"Cheating Out," "Breaking Curtain," and More Curious Theatre Jargon

An introduction to theater language

theatre jargon
Speak the language of the theatre!. Gregory Costanzo

Drama class and theater rehearsals are some of the only places where "cheating" is encouraged. No, not cheating on a test. When actors "cheat out," they position themselves towards the audience, they share their bodies and voices so that audiences can see and hear them better.

To "Cheat Out" means that the performer readjusts his or her body with an audience in mind. This might mean that the actors stand in a way that's not quite natural - which is why this practice "cheats" reality just a bit.

But at least the audience will be able to see and hear the performer!

Very often, when young actors are rehearsing on stage, they might turn their backs to the audience, or offer only a limited view. The director then might say, "Cheat out, please."

Ad Lib

During a performance of a play, if you forget your line and cover for yourself by saying something "off-the-top of your head," you are "ad libbing," creating dialogue on the spot.

The abbreviated term "ad lib" comes from the latin phrasead libitum which means "At one's pleasure."But sometimes resorting to an ad lib is anything but pleasurable. For an actor who forgets a line during the middle of a show, an ad lib might be the only way to keep the scene going. Have you ever "ad libbed" your way out of a scene? Have you ever helped a fellow actor who forgot his or her lines with an ad lib? Actors have an obligation to learn and deliver the lines of a play precisely as the playwright wrote them, but it's good to practice ad libbing during rehearsals.

Off Book

When actors have completely memorized their lines, they are said to be "off book." In other words, they will be rehearsing with no script (book) in their hands. Most rehearsal schedules will establish a deadline for actors to be "off book." And many directors will not allow any scripts in hand - no matter how poorly prepared the actors may be - after the "off book" deadline.

Chewing the Scenery

This piece of theatrical jargon is not complimentary. If an actor is "chewing the scenery," it means that he or she is over-acting. Speaking too loudly and theatrically, gesticulating largely and more than necessary, mugging for the audience - all of these are examples of "chewing the scenery." Unless the character you play is supposed to be a scenery-chewer, it's something to avoid.

Stepping on Lines

Although it is not always (or usually) intended, actors are guilty of "stepping on lines" when they deliver a line too early and thereby skip over another actor's line or they start their line before another actor has finished speaking and thus speak "on top" of another actor's lines. Actors are not fond of the practice of "stepping on lines."

Breaking Curtain

When audiences attend a theatrical production, they are asked to suspend their disbelief - to agree to pretend that the action onstage is real and is happening for the first time. It is the responsibility of the production's cast and crew to help the audience do this. Thus, they must refrain from doing things like peeking out at the audience before or during a performance, waving from offstage to audience members they know, or appearing in costume off the stage during intermission or after the performance ends.

All of these behaviors and others are considered "breaking curtain."

Paper the House

When theaters give away a large amount of tickets (or offer the tickets at a very low rate) in order to gain a large audience, this practice is called "papering the house."

One of the strategies behind "papering the house" is to create positive word-of-mouth about a show that might otherwise suffer from low-attendance. "Papering the house" is also helpful to the performers because it is more satisfying and realistic to play to a full or almost full house than to play for a sparsely populated set of seats. Sometimes papering the house is a rewarding way for theaters to offer seats to groups that might not otherwise be able to afford them.