Don’t Say That! A Look At 4 Theatre Superstitions

Today’s Lesson is Brought To You By The Letters ‘G’ and ‘T’

‘G’ for Glossophobia

Glossophobia: Fear of Public Speaking or Performance

Greek γλῶσσα glōssa, meaning tongue, and φόβος phobos, fear or dread

‘T’ for Triskaidekaphobia

Triskaidekaphobia: Fear of the Number 13
Greek tris meaning “three”, kai meaning “and”, deka meaning “10” and phobos meaning “fear” or “morbid fear”

Theatres offer many things to thespians, such as a place to try new things, a safe space, a creative sphere of awesomeness, and the physical place of many a life’s firsts. Theatres give those who partake countless opportunities and outlets. Theatres help take small ideas and morph them into larger-than-life productions.

So it seems only natural that theaters would be breeding ground for superstitious beliefs.

1. The Scottish Play

Belief:

Unless you are on stage, rehearsing or acting in Shakespeare’s Macbeth, you are under no circumstance ever to say “Macbeth” while on a stage or in a theatre. Doing so will lead to you ultimate failure, the theatre’s collapse, and the stage manager losing their production notes.

Background:

Some historians believe the “Scottish Play Curse” came to be after a series of rumors evolved that the Witches’ spells within the text contained actual black magic curses. Other theatre historians believe Shakespeare’s plays were often produced (on the cheap) to help failing theatres pull out of financial ruin; cheap budget cuts paired with onstage duels and normal theatre stresses led to larger-than-life rumors of horrible acts occurring during production.

Reverse the Curse

Undoing the curse of saying Macbeth on stage:
Turn around three times
Spit over your left shoulder with each turn
Swearing between each spit
Complete spins and reciting another line from a different Shakespeare play
Curse Reversed*

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Source

*Note: No promises of any actual curses reversing. Also note that this is one of more than a dozen “curse reverse” practices.

2. “Break A Leg”

Belief:

Saying “Good Luck” will ensure your DOOM when in performance. Instead, “Break A Leg,” should be said as nod to fortune and never-a-forgotten-line

Background:

The saying started popping up in Western theatres, it is believed, around teh 1920s

“Break A Leg” didn’t work its way into an English publication (directly) until the late 1930s. Edna Ferber was the first to print anything about the superstition, writing, “…all the understudies sitting in the back row politely wishing various principals would break a leg.” **

Of all the theatrical origins, “break a leg” has more than this one blog post can report on.

Some research favorites include:

Understudies wished the leads to “break a leg” so often it became considered rude for someone not to say it

Shakespearian English: “Break” = “Bend”

“Break a Leg” = “Bend a Leg” or “Cheers to a bow at the end”

Fooling Theatre Sprites! By saying “break a leg,” mischievous sprites would do the opposite, granting wonders and good things.

And My Personal Favorite: The Lincoln Conspiracy! ***

After shooting President Abraham Lincoln, John Wilkes Booth leapt from the theatre box, breaking his leg before running out of the theatre. Booth later wrote in his diary (between fleeing and his own death) that his performance would always be remembered… ‘Cause broken leg.

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Source

3. Whistling In A Theatre

Belief:

It is bad luck to whistle in a theatre

Background:

Ok. This one has been difficult to find printed history about. All the following is compiled from theatre spoken lore.

Fly crews in theatres used to hire out-of-work sailors. Sailors communicated through a series of high pitched whistles with each other. This form of whistling was used on boats to express quickly how sails should be raised and lowered. As these men moved to theatrical spaces to work, the whistling continued. Being that the only individuals privy to this form of communication were sailors, it was believed sandbags, flys, scenery, and other such things could be dropped on an actor’s head with the simple act of a whistle.

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Source

4. Always Light the Ghost Light

Belief:

One should always leave a light on stage in a theatre, even when it is unoccupied, to keep the space from being completely dark. Usually, in modern theatres, this consists of an exposed bulb with no lamp shade.

Background:

Ghost lights became theatre staples around the same time that England and America became more interested in communicating with the supernatural. If you review history as electricity was more widely introduced and interest in the spiritual other world, many theatre superstitions seem to have origin stories dating back to this time. There is not a definitive “this theatre left a ghost light starting at this time”  history. Superstitions have oral origins about leaving the ghost lights out for former thespians to take the stage in their next-life form and reenact their roles with lighting.

