There are many superstitions associated with the Theatre. Let’s take a look at some of them and look at some posible reasons for the long-held beliefs.
It is bad luck to whistle backstage.
In the early days of modern theater, out-of-work sailors were hired to operate the flying scenery. Because they were familiar with ropes, knots, and sails, they were naturally suited to control the heavy scenery that was raised and lowered from above the stage.
On board ship, sailors would whistle to each other to signal when it was safe or practical to untie a rope or let loose a sail. These whistled signals were brought into the theater by the sailors. If someone whistled without thinking, scenery could literally come crashing down on someone’s head.
Say “break a leg” to an actor going on stage instead of “good luck” or you will jinx him.
There are a few stories about this superstition. One has to do with those evil sprites or ghosts that just don’t like it when wishes come true. If you wish good luck to someone, the naughty spirits are gong to make sure that something unlucky happens. So, to fool them, wish that something bad happens (like breaking a leg), and those little devils will make sure it doesn’t happen.
Another possible explanation for this tradition is that in ancient Greece, people did not applaud by clapping their hands together, but by stomping their feet on the ground. Telling an actor to “break a leg” meant that you wished him to do so well that members of the audience would fracture their bones showing their appreciation of the performance.
When no one is in the theater, keep a light burning on the stage to keep the ghosts away (or happy).
A version of the “ghost light” superstition says that ghost will not come out if a light is on, because it believes people will be present. Therefore, when a theater is empty, a light on stage would prevent a ghost from taking up residence in the theater. Some people believe that keeping the ghost light on will keep a theater’s resident ghosts happy because they can not only see, but they will be able to do their own shows on stage.
Another belief is that theaters are only completely dark when they are closed. Closed theaters don’t make any money.
The practical side to this is that no one will get hurt trying to find a light switch in a dark theater.
A bad dress rehearsal means that opening night will be a success.
Everyone who has experienced working on a play knows that by the time you get to tech and dress rehearsals, everyone is exhausted. This could affect the performance during the last rehearsals. Because a bad dress rehearsal tends to make the cast and crew of a show very nervous, they probably put in extra effort on opening night to make it a success.
Never say that a theater is “closed.” Say “the theater is dark.”
This superstition reflects the idea that a closed theater does not make money. Although a theater might be closed for only a short time in between shows, it was considered bad luck to say the word “closed.” It must have been those evil spirits again. They had to be fooled, so it was better to say “dark.”
Never use real flowers on stage
Real flowers can be bad luck because they are expensive. Paying for new flowers everyday or every other day could cut into a theater’s profits and maybe close the show.
Having vases containing water on stage is also not a good idea because they could be knocked over and cause a slipping hazard. Plus, petals and leaves tend to fall off dying plants, causing even more trouble.
Peacock feathers should never be brought on stage
The design on peacock feathers have always been associated with the “evil eye.” Who wants a bunch of evil eyes looking at you while you are performing?
The ultimate bad luck will come to a production if someone says “Macbeth” in the theater.
Why is the name of this play such bad luck? Shakespeare’s play is full of witches and ghosts. Not only were these things considered evil, but stories were told that real witches were used in early productions.
Another common tale was that the first actor to play Lady Macbeth died backstage during a show and cursed the play forever.
Many tragedies have befallen troupes who have performed this play. Theaters have burned down. Actors and others have been killed during productions. Many theaters closed after a bad production of the play.
Perhaps the reason that it has such a bad history is because it is a very old play. It is popular and often produced when theater companies need a well-known play to round out their season. It’s evil nature makes the bad things that happen during production stand out. If you could research the terrible things that happened during productions of Romeo and Juliet or A Midsummer Night’s Dream, you might find that just as many tragedies have affected those plays as have tainted the Scottish Play.
Will You Break Tradition?
Many theater traditions today began as superstitions. Some people may still believe in the supernatural ability to influence the type of luck an actor or production may have, but many of these rituals are simply common sense practices.
Whether you believe in superstitions or not, it is fun to keep these traditions alive. Are you willing to tempt fate?