Actors Dictionary | A List of Common Acting Terms
Acting Dictionary

Actor’s Dictionary

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Like any industry, the theatre and filmmaking industry employs the use of a lot of technical and creative jargon, which can be intimidating for anyone new to the acting scene (pun intended). Here is a dictionary of sorts, a page you can always come back to for quick definitions of these terms. Click on the links to dive deeper into each term if you like. Enjoy!

A Glossary of Common Acting Terms…

Actioning: A method of using transitive verbs such as ‘to convince’ to each line of your monologue or scene. The method gives the work more nuance, direction and energy.

ADR: Automatic Dialogue Replacement / Additional Dialogue Recording – ADR is the post-production process of re-recording dialogue in a controlled setting of a studio. An Actor may be called in to re-record their dialogue for a number of reasons including to improve poor audio quality of the original or even to adjust a vocal performance.

Aside: An aside is a writing and performative device where the actor is meant to speak to the audience or to themselves. By convention it is generally understood that no one but the speaking character can hear this dialogue.

Ad-lib: when an actor improvises around their lines slightly and makes small adjustments or completely makes up a line in a script. Should I be word perfect? 

Beat:  A brief moment of silence indicating high stakes, a change of energy, or a change of thought.

Blocking: This refers to the physical action of a scene that the actors will be doing. Determining the ‘blocking’ of a scene, is a part of the rehearsal process. This is useful for plotting on a stage, and also for the director or cameraman to figure out how they’re going to shoot a scene when you’re on set.

Blank/Dry: To dry, or to blank, is another way of saying ‘to forget your line’.

Break a Leg: Good luck! Usually said before a show.

Breaking Character: this is where you drop out of the character you are portraying and temporarily go back to normal. Considered to be an unprofessional thing to do during performance.

Bump-In (AUS), Load-In (US), Get-In (UK), Pack-In (NZ): This is the process of moving sets, props and other hardware into the theatre in preparation for Tech week and production.

Bump-Out (AUS), Load-Out (US), Get-Out (UK), Pack-Out (NZ): This is the process of moving the entire production out of the theatre venue. This will happen after you STRIKE the set.

Casting Director: The person who organises the casting (selecting) of actors for all roles in a given project (film, TV, theatre). They also negotiate fees and contracts for the actors. What is a Casting Director? 

Callback: If you are successful in an initial audition you may be ‘called back’. This is simply a secondary audition for the same role.

Centre Stage: When a performer is standing in the middle of the stage.

Characterisation: This is the process of the actor exploring and developing their character in order to bring these discoveries to life in their performance. Characterisation can include anything from back-story, accent work, or unique physicalisation.

Cold reading: Reading a script for the first time in an audition or play reading situation. How to work on cold reading. 

Corpsing: this is where an actor breaks character by laughing or smiling during a scene or monologue.

Conflict: Conflict is one of the most crucial components to any narrative, plot and character story arc. It is the oppositional force between events or characters that directly affects the movement of the plot. The story usually starts by establishing the norm or the status quo, and then the inciting incident occurs which threatens the norm or the status quo – thus, things must change. This is conflict.

Cues: is a term used for the time between each actors lines. When a director asks to pick up the cues, or simple cues. They mean pick up the pace: cut the time in between your lines and the other actors. This doesn’t mean the lines themselves are any quicker, only the cues.

Chookas: (CHOOK-US) In the vein of “break a leg”, “chookas” is an Australian good luck well wishing without saying the phrase “good luck” (which is superstitiously considered bad luck to say in a theatre). It’s precise origins are unclear, but it is typically believed to be derivative of “chook it is” which was said in ye oldie time when chicken was an expensive delicacy – if a playhouse was successful and full it meant the actors would be paid well and then could eat well.

De-Role: to de-role is to pull yourself out of character when you’re finished performing. This can be an important step for your own mental health, especially when dealing with challenging characters.

Downstage / Upstage: When a performer is FACING/LOOKING AT THE AUDIENCE, and moves TOWARDS the audience, this area is called DOWNSTAGE. The opposite area to this, the furthest part of the stage from the audience front row, is called UPSTAGE. The terms originate from when stages used to slope downward towards the audience to improve their sight lines of the performance.

Dramaturg: or ‘dramaturge’ is an advisor, often on a stage production, whose responsibilities vary depending on the needs of the project, but centre around providing support to the rest of the team about the dramatic composition of the piece. This can manifest in conducting research into a show’s time period or characters, advising on the consistency and structure of the story as a whole, or even adapting a piece of work for a dramatic context.

Dress Rehearsal: this is a late stage rehearsal in theatre where you are all in full costume for the first time.

