Putting a Face on Theatre
Last week I wrote about the theatre superstition of the "The Scottish Play" since I’m gearing up for a production of Macbeth. While I was looking up the origin of this particular superstition, I came across a lot of other superstitions – ones I was familiar with, and several that I wasn't. Reading about what not to do and when not to do it was a lot of fun frankly, and I thought I’d regurgitate some of my findings for you all… dear readers.
I’m told that theatre folk are some of the most superstitious folks around. I don’t know that we (as a mass group) are really that superstitious, but we certainly HAVE a lot of superstitions, more than our fare share – most of them involving good or bad luck. Not a surprise I suppose, since it’s impossible to predict how a performance is going to go… no matter how well prepared you are. There are also lots of legends to go with those superstitions. Perhaps it’s due to our creative natures and the drive to tell a story? Eh. Who knows? What I do know, is that some of them are pretty crazy.
Never wish someone “good luck” before a show. It’s bad luck.
In my experience, this superstition is perhaps not as honored, but easily as well known as "The Scottish Play."
Most sources out there don’t even hazard a guess as to where this superstition comes from. One site I read quoted from a linguist, and I will quote from it: 'There's a possibility the saying comes from folklore, as Evan Morris (www.word-detective.com ) suggests: "Popular folklore down through the ages is full of warnings against wishing your friends good luck. To do so is to tempt evil spirits or demons to do your friend harm. Better to outwit the demons (who must be rather dim, it seems to me) by wishing your friend bad fortune."'
Similar to the “Scottish Play” superstition, some folks insist that if someone does say "good luck", they must go out of the theatre, turn around 3 times, spit, curse, then knock on the door and ask to be readmitted to the theatre. I’d never heard this, but I have certainly seen folks very upset when an unwitting and good intentioned family member or friend wished them “good luck.”
So what do you say instead? The traditional preshow good will phrase for most actors is “Break a leg.” Where does that come from? Once again, lots of theories.
First - to "break the leg" or "break a leg" is archaic slang for bowing or curtsying. If you think about the physical act of placing one foot behind the other - bending at the knee "breaks" the line of the leg. In theatre, pleased audiences may applaud for an extended time allowing the cast to take multiple curtain calls, or, breaking many legs.
Some believe the saying comes to us as far back as Ancient Greece when people didn't clap to show their approval - instead they stomped their feet. If they stomped long enough, someone would break a leg. Or, some would have it that the term originated during Elizabethan times when, instead of applause the audience would bang their chairs on the ground—and if they liked it enough, the leg of the chair would break.
Others attribute the line to an 18th century performance of Shakespeare's Richard III. So entranced and swept up by performing the title role famed British actor, David Garrick, finished the show unaware of a fracture in his leg.
This offering is just a beginning to the theories of where this phrase comes from, and when it came into use. There are dozens of others. Where and when ever it started, I’d say it’s here to stay.
It’s bad luck to whistle in a theatre.
Most of the sites I found credit this superstition with a safety foundation. Theatre’s first riggers were sailors, and they brought not only their skills with rope and canvas, but communication. In the days before headsets, 2 way radios, and cue lights, flying scenery was cued by coded whistling. I’ve no doubt some scene changes went really wrong when an actor whistled back stage confusing the crew and inadvertently got a big curtain dropped on their head or a flat flown on top of them. It’s no surprise it’s also considered back luck to whistle on a ship. (I’m going to take a wild stab here and say I bet that this also explains why tech folks are “crew”… originally they would’ve been ship’s crew. I’m also wondering if this connection raises the theatre superstition level… sailors are a pretty superstitious lot in their own right.)
It is bad luck to complete a performance of a play without an audience in attendance, so one should never say the last line of a play during rehearsals.
This one was less familiar to me, though I’ve heard it said before. Certainly, it’s not something I’ve ever seen practiced. I’ve never been in a designer run or tech rehearsal that didn’t end after the last written line or action. The idea is that the play isn’t finished until it’s performed with witnesses. Apparently some companies bring in a limited number of people not involved with the production to dress rehearsals to keep from breaking this superstition.
Unlucky props and objects.
Mirrors, real Bibles, peacock feathers, real flowers, or three candles.
I thought mirrors were just a bad idea for lighting, but apparently in some circles they’re considered bad news. We all know the superstition that breaking a mirror will bring 7 years bad luck. Not good for any performer in its own right - however, the problem is if the mirror were broken in a performance, it would mean not only bad luck for the actor, but for the theater itself. No theatre needs 7 years of bad luck – so ergo don’t use them.
Not bringing a real Bible onstage was so ingrained in my theatre training, I was surprised to the point of shock to see a real one (rather than another booked dressed up to look like a Bible) in a professional production. The online resources I found didn’t have theories for the origin of this one, but I have my own. After leaving the arena of the passion play and themes of morality and religion, most theatre was considered to be vulgar and immoral. Actors were also seen as lower class citizens (many of the first actresses were originally prostitutes) and sinners - so much so – an actor or actress wasn’t allowed to be buried in consecrated ground. Why flame that fire of religious prejudice by bringing a Bible into the mix? And… if you're a believer why would you tempt the hand of God? This is, of course, only wild supposition on my part.
Peacock feathers. Supposedly using a peacock feather onstage either as decoration, as part of a prop or on a costume will bring disaster to a production. Online stories include sets falling over, actors falling off stage, and similar disasters credited to the presence of peacock feathers. No concrete roots for this one, but it’s assumed it has to do with the eye shape on the feather, seen by some as “an evil eye” – which would focus that eye on the production.
Real flowers. Theories of this range from the cost of replacing them, to them wilting under stage light. I would add the potential for some inopportune sneezing.
Unlucky costume colors.
These were new to me – blue unless countered by silver, green, and yellow.
Blue is considered unlucky, unless countered by wearing silver. The sources I found agree that this comes from blue dye being very costly before modern textiles. In order to look prosperous, a failing acting company would dye some of their garments blue in the hopes of pleasing the audience and as a means of denying any rumors of financial difficulty to patrons and backers. It would seem people got wise to this, and the color became bad news if presented to an audience, UNLESS the actor or actress was wearing real silver WITH the blue. This way, the audience would know that the acting company was truly wealthy, not just pretending to be so.
Green is thought to date from outdoor performances. Not surprisingly under natural light, performing on a common or square (which would be grass, or bordered by grass) you might blend right in and be less noticed than your fellow actors.
Yellow – historically the color of the devil’s costume from religious plays.
There are several more I won’t go into in the context of this blog, but (to me, anyway) it’s a fascinating topic.
What superstition to you find most interesting? Which one(s) to you adhere to? Or do you think they’re all bunk?
Until next time cats and kittens,