The theatre is a superstitious place, somewhere between the imagined dreams of the writer and the collective conscious of the audience sits the actors, the crew and their work. In the midst of this, a series of ritualistic superstitions have become part and parcel of theatre life. Some developed out of safety, others out of fear and more from the producers’ desire to keep costs down. Here is StageMilks ultimate list of theatre superstitions.
Macbeth a.k.a The Scottish Play
Never say the name of the Scottish play in a theatre. Just don’t do it. It is 100% hands down totally cursed. I am a totally rational, science-based guy. I don’t go in for ghosts or ghouls at all, with the exception of Macbeth. There is something about it that is offputting. Shakespeare’s Scottish drama centres around the prophecy of witches and the fate of the country. The superstition goes that the first actor to play the title role died during the first production of it, forcing Shakespeare himself to take the title role.
Others say that Shakespeare’s withes quote directly from books of black magic in their spells and incantations. Whatever the case I can assure you that if you say the name of the play inside the theatre, theatre people around you will have you either ejected from the space immediately where you will have to turn around three times and spit, or you will be quoting from A Midsummer Nights Dream faster than you can say Thane of Cawdor. If you do have to say it, the two main characters are Mac and Lady Mac and the play is referred to as The Scottish Play.
This one is pretty well known, you never say good luck to anyone who works in the theatre. It is always “break a leg” or in Australia and the U.K. “Chookas”. Why not good luck? Well, a couple of theories here – firstly, that the theatre is inhabited by malevolent spirits who want to do the opposite of whatever you say. By saying break a leg, you’re pulling a bit of the ol’ reverse psychology on them getting them to do the opposite of breaking your legs, getting more legs? I’m not sure. But whatever.
Secondly – in vaudeville times in the States, the leg of the stage was the base of the curtain. By breaking the leg, you strode onto stage and into the limelight. Finally, way back in Shakespeares time, you would break the audiences line of sight to your leg to pick up the food that people had thrown at you and therefore get a dinner. This leads us nicely to chookas, which colloquially means that if you go out there and do well, you will be able to buy chicken for dinner. It’s nice to know that actors have always been poor even way back in Shakespeares time!
This one is actually a very practical point although now it is pretty irrelevant. Back in the day, off duty sailors used to man the ropes and pulleys that controlled the set pieces and backdrops of big theatres. They would communicate using the series of coded whistles they used on the big ships. So if an actor strode onstage whistling dixie, they could quickly find a giant piece of scenic art dropping on their head!
Obviously with the modern OH&S requirements this is pretty unlikely for us, but I would still avoid whistling in the theatre just in case!
Bad Dress = Great show!
This one is some hopeful thinking from a bunch of producers I reckon. The idea is that if your last rehearsal before you go up absolutely stinks, well that means that opening night is going to be a cracker! Personally I have had both possible experiences here, an absolute ripper of a final dress then a brilliant opening! I’ve also experienced the opposite of that. So all I am saying is, I am not sure I completely buy this one – however many out there in the theatre world do and it’s something to be aware of.
Always leave a light on
The ghost light never goes out in a theatre. In big old theatres, cast or crew walking onstage in the dark could fall down trap doors, or into orchestra pits. Additionally, those same mischievous fairies from the Scottish play above were bound to play tricks on unsuspecting humans strolling through a darkened theatre. The ghost light never goes out in the theatre, and if one does – call the police, or ghostbusters. Whatever seems more appropriate!
No money, mirrors or peacock feathers
These are tricky ones. Firstly the peacock feather, peacock feathers have a deep blue circle at the end which to early theatre practitioners looked like the ‘evil-eye.’ They were thought to bring unsettling evil spirits to a production. Additionally, they were favoured by the Mongol hordes pillaging Europe which didn’t bode well for Western European theatre-makers.
The mirrors thing was largely tied up in the long-running mirror superstition of breaking them resulting in seven years bad luck. Combined with the other bad luck options in this list that could be catastrophic.
However, I have a theory that all of these come from producers and theatre owners who didn’t want any theft backstage so created superstitions around real money and also wanted to keep costs down so did the same with expensive mirrors and exotic bird feathers! Whichever way it goes, keep these items outside the theatre!
Turn off your phones
A modern one, but a good one. Maybe even less of a superstition and more of an instruction. There is nothing more embarrassing than performing your heart out of a scene on stage, giving it your all, having your concentration broken by an obnoxious ringtone, only to realise it is your ringtone, coming from the dressing room. So, massively distinctly not good. Don’t risk it folks, turn those phones off!
Any we missed?
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