News & Articles

Theatre Superstitions

2004-2005, Volume 1


Theater people are superstitious. There are lists of things that are prohibited when you are in a theater, things you must not do, otherwise the performance will go terribly wrong. For example, no actor would ever say the word Macbeth in a theater – it would bring certain disaster. Actors, instead, call it “The Scottish Play” and the title character “the Scottish Lord” in order to avoid
pronouncing the word. Whistling in a theater is also forbidden because it brings bad luck to the whistler. And in case you have forgotten, NEVER wish an actor good luck! – tell them to break a leg. Why? Backstage sent artistic intern Jack Tamburri on the hunt of the origins of these superstitions, and he came back with the following list. If you’re not superstitious, then read on, Macduff...

Tell them to “break a leg,” not “good luck!”
This bizarre phrase has a number of purported meanings…

1) If the havoc–wreaking spirits (Sprites) heard you ask for something, they were reputed to try to make the opposite happen. Telling someone to “break a leg” is an attempt to outsmart the Sprites and make something good happen.

2) To break a leg was to hope the actor would have so many curtain calls that his trousers would be creased permanently.

3) In Shakespeare’s time, to break meant to bend. So, bend your leg, means take a lot of bows.

4) One popular etymology derives the phrase from the 1865 assassination of Abraham Lincoln. John Wilkes Booth, the actor turned assassin, leapt to the stage of Ford’s Theater after the murder, breaking his leg in the process. The logical connection from this event to wishing someone good luck is none too clear, but such is folklore.

5) Evidently, in the days of early vaudeville, the producers would book more performers than could possibly perform in the given time of the show, since “bad” acts could be pulled before their completion. In order to ensure that the producers didn’t start paying people who hadn’t actually performed, there was a general policy that a performer did NOT get paid unless they actually appeared onstage. So the phrase “break a leg” referred to breaking the visual plane of the “legs,” or curtains that lined the side of the stage. In other words, “Hope you break a leg and get onstage, so that you get paid.”

6) It came from the understudies telling their primaries to “break a leg” enough times that it came to be considered bad luck if they didn’t say it.

7) In Ancient Greece, people didn’t applaud. Instead, they stomped for their appreciation and if they stomped long enough, they would break a leg. Or, some would have it that the term originated during Elizabethan times when, instead of applause the audience would stomp their chairs – and if they liked it enough, the leg of the chair would break.We‘re in the “dark”
You never say a theater is “closed,” but instead that it is “dark.” If you say a theater is closed, you can invoke plagues, Puritans or embezzlement. A dark night (when there is no performance) is normal and healthy.

Whatever you do, don’t turn off the Ghost Light.
Every theater has a Ghost Light, a light that is left onstage which is never turned off. It’s there to guide the first and last person into and out of the theater. For centuries, a myth has held that the light is protection from spirits, because if the theater ever went completely dark, lonely and resentful ghosts would realize everyone had gone and proceed to cause all sorts of mischief.

No whistling!
In the olden days, stage hands were out–of–work sailors (theaters and ships share a profusion of ropes) who communicated with complex whistles. So, if you were walking around stage whistling a tune, you could accidentally call down a sandbag onto your head!

The “Scottish Curse.”
Don’t say Macbeth, or even quote that play, in a theater. Ever. Theater people believe it will bring disaster. In actual fact, Constantine Stanislavski, Orson Welles and Charlton Heston all suffered some catastrophe during or just after a production of “The Scottish Play.” In 1849, more than 30 New Yorkers were killed when rioting broke out during a performance of the play. Abe Lincoln read it the night before he was assassinated. If someone else quotes from “The Scottish Play“ inside a theater, you must utter the words “Angels and ministers of grace defend us!” Then the offender must leave the house, turn around widdershins (counterclockwise) three times, swear and knock to be readmitted.

The superstition seems to have arisen, in part, from the play’s depiction of witchcraft, still a vital (though contested) belief in 1606, when the play was first performed. Like Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus, in which staged incantations were occasionally reported to have raised real devils, “The Scottish Play“ was believed to flirt dangerously with the “Powers of Evil,“ bringing catastrophe down upon productions over the succeeding centuries.

Those seeking rational reasons for the “Scottish Curse” have pointed to several features of the play as conducive to accidents: dim lighting and stage combat chief among them. Authentic productions often use broadswords, which are heavy and difficult to wield deftly, capable of inflicting considerable blunt trauma. Moreover, as Shakespeare’s shortest and one of his most popular plays, Macbeth has often been a last–minute addition to a company’s repertoire when the company is in financial straits late in the season. Therefore, it can be dangerously under–rehearsed, and it can portend the closing of the company (which probably would have closed regardless which play was chosen).

And many, many more…
Wearing the colors blue and yellow will cause actors to forget lines. Wearing green is unlucky. There should be no peacock feathers inside a theater. No real flowers, mirrors or jewelry should ever be used on stage. You should use a rabbit’s foot to apply makeup. You should never clean your makeup box. You should NEVER wear brand–new makeup on opening night. Never place shoes or hats on chairs or tables inside the dressing rooms. Always exit the dressing room left foot first. Absolutely no knitting in the wings. Never open a show on a Friday night. And never speak the last line of a play before opening night.

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