While I've been reading a lot about theatre, I came across quite a bit about superstitions, so I thought I'd take a break from serious research and share some of my favourites with you!
Break A Leg
Lots of theories on why we say this, when we mean 'Good Luck' and where the saying comes from:
- In Shakespeare's time, 'break' meant 'bend', so to ask someone to 'Bend the Leg' meant to take lots of bows at the end of a performance.
- If an actor is wished luck, they may become cocky. Wishing them misfortune is thought to make them subconsciously work harder.
- In the past, and in several cultures these days, audiences would stamp their feet if they enjoyed a show: if they stamped hard enough they would potentially break their own leg or the leg of the chair they were sat on.
- It comes from understudies genuinely wishing misfortune on the lead actors so they would get a chance to play the role.
- It comes from as far back as the Greeks or the Vikings: their gods were mischievous and wishing someone luck would cause the gods to play tricks on them. By wishing them bad luck the gods were thought to provide the opposite.
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The Curse of MacBeth
Or 'The Scottish Play'! Again, lots of suggestions for this one:
- MacBeth is a crowd pleaser and failing theatre companies would stage it as a way to pull in the punters. By putting this show on it may imply the theatre is in trouble.
- When Shakespeare wrote the play, a coven of witches cursed it as revenge for including a number of accurate spells in the script!
- Several unfortunate incidents have occurred including one Lady MacBeth walking off the edge of a high stage apron during the sleepwalking scene, and Laurence Olivier was nearly hit by a falling stage-weight!
- There was a riot after one performance that left many people dead and injured, and folklore has it that Lincoln was reading the script the night before his assassination.
- It may not be 'cursed' but it is unlucky, as much of the action is set at night so the stage is often dark and there are lots of action and fight scenes.
- If an actor utters the name in a theatre, he must apologise, leave the room, turn around three times, spit, curse and then knock to be allowed back in.
Image Source: bbc.co.uk
Knitting In The Wings
I hadn't heard of this superstition before! Several of these read more like a Health & Safety manual more than an actual superstition, but it is considered unlucky to knit in the wings in case the needles snag a costume, or worse, impale an actor making a swift exit from the stage!
Image Source: wikipedia.org
Emptying A Make-Up Box
I'm not sure what the provenance of this is, but it is considered bad luck for an actor to clean their make-up box, as it is supposed you will then never need to use it again (i.e. never get booked again!)
Wearing New Make-Up On Opening Night
Actually, this one is quite logical. An actor may not know how new products will fare under the hot stage lights, and they may cause the new make-up to run or melt.
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If you find a loose thread on your costume, another actor must snap (never cut, it means the run will be cut short!) the thread off, and wrap it around their forefinger. The amount of loops indicates how long the run of the show will be.
Image Source: crafts-for-all-seasons.com
Back in the 'old-days' the workers in the flies of the theatre, who were responsible for dropping scenery and set changes were often off-duty or retired sailors (presumably because they're good at tying knots and have a head for heights!) When on ships they would communicate through whistles, so whistling in a theatre may have brought a piece of scenery crashing down on you!
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This is a well-known superstition: peacock feathers are considered to be unlucky in lots of situations. (I posted a picture of my bookshelf on instagram and had a comment that because I had a peacock feather on my bookshelf I wouldn't have any success in learning! Eek!) This may be due to the shape of the pattern in the 'eye' being linked to the 'evil eye' and bringing misfortune on those who stood in its gaze
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There are lots of colours that are supposed to be unlucky in the theatre:
- Purple: mostly in Italian Opera, purple is associated with funerals in Italy and is considered to bring bad luck to a production.
- Blue: the dyes used to make blue cloth were the most expensive in the past, so wearing blue was a sign that the company was doing well, perhaps overspending, and, similar to 'Break a Leg', would bring monetary difficulties in the future.
- Green: in the days of 'limelight' wearing green would render an actor practically invisible, and is now considered to be bad luck.
- Yellow: wearing yellow will apparently cause an actor to forget their lines, although I can't find any explanation of why this would be so.
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Speaking The Last Line Of The Play
An old superstition says that a cast should never speak the last line of the play in rehearsals as it means that in performance the play will never get through a performance. It also supposed to relate to the idea that the play is not 'finished' until there is an audience there.
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Candles On Stage
Another 'Health & Safety' one here, but it's specifically considered unlucky to have three candles on stage as part of the set: superstition says that the actor standing nearest to the shortest candle will die!
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Saying A Theatre Is Closed
It is considered to be an ill omen to say a theatre is 'closed' as it means it will never again reopen! When a theatre closes for the night, it is said to be 'Dark' rather than 'Closed'.
Image Source: gettyimages.co.uk
The Ghost Light
When a theatre is 'dark' there is always a light left on the stage: this is called The Ghost Light. The obvious reason is to guide any late leavers around the theatre so they don't bump into props, scenery or chairs, but superstition dictates that the light must be left on for the theatre ghosts: if the theatre is completely dark they will wreak havoc and destroy the set, or, alternatively, it is to allow the ghosts to stage their own productions during the night...
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This is another superstition that crops up everywhere as well. Most theatres would have kept a cat or two to get rid of mice and rats that could nibble through costumes and scenery, however it is bad luck if a cat runs across the stage during a performance, probably in tandem with the superstition that having a cat cross your path will bring bad luck. However, being greeted at the stage door by the theatre cat is good luck, and the cat rubbing against you or sitting on your knee with bring excellent luck and good reviews.
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Flowers Before A Performance
I think this is similar, again, to 'Break A Leg' – presenting flowers prior to a show, when the actor has not done anything to earn them, will bring bad luck to the production. Real flowers after the show is fine, though.
There is a budgetary concern to this superstition as real flowers will wilt and need to be replaced often, fake flowers will keep the costs down! The circus, as well, has this superstition as a wilting flower means the performance will wilt. In a personal story I was once in a show with a dancer who used fake rose petals as part of her act (an act she had been performing for years); one night she used some petals from a real bunch of roses that had begun to drop, and the act went disastrously wrong: she slipped and fell, her costumes became tangled, the CD skipped... all because of the real flowers?
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Real Mirrors And Real Jewellery
Again the logic of this dictates that real, reflective materials will play havoc with the lighting design! Mirrors are said to reflect the soul, and an actor, playing a character, would see the soul of the character – not good if you're playing a bad guy!
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Peeping From Behind The Curtain
This is said to jinx the performance, and is poor etiquette in any case! The jinx is probably because by peeping, you may see family, friends, an enemy or worse, a theatre critic, in the audience which would make an actor nervous and jinx the show.
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Other superstitions that I can't find a reason or explanation for are:
- Applying make-up with a rabbits foot (rabbits feet are a good luck omen in several cultures, but I don't understand how or why anyone would decide to put their make-up on with one! You'd get some odd looks in the dressing room, that's for sure!)
- Exiting the dressing room on the left foot first (lots of sources confirm this as a superstition, but none know why!)
- Never rehearse on a Sunday (maybe something to do with religious beliefs of Sunday being a day of rest?)
What superstitions do you use on a daily basis? I don't like walking under ladders, I 'touch wood' when speaking about good things in the future, and I never wish someone luck in the theatre! Which ones had you heard of, and which ones do you do?!