13 Theatrical Superstitions and Myths

With the premiere of our first blog being on Friday the 13th, we thought it fitting to kick off the series with a haunting romp through the history of several theatrical superstitions and myths.

 

Triskaidekaphobia.

Try saying it out loud:    trih-ska-de-kah-fo-bi-yah.

This is the scientific term for the fear of the number 13.

Many people already have a fear of the number 13, especially when it lands on a Friday. There have been countless stories of ghosts, freak accidents, and bouts of bad luck for people on these days. Many buildings will avoid having 13 stairs, or 13 floors, or rooms with the number 13. Next time you’re in a public space, check to see if they left the number 13 off their signs.

As theatrical people, we are known for our extravagant behavior, for our fierce dependency of the stage, a passion for storytelling, and a love for the spectacle. Equally so, we are known to be a very superstitious people. You will find an array of actors, designers, directors, musicians, dancers and more who still hold some of these true, but you all will also find, like I did, many of these a tad hilarious. However, if you look beyond the superstition, you find that many off them had either practical reasons or happened to be followed by several freak and fatal accidents. Coincidence? Maybe so.

Without further delay, and fitting the theme of the day, I bring you :

13: Theatrical Superstitions and Myths

1. The Scottish Play

This might be the most actively followed superstition to this date. Even if you don’t personally believe anything bad will go wrong with you saying this name out loud, you should probably refrain from saying it around other theatre artists or you will be forced to go through a series of odd and dizzying counter-curses to send away the bad juju, karma, or energy into the theatre.

What is the “The Scottish Play” you ask? I hope you’re not in a theatre when you read this. (If you are, run out now) It’s William Shakespeare’s Macbeth. It is believed that mentioning this name or even quoting lines from this show will bring disaster upon you and your production.

The History: The Scottish Play itself is filled with witches, spells, bad luck, and prophecies, which is believed to be the root of this superstition. Famous performers such as Constantine Stanislavski and Charlton Heston suffered catastrophes during or after a production of Macbeth. It is said that Abe Lincoln read this play the night before his assassination. Today, people associate its utterance to technical malfunctions, actors forgetting lines, props and costumes going missing or breaking, bad box office sales, and a myriad of other horrors.

How to counteract this curse:  Done in front of the whole cast, the curse bringer must spin around 11 times saying “I am sorry” to Dionysus, the Greek god of the theatre. If not, I’m sure someone will make you do this. Other purifying rituals include leaving and being invited back in, spitting over your shoulder, quoting other Shakespearian quotes such as “If we shadows have offended.” (A Midsummer Night’s Dream)

Personal Story: One performance during our last production, Annie Jr., myself and an ASM uttered these words backstage while discussing the show. When one of our teens informed Lindsay, she immediately made us run on stage and ask for the spinning forgiveness. Dizzied from the experience, when I returned to the dressing room, Lindsay was busy with a gaggle of young girls chanting “Scottish Play, Scottish Play." This was a lesson learned for all of us.

 2. The Ghost Light

Rumored to ward of mischievous spirits, the Ghost Light is known today to help guide the first and last person in and out of the theatre. Let’s face it-- a dark theatre is a scary and treacherous place. Most of the time the light switches for the backstage, or work, lights is hidden in a maze under a secret garden inside of a wardrobe. This light prevents people from falling into orchestra pits, tripping over cables, and running into set pieces. While it might fend of pesky ghosts from playing tricks on shows, it also helps protect the unlucky few who are rummaging through the dark.

Unknown fact: In an Equity theatre, the ghost light was the physical alert that you are no longer on the job. Performers love to sit around and talk for hours after a show is done. By putting out the light, the stage manager is signaling that no one is on the clock any more. This is a task still handled by the stage manager most of the time.

3. The Rule of 3

Now, the rule of three can have its good connotations: “third time is a charm”, the “comedic rule of three”, and “show me three ways to do that action.” But having three lit candles on stage ignites bad luck.

The History: Stories say that the person nearest the shortest candle is the next to marry, or the next to die. Candles and flame are still highly mistrusted in the theatre world because before the invention of electricity, theatres were lit by torches when shows were not performed outdoors. Dozens if not hundreds of theatres have burnt down in the history of the theatre; two of the most notable being The Globe Theatre in London and The Brooklyn Theatre in New York City.

