Theatrical slang


Theatrical slang
   Theatre artists developed their own lingo referring to backstage situations and life on the road. Some of it entered general usage, like "winging it" for doing something without a considered plan, just as actors sometimes had to go on stage in roles they had not learned and thus frequently popped off into the wings to consult the script. Other terms remained within the profession and are lost to posterity except for the occasional appearance in an old play or in vocabulary lists compiled by fans, like Judge Horton, who saved for us such terms as "chesty" for an actor who overrated his own ability, and "knocker" for one who would make unkind comments about a fellow performer. A big-name performer or "headliner" would get "top of the hangers," meaning placement of the name near the top of the bills or posters that billposters hanged on walls about town. A "shape actress" was one who revealed the contours of her body by cross-dressing to play male roles; the term was mildly pejorative in that it implied a reliance on flaunting one's physical attributes as opposed to genuine artistry. "On with others" designated a performer who had to appear in a scene without any dialogue to speak. A "choir snatcher" was a manager whose quest for new talent would take him into local churches on Sundays to spot pretty faces and voices singing in the village choir.
   Audiences too had popular phrases to describe their theatergoing activities. A "carriage party" was a crush of horse-drawn carriages stopping in front of a theatre a half hour before curtain, a sure indication that the play was drawing a fashionable audience. In the early 20th century, the "subway circuit" referred to outlying theatres, as opposed to those conveniently located on Broadway. Line parties were groups of friends who bought their theatre seats together, all in a row or "line."
   Variety and even general newspapers popularized words like "ginger" to mean risqué content or suggestive dialogue; a show with too much ginger could face difficulties from local authorities in some cities. A "jay town," populated with "jays" or rubes, was so small that it could support no more than a one-night stand.
   See also Conway, Jack.

The Historical Dictionary of the American Theater. .

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