Theatre Superstitions & Oddities

Theatrical Superstitions & Oddities

Working in the theatre is one of the most superstitious professions, in part because there is a long history of backstage crews being made up of sailors on leave, who brought with them their own traditions and superstitions. Considering the amount of things that can (and do) go wrong in a performance, it’s not surprising that thespians need our superstitions to blame…

Theatre Superstition

Theater Ghost LightThe Ghost Light

There should always be a light burning in an empty theatre to ward off ghosts.

Conventionally, the light is placed downstage center, illuminating the space when it is not in use, to keep ghosts with enough light so that they can see, which keeps them at bay.

This is another superstition with a practical value: The backstage area of a theatre tends to be cluttered with props, set pieces and costumes, so someone who enters a completely darkened space is prone to being injured while hunting for a light switch. It prevents those still living from having to cross the stage in the dark, injuring themselves and leading to new ghosts for the theatre. Most of the time the light switches for the backstage, or work, lights is hidden in a maze under a secret garden inside of a wardrobe. This light prevents people from falling into orchestra pits, tripping over cables, and running into set pieces.

It’s also known as the “Equity Light” or “Equity Lamp”.

Fact: In an Equity theatre, the ghost light was the physical alert that you are no longer on the job. Performers love to sit around and talk for hours after a show is done. By putting out the light, the stage manager is signaling that no one is on the clock any more. This is a task still handled by the stage manager most of the time.

Theatre Superstition

Theatrical Superstitions Macbeth WitchesThe Scottish Play

This might be the most actively followed theatrical superstition.

What is the “The Scottish Play” or “The Bard’s Play”? It’s William Shakespeare’s ‘Macbeth‘. It is believed that mentioning this play by its name or even quoting lines from this show will bring disaster upon you and will result in extreme bad luck for your production.

Even if you don’t personally believe anything bad will go wrong with saying it out loud, you should refrain from saying it around other thespians or you will be forced to go through a series of odd counter-curses to send away the bad karma from the theatre.

In fact, this superstition is so deeply embedded that there is no sign for the word ‘Macbeth’ in British Sign Language. Instead, they use the same as the sign for ‘Scotland’.

  • Legend has it the play’s first performance (around 1606) was riddled with disaster. The actor playing Lady Macbeth died suddenly, so Shakespeare himself had to take on the part. This turned out to be a myth conjured up by the 19th and 20th-century cartoonist / critic Max Beerbohm.
  • In another 17th-century production, held in Amsterdam, the actor playing King Duncan was allegedly killed in front of a live audience when a real dagger was used in place of the stage prop during the stabbing scene.
  • In 1849, a long-standing rivalry between fans of British actor William Charles Macready and American Edwin Forrest turned violent during a production of Macbeth at New York’s Astor Place Opera House, leaving 22 dead and more than 100 injured.
  • It is said that US President Abraham Lincoln read this play the night before his assassination.
  • 1937 Laurence Olivier Macbeth Old VicIn 1937, Laurence Olivier’s production of Macbeth at the Old Vic was thwarted by disaster: theatre manager Lilian Baylis died during dress rehearsals; the director and the actor playing Lady Macbeth were caught up in a car accident; and a falling weight narrowly missed crash-landing on Olivier. They used real weapons, and one flew into the audience, giving someone a heart attack. The play’s opening was postponed.
  • In 1942, three actors died during the run of the Piccadilly Theatre’s version, starring John Gielgud. The costume designer committed suicide.
  • In 1947, actor Harold Norman, who reportedly did not believe in superstition, died after his stage battle became a little too realistic while playing Macbeth.
  • Famous performers such as Constantine Stanislavski and Charlton Heston suffered catastrophes during or after a production of Macbeth.
  • Many other productions have been plagued with accidents, including actors falling off the stage and mysterious deaths.

Today, people associate its utterance to technical malfunctions, actors forgetting lines, props and costumes going missing or breaking, bad box office sales, and a myriad of other horrors.