Practically? Technicians are often the first in and last out. The light is a safety precaution in a dark theatre to prevent actual broken legs.

uncle-fester-ani

Source

Have proof these superstitions are REAL? Reply below…


1. Source: Burt, Richard. Shakespeares after Shakespeare: An Encyclopedia of the Bard in Mass Media and Popular Culture. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood, 2007.
2. Sources:** Ferber, Edna. A Peculiar Treasure. New York: Doubleday, Doran, 1939*** Kauffman, Michael W. American Brutus: John Wilkes Booth and the Lincoln Conspiracies. New York: Random House

Written by Rebecca Quirk

Rebecca Quirk is a dramaturg, full-time nerd, and obsessed with random trivia. She has her MFA from the Playwright's Lab at Hollins University. "Did you know hedgehogs float?"

21 Comments

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  1. So my school was doing a play about the holocaust and one of our actors said the name of the Scottish play. Nothing bad had happened until a week or so later. We had to build barrack set pieces and while moving them I ended up dropping one on my foot and had to use crutches for the next two weeks.

  2. I was directing Macbeth and said it in the theater, my co director got chicken pox and my lead actor go pink eye two weeks before the show, a set piece also fell on my head twice.

  3. I have always heard that “break a leg” comes from the days of ’50s burlesque when theatres would hire 20 musicians for 15 spots, expecting some to miss a train or ditch. “Break a leg” meant other performers in slots 16, 17, 18, etc. hoped to break the leg (small curtain) meaning they would be next to perform.

  4. Our stage manager a couple years back had said the Scottish Play during a performance. Later on, (I was stage crew for the play), I was taking out a couch and we had the coffee table on it to take off after. I nearly lost the grip of the couch and when regaining it the couch hit me hard in the face making me drop it and causing the table to fall off as well. Later on, when putting all the pieces in the shop that same table slid on the couch and hit me square in the lip. I was bruised up that night.

  5. i said the scottish play during our production of the little mermaid and ended up (being the only one injured) the grotto fell on my face and i got a bruised cheek bone plus the ASM was holding a curtain at the wrong scene shift and went the wrong way and ripped the curtain

  6. Three different people said the Scottish play on stage when my school was rehearsing Fiddler on the Roof. The night before opening several people almost fell off stage. Opening night there was a gas leak in the school and the whole building had to be evacuated, cancelling opening night.

  7. We did the Scottish play for my school’s Shakespeare team and we had to repeate the name over and over and within the next week someone broke their collar bone, someone punctured one of their lungs, someone broke their wrist, and I cut my foot open and had to get 15 stitches. I wore a boot during the competition.

    • Except the curse is enacted when you are saying it within the context of the show! (in rehearsal/performance.)

  8. I once said Macbeth before a performance of King Lear. I was an audience member that night and didn’t bother to do the reverse the curse whatevers. By intermission, I had fallen violently ill and was vomiting in the bathroom for no apparent reason. I had a horrible migraine that came on out of nowhere and felt fine by the time the show ended and I left the theatre.

  9. The last show I was in the male lead and I were trying to work out a harness scene during tech week. He didn’t even say the name of the play he said the “M” word. A few minutes later a bar came falling down. Luckily I had his harness in my hands and pulled him toward me. Had I not his head would have been smashed and I would have broken my arm! I don’t take these superstitionsightly by any means.

  10. When my school did footloose, some chorus girls thought it would be funny to say the Scottish play’s name in the theatre. The night before we opened a chunk of ceiling fell through and the auditorium was condemned.

  11. Someone in my Theatre 101 class disrespected the tradition of not saying the name of the Scottish play, and unfortunately my professor catered to it! Later on in my lighting class, something crashed offstage and I yelled my classmate’s name really loud since it was his fault.

  12. Did the Scottish play and opening night went fine but the second night one of our leads had a seizure and the other got suspended so we had to have someone read off book to be the lead. We were doing Addams family and someone said McB and I dropped at least 300lbs of weights and barely got out of the way they still left a pretty good bruise. Then the next day same show fire alarm went of in the opening scene had to evacuate and it was about to rain outside.

  13. My company was putting on Romeo and Juliet, our Tybolt didn’t believe in the curse of the Scottish play, so he would say it to bug everyone else who did. During the show in the first scene (the fight between Tybolt and Benvolio) he twisted his knee wrong and had to go to the hospital. The stage manager had to go on for him, he didn’t have an understudy.

  14. My father was director of a university theatre. During a production of the Duchess of Malfi someone said the M word, and during a performance, an actor who got stabbed in the side during one of fights. Had to go to the hospital to get stitches. I respect the superstitions.

