Ashley Cowan talks about why so many theater makers are simply superstitious.
While I was in rehearsal the other night, one of my cast mates mentioned her upcoming production of Macbeth. And actually uttered the infamous title aloud as we sat onstage! Now, I’m not a conventionally superstitious person when it comes to my theater practices so I wasn’t terribly distressed. But the experience opened the door of conversation to the vast variety of theatrical superstitions and myths. So I thought it would be fun to research some of the more well known beliefs and share them with our Theater Pub community.
Break a Leg!
Have you ever wondered why it’s considered a bad idea to wish someone “good luck” before a performance? Well, the exact origin may not be known but there is a plethora of ideas. One of the most popular beliefs is that by telling someone to do the opposite of something, the sneaky spirits surrounding the space known to cause mischief would be tricked into making the reverse come true. So if you were told to “break a leg” you would actually be blessed with a great performance.
Another reasoning derives from Shakespearean time when the stage was supported on wooden “legs”. If a performance was a true success, it would cause such a commotion that a leg would actually break. Also coming from that time period, the word “break” doubled as “bend”. And if you were to bend your legs repeatedly it was because you were taking bows. One last idea comes from our friends in Ancient Greece, where it is believed that people would stomp in appreciation of a performance rather than clap. By that reasoning, a broken leg would be the result of a truly stupendous performance.
Ghosts! And Lights!
Ghosts are no strangers to the theater. It seems like in almost every space you find there’s a legend or story of it being haunted. A tradition to leave a burning light (onstage or backstage) was born so that the first and last person could safely get in and out of the theater. It’s also for those lurking creatures to find their ways; as the belief goes, if the theater was ever left dark, ghosts would seek out mischief and mayhem. There’s also an alternative superstition that every theater should have one evening during the week that’s an “off” night so that the ghosts can perform. Usually, it’s a Monday night so I like to imagine ghosts everywhere are forming their own Theater Pub rituals.
In the olden days, making blue dye was a tricky business. Theater companies who were struggling financially would try to overcompensate by costuming their actors in hues of blue as an attempt to make their audiences believe they were flourishing. But the sad reality is, often they would actually go bankrupt because of the cost! So to counter any misfortune, silver was used with blue as a means to show that the company could actually afford their clothing.
Yellow isn’t often considered lucky either. Sorry, Big Bird. This one may come from religious plays of the past since this mellow color was often worn by whoever was playing the character of the devil.
And just to add one more to think about, you may want to wear green with caution! One cause for this belief is because the infamous Molière died a few hours after performing in his own play, Le Malade Imaginaire and you guessed it, he was wearing green! So perhaps French fans and other theater makers alike started to feel differently about this shade. However, the green room is still the name of the waiting area for actors to use so hopefully it isn’t too cursed.
Many superstitious people out there believe that breaking a mirror will earn you seven years bad luck. But as usual, the theater superstition is a little different. Not only can having mirrors on stage provide technical issues because of reflecting light but if the mirror in use breaks it will be bring seven years of misfortune to both the person’s soul who was captured in it and to the theater itself.
The seven dwarfs may not have had it right when they sang about whistling when you work. At least in terms of working in the theater as it’s considered to be a pretty unlucky practice. Many years ago, before we used intercoms and other fancy modern tools, the crews working a show most likely had on again off again careers as sailors. Since both ships and the stage shared a similar series of ropes, these workers would communicate complicated cues through whistling. If an actor or someone outside the crew felt inspired to whistle their own tune, it could confuse the system, resulting in potentially dangerous cue mistakes. While the crew may no longer use whistling as a way to monitor the show, it’s still considered unlucky to whistle in a theater and as the superstition goes, if you do, someone in your production will be meet an unfortunate fate.
Apparently, peacock feathers are a big no-no in the theater world and under no circumstance should they be incorporated into a production in any capacity; be it, as a prop or costume piece, or disaster will consume the production. There are tales of erupting chaos involving fires and collapsing sets all blamed on the use of peacock feathers. It’s believed that the feather embodies an “evil eye” that wrecks havoc on any production by cursing them. Perhaps this one relates back to the Greek myth of Argus, a monster consisting of a hundred eyes, and Hera who had them forever kept in a peacock’s tail. Plus considering what we already learned from using blue and green colors in the theater, this one may just be best to avoid.
The Last Line!
In some theater circles, it is considered bad luck to rehearse the last line of the play until you open for an audience. As the show isn’t really a show until people are present to witness it, it’s thought to be unlucky. I hadn’t honestly heard this one before but hey, whatever floats your set piece boat. Often, the theater will open the final dress rehearsal to a small crowd so that they can perform the play in its entirety before opening night. Final dress rehearsal is often a source of superstition material as many practicing artists live by the “bad dress, great show” logic. Perhaps that one was invented by directors to cheer their cast from a lousy last rehearsal or as a means to excuse a poor performance before opening.
It’s thought to be good luck to give your director and/or leading lady flowers stolen from a graveyard on closing night. The flowers are meant to represent “the death of the show” and allowing it to be put to rest. It’s also a practical idea since stolen graveyard flowers are free! And we all know that a professional life in the theater does not often yield great piles of money.
And our final point of discussion returns back to the origin of this blog. The mighty Macbeth. “The Scottish Curse” has been blamed for countless catastrophes and misfortunes throughout the years but this is yet another superstition that has a variety of suspected roots. Some believe that chants used by the witches in the story were from real practicing witches who were so disenchanted by the play and their resemblance that they cursed the show forever. While others think that maybe it’s just because the piece is ultimately violent and full of stage combat requirements. Add in a little dim lighting and things are likely to go wrong. If you do make the mistake of uttering “Macbeth” inside of a theater, the offender must leave the space, turn clockwise three times, and then beg to be allowed back in the building. It’s dramatic, but what else would you expect from drama folks?
And with that, I’ll leave you for now and return to memorizing my lines. But how about you? Do you practice any of these theater superstitions? How do you get through a production? As always, we’d love to hear from you.