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The Stories Behind Old Theatre Catchphrases

Theatreland has its own language, and whilst many expect this to be complete with breaking into song at random, it also includes numerous catchphrases that were once part of everyday life.


Knowing the lingo, the rules of how it may be used and the stories behind them can really enhance your theatre going experience. It can also help to make you sound more swish. A little like the Music teacher in High School Musical.


“Break a leg” -

The origin of perhaps the theatre world’s most popular phrase is a blurred one, and there are several meanings attached to it. Commonly used to wish a performer “good luck”, some suspect it to be ironic as “good luck” is often considered to be “bad luck” whereas others date the first coining back to a superstition. It was once common for people to believe in spirits or ghosts named Sprites who wreaked havoc and made the opposite of what you wished for happen, meaning the phrase was created to outsmart them.

Some believe the phrase refers back to the leg line of a stage. This is the edge of the performance space that is marked out and beyond this point, an actor may be seen by an audience. Therefore, becoming visible on stage means that the performer is working and will earn a wage and get paid. Similarly, breaking a leg could be in reference to taking a bow at the end of the night.

Another theory is that the “leg” part actually is “legacy” or “legend” shortened, to wish actors well as they took on iconic roles made famous by others.

However, professional dancers say “Merde!”, which is the French word for “shit”. This has been picked up by theatrical workers to combine the two phrases. The Spanish equivalent goes one step further as they say “mucha mierda” meaning “lots of shit”, and it is believed that this dates back to when theatregoers used to arrive by coach and horse. If a show was popular, there would be a lot of shit outside the theatre.


“11 o’clock number” -

Theatre performances once used to start at 8:30pm rather than 7pm or 7:30pm, therefore this term refers to the big number, usually the one where the main character comes to an important realisation, that comes towards the end of act two and would have been performed at around 11pm.

Some famous examples of this include:

‘Sit Down You’re Rocking The Boat’ - Guys and Dolls

‘Memory’ - Cats

‘Empty Chairs At Empty Tables’ - Les Miserables

‘I’m Here’ - The Colour Purple

‘She Used To Be Mine’ - Waitress



“In the Gods”

Also known as “the cheap seats”, these seats are the highest you can go and often assumed to have the poorest view. However, they used to be affectionately called “paradise” as they offered the closest views of the intricately designed theatre ceilings.


“Showstopper”

Essentially refers to anything that may stop the show from continuing. In a positive way this could be a standing ovation or long applause for part of the performance, though in a negative way it may refer to an illness or technical issue.


“Let’s get this show on the road”

This is an American phrase that originally dates back to travelling performance groups such as circuses, who typically moved their show around. Now it is used to put a plan into action.


“Never work with children or animals”

Famously spoken by American comedian, W.C. Fields, is thought to be an insult to children and animals for their unpredictability. However, it’s intention was to describe how both children and animals are usually scene-stealers due to their adorable nature.


“It’s a full/there wasn’t a dry eye in the/brought down the..../House”

The “house” simply refers to any part of a theatre that is not a performance space or backstage. It may be used to describe the space, such as the “front of house” areas or the people who occupy it.


“The show must go on”

According to The Dictionary of Cliches (1985) this refers to how whatever the circumstance, the show must be performed for an audience. It is believed to again, date back to the circus, as when animal performers used to escape or a performer injured themselves, the ringmaster would continue the performance as to not worry those watching.


“Twelve pound actor”

A “twelve pound actor” is a child born into an acting family.


Matinee

Describing an afternoon performance, usually on Wednesdays and Saturdays, the word is related to the French word “matin” which means “morning”. During the 1930’s through to the 1960’s, the matinee male performers were referred to as “matinee idols” as they were heartthrobs that lacked the critical respect of prime time actors.


“Curtain call”

This is the final bow that the cast take, and usually when they recognise the orchestra and conductor in the pit.


“Chewing the scenery”

To do so means to overact and again, can either be positive or negative. Dorothy Parker, a writer and humorist, is thought to be the source of the phrase as in 1930 she wrote in a review; "...more glutton than artist...he commences to chew up the scenery."


Limelight

Today it means to be the centre of attention, but it was once known as “calcium light”. In the 1820s Goldsworth Gurney invented an oxy-hydrogen blowpipe, which works by introducing a jet of oxygen and hydrogen to a flame, making it extremely hot. He found that adding a small chunk of lime (the stone, not the fruit) to the flame resulted in a blinding white light that could be visible for miles. At the time, theatres were using hundreds of gas lights, and the risk of fire was huge. Gurney’s advance was first used in a theatre in Covent Garden in 1837.


“Swing”

Refers to the actors who play multiple parts in the chorus of an ensemble.


“The Scottish Play”

An age old superstition believes that Shakespeare’s Macbeth play is cursed and instead of using its title, in the theatreworld the play is titled “The Scottish Play”. According to folklore, a coven of witches disapproved of the play and cursed it. It is believed that the first performance was a disaster and the actress playing Lady Macbeth died suddenly leading Shakespeare to take on the role. Additionally, it is rumoured that the prop daggers were replaced with real weapons, and a second actor died on stage. Since then, multiple performers have been injured or died in multiple mishaps on stage, which you can read more about here.