ANYONE WHO’S EVER spent time on or around the stage knows that theatre people are a superstitious bunch. Each troupe has its own traditions, but there are some beliefs that are nearly ubiquitous in the theatre world. Maybe it’s because so much can go wrong during a production. Even if most superstitions are founded on, well, not quite fact, it’s better to be safe than sorry.

Many of the most well-known superstitions have multiple theories behind them — and they’re all pretty tough to verify. Below you’ll find popular explanations for some familiar practices.

“BREAK A LEG!”

One of the most common theatre superstitions is also the one most people unfamiliar with the craft mess up. It’s taboo to wish actors good luck. Rather, they should be told to “break a leg.” There are a number of theories about the origins of the phrase, generally traced back to the early 1900s. One of the simplest (and likely more modern) explanations, and one that’s become a popular internet meme, is that someone wishing you “break a leg” before an audition is hoping you wind up in the cast. Get it?

Other explanations are a bit more complicated. Some actors feel it tempts the gods of fortune to wish someone luck. Reverse psychology suggests you ask for something bad to happen to invite a positive outcome instead.

Yet another theory revolves around a different kind of leg: the leg lines of the curtains that frame a proscenium stage. Ostensibly, a lengthy standing ovation and numerous curtain calls would mean raising and lowering the legs over and over. That much adoration might cause a fly to break.

Finally, at the height of vaudeville’s popularity around the turn of the 20th century, actors waiting in the wings to perform weren’t paid unless they “broke the leg” of the curtain and made it onstage. To break a leg meant you’d achieved success.

Ghost light photo by Susan Doremus.
Ghost light photo by Susan Doremus.

GHOST LIGHTS

Every theatre with even a little history claims at least one ghost, and most work hard to keep their dearly departed residents happy. Radio City Music Hall is reportedly haunted by its builder, S.L. “Roxy” Rothafel. At the New Amsterdam Theatre, two portraits of a turn-of-the-century Ziegfeld Follies actress named Olive Thomas hang backstage. Everyone who works in the theatre wishes her “Good morning” when they get to work and “Good night” when they leave. It seems to keep Olive’s ghost — which is said to haunt the theatre — appeased.

There are similar stories from theatres all over the world, so the tradition almost all theatres have in common is the use of a ghost light. Practically, the light encourages safety, preventing someone from falling off the edge of the stage or bumping into the scenery in a dark theatre. And in the 19th century, when theatres were powered by gas, keeping a light on prevented pressure from building up in the gas line and causing an explosion. Regardless, whether it’s meant to keep the spirits at bay or just to be polite, most theatres leave a single light burning at all times, even when the theatre is empty.

THE SCOTTISH PLAY

The Weird Sisters from Troupe 5730's production of Macbeth.

The Weird Sisters from Troupe 5730’s production of Macbeth at Crandall High School.

This very prevalent superstition promises destructive forces of evil will be called down upon a production should anyone in the theatre utter the name of Shakespeare’s tragic play about witches, kings, greed, and guilt. We’ll risk saying it here – it’s Macbeth – but don’t you ever say the title anywhere near a stage. Instead, call it “the Scottish play.”

The curse’s origin also has multiple explanations. Since Macbeth was first performed in 1606, it’s been said that productions of the play have been plagued by accidents, illness, and general misfortune. The play includes a lot of sword fighting, so it’s certainly possible it has had disproportionately more incidents, including the deaths of 17th century Dutch and English actors in two productions where a real dagger was swapped for a prop. New York City’s deadly Astor Place Riots in 1849 broke out as the result of an argument over who was the better Shakespearean actor: England’s William Charles Macready or America’s Edwin Forrest, both of whom were scheduled to perform as Macbeth in nearby theatres that night.

Another theory says the negative forces come from the curses cast during the three witches’ scene: Some believe the spells used by Shakespeare are real.

When someone slips up and says the play’s title, tradition says they should leave the building and perform a cleansing ritual, like spitting over their left shoulder, spinning around and brushing themselves off, or reciting a line from another Shakespeare play.

WHISTLING BACKSTAGE

Whistling backstage is considered bad luck. The origins of this superstition almost definitely date to the 17th century when theatres would hire sailors — who were great with ropes and knots — to run the fly rigs and coordinate scene changes in the days before formal stage managers and computer-controlled sets. The sailors cued each other using whistles or other noises, so a poorly-timed whistle could be misconstrued, bringing down a fly on an actor’s head.

Bacskstage rigging at the Indiana University Auditorium Theatre.
Backstage rigging at the Indiana University Auditorium Theatre. Photo by Susan Doremus.

BAD DRESS, GREAT PERFORMANCE

At some point, a director trying to inspire a cast who’d just finished a lousy run-through probably told them, “You know what they say: The worse the dress rehearsal, the better the opening night!” Maybe it was totally made up, but the adage stuck. And while a genuinely under-rehearsed show might not improve all that much between dress rehearsal and opening, acting coach Mark Westbrook says there might be some truth to the theory.

“Turns out that it’s actually just a matter of mathematics — well, probability to be precise,” he writes on his blog. “You see, it’s something called Regression to the Mean. It says that if the first time you measure something the measurement is extreme, then the next measurement will be much closer to the average. … If the second measurement is extreme, then the first will be closer to the average. So, this means that if the dress rehearsal is terrible, the first night is much more likely to be tons better.”

Does your Thespian troupe have its own traditions? Send us details! We may compile a future story all about Thespian theatre superstitions.

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