  15. We did a performance of Julius Caesar and someone said the ‘M’ word quite a lot during the get in.
    The set was put up perfectly and the run went on without a hitch. A spectacular show.

    However, we did an adaptation of “The Dunwich Horror” by HP Lovecraft and every single night of the show, one way or another, someone injured themselves. We always look back on that show and joke that it was cursed.

  16. I remember once, earlier this year, I was walking back into the Black Box theatre at the college I graduated from, and the place was PACKED with teenagers who seemed to have no one attending them. I was furious as I stumbled around them to get into my office, muttering ‘pardon’s and ‘excuse me’s, calling my stage manager. I screamed, “Why the f**k are there kids in my theater, Caeli?!” into the receiver right as the door closed and she answered.

    “They’re practicing for their show, remember?” she had said, impatient with me. “You and I had this discussion last night. I said they’d be there at three whether you were there or not.”

    My heart deflated as I remembered. “Oh. Right. Damn it. I was hoping to just grab my laptop and go.”

    “Well, sucks to suck, doesn’t it, Mr. Elwood?”

    And she was gone.

    So I regain my composure, I go out there and I start leading the kids in some exercises. (Unique New York, Red Leather, Yellow Leather, you know the ones.) And then once we finished with the exercises, I asked them all to get out their scripts and turn to the page on which they left off.

    “Do you know which play we’re doing, dude?” one of them had asked me.

    “Mr. Elwood,” I correct him, not looking away from my phone as I waited for everyone to get situated. “And no, DUDE, I don’t know which play you’re doing. I don’t even know where you kids came from, I just got kind of stuck here.”

    “I know it’s Shack-spare,” he said, and to this day I don’t know if he was being serious or not in his mispronunciation. “But I don’t think it’s Macb-”

    I scream to drown him out, stop him in his tracks, cut him off. Everyone looks at me, but my eyes are trained on this kid in baggy clothes with bewilderment dominating his features. I stomp over to him, and I can feel the fire in my eyes as I snarl, “Don’t. Ever. Say. That. Name. In. My. Theatre.”

    He looked at me incredulously. “Dude. It’s just a name.”

    “Call me ‘dude’ one more time-” I stop and sigh. “Is THIS how Alex felt when G-Wash kept calling him ‘son’?!”

    Everyone blinked at me, not knowing what I meant. I was infuriated yet again, but I managed to take a few deep breaths to calm myself. I go back to where I was with the kid. “It may be just a name to you, but to this theatre, it means imminent disaster. You don’t say the name of The Scottish Play unless you are rehearsing it or acting it out on stage.”

    “You mean [The Scottish Play]?” (I took it out here, as I am sitting in my office at the theatre presently and I feel as if typing it would have the same impact on the theatre as voicing it.)

    I whirled around to glare at the girl who had said it, who looked like she KNEW what she was doing and didn’t have a single care to give about it. I look around. “Do you know what you’ve done to my theatre, you idiot?!”

    “Did you just call me, a sixteen-year-old girl, an IDIOT?!” (Like her age and gender matter to me. I would’ve called her an idiot even if she were a seventy-thousand-year-old genderqueer named Cactus Populi.)

    I sneered, going to the lovely W. Shakespeare himself for an insult, “Thou art a boil, a plague sore, an embossed carbuncle in my corrupted blood.”

    She didn’t very much like that one, either.

    Anyway, after a moment, I look around cautiously. Nothing dented, nothing broken, nothing destroyed. I stand up a bit straighter. “Well. I’ll be damned. It seems it IS only a superstition.”

    The practices were okay, until the last week before opening night. Three girls broke various bones, a curtain was ripped, another was set on fire, a light fell and almost killed me and my husband as we were watching them rehearse two nights before the show, and then, the night of, we had to cancel because the lead came down with some kind of sickness, I don’t know. Caeli somehow had reversed the curse though, one night. She didn’t tell me what she had done, she only told me to go into my office and wait for her to get me. And when the next night, we ran through the show with no hiccups, I praised the ground she walked on.

    TL;DR: NEVER speak the name of The Scottish Play and always have a wizard- *cough* I mean, stage manager, handy.

  17. We were doing A Streetcar Named Desire and my best friend who was also the ASM joked about him saying the Scottish play. I freaked out and told him to fix it but he just laughed and said “What? It’s just _______” The next week was opening night. It went perfect & I started to think maybe he was right.. until the next day and I ended up going from my shower, to jail hours before the show with no explanation. I was the lead, Blanche, so they had to find someone to read on book. It was also the night a judge was coming to see the show. Since then, everyone has been afraid to even touch Shakespeare!

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