I’d like to start off with a story, It all starts in 1991 at the Richard Rodgers Theatre in New York City, New York. When a man named George Isaac Roberto Stevenson The Second was working backstage as stage manager for the play, Lost In Yonkers. George had been with the show since its opening and was a long time worker of the theatre about to retire after this final show. Many of the cast and crew at the time had planned a surprise party for George’s final day with the theatre to bid him goodbye. He walked in prepared to tell the cast to get into their places just when they were about to cut a cake that said, Good Job Getting Out Of Yonkers George! The surprise should have gone great except George and the crew were running late and the show should have already started. Running down the hallways he entered into the green room ready to yell places when the person cutting the cake had the knife positioned in the wrong place at the wrong time and George came bounding into the room. If it hadn’t had been for an askew prop causing him to trip he would have ran face first into the knife. He ended up breaking his left leg in the process but remarked how close the blade was to his face and actually credited the trip for saving his life. He of course had to bring up the safety concerns later but ended up staying another year before retiring, and every night before the cast went on would say, Break a Leg. No one understood why until they heard the story and when he left slowly the story stopped being told but the tradition just stuck, and now it’s highly likely you two have said Break a leg before opening a show
So Now might be a good time to let you know that everything you just read was a lie, but it probably made you think about where the phrase, “Break a Leg” actually comes from and why it’s considered bad luck to say good luck before a show. Well you’re in luck. See what I did there, because today you’ll be learning that and the meaning of 12 other theatre superstitions. Why 13? Well, It’s supposed to be a friday the 13th thing but im like 12 days late so pretend your reading this 2 Fridays ago. Anyways Follow me, read along and we’ll gather round the ghost light and get very superstitious.
#13 No Wearing Blue Or Green On Stage
This is one you probably haven’t heard before and most likely never will, because it would make productions of Wicked, Shrek, Beauty and the Beast, Heathers, and many others near impossible to do. However, there is a very good reason why it was once considered bad luck to wear blue on stage and that is blue dye back in the day was somewhat rare and very expensive and some theatres even went bankrupt putting on a wealthy facade by having actors and actresses adorned in blue clothing. As for green, back when shows were frequently done outside wearing green clothing acted as an accidental camouflage and caused actors to not stick out and be noticeable on the stage. There have also been times yellow clothing has been considered bad luck because of its connection to satan, you may have heard before that a yellow bird means a bad omen, this is because of that connection. Of course today, blue dye is abundant, shows are performed inside, and hardly anybody would associate yellow with the devil.
#12 Bad Dress Rehearsal
This superstition is fairly easy to see where it comes from, It is believed that if you have a bad dress rehearsal before opening night than it is actually a sign of good luck that your show will do well. Obviously this isn’t always the case, and if you’re having severe problems the day before a show they most likely won’t just disappear because there's an audience. When your a director though it can be just as dangerous to go into opening night with fear and uncertainty so with a bit of superstition and white lies, You may give the cast just what they need to believe they can have an incredible opening and then some of the problems may seem to just fix themselves with a bit more confidence. I don’t know, I generally think it’s pretty terrifying to go into opening on a low note so whatever you can do to boost morale is probably the best thing.
#11 No Peacock feathers
This one is rather short but it was once believed that the peacock represented the eye of evil and that using and wearing them on the stage would lead to sets collapsing, fires, and other horrific disasters
#10 No Mirrors
This is one is actually quite practical and less superstitious, it is considered bad luck to use a mirror on stage because breaking one will cause seven years of bad luck for the theatre and while that most likely isn’t true using mirrors on stage can lead to reflections of light shining in the eyes of the audience, and cast and crew member which may not cause the stage to catch fire but can be quite annoying and lead to problems or technical difficulties.
#9 No Real Money
This superstition comes from the fear of cast members stealing props and is still widely used today because why would you even use real money
#8 No Real Jewelry
This holds the same purpose as the former but isn’t as widely used today. Both items being used are said to cause bad luck, and if you consider having a valuable prop stolen bad luck then yeah, I guess you’re right.
#7 No Whistling
It is said to cause bad luck whistling on or off stage and just in a theatre in general, this must make Sondheim's Anyone Can Whistle fun to figure out how to perform. In reality like the others this comes from a time when headsets didn’t exist and some crews consisted of sailors due to the similarities of ropework. They would often use whistling as cues and so if an actor or actress whistled at the wrong time it could mean disaster and a possible date with death and sandbags.
#6 Sleep with your script
Have you ever heard someone say sleeping with your textbook under a pillow causes the information to somehow enter your head. Well, that’s just simply stupid and not true but theatre has its own version of that. It is said that sleeping with your script under your pillow can help you learn lines faster, but don’t try this out hoping to learn all your lines the day before your show. You may find it surprising to learn you won’t be able to catch up on practice in your dreams.
