Upon the release of the last Rae Hatting novel, Blackout, I thought I would write a post about some of the commonly held superstitions by theatre folk. I’ve been involved in the theatre since I was 10, and there are many common (and obscure) things practiced by us actors, mostly to keep terrible things from happening during the course of rehearsals and shows. So, please take your seats. The performance is about to begin!
The Dreaded Scottish Play
The superstition goes that saying the word “Macbeth” onstage or off could result in disastrous events. If you say this word, there are a number of rituals you can do to be “allowed” back in and “forgiven.” The main one is: The person is required to leave the theater building, spit, curse and spin around three times, before begging to be allowed back inside.
Why? Some believe it’s because of the witchcraft element. Others, because of the high risk of injury to the actors and the running trend of people dying during the course of the show. Some believe Shakespeare himself put a curse on the play. Another involves how some theatres used the play as a last ditch effort to get them out of debt. Unfortunately, the theatres often went broke anyway.
The superstition goes that someone whistling backstage meant someone would be fired from the show, and not always the person whistling.
Why? In the days before technology, stage managers would use whistling to cue actors. If someone else whistled, it could cause an actor to miss a cue or go on too early. Not good!
It’s bad luck to say good luck on opening night!
So says the famous song from The Producers, but why do actors insist you say “break a leg”? There are a number of theories. One involves understudies. The “legs” of the stage are the curtains hanging at either side. “Breaking a leg” meant you went onstage and got paid. Another comes from Elizabethan England, where money was thrown at the actors and you could “break the leg” to get the coins, i.e. leave the stage. Whatever superstition you believe, any actor would rather hear “break a leg” than say “good luck”!
It’s a ghost!
Some theatres are known to be haunted. Yes, I know it sounds crazy, but I know ours is! There is a superstition which states there should be one night during the run of a performance where the ghosts are allowed free reign of the stage.
According to one article: “…there is one specific ghost, Thespis, who has a reputation for causing unexplained mischief. Thespis, of Athens (6th BC) was the first person to speak lines as an individual actor on stage, thus the term “Thespian” to refer to a theatrical performer was born. To keep the ghosts of the theater subdued, there should be at least one night a week where the theater is empty, this night is traditionally a Monday night, conveniently giving actors a day off after weekend performances.”
Is it true? Well, from personal experience, when our theatre added in a Sunday show, usually the day we had off, the performances were poorly attended. Lack of interest, or our ghost having a bit a revenge for taking away her night? You decide.
One of the more interesting superstitions I learned about was how wearing blue onstage was a sure way to a failed play, unless countered with silver. This is because blue dye, in the early days of theatre, was expensive to make. Failing companies would dress their actors in blue to give the illusion of success. Using silver as well counteracted the blue, as it showed the theatre had money behind them from a wealthy patron.
I hope you enjoyed my little foray into theatre superstitions, and be sure to grab a copy of Blackout in paperback or ebook from Amazon!
Kind thanks to the following articles:
Top Ten Theatre Superstitions