Tough Luck! A Guide to Theatre Superstitions
As someone who believes in superstitions, many of which I learned from my Irish grandma (I’d better not EVER see you leave a hat on a bed), I was delighted to dig into the history of theatrical superstitions recently. Some of these were familiar to me from my acting days, but several were revelations (and, of course, add to the number of things I now worry about/avoid to maintain my "lucky streak".) Now, these gems can be yours as well!! Read on…
Break a leg!
This is traditionally wished for a performer just before he/she goes on stage. History: back in Elizabethan times, as actors took their bows at the end of the show, the happy audience would fling coins onto the stage. The cast would drop to their knees, the better to scramble for the money, thus “breaking” the line of the leg. I know, that’s a stretch, but it’s true.
Elise experience: While I’ve never broken a leg (either way), I did fall on the Yellow Brick Road during a Wizard of Oz performance at a school, breaking a wrist. No coins were hurled my way, alas, or sympathy either. The principal merely gave us directions to the nearest hospital and disappeared. Ouch!
Bad Dress Rehearsal, Good Performance!
The axiom that a dreadful dress gets rid of the bad juju, leading to a sparkling show, is one every actor clings to after the prop phone doesn’t ring and the costume rips and the lines are flubbed. Surely opening night will be better!!
Elise experience: Rarely did the same things go wrong during the actual performance. Rather, many many OTHER things went wrong. I’d mess up different lines, rip my stockings instead of my dress, and the prop phone would ring at random times throughout Act Two.
No Whistling Backstage!
History: In pre-tech times, the stagehands raised and lowered scenery by pulling on heavy ropes. They’d whistle to one another as a signal to do so. A whistling actor might well be knocked off his/her feet by crashing set pieces.
Elise experience: I’m not a whistler, so this was never a danger for me. But I’ve acted with folks who really struggle not to chirp a merry tune behind the curtain. I blame them, 100%, for the times our panels would collapse mid-show (it certainly wasn’t ME hitting the scenery with a flying elbow! Nope! It was Willy Whistler!)
There are so many more, some comprehensible (keeping a light burning when the theater is dark—it’s called a “ghost light” but is very practical—who wants to accidentally plummet from a pitch black stage?) some head-scratchers: never use real money, jewelry or mirrors as props (?). And finally, it’s apparently a thing that you give flowers taken from someone’s grave to the director on closing night. Get it? Show’s dead? Yeah, I think it’s a dreadful idea too.
Best of luck to you all, and remember to NEVER say “Macbeth” in a theater. It’s “the Scottish play.” You’re welcome!