5 Theater Idioms: Stage Fright, Upstage, and More

The theater gives us many useful phrases and idioms including "stage fright," "upstaging," "exit stage left," and more.

Samantha Enslen, Writing for
4-minute read

The Tony Awards are coming up this Sunday. That’s the annual ceremony that recognizes excellence in live Broadway theater. Last year, the winning play was “Harry Potter and the Cursed Child”; the winning musical was “The Band’s Visit.”

With that in mind, today we’re going to talk about a few idioms that have their origin in the theater. Let’s start with one that many of us experience: stage fright.

1. Stage Fright

You all know what that means: it’s that nervous feeling we get when we have to perform in front of an audience. The term was first used by Mark Twain in “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer.” Tom stands up in front of his schoolmates and their parents to recite Patrick Henry’s “Give me liberty of give me death” speech. He starts off strong and then completely breaks down, eventually leaving the stage. Does that sound familiar to anyone?

2. A Hard Act to Follow

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You might be especially prone to stage fright if you were presenting after someone who’s “a hard act to follow.” That phrase can be traced back to 1937. It refers to a person or thing that’s so impressive they would be difficult to rival or surpass. 

Imagine coming on the stage after Beyoncé or the Rolling Stones, for example. There’s a reason performers like that have opening acts … not closing acts. It’s because they would be a really hard act to follow. This expression is also seen as “a tough act to follow.” Either is considered correct.

3. To Upstage Someone

A phrase that’s related to this is to “upstage” someone. That means to outshine them, or to make yourself look good at their expense. This expression alludes to an actor moving toward the rear of the stage. This movement would force the other actors to turn their backs to the audience to see him. So the actor who “upstaged” the others would be the only one facing the audience.

This sounds a bit backwards, so let me explain. In theater terms, “upstage” refers to the rear of the stage; the part farthest away from the audience. Downstage is the front of the stage; the part closest to the audience. And of course there’s center stage, smack dab in the middle. 

Each of those three areas is further divided into three chunks: stage left (which is to the left side of the performers, but to the right of the audience), stage center, and stage right. 

4. Exit Stage Left

That’s where the expression “exit stage left” comes from. This is a basic direction that would be given to performers when a script calls for them to leave the stage. This expression has a figurative meaning too. It refers to someone leaving a situation in an uneventful or non-dramatic way. 

By the way, the first known use of the word “exit” is in a script! It shows up in a 1548 play called “A Comedy Concerning the Laws of Nature, Moses, and Christ.” It appears in an even earlier play, from 1500, in a slightly different form: exiat, spelled E-X-I-A-T. 

Both versions come from the classical Latin word ”exīre,” meaning “to go out.” That word, in turn, comes from putting together two other Latin words: the prefix “ex,” meaning “out” or “forth,” and the verb “īre,” meaning “to go.”

5. Stage Whisper

Finally, I’ll tell you very quietly about a “stage whisper”—a whisper that’s loud enough to be overheard. This kind of whisper could be deliberate; imagine whispering “great work” to a student who’s just given a science fair presentation. It could also be accidental; imagine a child loudly whispering, “Mommy, I need to go potty,” in the middle of church. 

This expression alludes to an actor’s whisper on the stage, which is meant to be overheard. The first use of this phrase appears in an 1864 review of Shakespeare’s play “Cymbeline.” A critical scene in the play depicts Iachimo, a Roman lord, sneaking into the bedroom of the sleeping maiden Imogen, to steal her bracelet. He pauses during the theft to reflect on her beauty.

Anyway, the review absolutely destroys the actor playing Iachimo because of his super-loud stage whisper. The reviewer writes that his “tongue is too loosely hung” and that he makes “enough noise to wake fifty Imogens,” barely keeping his “hissing and breathing below the standard of an engine blowing off its steam.” 


There are so many other idioms that derive from the stage, from curtain calls to stealing the spotlight to being in the limelight. We’ll talk about those another day. For now, we’ll simply exit this segment, stage left.  


Ammer, Christine. Stage whisper. American Heritage Dictionary of Idioms, 2nd ed. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2013. 

Shakespeare, William. Cymbeline, Act 2, Scene 2. Accessed June 3, 2019

Morley, Henry. The Journal of a London Playgoer from 1851 to 1866. Page 293–294. George Routledge and Sons, 1891. Accessed June 3, 2019

Oxford English Dictionary, online edition. Oxford University Press. Hard act to follow, stage fright,  (subscription required, accessed June 3, 2019).

Samantha Enslen runs Dragonfly Editorial. You can find her at dragonflyeditorial.com or @DragonflyEdit.

Image courtesy of Shutterstock.

About the Author

Samantha Enslen, Writing for Grammar Girl

Samantha Enslen is an award-winning writer who has worked in publishing for more than 20 years. She runs Dragonfly Editorial, an agency that provides copywriting, editing, and design for scientific, medical, technical, and corporate materials. Sam is the vice president of ACES, The Society for Editing, and is the managing editor of Tracking Changes, ACES' quarterly journal.