Theatre Superstitions & Oddities

Theatrical Superstitions & Oddities

Theatrical folk are a superstitious lot, and considering the amount of things that can (and do) go wrong in a performance, it’s not surprising that thespians need their superstitions to blame…

Theatre Superstition

Theater Ghost LightThe Ghost Light

There should always be a light burning in an empty theatre to ward off ghosts.

Conventionally, the light is placed downstage center, illuminating the space when it is not in use, to keep ghosts with enough light so that they can see, which keeps them at bay.

This is another superstition with a practical value: The backstage area of a theatre tends to be cluttered with props, set pieces and costumes, so someone who enters a completely darkened space is prone to being injured while hunting for a light switch. It prevents those still living from having to cross the stage in the dark, injuring themselves and leading to new ghosts for the theatre. Most of the time the light switches for the backstage, or work, lights is hidden in a maze under a secret garden inside of a wardrobe. This light prevents people from falling into orchestra pits, tripping over cables, and running into set pieces.

It’s also known as the “Equity Light” or “Equity Lamp”.

Fact: In an Equity theatre, the ghost light was the physical alert that you are no longer on the job. Performers love to sit around and talk for hours after a show is done. By putting out the light, the stage manager is signaling that no one is on the clock any more. This is a task still handled by the stage manager most of the time.

Theatre Superstition

The Scottish Play

Saying the word ‘Macbeth’ in a theatre will result in extreme bad luck.

This might be the most actively followed superstition to this date. Even if you don’t personally believe anything bad will go wrong with you saying this name out loud, you should probably refrain from saying it around other theatre artists or you will be forced to go through a series of odd and dizzying counter-curses to send away the bad juju, karma, or energy into the theatre.

What is the “The Scottish Play” you ask? I hope you’re not in a theatre when you read this. (If you are, run out now) It’s William Shakespeare’s Macbeth. It is believed that mentioning this name or even quoting lines from this show will bring disaster upon you and your production.

Famous performers such as Constantine Stanislavski and Charlton Heston suffered catastrophes during or after a production of Macbeth. It is said that US President Abraham Lincoln read this play the night before his assassination. Today, people associate its utterance to technical malfunctions, actors forgetting lines, props and costumes going missing or breaking, bad box office sales, and a myriad of other horrors.

The History:  There are several possible origins for this superstition:

  • According to one superstition, The Scottish Play itself is filled with witches, spells, bad luck, and prophecies, which is believed to be the root of this superstition. Shakespeare himself got the words from a coven of real witches, who, after seeing the play were not impressed by their portrayal.
  • Another says the props master from the original performance stole a cauldron from said coven, and the witches, again, were not impressed.
  • Another is that Shakespeare put a curse on the play so that no-one, other than him, would be able to direct it correctly.
  • Another origin is that there is more swordplay in it than most other Shakespeare plays, and, therefore, more chances for someone to get injured.
  • Another is due to the plays popularity, it was often run by theatres that were in debt and as a last attempt to increase patronage; the theatres normally went bankrupt soon after.

How to counteract this curse:  The person is required to leave the theatre building, spit, curse and spin around three times, before begging to be allowed back inside. Other variants include: Reciting a line from another Shakespearean work, brushing oneself off, running around the theatre counter clock-wise, or repeating the name 3 times while tapping their left shoulder.

The superstition is even parodied in an episode of The Simpsons. While visiting London, the Simpson family comes across Sir Ian McKellen outside a theatre showing “Macbeth.” Every time “Macbeth” is said, something happens to McKellen.

Theatre Superstition

Age has its benefits.

In the box-office, if the first purchaser of seats for a new production is an old man or woman, it means to the ticket-seller that the play will have a long run.

A young person means the reverse.

Theatre Superstition

The Rule of 3

Now, the rule of three can have its good connotations: “third time is a charm”, the “comedic rule of three”, and “show me three ways to do that action.” But having three lit candles on stage ignites bad luck.

The History: Stories say that the person nearest the shortest candle is the next to marry, or the next to die. Candles and flame are still highly mistrusted in the theatre world because before the invention of electricity, theatres were lit by torches when shows were not performed outdoors. Dozens if not hundreds of theatres have burnt down in the history of the theatre; two of the most notable being The Globe Theatre in London and The Brooklyn Theatre in New York City.

Theatre Superstition

Bad Dress Rehearsal = Good Opening Night

This dress does not mean the particular outfit that a leading lady is wearing, but the dress rehearsal, or the part of the rehearsal process when costumes are added. It is believed that a bad final dress rehearsal is sign for a good opening performance. Maybe it’s the nerves of the cast and crew before the opening or maybe it’s a curse of every show, but everyone takes the lessons from this final rehearsal and works to fix them for their opening night.

Theatre Superstition

“Break a Leg” never say “Good Luck”

To wish someone ‘Good luck’ before a show is bad luck. Thought to be a sign of bad luck, most performers freak out when wished good luck in a theatre, the expression “Break a Leg” replaces the phrase “Good luck”.

