Hit by a Bus Rules: Ritual and Reverence for the Modern Age

Alandra Hileman, full of reverence.

Theatre Rule of the Month: Don’t Say The Name of The “Scottish Play” Inside The Theatre

Aha! Even with the switch of my column from Tuesdays to Fridays, I still got a convenient real-world date that synced up with my monthly ramblings. What date, you ask? Nope, not even remotely Valentine’s Day. (You’ll wanna watch my Facebook and Twitter for THAT annual joke.)

No, I’m referring to this last Wednesday. Ash Wednesday, which all lapsed Catholics and natives of New Orleans will know marked the beginning of Lent, a high-church Christian holiday of fasting and meditation for the 40 days leading up to Easter Sunday. Now, I’m not actually Catholic, but given my predisposition for personal guilt and suffering, I’ve always been drawn to this particular holiday, which involves giving up things you love or enjoy and instead meditating on the divine.

I bring this up in a theatre blog because this year the advent of Lent got me thinking a lot about ritual. There’s a lot of connection between superstition and the divine, and between theatre and religion, dating back to the earliest origins of humanity and which many scholars have explained better than I could. But what I’m more interested in these days is the strange and delightful ways in which the modern theatre rituals have evolved.

One of the seeming oldest and most enduring rules in theatre, and certainly one of the most exciting to tell stories about, is the rule that we never say the name of Shakespeare’s “Scottish Play” inside the theatre (unless you are performing the show itself and must say the lines) lest you curse the production mwahahahahaha, etc. There are hundreds of stories, some very famous, about terrible tragedies that have befallen those who didn’t adhere to this rule, and a good couple dozen ways to supposedly dispel the curse should someone slip up. And unlike, say, not whistling in a theatre, which originated for an incredibly practical reason,* there is no specifically logical reason that we don’t say the name.

I, personally, don’t believe in a curse. But I don’t say the name inside the theatre, both out of deference to people who are genuinely troubled by it, and because I like participating in a ritual that connects me not only to my immediate cast and crew, but to every cast and crew out there, almost like a secular genuflection. We have lots of these traditions and rituals in theatre that have persisted from earlier generations, such as using “break a leg” instead of “good luck” and leaving the ghost light on in the dark theatre (which I’ve always felt is the perfect blend of practical and sacred). And they become one of the many connective tissues of the theater community – we don’t recite prayers in unison with others all over the world, but we do commit the same lines to memory and treat them with reverence. Or intentional irreverence. But it’s still part of what strengthens the bonds we have with everyone else who works with that same text.

The other thing I love most about ritual in theatre, besides the way it connects the community, is the way new rituals are always being created and passed on. I have worked with a few companies and individual actors that have very specific drinking rituals which occur at certain points in the process (most often on opening and closing nights, sometimes for other occasions). I know a few companies that hide a certain object or prop in every show. There are great individual rituals too: I know a lot of actors who develop their own specific warm-ups. One of my frequent bosses is constantly making us eat snacks. This week is was “You have to have a Double-Stuffed Oreo. Tech week tradition.” Who cares if it wasn’t before, it is now, because we all did it. I have a specific ring given to me many years ago that I always wear on my opening nights, the classic theatre masks. I wear it on either the third of fourth finger of my left hand, either to remind me how much I enjoy being “married” to my work, or as my subtle flip of the bird to bid goodbye to a stressful tech as we open. It doesn’t mean anything to anyone but me, but it’s my own contribution to the ritual of theatre.

Theatre Ring

In closing, I offer this anecdote: Very early in my stage management career, I worked with one director on a Shakespeare play who always began the rehearsal process with several sessions of table work. As we were going through the text, and of course getting off on Shakespearean tangents, the Scottish Play came up. This director made a point of basically saying this: “Well, I don’t believe in the curse. But I always want to point out to my casts that the historical Macbeths as far as we know didn’t murder anyone and were very good rulers.” As I recall, according to repeat actors, this little speech was something that happened every year. Despite not believing in the “curse,” this director had created a new piece of the ritual to dispel or satisfy it. And that itself is the beauty of ritual, right?

Alandra will be suffering through the next two months of deadlines without the help of caffeine or alcohol, so if you’d like to come find her and commiserate, check out her ongoing calendar of upcoming events at ajhileman.com

* For anyone who doesn’t know: In the 17th Century, out-of-work sailors would often find work as deck hands (see what we did there) in the theatres, primarily running the rigging of scenic drops and such. They used a complex series of whistles to communicate, so anyone else whistling ran the risk of accidentally signaling for heavy canvas drops or even sandbags to start falling from above.

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