Theater is a magical place full of wonder and mystery – and superstitions. Some of these have been around for centuries, and are taken VERY seriously backstage. Here are just a few…
Break a Leg!
This is one of the most common expressions you hear in the theater. Saying “Good Luck” is not allowed backstage; instead the phrase “Break a Leg” is used. The expression has absolutely nothing to do with actually breaking a leg! If you go back in history there are several explanations for the expression, but the one that rings the truest to me refers to the soft goods. Soft goods are hung on stage right and stage left, framing the stage. There was a general policy that a performer did NOT get paid unless they performed on-stage, so the phrase “break a leg” referred to breaking the visual plane of the “legs” that lined the side of the stage, i.e. “Hope you break a leg and get on-stage so that you get paid!”
In the days before electricity, scene changes were cued by whistling backstage. “Speculation suggests the practice was borrowed from nautical traditions of whistling on ships to raise and lower sails. The theater season coincided with the cold winter months when the shipping trade slowed. Sailors and dockworkers could sometimes get jobs as stagehands, where they knew how to handle ropes and rigging systems.” An actor or anyone who whistled backstage might accidentally cue a stagehand to lift or drop scenery, potentially putting an unaware performer at risk from the unexpectedly moving scenery. Whistles were eventually replaced by light cue systems and then intercom systems, but the caution to avoid whistling on stage remains.
Don’t Ever Say… “Macbeth”!!!
According to folklore, Macbeth was cursed from the beginning. A coven of witches objected to William Shakespeare using real incantations, so they put a curse on the play. Legend has it the play’s first performance (around 1606) was riddled with disaster. Actors avoid saying its name when in the theater; the euphemism “The Scottish Play” is used instead. If “the word” is accidentally said, the way to undo the curse is to leave the theater, spin around three times to reverse time, then spit over your left shoulder to expel the corrupting poison, curse, and knock on the theater door, asking permission to re-enter.
I’m sure many of you have seen images of this singular weird light, especially during these current closures. It usually consists of a vertical pole with a bare light bulb on it, and is placed on the stage. Called a ghost light, it is left burning overnight and when the theatre is empty to keep friendly spirits illuminated and unfriendly spirits at bay. It is also helpful in preventing people from tripping over bits of scenery when they come into the theater in the morning. Nowadays, although we still take the practice of using a ghost light seriously, we make sure that we are using an energy-saving lamp.