Teachers at Work

A column about teaching

The Big Show: Helpful Vocabulary for Teaching Plays

Hi, Teachers at Work readers! I've dragged myself up from my beach towel and stowed my mojito away so that we can take a look together at some basic vocabulary for studying plays in your classroom. Hey! Don't throw those beach umbrellas at me! It's not my fault that the New York City school year starts after Labor Day! Seriously, though, this column should help you whenever you want to incorporate theatre into your class.

I'm going to use Arthur Miller's Death of Salesman for my examples, since it's widely employed in the high school curriculum and also because I had a copy on my bookshelf. However, you should be able to apply these ideas to any play you'd like to use with your students.

All the Classroom's a Stage

Of course, you want to prep the kids for the specific play, perhaps taking a couple of classes to explore the themes that they will encounter as they read. Additionally, it's also a good idea to prep necessary vocab beforehand. Since my students (perhaps all students?) have an intense fondness for looking up words in the dictionary, I usually give out about 20 words from the play and ask the class to define them. We discuss these words, and use them in sentences, and I often give a quiz or test on them. I pull some of these words from the play, but, especially if I am reading a play with a group for the first time, I try to throw in some general theatre terms as well. Here are those that I think are worth your time:

  • setting
  • character
  • plot
  • playwright (by the way, that is the correct spelling)
  • drama (this often involves a delineating discussion between what drama means in theatre, in literature, and in the phrase "There's too much drama out in the hall today, I swear.")
  • stage directions (a good time to point out the italicized words, which is how stage directions generally appear in scripts)
  • aside (when a character speaks to an audience but is not heard by anyone else onstage) Monologue
  • dialogue
  • soliloquy (the general difference between a monologue and a soliloquy is that a soliloquy is addressed to the audience in the role of confidantes as the speaking character tells us his or her inner thoughts and tries to work out a problem)
  • director
  • stage manager
  • actor (the term actress is very slowly falling out of favor in the theatre community, but do what you like in that regard)
  • call (because we say that the stage manager "calls the show" meaning she tells everyone involved in the show when to execute cues and entrances and exits on her headset)
  • run (in this meaning, to go through a show or scene — "Let's run the second scene" — or the amount of shows a given production will have — "The new adaptation of Cats will run for at least a year.")
  • cue
  • designers (the people who create the setting, light, sound and costume designs for a given production)
  • stage crew (the stage, light, sound and costume crews run the show, but did not necessarily have a hand in designing it)
  • costume, lights and sound
  • top (as in, "We're at the top of Act Three")
  • intermission (in the United Kingdom and other parts of the world, called the "interval")

I'm sure I've missed some, so please add your own, and let the rest of us know in the comments section!

When I do this, I also give out a sketch I've made of a proscenium theatre. I'd give you a copy of this sketch, but your cat could probably do a better job than I can. It's reeeally simple. Anyway, on this sketch, I include some, if not all, of the following:

  • the proscenium arch (the frame of a stage)
  • stage manager (I put him or her offstage on a stool with a headset)
  • wings
  • level (so many plays include stage directions about different levels for staging)
  • stage
  • apron (the lip of the stage, over the orchestra)
  • backstage
  • offstage (we generally consider offstage to be just out of the audience's view in the wings, and backstage to be the dressing rooms, scene shop and so on)
  • enter (an actor appears into the playing space in the audience's view)
  • exit (an actors leaves the playing space and the audience's view)
  • crossing (an actor moves from one spot in the playing space to another, e.g. Biff crosses left, away from Willie.)
  • house (where the audience sits)
  • audience
  • orchestra (the area in front of a proscenium arch, whether there's a musical orchestra there or not)
  • and light booth.

Together, I work with my class to label this diagram, so we're all clear about where these areas are. It's easy to put this all together, asking the class, "So, if I run lights, where do I sit?" "If I'm playing Willie and I need to enter, where might I stand?"

Every high school I've taught in has had a proscenium arch-style auditorium, but if you are lucky enough to work in a school — or are about to attend a show — where there's a black box, thrust or any other style of stage, please take the time to explain the differences to your students. I've found that kids can be extremely confused, even uneasy, if they are confronted with a theatre in the round if they were expecting a proscenium stage!

To take a break from all of those words, I also spend some time on stage directions. Either I've cleared out part of the classroom, or we take a trip to my school's auditorium, and I model for the students where each stage direction is:

Upstage Right 
Upstage Center
Upstage Left
Center Right
Center Stage 
Center Left
Downstage Right
Downstage Center
Downstage Left

After we review where the wings are, and what crossing is (when a character makes a deliberate move from one part of the stage to another), I send a few students onstage and we call out directions to them: "Cross from upstage left to downstage right slowly." "Everyone cross to center stage quickly." It's a lot of fun and it really makes the concept of stage directions, which seem/are so backwards at first, more comprehendible.

