Come across like a professional at your next audition! Check out this glossary of important theater and acting terms, put together by voice/acting teacher Liz T...
Are you preparing for a musical theater audition? As you look at your materials, you may be wondering what a “cold reading” is, or which audition songs count as contemporary ballads.
And even once you’re past the audition (congrats!), you might find yourself backstage or on a movie set and hear the director shouting words and phrases you don’t recognize.
Don’t worry! Many singers and actors are unfamiliar with the terms used in the musical theater industry at first. Below, I’ve put together a list of the most common audition terms and vocab you should know. The infographic highlights several important ones… but scroll down further to see even more must-know words and phrases, and a few I felt were worth expanding on.
So let’s get started…
Accompanist: a piano player hired (either by you or the theater) to accompany you on your sheet music
Callback: an additional audition after the first… sometimes you’ll be called back as many as 10 times!
Cold reading: part of an audition in which you’re given very short notice to read from a script, either as a monologue or with a scene partner (may be given to you on the spot)
Dance call: a dance audition
Headshot: a professional picture of yourself printed on quality photo paper, usually 8 x 10, in either color or black and white
Monitor: a person who helps run the audition process (signing people up, calling names, etc.)
Open call: an open audition, meaning both non-union and union members can attend
Showreel: video clips (usually no more than 10 minutes) of you in your favorite performances, sometimes required for an audition
Sight reading: part of an audition in which you must read music on the spot, without seeing it or practicing it before (more sight reading tips for singers here)
Typecasting: when actors are put in a room, and based on appearance (height, age, weight, hair color) are asked to stay and audition or leave. This may either be announced before an audition or happen on the spot.
Monologue: a solo acting speech
Audition Terms / Repertoire & Monologues
8-bar, 16-bar, or 32-bar cut: requirements for limiting your audition song to a specific number of measures
A cappella: singing a song with just voice, no instruments or accompanist
Book: your binder of audition repertoire, which should be brought into the audition room in case they ask for additional material
Lead sheet: a piece of sheet music with just chords and melody — some auditions may state “no lead sheets,” meaning your music must include the full piano part
Sheet music: full piano accompaniment, with voice and lyrics included
Contemporary repertoire: music written after 1970
Classical/traditional repertoire: music written before 1970
Classical ballad: A slow song from an older musical
Classical uptempo: A fast song from an older musical
Contemporary ballad: A slow song from a modern musical
Contemporary uptempo: A fast song from a modern musical
Theater Terms / Rehearsals & Performances
Broadway: commercial theaters with a minimum of 499 seats in NYC
Call time: when you’re expected to report to the theater for a rehearsal or performance
Costume fitting: when measurements are taken for your costume; may be a separate appointment
Dark: when the theater is closed (usually on Mondays).
Dressing room (or green room): where the actors get ready with their costumes and makeup; a safe space to warm up before the performance
Dress rehearsal: one of the last final performances before the show opens, with costumes added
Ensemble: the chorus that sings and acts throughout the show.
Limited engagement: when a show runs for a specific length of time, anywhere from 4 to 12 weeks
Marquis: a poster outside the theater with the show’s name, picture, and headlining actors
Matinee: a performance during the day, usually between 1 and 3 on Wednesdays and Saturdays.
National tour: a production that tours around a number of cities each week, instead of being established in one venue
Off-book: rehearsing without your script, so you must have your lines memorized
Off-Broadway: a theater in NYC with fewer than 499 seats, but more than 99 seats
Off-Off Broadway: a theater in NYC with fewer than 99 seats, and usually not-for-profit
Playbill: the official program given at each performance with the cast credits, pictures, and info about the show
Previews: when the show is running in previews, this means it isn’t the official opening yet, so there’s still time to work out any problems
Prop table: backstage where all of the props and materials for the show are placed
Sitzprobe: one of the first rehearsals with the orchestra or band, meant to review the music together
Stage directions: quick terminology to use on stage when blocking a scene on a stage (see expanded section below)
Standing only: a limited number of tickets sold for the back of the theater, where patrons can stand and watch the show when seating is sold out
Striking the set: taking the set apart after a show ends.
Summer stock: professional musical theater performed during the summer, either indoor or outdoor
Swing: an understudy who learns many roles (sometimes as many as 10!)
Tech week: the week before opening where lights, sound, and scenery are incorporated in the rehearsals
Understudy: the person who learns the main roles, in case they have to go on in an emergency
Waiver: if you are doing “background” or “extra work,” whether you are union or non-union, this essentially is your receipt of your paystub, where you will record the hours worked, lunch breaks taken, etc.
