughts on the subject have been helpful … and I thank the Connecticut Critics Circle for allowing me this opportunity to express them.
Steve Karp was the founder/producing director of the Stamford Theatre Works (1988-2008), Stamford’s longest running, resident-professional, regional theater. Mr. Karp directed nearly half of STW’s 100 productions, which specialized in new and contemporary plays of strong social relevance. Some of Mr. Karp’s directed productions included: A Class “C” Trial in Yokohama (Roger Cornish), Strange Snow (Stephen Metcalfe), What I Did Last Summer (A.R. Gurney), The Warehouse (Steve Karp), Elaine’s Daughter (Mayo Simon), Cobb (Lee Blessing), Spike Heels (Theresa Rebeck), Belmont Avenue Social Club (Bruce Graham), Fighting Over Beverly (Israel Horovitz), Shotgun (Romulus Linney), Someone Who’ll Watch Over Me (Frank McGuinness), Lonely Planet (Steven Dietz), Skylight (David Hare), Taking Sides (Ronald Harwood), All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten (Ernest Zulia/David Caldwell), Nixon’s Nixon (Russell Lees), Collected Stories (Donald Margulies), Fully Committed (Becky Mode), Lobby Hero (Kenneth Lonergan), K2 (Patrick Meyers), Visiting Mr. Green (Jeff Baron), The Music Lesson (Tammy Ryan), Fraternity (Steve Karp), Children (A.R. Gurney), National Pastime (Bryan Harnetiaux), A Picasso (Jeffrey Hatcher), Trying (Joanna McClelland Glass), Rounding Third (Richard Dresser), An Infinite Ache (David Schulner), and The Mercy Seat (Neal Labute).
In 1997, Mr. Karp was honored by the Connecticut Critics Circle who presented him with the Tom Killen Memorial Award for his “Outstanding Contribution to Connecticut Theatre.” Mr. Karp was also the 1991-1992 recipient of the Connecticut Critics Circle Award for “Outstanding Director” for his acclaimed production of A Few Good Men at the Westport Country Playhouse. As a writer, his plays include Fraternity, The Warehouse, In Re: Radding v Glazer, and a screenplay entitled Oasis on the West Side. Mr. Karp was the recipient of an American Film Institute-National Endowment grant which enabled him to write, direct and produce for Columbia Pictures three award-winning and widely distributed short films, The Tennis Lesson, The Jogger, and The Tennis Match. Both The Jogger and The Tennis Match reside permanently as part of the National Film Collection of The Library of Congress. The Tennis Lesson is the most widely distributed live-action short-subject in the history of Columbia Pictures. As an actor, Mr. Karp has performed with The Long Wharf Theatre, The New York Shakespeare Festival, The American Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford, Connecticut, and The Light Opera of Manhattan. He made his Broadway debut in David Story’s The Changing Room, winner of the 1973 Drama Critics Award, and repeated his appearance on Broadway in Dore Schary’s, Herzl. He has taught Playwriting for the Westport Country Playhouse School of the Theatre, Screenwriting at Fairfield University, and headed the teaching staff for STW’s School for the Performing Arts. Mr. Karp is a graduate of the Loomis Chaffee School, Tufts University, and the American Academy of Dramatic Arts.