Family Ties

The very first thing you'll find in most play editions, after the foreward, is a list of characters. I used to ignore that list and expect my students to piece together who was who from the reading. Recently, I've realized that I'm confusing them when I could be helping. With Death of a Salesman, it's probably not asking too much for the kids to figure out that there's one central family, of which Willy is the dad and Linda the mom. However, for any of Shakespeare's plays, your class would probably appreciate some help, not just in understanding how everyone is connected, but who everyone is. Some words to watch out for, in Shakespeare and other (often older) works, and to help your students understand:

  • dowager
  • crown prince
  • widow
  • widower
  • affianced
  • boy (as a title for a young servant)
  • vicar/priest/pastor (I've found that many of my students are not aware of the differences between Roman Catholic, Orthodox and Protestant clergy, which is fairly important if any such characters are married!)

Servants' roles are often baffling for them, as they are not die-hard "Downton Abbey" aficionados like me, and it's amazing how many play's plot points hinge on understanding the hierarchy so you may want to review: valet, cook, butler, maid, chambermaid, footmen, lady's maid and so on.

A few more tips: I also often find that the way some playwrights use titles as names (e.g. the Earl of Northumberland becomes "Northumberland" in the play, not his given name of John) can be confusing for students. Also, keep an eye out for characters who are listen in one way in the character list but are most often referred to by another name (like "Junior") within the play. Also, if you are reading a play in which two or more characters are played by the same actor, you may want to explore that with your students. When in doubt, make a family tree for the characters. It truly helps.

That Stuff in Italics is Actually Important

Early on is also a great time to mention to the students that the playwright often bases his descriptions of the set and/or stage directions from the first production of the play. Sometimes, the stage manager's notes are actually used in the publication. This is a way to help students understand that plays change and grow throughout the development and production process — and that the production they see is not necessarily "wrong," exactly, if it does not recreate the Broadway stage directions.

And review those stage directions with them. From the vocabulary above, they should be able to interpret Linda hurries off left and understand what the actor is to do. This is also a great opportunity to explore some more vocabulary. Playwrights are a breed who never quite trust their directors and actors enough (I know; I am one.) so they often try to horn acting hints into their stage directions. You'll find many wonderful words and phrases in the scripts of most plays, and the great thing is, your students are usually invested in finding out what they mean, if they're acting the parts. Here are a few:

  • starts (two possible meanings, as in "begins to" — Biff starts after his father. — and as in "jumps slightly in surprise" — Willie starts at Happy's entrance.)
  • off (something happens offstage, often a line of dialogue that is audible to the audience although they cannot see the actor.)
  • rushes (indicating hurry — Biff rushes in at the sound.)
  • under (someone does something or says something while another character is speaking)
  • low (generally indicates that an actor says something the audience can hear but the other characters cannot, although there is also the possibility that the audience does not hear him or her either)
  • rising (getting louder as the speech goes on)
  • cutting in (interrupting — students often have a hard time understanding that the playwright wants the dialogue to overlap. I try to point out the punctuation that may indicate this, whether it's dashes or dots)
  • not looking at (students need to understand that this is the playwright asking the director and actors to make a clear choice that a character is avoiding facing another character.)           

There are dozens of adverbs that playwrights might include to describe the tone of a line, anything from elegiacally to angrily. You'll have to decide which words your students need to know for sure and help them with those.

And a Final Plea for the Reading

Please read the play aloud. Oh, please, please, please, please read the play aloud. Please do it. Please. Or, if you are convinced that your students will take 2,400 hours to read a three act play aloud, please use an audio recording of a group of people reading it aloud. Or show the film of it, but please, if you do that, try to show a film that is as close as possible to the script on the page. A filmed production would be the best, although, as my recent experience with the Paul Newman Our Town attests, not all filmed productions hew as closely to the script as they should.

Plays are meant to be enacted. They are not complete on the page. True, some gifted people can comprehend a play while running their eyes over the words silently, but a play is only truly alive when the words on the page collide with a group of actors prepared to say them. Please do not give your students the impression that plays are semi-incomprehensible written works.

Whatever you do, have faith in yourself and your students. Theatre is natural; we humans are built to reenact life. Our minds, bodies and souls crave it! Plus, this one of the best ways to learn vocabulary — when your students need it to understand the play and enjoy their reading of it. You'll be amazed, as I have been, how quickly they pick up new words this way. I hope you'll explore plays in your classes next year — and let me know what techniques you used and how they worked...and be sure to post any questions you might have about theatre words you've encountered and don't know or don't know how to help your students understand. We'll try to figure them out together.

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An award-winning playwright and former contributor to the Visual Thesaurus Teachers at Work department, Shannon Reed is an MFA candidate in Creative Writing at the University of Pittsburgh, where she also teaches. Read more about her work at shannonreed.org. Click here to read more articles by Shannon Reed.

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Comments from our users:

Monday August 15th 2011, 4:36 PM
Comment by: Anne P. (Eden Prairie, MN)
I've taught Shakespeare plays for the last three years with 8th graders, and I'm convinced that actually performing the play is the only way younger students are going to get it. Lazy Bee Scripts out of the UK has some great 30 and 40 minute versions that use Shakespeare's lines and keep the integrity of the play while cutting soliloquies down to one or two lines. The students understood the lines much more as we acted them out than they did when we read them in class (and forget having 8th graders read Shakespeare on their own - disastrous).

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