Parts of a theatre glossary: Beginner’s guide

Do you know your box office from your backdrop? Our parts of a theatre glossary, created by Charlotte Marshall, explains it all.

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Do you know your box office from your backdrop? Have you ever wondered what a limelight actually is? Taking you from Aisle to Wings, our parts of a theatre glossary is a helpful explanation of words you might hear bandied around on your next trip to the theatre. So, you’ll feel confident even in the company of the most knowledgeable of thesps.

Parts of a theatre glossary A-E:

Aisle – theatre definition

Head to your seat at a theatre and a helpful usher will likely instruct you to head down the left, right or middle aisle. It’s as obvious as it sounds. The gaps between the blocks of seats are aisles. They’re thankfully more spacious than the kind you’re used to on, say, a plane.

Auditorium – theatre definition

Where to sit at the theatre: London Coliseum Auditorium (Image: Pawel Libera/London and Partners)
The auditorium at London Coliseum (Image: Pawel Libera/London and Partners)

This is the space the audience occupies – the seats and aisles surrounding or in front of the stage. While you may be picturing traditional red velvet chairs and opulent chandeliers, auditoriums vary vastly, from underground vaults to bench seating in modern studio spaces, depending on the experience you’re looking for.

Backdrop – theatre definition

Cast your eye to the furthest point on stage and there it will be – the backdrop. A crucial element of the show’s design, it may change numerous times during the performance to help the show travel across worlds, countries or, perhaps, just rooms of a house. Whereas traditionally backdrops were beautifully painted canvases, nowadays they are just as likely to be innovative multimedia screens. Or even the theatre’s exposed brick wall.

Backstage – theatre definition

Backstage means behind the scenes. Everything that takes place in the wings, off stage and beyond those intriguingly labelled “Do not enter” doors is deemed backstage. It’s a warren of dressing rooms, offices, make-up stations and costume stores buzzing with creative energy from the many people who ensure the performance runs seamlessly.

Balcony – theatre definition

This refers to seating on a level above the stalls. Check the theatre’s seating plan before you book – in a West End theatre, the Balcony is often the seating furthest from the stage. In smaller theatres, balcony seating may offer the best view of the whole stage. Check out our “Where to sit at the theatre” guide for more information.

Box Office – theatre definition

This is the place where you buy your tickets in person, online or by phone. Box office staff are some of the most knowledgeable people in Theatreland. They’re the go to people if you want to know how long a show is, where to buy your ice cream or what price ticket you should buy.

Dress Circle – theatre definition

The Dress Circle earned its name because, back in the day, people would wear evening attire to sit there. Dress codes in theatres may be a thing of the past, but this section, just one floor up from the stage, is still going strong and offers a brilliant view of the stage. Find out more in our “Where to sit at the theatre” article.

Dressing Room – theatre definition

Burn The Floor: Getting hair ready
Dressing room at Burn The Floor – parts of a theatre glossary

Among the warren of rooms backstage you’ll find shared and private dressing rooms. Here performers change, do their make-up and rest in between scenes. Often thought of as a home away from home, mirrors are plastered with good luck cards and flowers from fans adorn table tops. Essentials the actors can’t be without are also stashed here to be in easy reach. Some dressing rooms even have beds for sneaky disco naps!

Parts of a theatre glossary: F-P

Flies – theatre definition

Flying with The Snowman at the Peacock Theatre

Above the stage you’ll find a complicated rigging system operated by technicians to realise whatever crazy ideas the design team have. It’s used to change backdrops and to fly in props and, on occasion, people, too. We found out more about flies when we experienced life as The Snowman.

Foyer – theatre definition

Your first stop on any theatre trip, the foyer is found at the entrance of the theatre. It has everything you need before the show – a box office to collect or buy tickets, merchandise, bar, sweets, toilets. All the essentials.

 Front of House – theatre definition

If someone mentions Front of House, they’re referring to any area of the theatre the public can access. This includes the box office, foyer and auditorium. Note to self: this does not include Kit Harington’s dressing room.