The History: There are many theories of the origin of this superstition of wishing luck to the actors, but here are a few:

  • After a good performance during Elizabethan England, actors were thrown money on the stage and they would kneel down to collect the money thus ‘breaking’ the line of the leg.
    Money = Breaking legs = Success
  • Similarly, for the curtain call, when actors bow or curtsy, they place one foot behind the other and bend at the knee, thus ‘breaking’ the line of the leg.
  • If the audience demands numerable curtain calls and the actors are moving on and off stage via the wings they may ‘break the legs’, ‘legs’ being a common name for side curtains/masks.
  • Some stories say that you are supposed to perform so hard, or sing a note so high in opera, that you break the legs of the stage. The legs being the side curtains on stage today.
  • Other stories say that evil spirits would try to do everything in their power to do the opposite of whatever wish was spoken. So if you wished for good luck, they would make everything go wrong.
  • In Shakespearian days, to “break” meant to “bend”, meaning, taking lots of bows.

Saying “Break A Leg” in the theatre didn’t start until the 1920s, Whatever you believe, it’s usually “bad luck” to say “good luck.

Theatre Superstition

Whistle while you work?

It is considered bad luck to whistle on or off stage, as someone (not always the whistler) will be fired. You might have been told to never whistle on or back stage but never knew why.

The History: Back in the 1600’s, stagehands were out of work sailors. Theatres and ships used a similar amount of ropes. Set pieces and people were raised and lowered in by rope, sand bags, and the strength of some mighty sailors. Before the nifty invention of headsets, 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.

Nowadays, theatre shows are cued either with lights or, more often than not, the technicians and stage management can talk to each other using radio “cans” or walkie-talkies, so there is no need for whistling.  People continue to be superstitious about whistling in theatres in case there are any ghosts of former stage crew lurking in the fly tower, waiting to drop a stage weight or move scenery at the first sound of an actor whistling to himself in the wings.

Theatre Superstition

Box Office Comp

This superstition seeks to ensure financial success.  It insists that  the house manager must refuse to admit a person with a “comp” (free ticket) until after at least one paying patron has entered the auditorium.  Doing otherwise, according to this superstition, dooms the production to failure.

Theatre Superstition

theatre stage makeup boxesMakeup

Never use brand new makeup on opening night, and never, ever clean your makeup box during a run of a show, or a disaster shall ensure.

Theatre Superstition

First Women in

It’s bad luck to allow a woman to be first to enter his theatre on opening night

The History: In 1866, what was to become known as the “first American musical” was about to open in New York at ‘Niblo’s Gardens’.  This history-making production was a gaudy extravaganza called The Black Crook that was some five and a half hours long.  At the time no one was aware of the historical significance of this production or that it was the beginning of America’s major contribution to theatre arts.  No, it was merely an accidental conjoining of a theatre manager desperate to get some production, any production, to fill his theatre, plus an unemployed ballet company, some spare scenery, and a desperately cobbled together script about some sort of fantasy world.  The script made little sense, but that didn’t matter: There were beautiful dancing ladies in skimpy costumes!  (Of course you’ll recognize that tradition in today’s musicals.

On opening night September 12, William Wheatley, the manager of Niblo’s Gardens, was at the theatre’s entrance as the audience was about to enter.  To his shock, the first person in line was a woman.  “No!  You cannot be first,” Wheatley said, pushing her away.  “To allow a woman to be the first to enter would ruin the success of the play!”  The Black Crook ran 474 performances, a gigantic run for its time, and its success of course prompted dozens of imitations, giving rise to what we know today as the “Broadway Musical Theatre.”

Wheatley later claimed the huge success of The Black Crook was due to the way he refused to allow a woman to be first to enter his theatre on opening night.

Theatre Superstition

Mirror, Mirror…

It is bad luck to have mirrors on stage.

We all know of the superstition that breaking a mirror is seven years bad luck. It is believed that breaking a mirror on stage will cause seven years of misfortune for a theatre.  However, having a mirror on stage can cause technical issues, such as reflecting light into the audience or into places never intended to be lit. It can also be a source of distraction for vain actors. This is always in challenge, especially since A Chorus Line’s famous mirror scene.

Theatre Superstition

Broken Mirror

Almost universally, this superstition includes that the bad luck would last for seven years. The superstition of bad luck surrounding breaking a mirror has existed long before metal or glass mirrors were actually invented. Before modern glass or metal mirrors were produced, reflections of one’s self were seen in rivers, ponds, pools or bowls. If the reflection looked distorted, it was believed that disaster would strike.

The History: The origin of this belief stems from an early interpretation in Roman times that each person’s body undergoes a physical regeneration every seven years. A broken mirror signified a break in the person’s health and well-being, going back to the theory of the mirror being the reflection of the soul.

In 15th century Venice, Italy, when glass mirrors backed by silver coating were first produced, they were prohibitively expensive. Servants of the wealthy, who most often would be in the position of cleaning or moving a mirror, could never afford its replacement, if broken. The punishment or threat of breaking a mirror became that of having to serve for seven years as an indentured servant to the mirror’s owner.

It is noted that one way to avoid the bad luck associated with breaking a mirror is to take the broken pieces and bury them underground and under the moonlight.