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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*

1

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.

giphy

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
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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?"

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