Grand Circle – theatre definition

Along with the Balcony, the Grand Circle is one of the top tiers of seating in a theatre, usually found only in the West End’s biggest venues. Expect to pay less for your tickets as you will be further away from the stage. Find out more in our “Where to sit at the theatre” guide.

Green Room – theatre definition

If a theatre were a home, the green room would be the lounge. It’s a shared space backstage for the performers to relax and have a well-deserved cup of tea. Often green rooms will include a screen playing a live relay of the performance, so people can monitor what’s happening onstage.

Limelight – theatre definition

One of the most famous theatrical terms, a limelight is simply a spotlight to highlight one performer on stage. Actual limelights, which used quick lime to create their intense brightness, have long since been replaced by electric lighting. Fun fact: theatre lights are really heavy and are, in reality, nearly impossible to steal. So don’t even try to steal Michael Ball’s limelight. No one has succeeded thus far.

Marquee – theatre definition

Queen's Theatre
Queen’s Theatre – parts of a theatre glossary

When you dream of having your name in lights, technically you’re imagining having your name on a marquee. No, not that big tent your cousin got married in last summer. A marquee is the sign above a theatre advertising the name of a show or its stars.

Orchestra Pit – theatre definition

Nothing beats live music played at the theatre. So it might seem a shame that the talented musicians are often hidden from sight. They’re found in a section underneath the front of the stage titled, rather unglamorously, the “pit”.

Props – theatre definition

The Phantom Of The Opera at Her Majesty's Theatre
The Phantom Of The Opera’s gondola – parts of a theatre glossary

What would The Importance Of Being Earnest be without a handbag or The Phantom Of The Opera without his mystical gondola? Both, like any other objects used in a show, are props. A show’s designer will source them for the production and many shows have multiple versions of each prop in case they break during the action.

Parts of a theatre glossary: S-Z

Safety Curtain – theatre definition

The solid curtain that covers the stage before the show, in the interval and after the show may appear to be an attempt to keep overeager fans from storming the stage. It is, in fact, made of fire-resistant material and protects the auditorium from just that. Also referred to as the Iron.

Set – theatre definition

An Inspector Calls at The Playhouse Theatre (Image: Mark Douet)
An Inspector Calls at The Playhouse Theatre – parts of a theatre glossary

The set is the landscape, the room, the setting in which the action takes place. When a production moves into a theatre, the stage is a blank canvas. The designer creates the set for the show to be performed on. One of London’s most legendary sets, for An Inspector Calls, featured a giant doll’s house.

Stage – theatre definition

Well, if Shakespeare had had anything to do with it, we’d all say that all the world was, in fact, a stage. But technically a stage is the platform on which the actors perform, whether that’s a grand raised podium with heavy red velvet curtains or simply the upstairs of a pub. Find out about different types of stage in our types of theatre glossary.

Stage Door – theatre definition

This is the gateway to that most secretive of places, at least to us non-stage-pros: backstage. Anyone working on the show signs in at stage door before heading to their dressing room or rehearsal. Fans flock here to wait for the production’s stars to exit after the show. And good luck cards and flowers are delivered here to be taken into the inner sanctum.

Stalls – theatre definition

Commonly thought of as the best seats in the house. You’ll find the Stalls on the ground floor of the auditorium. It’s where you are mostly likely to book premium seats, if that’s what you are after. Check out our guide “Where to sit at the theatre”.

Usher – theatre definition

An usher may feel as if they’re physically part of the theatre after a long shift! They are the helpful staff who check your ticket, show you to your seats and, hopefully, offer you an ice cream or programme in the interval.

Wings – theatre definition

Burn The Floor: Stage right quick change
In the wings at Burn The Floor – parts of a theatre glossary

Performers need a way to get on and off stage without having to clamber through the Stalls. The answer? Wings. On either side of the stage, hidden slips lead actors to and from backstage, so they can make their entrance just that little bit less dramatic. Unless it’s meant to be a dramatic entrance, of course!

Learn more about theatre with our beginner’s guides to types of performance, types of theatre and where to sit.