Theatre terms glossary: Beginner’s guide

From prologues to epilogues and everything in between, Charlotte Marshall explains the theatre terms you might find baffling.

1 / 1

Like all good things, theatre comes with its own special language. We’ve compiled a list of basic theatre terms to ensure you speak it like a native.

Whether you want to discuss Shakespeare’s use of dramatic irony or you just feel as if you’ve hit the (fourth) wall after one too many theatrical debates, our glossary of common theatre terms will solve your problems.



You might not hear this word in a theatre unless you’re behind the scenes. So it’s a technical word with which to impress your friends. It’s what stage managers – the people who ensure the show runs smoothly – say when calling the performers who are going on first in each act. For example: “Act two beginners to the stage.”

Comic Relief

No, it’s nothing to do with red noses or Lenny Henry, although he is a fine stage actor. This is one of the theatre phrases that’s all to do with a shift in tone. Comic relief is the injection of much-needed humour or wit into a serious play. They say there is a thin line between comedy and tragedy, and the addition of comic relief plays on that to the full.

Curtain Call

After a stonking performance, you’ll undoubtedly want to show your appreciation to the actors. That’s exactly what the curtain call is for. It’s when the actors return to the stage, bow and hear the – fingers crossed – thunderous applause.

Dramatic Irony

Shakespeare, rather than ’90s singer Alanis Morissette, was the king of dramatic irony. It’s when the audience knows more than the characters do. Sounds complicated? Let’s put it into context with Romeo And Juliet and one of the most famous examples of dramatic irony. *Spoiler alert* When Juliet is discovered “dead”, the audience is in on the secret that she is simply faking her premature demise in order to be with Romeo. *Further spoiler alert* It ends pretty badly.


Ever loved a song so much you’ve played it on repeat? This is the musical theatre equivalent. As a final treat for audiences, a company will occasionally perform one of the show’s numbers again during the curtain call. You might also be lucky and see this in opera and dance.


This is one of the theatre terms that might seem self-explanatory, but we’ll go on anyway. The first time an actor appears on stage can be a thrilling moment and is known as their entrance. If you’ve ever felt the atmosphere bristle with excitement when Judi Dench – aka the Queen of Theatre – steps on from the wings, or the anticipation before Ian McKellen appears Stage Right, you’ll know what we mean. Audiences on Broadway even clap to mark the occasion. We don’t need to explain “exit”, do we?


Sometimes we all need a bit of closure. That’s exactly what an epilogue does. Often seen in Shakespeare and other classical works, it is when a show finishes with a speech that acts as a final, reflective scene to round off the action. More often than not it is a monologue spoken directly to the audience.


The climax of the performance, this is the final scene or musical number to bring a show to a close.

Fourth Wall

Going to the theatre is a luxurious opportunity to suspend disbelief. This is possible due, in large part, to the fourth wall, which is best imagined as an invisible barrier between us and the performers. This wall allows the performers to act as if the audience are not really there and go about the business of telling their story. When a character speaks directly to the audience, he or she breaks the fourth wall and recognises the public’s existence. You’ll most often see this in pantomime.


#intervaltweet @frankiejenna4 killing it onstage! @guysanddollsuk what a sensational show!

A post shared by Katie Kerr (@damekerr) on

Depending on the length of a show, there may be a break or even two in the performance. This is usually signalled by the lowering of the curtain, the turning up of lights, or the fact that nothing is happening on stage any more. It allows audience members to stretch their legs, use the facilities and buy a drink or an ice cream.


Musicals, opera and even some plays open with an instrumental introduction performed by the orchestra. This is an overture. Most musical theatre productions’ overtures comprise short snippets of each of the songs that feature in the show. When award-winning musical Once played in London, however, audiences were treated to an overture with a difference. They joined the cast for an onstage ceilidh.


This is one of the theatre terms referring to a specific time in a show’s life. Previews are the first few performances that a show stages for a paying audience. They come before a show officially opens to the press and are often used for testing and fine-tuning. Not all shows stage previews, but it is very common in the West End and with larger productions. THEATRICAL MONEY-SAVING TIP – Shows often offer reduced-price tickets for preview performances.


Setting the scene is always important and that’s what a prologue does. As with an epilogue, a prologue often features in classical plays. It gives the audience a tantalising hint of what might play out in front of them.


This is possibly the most crucial part of making a show. For weeks – or months for a big musical production – the actors work with the director and other theatrical geniuses to practise the production and hone it for the stage. The company will have a strict deadline in place, so every day during the rehearsal period will be tightly planned in advance.


They may be able to do 17 different accents in one show or kick their leg over their head, but performers are still human. Occasionally, they have an injury or get ill. Here’s where the understudy comes in. This performer has been trained to step in at the last minute in a key cast member’s place if needed. In musicals, understudies are often also in the ensemble, but plays may have a non-performing cast ready to go.

If we’ve missed any theatre terms that you would like explained, get in touch through Facebook, Twitter or email.

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