My high school French teacher used to chastise students for looking up words in the dictionary. “Sure, that’s how you spell it, but that’s not what it means!” he’d admonish in a half-mocking, half-serious tone. His eyebrow would arch into the shape of an accent circonflexe while describing a more nuanced meaning of a particular parole. Defining words is a vexing endeavor. Then again, consider the task of creating an actual dictionary. The Oxford English Dictionary took some 70 years to complete, with 1,827,306 quotations to help define 414,825 words. Why would anyone want to make a theatre-specific dictionary?
For Mark Blankenship, Theatre Development Fund’s web content editor, the idea for such a project began to gestate while making videos for TDF Stages, the service organization’s online magazine. He wasn’t necessarily thinking about a dictionary until one day when he popped by TDF’s Times Square TKTS booth, which offers discounted tickets to Broadway shows. Interested ticket-buyers can stand in line either for plays or musicals. “I overheard a woman ask, ‘What is a play, and what is a musical?’ And I thought, ‘Oh my God, we cannot assume people know anything about the theatre or its terms,’” Blankenship recalls of his lightbulb moment.
How many times have you had to tell someone it’s “break a leg,” not “good luck”? Or what about when you rush to a “cattle call” and end up getting cast as a “swing”? No, you tell your non-theatre-professional friend, there were no cows involved, and no, you’re not exactly an understudy, nor will you be dancing to swing music. See how quickly this can get confusing?
“There are countless words I take for granted all the time that the non-theatre-professional might not understand,” says Blankenship. “I thought it could be interesting to create a project that lifts the veil of theatre and invites audiences to feel closer to the words and jargon we use.”
Blankenship set to work writing and directing “strike,” the pilot definition video, in summer 2011. Below the minute-long video, which depicts actors removing props from a set and then taking down the set itself, a brief essay by journalist Ben Pesner gives further examples of the term’s usage.
Blankenship was anxious to alleviate the pressure of turning his video definition into the authoritative last word on a complex term. “I just want to get the conversation started,” he offers. “Videos should be fun, entertaining and short.” In many ways, the video definitions are appetizers, while the accompanying essays—which often point to the word’s etymology or historical context—let viewers dig deeper. A blog component is in the works so that if viewers disagree with a term, have questions, or think some aspect has been left out, they can comment, or provide a link to another article. “Essentially it’s a wiki,” says Blankenship.
And though the project bills itself as a dictionary, Blankenship is steadfast in maintaining an open-spirited ethos. “I don’t think we do anyone any good if we attempt to be an inflexible authority about the meaning of a language that is so malleable,” he says. “I don’t want to be a hard-nosed member of the content police.” Still, he strives to keep definitions accurate. “I am fully aware of the tension between calling something a dictionary and believing that it’s hard to be definitive in online video. But I think that’s a valuable tension.”
The experience of writing and directing “strike” was so creatively satisfying for Blankenship that he decided to spread the joy and cast his net wide for definitions: “I realized maybe other theatre people would like to make these videos.”
It took 15 months of web design and soliciting contributors before the project officially launched this past October at www.theatredictionary.org. Typically, groups submit a script for the definition of a term; Blankenship reviews the text and offers light dramaturgical notes. He keeps a word bank of completed definitions and yet-to-be-claimed terms to help inspire choices. But when groups approach him with terms they are enthusiastic to tackle, he is especially excited. “If a group cares enough to reach out to me about a term, then they are probably the right group to define it.”
New York City’s Neo-Futurists were eager to define “performance art,” a term which ensemble member Cara Francis admits is “tricky, because it comes with all this history and contention. And pretention.” A man-on-the-street approach was developed, wherein ensemble members interviewed New Yorkers of all ages and stripes about what they believed “performance art” means. Francis and her cohorts picked the best quotes and created accompanying comedic bits for them. “We wanted to make the concept of performance art accessible to everyone who watched this video and turn the dictionary page of that term into a living, breathing monster,” she declares.
One definition often leads to another. Actors’ Equity Association, for example, was set to define “gypsy robe,” when Blankenship realized that “gypsy” had not yet been defined. So they shot two videos in one afternoon and those are currently in post-production.
Individuals and organizations that take on the task of filming a definition are offered a $150 stipend to cover editing costs. Or groups can opt out of a stipend and have TDF film and edit it. So far 28 definitions are viewable, while a number of others have been claimed and are in the works. “I’ve learned that actually getting a completed video definition usually takes about twice as long as a theatre thinks it will take—which is totally okay,” says Blankenship lightheartedly.
Even though the videos are sourced from a variety of entities, they each kick off with a catchy jingle and snappy logo. A wacky, exuberant tone reigns throughout. In “character shoe,” an amiable young fellow walks down an aisle of shoe racks explaining the term refers to a “neutral shoe usually worn by female ensemble members in a musical.” Up pop two women modeling their black-and-tan footwear; they do a little jig and exclaim “character shoes” in unison. Cue jazz hands and smiles. “Showmance,” created by Actor’s Express of Atlanta, is one of the longer entries (a montage of onstage and offstage dalliances, it clocks in at just over three minutes). “Off-Off Broadway,” created by New York City’s HERE Arts Center, features a silly, stuffy gentleman confused about where Off-Off Broadway theatre actually occurs.
“I’ve started to realize that this project is not only a reference tool for audiences but also a communal art project,” says Blankenship, pointing out how the dictionary doesn’t just define terms but also celebrates the culture of theatre with entries from groups across the U.S. “The language of theatre is, in a way, the most permanent aspect of it. The shows are ephemeral, they all disappear. But no matter where you make theatre, you’re using these words. So in a way, this is becoming a visual testament to one of the more permanent aspects of our theatre.”
So far there’s one entry from Canada; will this expand to other countries? “I’m aware that British theatre culture has terms we don’t use,” says Blankenship with a smile. “In the long run, it’d be great to develop a British section of the theatre dictionary.”