The Traditions of Theatre

Reporter: Peter Lathan

Dateline: 2nd February, 1998

There has been some correspondence in rec.arts.theatre.misc recently about the origins of certain theatre words and phrases. The most recent was the phrase to be in the limelight. Now I don't know the technicalities (so please don't ask!), but I know this predates carbon arc lanterns and involves a gas jet being played on lime in some form or other to produce a bright light. I put my little contribution in that even nowadays in the UK there are those (usually of the older - i.e. my! - generation) who still refer to follow-spots as limes.

All this set me thinking of the rather quaint and often picturesque language and customs of the theatre. Now, I'm old-fashioned in some ways and I like to preserve old traditions (it's my age, you know!): I still talk about lanterns, dislike the word luminaires, and positively loathe that awful American term instruments when talking about stage lighting.

I love the formality of the pre-show calls: "Ladies and gentlemen, this is your thirty minute call. Thirty minutes please, ladies and gentlemen." Then the final call: "Ladies and gentlemen, beginners please. Orchestra to the pit: Mr Bloggs, Mr Smith, Miss Jones, ladies and gentlemen of the chorus, to the stage, please. Beginners, please."

Wonderful! And I've noticed that everybody who makes these calls uses the same voice. I even find myself doing it when I'm on the book.

And that's a nice phrase, too: on the book. For those who don't know, the book is the prompt copy, with every cue, every move, everything of any importance noted in it, and the person (usually the DSM, or Deputy Stage Manager) who is "on the book" is running the show from the corner. That's the prompt corner, which in many theatres is on the opposite prompt side of the stage!

I wonder how many theatres still stick by the old tradition of the House Manager blowing a whistle in the auditorium to signal the half (which, incidentally, is not half an hour before the show begins, but half an hour before the beginners call, which is five minutes before the show goes up!)? (Shows don't begin and end, of course; they go up and come down.)

That goes back to the old days when audiences weren't allowed into the house until the half. I don't know the origin of this, but I suspect it goes back to weekly rep when the crew would fit up the set for the night's performance after rehearsals finished for next week's show, and that could run right up to the half. The fact that the bars could do good business during this time might also have had something to do with it!

Then there are the secret codes of the theatre. Mr Sands is in the circle bar sounds quite innocuous to the uninitiated when announced over the PA, but they'd sure as hell panic if they knew it meant that the bar was on fire!

And theatre is awash with superstition. As a very young amateur actor (aged 15), on my very first non-school show, I walked into the dressing room whistling and practically had my head taken off by one of the old sweats already there. I never did it again!

Everybody knows that you don't mention the Scottish Play by name - ever! - but it's not so well known that you must never quote from it either, in or out of the theatre, or total disaster will fall on the show.

And talking about things you're not supposed to say, when I started in theatre back in the fifties we never, ever said the last line of a play until the first night. That, too, would cause untold disaster. It's strange, though: I still will never whistle backstage and I'll never mention the Scottish Play in association with the theatre, let alone actually in one, but I have no qualms about rehearsing the last line of a play, whether as actor or director.

Another thing: I've never worked in a theatre of any age which hasn't got a ghost! Funnily enough, they're usually ladies who have either fallen, jumped or been pushed from the flies. Quite what these cleaners, usherettes, actresses etc. were doing in the flies I've never been able to work out! And the ghosts usually date from long ago. I know of actors who have died on-stage (literally, not just in the metaphorical sense) and of at least one Chief LX who was killed falling off a talloscope (that's the tower on wheels used for rigging and focusing lanterns), but they never seem to haunt the theatres concerned. It seems you have to have been dead at least fifty years before you can haunt a theatre!

Whether these ghosts exist or not - I've never met anyone who's seen one, but I know quite a lot of people who know someone who's seen one! - there are still a number of hoary old stage managers who keep the ghost light burning on-stage 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.