Friday, May 11, 2007

The Curse of the Theatre

Theatre people are, historically, a superstitious lot, and probably with good reason. Since the dawn of theatrical performances in ancient Greece, actors and playwrights have lived a life outside the norm. This could very well stem from a career based on fantasy and illusion. Since Dear Daughter has spent most of this year involved in the local children's theatre group, I'm learning more and more about this fantasy half-life and have researched some common theatre superstitions. I found these on Wikipedia--a source not renowed for its accuracy, but these are comparable with what I've heard traditionally.

The Scottish Play. Shakespeare's play Macbeth is said to be cursed, so actors avoid saying its name (the euphemism "The Scottish Play" is used instead). Actors also avoid even quoting the lines from Macbeth inside a theatre, particularly the Witches incantations.

"Break a leg"

The expression "break a leg" replaces the phrase "good luck," which is considered unlucky. The expression is sometimes used outside the theatre, as superstitions and customs travel through other professions and then into common use. If someone says "good luck", they must go out of the theater, turn around 3 times, spit, curse, then knock on the door and ask to be readmitted to the theatre. The exact origin of this expression is unknown, but some of the most popular theories are the Shakespearean Theory or Traditional Theory, and the Bowing Theory.


One ghost-related superstition is that the theater should always be closed one night a week to give the ghosts a chance to perform their own plays. This is traditionally on Monday night, conveniently giving actors a day off after weekend performances.

Theaters that have stood for more than a few decades tend to have lots of associated ghost stories, more than other public buildings of similar age.


One specific ghost, Thespis, holds a place of privilege in theater lore. On what has been estimated to be November 23, 534 BCE, Thespis of ancient Athens (6th BCE) was the first person to speak lines as an individual actor on stage (hence the term "thespian" to refer to an individual actor). Any unexplainable mischief that befalls a production is likely to be blamed on Thespis, especially if it happens on November 23.

Ghost light

One should always leave a light burning in an empty theater. Traditionally, the light is placed downstage center. Several reasons are given for this, all having to do with ghosts:

  • The light wards off ghosts.
  • A theater's ghosts always want to have enough light to see. Failure to provide this may anger them, leading to pranks or other mishaps.
  • It prevents non-spectral personnel from having to cross the stage in the dark, falling into the orchestra pit, dying in the fall and becoming ghosts themselves.

Though it's a superstition, it does have practical value: The backstage area of a theater tends to be cluttered, so someone who enters a completed darkened space is liable to be injured while hunting for a light switch.


Related to a similar rule for sailing ships, it is considered bad luck for an actor to whistle on or off stage. As original stage crews were hired off of ships in port (Theatrical rigging has its origins in sailing rigging), sailors, and by extension theatrical riggers, used coded whistles to communicate scene changes. Actors who whistled could confuse them into changing the set or scenery, though in today's theatres, the stage crew normally uses an intercom or cuelight system.

Script under pillow

A common superstition held by actors is that sleeping with a script under their pillow will help them to learn it faster.


  • No real money should be used on stage. This may derive from gamblers' superstitions about money, or it could just be a sensible precaution against theft. In a similar vein, it is considered unlucky to wear real jewelry on stage, as opposed to costume jewelry.
  • 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. To get around this, some production companies allow a limited number of people (usually friends, family, and reviewers) to attend the dress rehearsals.
  • A bad dress rehearsal foretells a good opening night. This is possibly sour grapes. However, it has a tendency to be true in that cast and crew are scared straight by a bad dress rehearsal and therefore fix their mistakes by opening night.
  • A company should not practice doing their bows before they feel they deserve them.
  • Gifts such as flowers should be given to actors after a show, as opposed to before.
  • Peacock Feathers should never be brought on stage, either as a costume element, prop, or part of a setpiece. Many veteran actors and directors tell stories of sets collapsing and other such events during performances with peacock feathers.
  • Some actors believe that having a bible onstage is unlucky. Often, other books or prop books will be used with bible covers.
  • The color blue is considered unlucky, unless countered by wearing silver. As blue dye was once very costly; a failing acting company would dye some of their garments blue in the hopes of pleasing the audience. As for the silver to counter it, one would know that the acting company was truly wealthy, so to enable actors to wear real silver.
Dear Daughter's group has their final dress rehearsal tonight. I'm so relieved. First, the cast and crew have worked very hard on this production and I'm pleased to see it all coming to fruition for them. I'm also relieved because after this weekend, we won't have three nights a week of late night rushing to Collierville and back and scrambling for dinner, homework and family time. As positive as this experience has been, it's also been rather frantic and tiring, and it will be good to have some rest.

Lastly, I'm relieved because Dear Daughter -- quite unknowingly--took one of the old superstitions a little too seriously last night and tumbled down the stage stairs during dress rehearsal. And while her foot is not actually broken, but merely a nasty little sprain, it's turned the play from The Twelve Dancing Princesses into The Eleven Dancing Princesses and Their Noticeably Hobbling and Footsore Big Sister. My poor dear girl, she always did know how to stand out in a crowd.


Fartman said...

There's an upcoming movie all about the Macbeth curse. It's called "Never Say Macbeth." Go to

Redblur63 said...

Very interesting. Thanks. Do I know you?