#5 Flowers Before a Performance
It's likely everyone who has performed has received or at the very least watched someone else receive flowers once before, and if that’s the case please go out and buy yourselves some flowers you really deserve it. Well, while that’s for some a pivotal part of opening night. Many actors and actresses wouldn’t accept flowers until after curtain call because they believed receiving them before led to a bad performance. I can’t say I disagree, It’s not going to cause your show to go terribly wrong but it’s good to be rewarded after you’ve finished the job. It is also commonly believed you should leads flowers from a graveyard, but don’t do that. Seriously please don’t go steal flowers from someone's grave.
#4 “Break a Leg”
And now maybe one of the most famous sayings and superstitions of all and we have no idea why we say it or where it comes from. I know that’s kinda anticlimactic but its the truth, there is no definite origin. Its believed it may come from understudies jokingly saying to break a leg so that they can go on. It might have its roots in greek theatre, or it might be referring to the actual curtain called the leg, in which breaking the leg meant to go on and perform. These all work pretty well as origins. It could also be rooted in the idea to wish good luck is bad luck and so you wish bad luck in order to receive good luck. That makes about as much sense as it sounds but superstitions aren’t generally smart. All you need to know is never say good luck or you may cause your performance of the worst most disreputable musical in existence to go horribly right and turn into a fun satire. If you don’t know the reference just look it up something should come up.
#3 Goodnight Olive
These final 3 aren't so much outdated practical rules, or weird beliefs as they are theatre’s ghost stories. I mean one of them will literally have ghost in the name so that might hint to something. Anyways, Goodnight Oliver is a superstition rooted in the New Amsterdam Theatre. That Ziegfeld girl Olive Thomas haunts the theatre. There have been numerous occasions of security guards feeling a tap on their back like someone was playing a trick on them but when they turn around no one is there. One security guard ended up calling the president of Disney Theatricals and owner of the New Amsterdam theatre after an encounter. Once while a group of people were talking about Olive backstage, while talking about the film The Artist one person asked what Olive would think about the film causing then several dvd’s to fly off a table. People believe she likes the attention her haunts cause. They now keep a picture of her backstage and say goodnight to it every night as some sort of gesture of respect.
#2 The Ghost Light
Mostly the ghost light is used for safety purposes, and the to keep away from the danger of walking off the stage into the pit. It is one singular light left on in the theatre when the rest are turned off. However, because theatre people are very superstitious the ghost light is said to ward off ghosts, including very famously the mischievous ghost of Thespis a greek actor credited as the first to step out of the chorus. It is also used to help ghosts see in the dark and keep from bumping into scenery. Many theatres use it and The New Amsterdam theatre previously listed actually has a lot more than just a single light because people are very very sure that Olive haunts the place.
#1 The Play That Should Not Be Named
Oh come on, you all knew this would be #1. By far the most famous theatre superstition of all time, the forbidden word, referred to as the Scottish play. Macbeth, now the superstition goes it causes extreme amounts of bad luck to say the words Macbeth on stage or in a theatre. I don’t think it’s bad luck to type it and I’m not in a theatre so it should be fine, but if you’re in a theatre reading this currently you may not want to read this out loud. The origin of the superstition comes from the belief that the spells in the Three Witches scene are real or were real and used by Shakespeare unknowingly until a group of people made him rewrite it. The accidents caused by uttering the forbidden name date back all the way to the shows opening when it was said an actor died when a real dagger was used instead of a prop one. The difference between and the others though is that this one is widely believed and though many myself included simply have fun with the theatre inside joke there are many who believe it ruins shows and curses theatres. Many hardcore believers even make you perform a cleansing ritual that varies but often involves spinning around three times and reciting a line from one of Shakespeare's other plays. Since it is a superstition there is really no way to prove or disprove it and it remains one of theatres unspoken rules, Never say the name of the Scottish play. Just about every theatre can list an instance of accidents happening afterwards or commotion caused by fear of the curse. While it’s fun to watch non theatre people scratch their heads when the room goes silent after its nothing to let get in the way of a show and when working with little ones can cause quite a commotion. So often it’s best to just refer to it as the Scottish play to avoid fear and people making you do a cult like ritual, which to be fair theatre is sort of a cult isn’t it?
Are there any superstitions I missed? Do you have any stories of ghosts or ghost light mishaps in your theatre, and do you believe in the Macbeth superstition? Tell me down below and remember to check back in the future for more history, theatrics, and possibly spooky ghost stories.
Oh and don’t turn off that light when you leave, I’d hate to leave our friends alone in the dark.