Theater and Acting Terms / Other Vocab to Know
Non-Union: a person who doesn’t have a membership or an invitation to the Actors’ Equity Union
Union: a person belonging to and being a paid member of the Actors’ Equity Union
EMC: stands for Equity Membership Candidate, meaning you have acquired enough points at equity theaters to be considered for membership in the Actors’ Equity Union
Actors’ Equity: the official union for professional actors
Backstage Magazine: A subscription magazine (also available online) that announces all upcoming auditions in major cities
This is a very important theater term to know, because many auditions will require one! This is a clear, professional picture of yourself, usually on high-quality stock paper and 8×10. It can be in either black & white or color, and should be from the shoulders up or can be a close-up of your face.
Please note that this is different from a “selfie” because of the lighting, contrast, and angle. It’s definitely worth researching professional photographers in your area; the cost will usually range from $200 to $1,200 and you’ll get few different headshots. If you’re on a budget, you can even find a local high school or college student to take them for you.
Before you book a photographer, check out their portfolio and make sure you have a contract in writing. Wear something you feel comfortable in that brings out your personality. Also, these photos should look like you do naturally — so don’t wear heavy makeup if you don’t normally, and don’t dye your hair right before!
• 3 Questions to Ask Yourself Before Getting Headshots, via Backstage.com
• Headshot Do’s and Don’ts, via Actors Casting Agency LLC
• How to Get Great Headshots for Musical Theatre, via Musical Theatre U
Usually casting directors will want to see video of you acting or performing to be considered for a role. Your showreel should be no more than 10 minutes, and include a variety of video clips of you in your favorite performances. Include clips of your dramatic acting, comedic acting, singing, and dancing, if you have them!
If you don’t have a lot of performing experience, you can record yourself in a practice studio or room performing your favorite monologue — or grab a partner and perform a strong scene.
And don’t worry about having expensive recording equipment — you can easily make your showreel through iMovie.
• How to Make a Good Showreel, via StageMilk
• 11 Tips for Creating a Memorable Acting Showreel, via Daniel Johnson
• 5 Mistakes Actors Make When Creating a Showreel From Scratch, via Raindance
At some auditions, you’ll be given very short notice to read from a script, either as a monologue or with a scene partner. It might be as little as 5 minutes! This is to see how well you can act on the spot, and how well you do with improvising. It can be nerve-wracking, but have fun with it!
If you’re nervous, practice cold reads before the audition, and bring a pencil, glasses if you need them, and anything else that will make you comfortable.
This is one of the most difficult casting calls! A “type call” usually happens when thousands of actors show up to an audition, and the casting director knows they will not have the time to see everyone.
The directors line up a small group of actors at a time, and based on your height, weight, eye color, hair, etc., they’ll decide on the spot if you’ll be continuing on. Sometimes the director will look at resumes, sometimes not. There’s nothing you can really do in these circumstances except for be yourself! Also, don’t lie or pretend… for example, don’t say you can do the splits if you can’t!
These often occur in dance auditions, or if they need people to fit specific costumes or requirements. Sometimes they are announced on the audition notice, and sometimes it’s a surprise!
If you see this theater term, be prepared for a busy day. This type of audition is usually held in major cities, and it means anyone can show up, regardless of age, union status, location, height, and experience.
Because these get so crowded, I recommend getting there several hours before the audition. Sometimes after 100 people sign up, they will cut the number or line off. Bring a book and some patience, as you may be waiting a long time to be seen!
If you get the part, knowing these theater terms will make your life a lot easier. Here’s the run-down:
- Center stage: The dead center of the whole stage (CS)
- Downstage: Closest to the audience or orchestra pit (DS)
- Upstage: Behind you, if standing center (US)
- Stage Left: Your left, when you’re on stage, not the audience’s (SL)
- Stage right: Your right, when you’re on stage (SR)
Memorize these, so you’re not confused the first day of blocking on stage! Fortunately, these are the same no matter what theater you perform in.
Usually a month or a few weeks before the show or film is set to start, your director will call for rehearsals to be off-book — meaning you’re not allowed to look at your script. This is hard for many actors, as memorizing can be difficult. Start memorizing early!
I hope this post helps you at your next vocal audition or performance for musical theater. If you would ever like extra help preparing, I recommend finding an acting or vocal coach today on TakeLessons and booking lessons!