We theatre people are a superstitious bunch. I am. I can scare myself merely walking to the bathroom in the dark at my own home. (Ridiculous, I know.) It only makes sense if you think about it– we have HUGE imaginations if we are any good at all on the stage. There are certain things we simply do not do or say…
Never Whistle on Stage:
I was chastised once for whistling on stage. (I whistle if I can’t sing at the moment.) The history of this superstition was news to me. Many years ago, stagehands were out of work sailors. Ships used ropes. Theaters used a similar amount of ropes. Set pieces and people were raised and lowered in by rope, sand bags and fly systems.
Have you ever worked the rigging system of a theater? It’s tremendous, especially counter weight systems which are still pretty common.
Whistling was used to cue other men backstage to raise or lower ropes. So if you were onstage and whistled you might face a sand bag to the face. Luckily, we now have headsets.
Break a Leg
We never wish each other good luck. Instead we say, “Break a leg”. What? I knew it was of historical significance, but apparently there are several possible origins. One thought is it came from ancient Greek Theatre when audience members stomped a foot to show appreciation of a strong performance. (Must have been pretty dusty.) During the times of Vaudeville theatre, actors wished each other “Break a leg”, because if they made it on the stage past the curtain legs, they expected to be paid. We aren’t certain where this superstition originated, but we continue to wish each other a break of the leg.
Bad Dress Rehearsal Equals Good Opening Night
As a director and actress, I’ve experienced many a bad dress rehearsal. If you’ve been involved in any amount of productions you will, too. A bad final dress rehearsal is sign for a good opening performance. A good director paces the production to hit their peak at opening night. Everyone knows this.
It could be nerves of the cast and crew’s impending performance which makes for shaky dress rehearsals. They know what’s coming. I know one director who has no dress rehearsal and takes the night off right before the show opens. (He merely has it a day earlier.) Yikes!
His thought is performers are much like racing horses at the gates. With a night off prior to the opening night, it allows everyone to rest up, cogitate on their personal notes from the director and simply focus.
Maybe he’s hoping to ward off a bad dress rehearsal. Frankly, I’m all about sleep. I would rather have a longer dress rehearsal on a Tuesday night and a shorter one on Wednesday night so everyone can get some rest before a show opens on a Thursday night, than to stress out everyone with a extended dress rehearsal on a Wednesday.
It is expected for performers to be given flowers especially on opening night. Once this honor was given only on directors and leading performers, but it is common practice nowadays to show support and appreciation from family, friends, and fans.
So when is this bad? It is believed that receiving flowers before a show is as equally bad luck as saying break a leg. I never knew this!
I never allow my cast members to accept flowers on stage at the end of a curtain call. Tacky, tacky. Many years ago, we didn’t have florist shops. So, in order to obtain flowers nice enough for a gift and for a cheap price, people stole from graveyards.
The superstition comes in when you give performers flowers that are associated with death before a show closes that you were bringing about the death of a show. Flowers were given after the show closed to symbolize the death, or end, of a production.
The Ghost Light
Let’s face it– a dark theater is a scary and treacherous place. There are lots of things to trip over, bump into, fall into an orchestra pit or damage set pieces easily. Most of the time the light switches for the backstage, or work lights is difficult to find even when other lights are lit. . While it might fend of pesky ghosts from playing tricks on shows, it also helps protect the unlucky few who are rummaging through the dark.
In an Equity theatre, the ghost light was the physical alert that you are no longer on the job. When a stage manager puts out the ghost light, he is signaling rehearsal or the performance is over for the evening and consequently no one will be paid after this moment.
The Scottish Play
What is the “The Scottish Play” you ask? It’s William Shakespeare’s Macbeth. Many of us believe mentioning this name or even quoting lines from this show will bring disaster upon ourselves and our production.
History abounds for this superstition. For instance, several famous actors (Charlton Hester and Constantine Stanislavski) suffered catastrophes during or after a production of Macbeth. That’s a new one for me.
Also, it is said that Abe Lincoln read this play the night before his assassination.
Today, people associate its utterance to technical things going awry, actors forgetting lines, props and costumes mysteriously vanish, a freak storm closes the theatre, and a bunch of other freaky weird things.
If you want to rid yourself of the curse, you must turn around eleven times and ask for forgiveness of Dionysis, the god of theater. This sounds ridiculous, but I don’t want to take the chance that it could be true.
So, here’s my question: What happens when one is performing Macbeth or directing it? You have to recite the lines then. Maybe it only works if you aren’t performing it?
Whatever. I don’t know about you, but I’m not taking any chances…
Please forgive me, please forgive me, please forgive me.