Flats: Flats are lightweight panels used to construct the walls and backdrop of a set. They are typically made of lightweight timber frames covered with scenic canvas or plywood. Flats can be decorated to replicate realistic settings and even include doors and windows, or in theatre they can be used to conceal parts of the stage for the audience or prop storage areas. Film and theatre flat frames can be stored and used many times over at different configurations for different productions.

First Read: most theatre rehearsals begin with a first read. This is where you read the full play with the cast, typically around a table. More on rehearsal process.

First Positions: (sometimes referred to as “back to ones”)  This is when a director or First AD needs actors to go back to their very first position for the beginning of the scene. They will sometimes also call “Reset!”

Fourth Wall: The fourth wall is the most prevalent and powerful technique invented in modern theatre dating right back to the 18th century. The fourth wall is an imaginary, invisible wall that stretches along the front of the stage separating the actors from the audience. For more on the Fourth Wall. 

Given Circumstances: these are the imaginary circumstances of a monologue, scene or play. The who, what, where and why. Popularised by Uta Hagen, given circumstances, are an important acting technique used to detail text.

Iambic pentameter: The rhythm common in a lot of Shakespeare’s work. It is often simplified into this pattern: Da–DUM  Da–DUM  Da–DUM  Da–DUM  Da–DUM.

Images: are specific memories or descriptions of people, places or things in your script. The idea here is that every line, every word and even every silence can have an image attached. Additionally, this technique mixed with some substitution can prove to be a powerful emotional trigger for an actor.  For more on images.

Inner Monologue: is a vital tool for an actor to use as part of their process onstage or onscreen. It’s not just about what you might be thinking moment to moment, but how is the character processing the information as it comes to them, how do they feel about the world around them and most importantly where do these lines come from? What is the motivating factor behind your lines? Is it a reaction to what someone has said, is it an image or a memory from their past, is it the environment around them? By getting some clarity around this you can really help find specificity and life inside the silences of your next performance.

Line Reading: A line reading is when someone who is not the actor saying that specific line (often the director) delivers the line to the actor in the way they’d like it to be delivered. This can dictate the vocal quality, or intention, they would like the line delivered in. Some actors find line readings to be somewhat insulting because it robs the actor of the ability to do their job. Others find it helpful, especially as a final resort, if you’re not otherwise able to understand what the director is asking of you.

Logline: A logline is a one-sentence summary of a book, play, film, or television show that provides a brief synopsis of the central conflict and an emotional “hook” to garner interest. E.g. Wizard of Oz – A young girl is swept away in a tornado to a magical land and must find a Wizard to help her return home. 

Loop Group: A Loop Group is referring to the group of actors that go into a recording booth to record the atmospheric sounds of a given scene in television and film. This happens in Post-Production and is often utilised to fill out the noises for crowd scenes or replacing specific dialogue.

Method acting: A method of acting that involves using real life experiences to get into character. Coined by acting teacher Lee Strasberg, who defines Method acting as: What all actors have always done whenever they acted well. It is known proverbially as an acting process where the actor absolutely becomes the character. The most famous example is Daniel Day Lewis, who is well known for staying in character on film sets (even when not shooting).

Objective: is a word used all the time in acting. Objective refers to the motivation of your character in a scene or play/script. It refers to what your character wants at the core of the scene or script. For more on objectives.

Off-Book: is when you have learnt your lines, either for a scene or the whole play. If you are “off book” you don’t need your script when performing.

Outline: The outline is a general breakdown of the story a writer is intending to write. It can take many forms from detailed prose to broad stroke bullet points, and usually constructed at the writer’s preference and intended purpose.

On-Hold: (On Pencil/Pencilled) when an actor is very close to booking a role, casting might ask for the actor to “hold” the shoot dates. This doesn’t mean you’ve booked the job 100%, but it’s the step before!

“On the day”: This is a rather colloquial phrase used exclusively in film. It is often thrown into conversation during rehearsal or practicing as shot, meaning: “when we actually and properly record what we are discussing”. For instance, if on set and the cast and crew are trying to sync up a camera movement with a line of dialogue that they are about to film, the DOP might say: “On the day, you will hit that mark and say the line” – which means “in a moment when we record this scene, you will hit that mark and say the line”. NOTE: It technically does literally mean “on the day” because it is the filming day to which the speaker is referring. BUT it can be misleading and give the impression that the speaker is referring to another day in the future – which they usually are not.

Pace: Pace is the speed with which an actor speaks or a scene or a story moves. The term “pace” can seem elusive in this sense, but is usually dictated by the literal progression of time. For actors, pace is typically in reference to the delivery of their dialogue and performance, and can be determined by the interpretation of the scene. E.g. for a faster pace the actors could motivate themselves with a sense of urgency. For a slower pace the actor could need to ensure their point in clearly understood or comprehended by their scene partner, thus needing to interact slowly.

