Theatre people have been known to be among the most superstitious people on the planet. For centuries we have been shouting “Break a Leg” and shushing those that try to mention the “Scottish Play”. But why?
“Break A Leg”
A very common superstition among performers is to say ‘Break a leg,’ as a means to wish each other luck before a performance. Some say that to wish someone “good luck” before they go on stage is to jinx them and cause the opposite outcome. Many believe this phrase dates back to the days of Vaudeville Theater. At the time, the theater would book more performers than they they needed in an evening for their variety shows, and then only pay the ones that they chose to perform. When one of the chosen performers entered the stage they did so by passing through curtains referred to as “legs”. To say “Break a leg” meant wishing him or her a paycheck for that night! To this day, “Break a leg” is still a customary way of wishing a performer good luck.
Don’t Whistle While You Work…
Have you ever heard that it is bad luck to whistle while in a theater? Before headset communication became a common practice among stage hands, whistling was the primary signal for moving scenery on/off stage or flying in a drape from overhead. If you accidentally whistled at the wrong time, you could cue scenery to move, which in turn could get you run over or bonked on the head!
To say the true name of the “Scottish Play” while in a theatre is considered very bad luck. So much so that we hesitate to type out the real name of the play while sitting in the offices above the theatre. According to folklore, the play’s history of bad luck began with its first performance (circa 1606) when the actor scheduled to portray Lady Macbeth died suddenly and Shakespeare was forced to replace him. In another 17th-century production, held in Amsterdam, the actor playing King Duncan was allegedly killed in front of a live audience when a real dagger was used in place of the stage prop during the stabbing scene. Productions of the play have also been the center of raucous audience riots, including one in 1849, a long-standing rivalry between fans of British actor William Charles Macready and American Edwin Forrest turned violent during a production at New York’s Astor Place Opera House, leaving 22 dead and more than 100 injured.
Some believe Shakespeare brought the curse upon his own play by using authentic spells in the three witches’ dialogue, while others believe that a production that has been staged for more than 400 years is bound to have its fair share of accidents. Either way, most thespians don’t want to take any chances. So what’s the antidote for accidentally uttering the forbidden word? Simple. Exit the theatre, spin around three times, spit over your left shoulder and either recite a line from Shakespeare or unleash a profanity.
The Ghost Light
Every theater has a Ghost Light, a light that is left onstage which is never turned off. It’s there to guide the first and last person into and out of the theater. For centuries, a myth has held that the light is protection from spirits, because if the theater ever went completely dark, lonely and resentful ghosts would realize everyone had gone and proceed to cause all sorts of mischief.
Bad Dress, Good Show
No we don’t mean that you have to wear a a bad dress to have a good show. Wishful thinking or not, many stage actors swear that a bad dress rehearsal portends a great opening night. This superstition’s origins are unclear, maybe a producer or director trying to boost a cast’s morale, but it’s a comforting concept when the final dress goes south.
Flowers After a Performance
It’s considered good luck traditionally to give the director and/or the leading lady, after closing night, a bouquet of flowers stolen from a graveyard (never give flowers before a performance – They are yet to earn them so it’s bad luck!)
Graveyard flowers are given on closing night to symbolize the death of the show, and that it can now be put to rest. The rational origin is that theater was, as most people who have worked in the industry will tell you, never a greatly profitable profession and despite being macabre, graves were a great source of free flowers.
Many veteran thespians tell stories of sets collapsing, curtains catching alight and other disastrous events during performances with peacock feathers. The feather is said to represent a malevolent ‘evil eye’, that bestows a curse on the show. The association between peacock feathers and the evil eye is best illustrated by the Greek myth of Argus, the monster whose body was covered with a hundred eyes, these eyes were transferred to the tail of the Peacock.
The Last Line
It has been considered bad luck to say the final line of a show before it opens. In addition, taking bows to an empty house is considered a bad omen. It is a tribute that the show is not complete without the audience.