TR Robertson — We have seen that superstitions are a natural part of everyday life and how they are a unique part of the sporting world. Superstitions have crept into every part of our world, including the world of live theatre production. Most of these unusual theatre superstitions date back to the early beginnings of theatre, but most are still part of the theatre world today. The same belief exists as in the sporting world, that is following these superstitions will ensure a good performance or a successful show. This helps make up the main reasons these time-honored superstitions are still in the world of the theatre today. Here are most of the theatre superstitions that are still believed and a little as to where they are from or why they are followed.
A bad rehearsal means the show will be a hit – a belief that if the final dress rehearsal is a bad one, this is an indicator the show will be a success.
Blue should not be worn on stage – some believe this superstition came out of the fact that in the early days of theatre, blue dye was expensive, therefore blue costumes were expensive and few in number. The belief arose that blue clothes on the stage was bad luck came about.
Never light a trio of candles on stage – many theatres burned to the ground in the early days of theatre due to open flames on stage or in the backstage areas. The three-candle belief seems to pay an homage to the belief that any open flame is bad luck and dangerous for the theatre. Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre burned to the ground from sparks from a cannon during a production of “Henry VIII”.
Turn on the ghost light before leaving the theatre – the ghost light is either placed or turned on in the center of every theatre stage, mainly so there is light of some kind in the theatre due to the scenery in the theatre, wires and other things scattered on the ground, like props and other furniture. An early belief said the ghost light warded off evil spirits. Putting the light in the center of the stage was due to the belief the center of the stage was meant to feature the main actor or actress. During the COVID outbreak, and the closing of theatres around the country, most of these theatres left a ghost light on in respect of the tradition and as a reminder that the theatre would someday open again.
Never bring a peacock feather on stage – this belief surrounds the pattern of the peacock feather with the end portion of the feather looking like the evil eye. Therefore, no actor is to bring a peacock feather on stage as anyone who does will bring misfortune to themselves.
Mirrors on stage are bad luck – this isn’t the belief that breaking mirrors will bring bad luck or that mirrors will trap you soul, it is the belief that mirrors on stage will reign havoc with the actors and other lights turned on the stage. A spotlight shined at the wrong time with a mirror on stage could momentarily blind an actor and result in a misstep in the production.
Whistling backstage in a theatre will jinx the production – in the early days of theatre, scenery was hoisted by ropes from the backstage by stagehands who would whistle to signal one another. If an actor whistled backstage, this might cue a stagehand to incorrectly lift scenery during a scene on stage. As a result, whistling altogether was banned from the theatre and considered bad luck if anyone does this.
Beware of the ghost of David Belasco or any ghost – The Bishop of Broadway, David Belasco, is said to haunt various parts of the Belasco Theatre, one of Broadway’s oldest. Other theatres are said to be haunted, some no longer in existence. The Palace Theatre was said to have over 100 ghosts roaming the theatre. Radio City Music Hall, New Amsterdam Theatre and Lyric Theatre are some other theatres supposedly haunted. The Palace Theatre used to keep two seats unsold for productions, so some of the ghosts would have a place to sit. It is also believed ghosts of theatres should be given one night alone in the theatre with no production, usually a Sunday or Monday.
Never give a performer flowers before a show – it is taboo to give an actor or actress flowers before their performance, only after their performance to honor what they did on the stage.
Give the director a Graveyard Bouquet – a superstition that flowers stolen from a graveyard should be given to the director of a production at the end of the productions run on stage, symbolizing the end (death) of the production. It was suggested that in the early days, the poor actors did this to give their director something hoping this would help in their next auditions.
Beware of a visit from the ghost of Thespis – Thespis is said to be the first actor to step out of a Greek chorus and play a character on stage. If the theatre does not have a ghost, blaming Thespis as the reason something goes wrong will give the problem a reason for the occurrence.
Say “break a leg”, never say “good luck” to an actor or actress – the theory is there are mischievous spirits about on stages, looking for a reason to make things go wrong and if you say “break a leg” the spirits will do the opposite and things will work out. “Break a leg” might also refer to the theatres curtains that mask the backstage and are known as “legs”. To “break a leg” would mean for an actor to cross from the backstage into the playing area of the stage and into the spotlight.
Never say Macbeth in a theatre – some believe that the play “Macbeth” has witches in the opening scenes speaking incantations that bring out evil spirits. If an actor says Macbeth, this will bring on the curses. To stop this, the actor will have to say any line from “Two Gentlemen from Verona” or a specific line from “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”. Another way to break the curse is for the actor to spin around three times, spit and exit the theatre.
For success, an actor/actress must sleep with their script under their pillow – the theory is the essence of the play will seep into the actor/actress by doing this.
An actor/actress should always walk into their dressing room with their left foot first – if they forget to do this, they are to go out, turn around 3 times and re-enter the room correctly. This has to do with establishing an entrance pattern for performers as they get ready to enter the stage area.
Several other things an actor or actress needs to watch out for is never putting their shoes on a table in the theatre or never bringing a pet on the set. All of these are bad luck. If you surveyed most theatre company’s you would find the majority of live theatre companies follow most of these superstitions to ensure the success of their personal performances and the success of the production they are involved. If it makes those involved with the production feel comfortable, why change anything? Don’t forget to “break a leg” as you stay safe and hopefully live theatre will return sooner than later.