Pause: Often written in scripts, the pause is a hotly debated term. It should be a short 1-3 second pause. A pause often indicates a thought change similar to a beat.

Prompt side: Stage Left (see above). This term comes from the term to “prompt” an actor. This occurs when the actor forgets a line and the stage manager tells them the line from the side of the stage.

Prop: an item that an actor interacts with on set or on stage. Anything from a book, to a cup, to a piece of paper.

Rushes: also referred to as Dailies, is all the raw footage that was shot on that shoot day. Sometimes actors are allowed or permitted to watch the rushes, but more often than not, this is something the director and editor will do privately.

Self-Tape/Self-Test: A screen test recorded without the assistance of a casting director. It can be done at home or at a self taping business. For more on self-taping. 

Slate / ID: essentially a chat to camera, where usually, casting will provide specific instructions as to what information they need you to outline in the slate. Look out for these instructions and don’t deviate from them – they are there for a reason. For instance, they often ask for your height, which is essential for a visual medium like film, particularly when matching you with co-stars you’ve never physically met. How to do a slate. 

Stakes: this is referring to what the character has got to lose in a scene or script. Normally referred to in context, as either high stakes, or low stakes. Often a director might ask you to “heighten the stakes”. More on Stakes here.

Strike the Set: Disassembling the set pieces of a theatre show after the production is completed.

Subtext: this is the unspoken or alternative meaning of an actor’s lines.

Stand-in: someone who will be on set in place of an actor to help lighting and camera set up a shot.

Second Positions: similar to First Positions (above), this is when a director or 1st AD requires actors to go to their final position at the end of the scene. A camera operator, or 1st AC might also ask the actor to go to their second position, or final position, to get a focus point.

Scene Cards: Scene cards are a series of cards (usually speech cue-cards) on which each intended scene for a script is written respectively. The cards are aligned into the plot sequence and work as a guideline for writers to follow as they produce the script.

Sides: sides are scripts. Often referred to as sides when talking about film and TV auditions. For more on sides.

Stage Right (OP – Opposite Prompt)/ Stage Left (PS – Prompt Side): When a performer is FACING/LOOKING AT THE AUDIENCE, the area to the PERFORMER’S RIGHT is STAGE RIGHT and the area on the PERFORMER’S LEFT is STAGE LEFT. (Stage Left is also referred to as “PS” – “Prompt Side”, as Stage Left was once where the a Stage Manager or Reader would deliver lines from the wings if prompted by the actors. Thereunto, Stage Right is also referred to as “OP” – “Opposite Prompt”).

Storyboard: A storyboard is a series of drawings or digital images, often with notes, directions and dialogue, that is used in the visualisation and planning to represent the shot sequence for typically film and television productions.

Substitution: is the process of endowing the other actor in the scene with characteristics of a person from your real life. Ideally this person best expresses the need in your scene objective – this will really connect you to the other actor you’re working with, and ground your performance in truth. For more on Ivana Chubbuck Technique and Substitution. 

Take: on a film or television set when a director says “going for a take” or “let’s do another take” – means they would like to roll the camera and do the scene again.

Targeting: this acting concept was coined by Declan Donnellan in his book Actor and the Target. Actors should always have a target (image/focus) in mind when they are acting.

A Treatment: A treatment is a document written in present tense, narrative-like prose form and includes the LOGLINE, story and plot summary, character descriptions and intended production style of a potential script. It is usually longer and more specific than an OUTLINE and considered the step before SCENE CARDS. It is essentially a portfolio highlighting the most important details about a production.

Units: any scene can be broken down into units. These are smaller sections of dialogue, distinct by a change in energy or subject matter. A scene can vary in the number of units. When one of the actors changes the subject in a significant way or there is “new information” added into a scene this starts a new unit.

VO: stands for Voice Over. You may be asked to do a voice over for a commercial, or to accompany another piece of content. This is an audio recording, usually done in a professional studio.

ACTORS' DICTIONARY

For a list of film set roles, click here

About the Author

StageMilk Team

is made up of young professional actors and writers from around the world. This team includes Andrew Hearle, Luke McMahon, Indiana Kwong, Patrick Cullen and many more. We all work together to contribute useful articles and resources for actors at all stages in their careers.

About the Author

StageMilk Team

is made up of young professional actors and writers from around the world. This team includes Andrew Hearle, Luke McMahon, Indiana Kwong, Patrick Cullen and many more. We all work together to contribute useful articles and resources for actors at all stages in their careers.

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