Theater Superstitions and Traditions
Theater has its roots in a belief in magic and the supernatural. As a result, much theater lore is superstitious in nature. Here are some superstitions and traditions associated with the acting profession and the theatrical life. These make for excellent extra credit questions!
Before a performance, tell an actor to “break a leg,” not “good luck!”
This bizarre phrase has a number of purported meanings. According to the Steppenwolf Theater's archives, two possible origins of this superstition are:
1) If the havoc–wreaking spirits (Sprites) heard you ask for something, they were reputed to try to make the opposite happen. Telling someone to “break a leg” is an attempt to outsmart the Sprites and make something good happen.
2) In Shakespeare’s time, to break meant to bend. So, bend your leg, means take a lot of bows.
Read more explanations at http://www.steppenwolf.org/backstage/article.aspx?id=23
The Ghost Light
According to the Kansas City Library:
"The theater world is about as famous for its ghosts as its superstitions – there's probably not a theater out there that doesn't have stories of a ghost 'lending a hand.' Many theaters will leave a light left on, the ghost light, to supposedly warm the ghost (or give them a place to perform). As researched, it's found that it has it's practical use: a light left on means no one will stumble on the many items decorating the stage, from props to scenery."
Read about other superstitions at http://www.kclibrary.org/guides/arts/index.cfm?article=read&articleID=518
"The Scottish Play"
Actor Norrie Epstein said, "Macbeth is to the theatrical world what King Tut's tomb is to archaeologists." What does she mean? Macbeth = BAD LUCK! As Royal Shakespeare Company director Dominic Cook put it, "On the first day of rehearsal I told the actors that no one was allowed to call it Macbeth: they had to call it the Scottish play."
There are various theories about the origins of 'the curse' of Macbeth:
the witches' incantations are from real rituals
during the play's first performance Hal Berridge, the boy playing
Lady Macbeth, died backstage
because so many of the scenes take place in the dark, there tend to
be a lot of accidents backstage
whenever an acting company was in financial difficulties, the
management would perform Macbeth because it's a short play which
usually does well at the box office. It was associated, therefore, with
hard times and a shortage of funds.
Whatever the real reason, actors still fear Macbeth, so much so they also put a ban on reciting any lines from the Scottish play backstage!
Read more about Macbeth and take the "How Superstitous Are You?" questionaire at http://www.rsc.org.uk/macbeth/teachers/superstition.html#you
Bad Final Dress Rehearsal = GOOD SHOW!
Theater people love contradiction! This is shown in the "bad dress/good show" superstition. According to the Kansas City Library:
"Most theater people think a great final rehearsal will mean a lousy opening night. (Along these lines, it's considered bad luck to speak the last line – tag line – of the show before performance, and some directors won't even block a curtain call until the last possible moment.) The origins of the first are murky. One suggestion is that it might have just been a good excuse when a bad dress rehearsal came about. Another suggestion comes from the feeling that the show is then 'set' or 'finished', and so no further work can be done on it."
To see other superstitions about flowers, whistling, and make-up in the theater, go to http://kclibrary.org/guides/arts/index.cfm?article=read&articleID=518.
- Whistle backstage
- Give flowers or gifts to a performer until AFTER the performance
- Use real money or real jewelry as props
- Wear or carry a peacock feather on stage
- Say the final line of the play until there is an audience watching
- Set the curtain call until the end of the dress rehearsal