by Vivian Chen
You’ve probably heard actors telling each other to “break a leg” instead of “good luck,” or that it’s bad luck to say “Macbeth” in a theatre. Theatre is full of strange superstitions that many actors, musicians, and directors, hold to be true to some extent. After all, with all the things that could go wrong in a production, there’s no harm in being extra careful. Here are five spooky theatre superstitions that you can keep in mind for the next time you attend a show:
One of the most widely known superstitions is the curse of Macbeth. Saying the word “Macbeth” in a theatre can result in extreme bad luck or even disaster, so actors tend to refer to it as “The Scottish Play” or “The Bard’s Play” instead. Some actors even go as far as to not even quote lines from the play in the theatre! Incidents related to the curse include: an actor mistaking a real dagger for a prop dagger, a riot starting over the play which resulted in 20 deaths and 30 injured, and Abraham Lincoln reading lines from the play out loud prior to his assassination. Some believe that this curse was placed by a coven of witches on the play, due to Shakespeare using authentic spells in the three witches’ dialogue. Others believe that the curse originated from the first production of the play, where the actor playing Lady Macbeth came down with a fever and died backstage.
2. The Ghost Light
Once used for preventing ghosts, the ghost light provides both practical as well as supernatural protection today. A popular superstition is that every theatre is home to a ghost, and so the ghost light helps appease them by providing them with a light to perform onstage after everyone has left. The practical purpose of the ghost light is obvious—a dark theatre can be a dangerous place, especially back stage as it is often pitch dark and filled with tripping hazards like cables, props, and set pieces. The light helps guide individuals backstage as they look for a light switch.
3. Break A Leg
It is considered to be bad luck to wish somebody “good luck” before a performance, so you tell them to “break a leg” instead. There are many theories as to where this saying came from. Some believe that it might stem from ancient Greece, where the audience would stomp their feet instead of clapping their hands at the end of a performance. The more they stomped, the more they enjoyed the show, and so a really good show would increase the chances of somebody breaking a leg. Another theory is that the phrase to “break a leg” can also refer to the act of bowing or curtsying after a performance, and so if a performance was particularly good, it would warrant multiple bows or curtseys.
This seemingly innocent superstition has its roots from back in the 1600s, when stage crews usually consisted of sailors working on sets and scenery. Since sailors are used whistles as signals on a ship, an actor innocently whistling on stage could confuse the sailors into accidentally moving things around the stage, leading to potentially dangerous situations. Although in modern productions the stage crews communicate to each other using headsets, it is still considered back luck today to whistle in a theatre.
5. Bad Dress Rehearsal = Good Opening Night
A terrible dress rehearsal doesn’t always mean that the show is meant to fail. This superstition may largely stem from wishful thinking, but it could actually be true in certain situations. A bad dress rehearsal could simply be due to an overworked cast from the sheer amount of practicing that they went through. As opening night rolls around, the surging adrenaline could be just enough to help everyone’s hard work and practice shine through.
Do you have unique theatre superstitions that you would like to share? Join the conversation here or on Twitter!