There’s no business like show business. It is unique because it aspires to be: When a carpenter goes to see a show, he doesn’t want to see the same shit that he does all week. We still use the industrial standards but with every new thing that is designed, people work hard to up the ante.
It should come as no surprise then, that you’ll find many things and expressions used nowhere else. We have silly names for them, like pickle (a control box for electric motors), a lamp (light bulb), a banana (a line array of speakers), a kabuki (a curtain that falls by remote control), a snake (thick cable that runs from the sound desk to the stage), I could probably come up with dozens more if I put my head to it. And then there’s the abbreviations like FOH, PA, HQI, and so on.
But some of them are special and deserve some further explanation, conveniently giving me the excuse to talk about my job.
Break a leg
The show must go on. It isn’t just a catch phrase or reason for Freddie Mercury to act all dramatic (like he needed one). The show is the end product, and if it is cancelled, enormous amounts of money are wasted, a financial pit that takes several more performances to fill.
This is doubly true in places like Broadway, where the rent of the theater alone would blow your mind.
For that reason, every performance has several stand-ins watching from the sides. If anything should happen, they’ll jump in and take the place of whatever role they are assigned to. For them, this is good news because it means a lot more pay.
Theater houses use a clever system of layered black drapes to hide actors and technical equipment. Most commonly used are the borders, which span the width of the playing area and hide the lights above, and the legs, which run vertically along the sides.
An actor “breaks a leg” when he steps onstage, “breaking” the view of the legs. The good-luck phrase comes from the actors wishing each other a chance to get onstage and play, and get paid. It has nothing to do with breaking limbs.
Tonight the super trouper lights are gonna blind me
Shining like the sun
Smiling, having fun
I bet you can hear those 2 Abba blokes in your head doing the ‘supa-pa trupa-pa’ already. Cachy? You bet. Annoying? Yes very.
Super troupers are a brand of followspot. We still see then occasionally these days. They are ridiculously bulky and heavy, but are regular light cannons. Their design is simple, cheap and leaves little to be improved, they do their job very well.
I always end up with the song in my head when I so much as think about followspots. It’s a job that I enjoy very much: Easy as pie to learn, hard to master. And if I manage to concentrate, I do believe I am quite good at it.
As part of Generation Z, my son will probably grow to hate the song as much as I do. But unlike me, he won’t feel that little spark of pride to know that a record breaking hit song was written about his job, and unless I tell him (likely), he will probably never know that his father spent many a night aiming his Super Trouper down the venue, shit-talk on the radio and a smile on his face.
What do sailors and stagehands have in common?
They look at you clueless when you say ‘left’ or ‘right’ without context.
When onstage, “left of the stage” depends on how you look at it. Like a technician, from the back to the front? Or like an audience member, front to back?
In Rock ‘n Roll, there are 6 directions to a stage. When standing on it, looking at the crowd, they are:
Stage-left (to your left), stage-right (to your right), upstage (behind you), downstage (in front of you), onstage (towards the middle of the stage) and offstage (towards the edge of the stage).
This is important to know, because often SL will be to the right, from your perspective. It takes some getting used to.
As if that wasn’t enough, in theater all those terms go right out the window and different ones are used. They assume a position from the venue, looking at the stage. In the Netherlands, “left” is the same as SR, “right” is SL.
In other countries, the terms ‘côté cour’ and ‘côté jardin’ are used. Interestingly, this dates back as far as 1660, when theater was no longer just entertainment for the poor and the infamous ‘Téâtre des Tuileries’ was constructed in Paris at the court of Louis XIV. It was nicknames the ‘machine room’ because of its elaborate theater machinery, which laid the foundation to modern theater technology. The systems put in place were extremely high-tech at the time and will still blow your mind.
Light was a difficult thing to come by, however, especially since fire was not allowed on a stage made of wood. Instead, the plays were lit by enormous windows on either side, one of which would look out over the courtyard (Le Court) and the other over the garden (Le Jardin).
400 years later, we still refer to SR as the “garden side” and SL as the “courtyard side”. You can memorize them by thinking of Julius Caesar or Jesus Christ, when looking at the stage from the house and using the first letters of their name: J-C. Jardin, Court.
This one took a long time to figure out, but a British trucker recently dropped this little gem in my lap.
For as long as I can remember, we have used the term ‘Belgian tip’ when loading trucks, referring to the method of tipping flight cases upside down. It’s a phrase that we like to use around here, for obvious reasons. But I never knew where it came from.
Apparently, this term came to fruition in 1987, when the Herald of the Free Enterprise left Belgian harbor on its way to England… With its bow door wide open. Water rushed in, not much- but just enough. The large flat surface that was the parking lot inside the bow of the ship, allowed for the water to slosh around, causing instability. Cars began to slide, the ship tilted further, and within mere seconds, the boat lied on its side under shallow waters. Trucks inside were found upside down, as they had fallen over before the ship tilted. 193 passengers and crew were killed.
“Say ittt,” I threatened after the trucker ordered us to tip “wheels to the sky”. We were having none of it. With a pained grin, the trucker humored us.
“Belgian tip, boys.”