Updated: Jun 7, 2020
There is no denying it: We actors can be a superstitious bunch.
Perhaps it is the flare for dramatic tendencies or a mixture of nerves and a pinch of paranoia before a performance, but whatever the reason there are a fair few superstition linked to the theatre!
Here are a few you may or may not know about!
“Break a Leg” Well-wishers should always replace the phrase “good luck” with its theatrical substitute “break a leg.”
There are a wide variety of possible origins for this common superstition.
One theory is that it comes may come from the ancient Greek practice of stomping feet instead of applauding, maybe it’s the Elizabethan term for bowing (to break the leg)
There was also the Vaudevillian practice of keeping actors just barely offstage or as it was known to break the leg of the curtain and to enter the playing space, and thus, get paid. One favourite is the idea of understudies (jokingly) wishing actors would “break a leg” so that their standbys could perform.
Don’t Say “Macbeth!” This has long been part of the actor’s folklore, and there are dozens of theories about when, where, and why performers started avoiding the play’s title—instead referring to the drama as “The Scottish Play.”
Some believe that the play’s fictional incantations— “Double, double toil and trouble…” etc.—are authentic examples of witchcraft, and therein lies the danger of speaking the title out loud. There have been rumours of several instances of mysterious and sudden deaths during performances of “Macbeth,” suggesting a curse that dates all the way back to the 17th century.
If an actor slips up and says the deadly phrase, there is an antidote: Exit the theatre, spin three times, spit, and utter a Shakespearean insult (or an equally vulgar profanity). Hmmm I wonder if we will be performing Macbeth the musical anytime soon, perhaps not just to be safe!
Bad Dress, Good Opening 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, hmmm we think there may have been a MMTC Tech & Dress rehearsal or two were this has been a comforting superstition!
No Whistling in the Theatre
This seemingly silly rule actually has its roots in safety; in the early days of large-scale stage productions, backstage crews were composed of off-duty sailors using their hard-earned rigging skills to manipulate the sets and curtains. Just as they would on a large sea vessel, the crews communicated with each other through a series of coded whistles. This meant that an oblivious actor strolling through the stage and whistling a show tune could (inadvertently) prompt a stagehand to lower a light or set piece onto his poor unassuming head.
No Peacock Feathers, Mirrors, Real Money, or Real Jewellery on Stage.
These banned items are said to cause forgotten lines, broken set pieces, and more live-performance disasters. The “evil eye” of the peacock feather is blamed for cursing numerous productions, while mirrors are likely called “bad luck” because they interfere with the lights. As for real money and jewellery? These were originally discouraged to prevent prop-table thievery.
No Wearing Blue This traditional superstition may be less adhered to in modern times, but it has its practical roots in early theatrical costuming. Blue was the most expensive coloured dye, and blue garments were put on stage at failing companies to trick the audience into thinking the producers were affluent.
Sleep with Your Script Under Your Pillow Can sleeping with a script under your pillow help you learn your lines faster? Science says no, but theatrical superstition says yes! The practice is said to help actors learn “by diffusion,” but we suggest you hedge your bets and learn your lines the old fashion way.
Flowers After a Performance
Who doesn't love getting (and giving) a beautiful bouquet at a performance?
However old school actors require their flowers after the curtain call—not before—claiming that a gift prior to the start causes a lacklustre show.
And finally who could forget...
Hauntings – Ghosts haunt theatres and should be given one night a week alone on the stage.
To keep the ghosts of the theatre subdued, there should always be a ghost light left on each night after the theatre closes and at least one night a week where the theatre is empty, this night is traditionally a Monday night, conveniently giving actors a day off after weekend performances.
Our ghost may not necessarily need a night to himself on stage but we hope by leaving a light on we aren’t taking any chances.
What other superstitions do you follow, practical or not? Let us know in the comments below.