Superstitions and Rituals

The theater is a hotbed for superstition and ritual. Perhaps it is the natural affinity that theater people have with imagination and mystery, but theaters have always been associated with ghosts and other forms of the supernatural. A collection of rituals and superstitions associated with theater follows:

• Don’t whistle backstage in a theater (or in a dressing room), or someone will die (or the play will fail, or the whistler will have a bad career, etc...)

According to Kevin Robertson in his Dissertation on Theatre Superstitions, “The reason for this superstition is as follows: before the advent of walkie-talkies or clear-coms, cues for theatre technicians were called with a sailor’s whistle. Therefore, one who whistles in a theatre may, inadvertently, call a cue before its time, setting all types of catastrophe into motion." (Theater Superstitions) Furthermore, because theatrical rigging was derived from shipboard rigging, many early stage crews were hired sailors, which explains the use of sailors’ whistles in the pre-radio theater.

• Never rehearse the last line of a play (or musical), or the show will be a disastrous flop. Alternately, never finish a performance of a show without an audience in attendance, or it brings bad luck and the show will fail.

Interestingly enough, many theater companies allow audiences to sit in on the final dress rehearsals of a show for free, though several reasons can explain this (beyond the superstitious), including the fact that it more closely mimics the actual atmosphere of a performance, which prepares the actors better for opening night, and the fact that these people can then go tell their friends to see the show when it finally opens.

• It’s bad luck to tell an actor “good luck!” on the opening night of a show in which they are appearing. Instead, one must say “break a leg!”

As one of the most famous theater superstitions, a host of explanations for this one have sprung up. They include: (1) if you say “good luck”, the mischievous spirits of the theater would take it as ample reason to cause havoc; (2) in the Elizabethan age, the word ‘break’ simply meant ‘bend’, and so to ‘break a leg’ was to take many bows; (3) the curtains running down the side of a stage which block the audience’s view of the wings are called ‘legs’, and in early vaudeville or variety shows, extra performers were hired in case certain acts were bad and had to be pulled early. As a result, performers would only get paid of they actually made it onstage to perform, or broke the visual plane of the legs along the side of the stage. Thus, the phrase “break a leg” is a reference to getting paid; and many other purported explanations.

• Never say the word “Macbeth” in a theater or extremely bad luck will follow.

This is also an exceptionally famous superstition, and many actors today still follow it very carefully. Steppenwolf Theater Company’s Backstage publication explains it this way:

“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).” (Backstage magazine, 2004-2005 Vol. 1)

Other methods of canceling the curse include reciting Puck’s final monologue from A Midsummer Night’s Dream (“If we shadows have offended...”) or a line from “The Merchant of Venice” (“Fair thoughts and happy hours attend on you”).

• A light (called the “ghost light”) must always be left burning on the stage of a theater; a theater can never be completely dark.

This superstition has its roots in both the practical and the fantastic. The name of the so-called “ghost light” is particularly conducive to the creation of superstitions around it. It has been said that if a theater is ever left completely dark, then the resident spirit(s) of the theater (and every theater that has any sort of history has resident spirits) will realize that the theater is empty and proceed to cause all sorts of mischief. There is also a story of a burglar who once crept into a theater and fell off the stage and hurt himself, and then proceeded to sue the theater for having a dangerous workspace, and so theaters use the ghost light to protect themselves from liability, though it is not known whether this story has any basis in fact. Beyond the fantastic, the light is practical because the wings and stages of theaters are often cluttered places, and it can be dangerous to fumble around in the dark for a light. Furthermore, Actor’s Equity, the stage actors’ union in the United States, requires all union theaters to use ghost lights when the theater is dark.

•  One obscure (to non-professionals) ritual of Broadway specifically is that of the Gypsy Robe. Every season a new Gypsy Robe is created, and it is given on opening night of every new Broadway show to the chorus member (no leads) from that show who has the most Broadway chorus credits. The entire cast and crew of the new show is present for the ceremony, as is the previous gypsy and a representative from the Actor’s Equity Association. All present stand in a circle, and upon receiving the robe, the new gypsy walks three times around the circle while cast members touch the robe for luck. Following the ceremony, the new gypsy must visit every dressing room to bless the show. Before the robe is passed on to the next gypsy upon the opening of their show, the current gypsy must add a memento or souvenir of their show to the robe and the entire cast signs it. While most of the retired Gypsy Robes are in the possession and care of Actor’s Equity, three are at the Lincoln Center Library for the Performing Arts and two are at the Smithsonian. (Actor’s Equity Gypsy Robes)

Other theater superstitions and rituals include:

• Never use real flowers, mirrors, or jewelry on stage or bad luck will come.

• There should be no visitors to dressing rooms during dress rehearsals, or something will happen to someone’s clothing during a performance.

• Wearing blue or yellow will make actors forget their lines.

• Never bring a peacock feather into a theater or bad luck will come.

• Never use new makeup on opening night.

• Never clean your makeup box.

• Never open a show on a Friday night.

• Many theater companies gather together before putting on a performance and stand in a circle with hands interlocked. The entire company then says “shit!” or “merde!” or some variation to bring good luck.

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