4. Bad Dress=Good Opening

This dress does not mean the particular outfit that a leading lady is wearing, but the dress rehearsal, or the part of the rehearsal process when costumes are added. It is believed that a bad final dress rehearsal is sign for a good opening performance. Maybe it’s the nerves of the cast and crew before the opening or maybe it’s a curse of every show, but everyone takes the lessons from this final rehearsal and works to fix them for their opening night.

5. “Break a Leg”- NEVER SAY “Good Luck”

Thought to be a sign of bad luck, most performers freak out when they are told “good luck”. The results, while maybe only psychological, breed fear and spite from actors.

The History: “Break a leg” has been attributed to several origins. Some stories say that you are supposed to perform so hard, or sing a note so high in opera, that you break the legs of the stage. The legs being the side curtains on stage today. Other stories say that evil sprites would try to do everything in their power to do the opposite of whatever wish was spoken. So if you wished for good luck, they would make everything go wrong. In Shakespearian days, to “break” meant to “bend”, meaning, taking lots of bows.

The stories are numerous and range from warding off evil, to wishing positivity, to actually physically hurting yourself from the power of your performance. Whatever you believe, it’s usually “bad luck” to say “good luck.”

6. Whistle while you work?

You might have been told to never whistle on or back stage but never knew why. Back in the day, stagehands were out of work sailors. Theatres and ships used a similar amount of ropes. Set pieces and people were raised and lowered in by rope, sand bags, and the strength of some mighty sailors. Before the nifty invention of headsets, whistling was used to cue other men backstage to raise or lower ropes. So if you were onstage and whistled you might face a sand bag to the face.

7.  Mirror, Mirror…

We all know of the superstition that breaking a mirror is seven years bad luck. It is believed that breaking a mirror on stage will cause seven years of misfortune for a theatre.  Reflections from mirrors can also be distracting for lights, actors, and audience members. This is always in challenge, especially since A Chorus Line’s famous mirror scene

 8. Green and yellow and blue and….

Certain colors have been proven to have an affect on our daily lives. Red symbolizes passion or rage, green symbolizes wealth, purple signifies calming and soothing feelings. It is believed that wearing blue garments without silver lining is bad luck.

The History: Blue dye was difficult to make so fabrics made in blue were highly expensive. Some companies that were failing tried to fool their audiences by filling their stages with actors in blue clothing to give the impression that they were doing well. They would eventually go bankrupt because of the cost. If the costumes were adorned with silver, it was proof to an audience that they could actually afford real silver or had a powerful backer.

Additionally, yellow was seen as bad luck because it was the symbolic color for Satan in old morality plays during the Middle Ages. As for green- well, when you’re show was outside and you’re wearing green, you might be hard to spot, lost in the trees and bushes.

9. Giving the Gift: Flowers

It is an expected tradition in theatre to give flowers to performers, especially on opening night. Once an honor bestowed only on directors and leading performers, it is common practice nowadays to show support and appreciation from family, friends, and fans.

So when is this bad? It is believed that receiving flowers before a show is as equally bad luck as saying break a leg.

The History: In order to obtain flowers nice enough for a gift and for a cheap price, they were plucked from graveyards. The superstition comes in when you give performers flowers that are associated with death before a show closes that you were bringing about the death of a show. Flowers were given after the show closed to symbolize the death, or end, of a production.

10. Fake Props

There are several props that are considered bad luck to have the real things on stage. It is seen as bad luck to use real money, jewelry, flowers, and even Bibles on stage. Some of these might derive from the fear that real money and jewelry are too luxurious to have onstage, or might be stolen, maybe real live plants will eventually die onstage, or to avoid disrespect for a holy text.

11. Never wear Peacock feathers on stage?

It is believed that the eyes on a peacock feather represent The Evil Eye and their manifestation on stage is believed to have caused sets to collapse, theatres to catch fire, and other disasters.

12. Exit with you best foot foreword

When exiting a dressing room, it is believed that leading with your left foot is a sign of good fortune. Conversely, it is important for visitors to enter with their right foot forward. The history around this is a little cloudy to my knowledge.

 13. The Last Line

It has been considered bad luck to say the final line of a show before it opens. In addition, taking bows to an empty house is considered a bad omen. It is a tribute that the show is not complete without the audience.

 

We hoped you enjoyed this list of 13 superstitions on Friday the 13th.  Do you have any of your own theatre superstitions or traditions that you do? If so, share them with us at education@stagedoormemphis.org.

Special Note: The number 13 has been used 13 times in this blog.

 

Jason Gerhard, Education Director in Residency