Anyone who has ever been involved in theatre, whether it be onstage or backstage, knows that theatre folk have always been an extremely superstitious lot and considering all of the things that can (and sometimes do) go wrong during a performance, it is not exactly surprising that so much folklore has cropped up in order to try and give some sort of explanation as to why these things occur. I did a lot of work with the drama club back when I was in high school and I had a very wonderful drama teacher who was very much into making sure that her actors were not going to do anything that may potentially bring bad luck down onto a performance so many of the superstitions that I am about to list come from my own personal memory and ones that I still adhere too whenever I find myself heading to a theatre to enjoy a show. Some of these theatre superstitions are mentioned in my app marketing effective plan:
This was one that I learned back in high school but never exactly knew the origins of until now. It turns out that before there were walkie-talkies or intercom systems, coded whistles were given as cues to the stage hands by the stage manager. If a person was caught whistling backstage it could cause confusion, accidently sending out cues before they were due which could prove disastrous for everyone and could very well end up costing someone their job. Also, it is very distracting to have a lot of noise going on backstage when a performance is going on which does lend some practicality to this superstition.
Speaking from personal experience: Our teacher made sure that it was known that it was bad luck to whistle inside a theatre and any of us that were caught doing so were made to go through the proper rituals to make up for their mistake.
2.) The Scottish Play
To say the name of Shakespeare’s play ‘Macbeth’ while inside a theatre is considered bad luck. Actors avoid this by referring to it as ‘the Scottish play’ or ‘the bard’s play’. If the name is uttered there is a cleansing ritual that one can do to rectify the mistake. I remember the one ritual that my teacher used to make us do involved turning around three times and spitting. The full ritual requires the actor to leave the building, spit, turn around three times, curse, and then asked to be let back inside the theatre. Another ritual involves brushing oneself off, reciting a line from another Shakespearian work, running around the theatre counter clockwise, or repeating the name three times while tapping on ones left shoulder. There are several possible origins for this superstition and one of them is the belief in witchcraft. One story says that Shakespeare got the words from a coven of real witches whom, after seeing the play themselves, were not impressed by how they were portrayed. Another story says that the props master stole a cauldron from said coven, and the witches again, were not impressed. The BEST witchcraft explanation is the one that says Shakespeare himself placed a curse on the play so that no one other than him could direct it correctly. Another possible origin is that there is a greater amount of swordplay in this particular work than in any other Shakespearian piece which means that performers have a greater chance of getting hurt. I think that the most practical explanation is that a numerous amount of failing theatre companies, knowing that Macbeth was a popular play, would often pull it out of their hat at the end of the season in order to gain more patrons when they saw that their profits were failing. It was not common for the theatres to go under shortly after which could have made Macbeth a sign of bad business.
Speaking from personal experience: I remember a time when one of my fellow cast mates showed up to a rehearsal bearing the name “Macbeth” on the front. Not one of us wanted to go near her for fear of having bad luck after having been tempted to say the name. Another time I was watching the Tony’s a few years ago and Patrick Stewart was nominated for his performance in said play. When the announcer called out the nominations he referred to it as “the Scottish Play” instead of actually calling it “Macbeth”. It just goes to show how superstitious we theatre folk actually are!
3.) The Dreaded “GL” Phrase
It is bad luck to wish an actor good luck before a show (as funny as that sounds). The phrase, “Break a Leg” replaces the phrase, “Good Luck”. A few possible origins of this superstition include:
-In Elizebethan England, audience members would throw money onto the stage for the actors to have after a good performance. The actors would then kneel down to collect the money “breaking” the line of the leg.
-Another possible origin is when actors bow or curtsey at curtain call, the place one foot behind the other and bend at the knee thus “breaking” the line of the leg.
-If actors are called back out for multiple curtain calls and the actors are moving on and offstage via the wings, they may “break the legs” which is a common term for side curtains/masks.
Speaking from personal experience: We theatre kids always tried to be very careful about making sure no one uttered this phrase inside the theatre. If one of us did the person in question had to make sure they performed the proper rituals to make sure the mistake was rectified.
4.) Theatre Spirits
Theatres are often considered to be extremely haunted and it is important that the spirits who reside within the theatre are given the opportunity one night a week to have the stage all to them selves to do their own performances. Depending on what theatre you are in the stories may vary but there is one spirit named Thespis who has a reputation for causing mischief. Thespis of Athens (6th Century BC) was the first person to speak lines as an individual actor onstage (if the term thespian means anything to you, you can thank Thespis). To keep spirits subdued, there should be at least one night out of the week where the theatre is completely empty, this night is traditionally on a Monday which also conveniently gives actors the day off after weekend performances.
Speaking from personal experience: Throughout my years of doing theatre in high school, there were several occasions where we would have unexplainable happenings within our theatre. Oftentimes much needed props would go missing only to turn up several days later in totally different places even though the person responsible placed them in the exact spot they were supposed to go in. Curtains would move on their own when there was no breeze to be had and, on several occasions, strange noises could be heard when there was no possible explanation for them. Mostly we never paid any mind (except when those props went missing!) I guess I have Thespis to thank for that.
5.) The Ghost Light
There should always be a light burning in an empty theatre to make it easier for spirits to see which also keeps them at bay. The practicality of this superstition is that the backstage of a theatre can be extremely cluttered with props, costumes so someone is more prone to get injured walking through a darkened space trying to find a light switch. It is also known as the “Equity Lamp” or “Equity Lamp.”
Speaking from personal experience: I seem to remember our school theatre always having some sort of light on.
It is considered good luck to give the play’s director/leading lady a bouquet of flowers from a graveyard after closing night (NEVER give flowers before a show as they have not been earned yet!) As anyone in the theatre profession knows, it is often not a very high paying job and despite sounding a bit morbid graves are a great source of free flowers. The reason for this superstition is that the flowers represent the “death” of a show and that it can now be put to rest.
Speaking from personal experience: I remember our drama club had designated people in charge of getting the flowers for our director/teacher.