The History:  There are several possible origins for this superstition:

  • According to one superstition, The Scottish Play itself is filled with witches, spells, bad luck, and prophecies, which is believed to be the root of this superstition. Shakespeare himself got the words from a coven of real witches, who, after seeing the play were not impressed by their portrayal.
  • Following the above, a coven of witches objected to Shakespeare using real incantations, so they put a curse on the play.
  • Another is that Shakespeare put a curse on the play so that no-one, other than him, would be able to direct it correctly.
  • Another says the props master from the original performance stole a cauldron from said coven, and the witches, again, were not impressed.
  • Another origin is that there is more swordplay in it than most other Shakespeare plays, and, therefore, more chances for someone to get injured.
  • Another is due to the plays popularity, it was often run by theatres that were in debt and as a last attempt to increase patronage; the theatres normally went bankrupt soon after.

How to counteract this curse:

The person is required to leave the theatre building, spit, curse and spin around three times, before begging to be allowed back inside.

Other variants include: Reciting a line from another Shakespearean work, brushing oneself off, running around the theatre counter clock-wise, or repeating the name 3 times while tapping their left shoulder.

The superstition is even parodied in an episode of The Simpsons. While visiting London, the Simpson family comes across Sir Ian McKellen outside a theatre showing “Macbeth.” Every time “Macbeth” is said, something happens to McKellen.

Shakespeare’s tragedy is packed with accident-prone action, including 6 murders, massive storms and an entire forest lifted and blown across the stage. It’s no wonder a little blood has been spilt throughout its 400-year performance history.

Personally, I believe that being one of Shakespeare’s most popular plays, that has been staged for more than 400 years, is bound to have its fair share of accidents. When you have more performances, it’s statistically more likely that things will go wrong.

Theatre Superstition

Age has its benefits

In the box-office, if the first purchaser of seats for a new production is an old man or woman, it means to the ticket-seller that the play will have a long run.

A young person means the reverse.

Theatre Superstition

The Rule of 3

Now, the rule of three can have its good connotations: “third time is a charm”, the “comedic rule of three”, and “show me three ways to do that action.” But having three lit candles on stage ignites bad luck.

The History: Stories say that the person nearest the shortest candle is the next to marry, or the next to die. Candles and flame are still highly mistrusted in the theatre world because before the invention of electricity, theatres were lit by torches when shows were not performed outdoors. Dozens if not hundreds of theatres have burnt down in the history of the theatre; two of the most notable being The Globe Theatre in London and The Brooklyn Theatre in New York City.

Theatre Superstition

Bad Dress Rehearsal = Good Opening Night

This dress does not mean the particular outfit that a leading lady is wearing, but the dress rehearsal, or the part of the rehearsal process when costumes are added. It is believed that a bad final dress rehearsal is sign for a good opening performance. Maybe it’s the nerves of the cast and crew before the opening or maybe it’s a curse of every show, but everyone takes the lessons from this final rehearsal and works to fix them for their opening night.

Theatre Superstition

Theatrical Superstitions Keep Calm it's Opening Night“Break a Leg” never say “Good Luck”

To wish someone ‘Good luck’ before a show is bad luck. Thought to be a sign of bad luck, most performers freak out when wished good luck in a theatre, the expression “Break a Leg” replaces the phrase “Good luck”.

Some other variations of opening night wishes include: Merde, Chookas, Mazel tov!, 祝你好运, Toi Toi Toi, Fracture a Femur, Mucha Mierda, Hals-und Beinbruch, ความดีเลิส, Bahati Njema, הצלחה און ברכה‎, In Bocca al Lupo! & Happy Opening! 🎭🎉💐

🇦🇺 In Australia, we say ‘chookas’ which stems from the 1900s, when a full house meant that the cast would be given chicken (Australian slang: ‘chook’) to eat after the show. “Chook it is!” became ‘chookas’.

🇫🇷🇨🇦🇮🇹🇪🇸🇵🇹 ‘Merde‘ (French for ‘shit’) began in 19th-century Paris, when audience to the Paris Opéra would arrive at the Palais Garnier in horse-drawn carriages. If there was a full house, there was a lot of horse manure in front of the theatre. Saying ‘merde’ bec