Basic Stage Terms for Improvisors

For people with theater background these terms are common knowledge. But not everyone that enters improv has a theater background. For those of us without that it takes a bit of a learning curve to get used to the terms. 

Here for your knowledge are some of the basic terms that relate to theater that improvisors might need to to know. Most of them have to do with the stage and the basics of movement, timing, and positioning. But also some of the terms are for the people and the way that the stage operates from a technical aspect.

Stage Right/Left and Upstage/Downstage

Stage Right and Left are oriented for the person on the stage. So, stage right is the person’s right who is on the stage if they are facing the audience. And stage left is the left of the person on the stage, again as they face the audience.

Down stage would be moving forward for the person on stage toward the audience and upstage would be moving away from the audience.

Wings

The wings are the areas right off the stage. Used commonly when people are “waiting in the wings” or waiting just off stage to walk on and join the scene.

Onstage/Offstage

Exactly like it sounds, whether you are on the stage or off the stage. Seems obvious, but it’s good to know what to call it.

Cheat Out

Position your body on stage is common sense once someone tells you. But as those new to improv or theater can tell you, it takes practice. To cheat out just means opening up your stance so you are slightly facing the audience. It helps the audience be more engaged and see the actor/actress and hear what is being said on stage more clearly.

Call Time

Time when all the actors are expected to be at the theater or performance space. It helps give everyone time to group up/set up before a performance. It can be 20 to 60 minutes before a show typically.

Black Out

Turning off all stage lights, as in closing a vaudeville skit or separating scenes of a play. It’s often used in a Harold performance for the end of a show.

Blocking

The movement of the actors/actresses and positioning on stage. Where everyone is positioned is important to line up for a better visual performance from the audience point of view. 

It’s also important the same way that cheat out is important. Actors/actresses don’t want to be in front of another person. And an important thing to note for beginners is to not just form a semicircle and stand there when talking in a group.

Greenroom

The actor/actresses’ lounge. A great place to hang out before or after the show. But also in practicality a small area to store personal items while on stage. 

House Manager

The person in charge of running or organizing the show. Decides things like when to let the audience in and communicates with stage manager and ushers.

Load-in

Bringing in the set or props into the theater. Even though props and sets are not often used for improvisers. There is still a small set up, such as chairs. And some troupes use other small props such as doors for some structure to the stage.

Light Board/Sound board

The manual or computer operated board that controls the stage lights and sound respectively.

Character vs Actor

One of the harder concepts for new improvisors to understand is the concept of “Yes And” and how it gets played out in a real scene. The basics of “Yes And” are easy to pick up on. When an improviser is in a scene, agree to the base reality and add information. 

But when a scene starts to play out in practice, it becomes difficult to determine when to agree and when to disagree. If there’s a scene where people always it quickly becomes unrealistic. After all, in real life, people don’t always agree and conflict in a scene can be more realistic and  interesting.

A good, basic rule is when improvisers are establishing a base reality of who, what, and where that they should agree. In other words, they agree on where they are located, say grandmother’s kitchen. Who they are, say a brother and sister who are adults. And what they are doing, talking about grandma’s will. This is the actors on stage agreeing to a base reality.

But once that base reality is established, then the characters are free to disagree. The brother and sister, as characters, might be arguing over who gets to keep grandma’s bowl that she makes cookies in. So the characters disagree about the will. But the actors on their base realities such as location and who they are. In this example, they are in the kitchen, grandma has a will, and the cookie bowl is going to be inherited.

Like much of the advice in improv, the advice can be simple but the execution takes some practice. New improvisors can improve the skill by just being aware that there are always the actors on stage and separate from that there are the characters. This will help improvisors add depth to a scene by determining when to have conflict and thereby and interesting things. 

Del Close and Early Improv

What we think of as improv began in 1955 at the University of Chicago with Paul Sill and David Shepherd forming the Compass Players, a comedy troupe.

Viola Spolin, Sills’ mother, created games in the ‘40s and ‘50s that began as exercises to help children relax and learn to ‘play’ theater. And in 1983, she wrote a book on the topic, Improvisation for the Theater. That concept is what Paul Sill and David Shepherd based their comedy troupe, Compass Players on.

After Compass Players ended in 1959, Sills, along with Howard Alk and Bernie Sahlir of the Compass Players formed a new cabaret theater called Second City in Old Town.

When Second City was formed Del Close became a key figure in the early Chicago improv scene. Del started performing in the Compass Players after they moved to St. Louis. From there in 1961, he joined Second City and spent 30 years coaching and teaching. Charna Halpern and Del Close then went on to form the iO Theater. The iO Theater began as a way to perform a new kind of improv, the “long form”, where scenes were no longer just games but a complete story that lasted longer.

In 1967, Second City touring company hit the road. It was during this time that many well known comedians of today began their career. Some of the notable comedians to begin their careers are Bill Murray, John Candy, John Belushi, Dan Aykroyd, Mike Myers, Steve Carell, Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, Stephen Colbert, among others.

Del died of emphysema on March 4, 1999, five days before his 65th birthday. Being a character that he was, even his death had a story. Rumor was that he bequeathed his skull to Chicago’s Goodman Theater to be used in productions of Hamlet and specified that he be credited in the program as Yorik. The skull was donated by Charna Halpern in a high profile TV ceremony on July 1, 1999.

After Close’s death, his former student from Upright Citizens Brigade founded the Del Close Marathon, three days of non-stop improv at various venues in New York City.

iO Theater

iO Theater is an important part of improv history and culture. Located in Chicago which is rich in improv history dating back to the 1960’s. It started as a theater to explore the form of improv known as long form. STarted by Del Close and Halpern in 19-something. It become a place where many famous people trampsed through being taught by the ever serious Del Close. 

He was well known for his stern style of teaching and produced some of the greatest comedians of our time. Teaching there for 20 years gave Chicago and the iO Theater a basis in greatness that continues and has expanded today. To say improv has grown or to say iO theater has grown would be a vast understatement. The iO theater is one of the mecca’s that wanna be improvisors flock to to perfect their art of cracking people up.

In addition the art of writing funny has become very much tied to the improv scene and sketch writing. In addition to teaching people who have always wanted to be goofy on stage and call it improv for a profession, they aslo teach people who want to write and use improv as a creative technique to get the juices flowing. 

Not everyone who learns at iO is going on to do professional improv on a stage. Many people learn it for personal grown and now for business development and interpersonal skills. The iO Theater has grown to recognize that. Their business model has expanded to include high class classes or courses for business people, students, writers, and actos. As well as other random professions that can just benefit from humor. Doctors are using it as healing techniques in trauma as well.

Additionally iO has remained a vital part of hte flourishing improv scene in Chicago by also puttin on regular and quality shows in night clubs. A time honored tradition amoung the notoriously shady profession known as comedian.

And all flavors of improv have come about. There’s the Improvised Shakespeare in Chicago and the Whirled news Tonight. Your F$@ Up Relationshiop, The Deltones, as well as regular Harold House teams. And even my favorite, musical improv. iO has expanded to include after school pograms and programs for businesss to expand their team building exercises. Take that Jerry in accounting. No, really, take that suggestion and let’s create something Jerry!

Anyways, if you hadn’t heard about iO theater now you have. And if you already knew about it maybe it’s time to go visit again. Or maybe be like me and secretly plan on running away and spending your whole life savings on going to their school. To each their own.