Theatre Superstitions & Oddities

Theatrical Superstitions & Oddities

Theatrical folk are a superstitious lot, and considering the amount of things that can (and do) go wrong in a performance, it’s not surprising that thespians need their 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 The Scottish Play

Saying the word ‘Macbeth’ in a theatre will result in extreme bad luck.

This might be the most actively followed superstition to this date. Even if you don’t personally believe anything bad will go wrong with you saying this name out loud, you should probably refrain from saying it around other theatre artists or you will be forced to go through a series of odd and dizzying counter-curses to send away the bad juju, karma, or energy into the theatre.

What is the “The Scottish Play” you ask? I hope you’re not in a theatre when you read this. (If you are, run out now) It’s William Shakespeare’s Macbeth. It is believed that mentioning this name or even quoting lines from this show will bring disaster upon you and your production.

Famous performers such as Constantine Stanislavski and Charlton Heston suffered catastrophes during or after a production of Macbeth. It is said that US President Abraham Lincoln read this play the night before his assassination. 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.
  • Another says the props master from the original performance stole a cauldron from said coven, and the witches, again, were not impressed.
  • 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 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.

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 “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”.

The History: There are many theories of the origin of this superstition of wishing luck to the actors, but here are a few:

  • After a good performance during Elizabethan England, actors were thrown money on the stage and they would kneel down to collect the money thus ‘breaking’ the line of the leg.
    Money = Breaking legs = Success
  • Similarly, for the curtain call, when actors bow or curtsy, they place one foot behind the other and bend at the knee, thus ‘breaking’ the line of the leg.
  • If the audience demands numerable curtain calls and the actors are moving on and off stage via the wings they may ‘break the legs’, ‘legs’ being a common name for side curtains/masks.
  • Some stories say that you are supposed to perform so hard, or sing a note so high in opera, that you break the legs of the stage. The legs being the side curtains on stage today.
  • Other stories say that evil spirits would try to do everything in their power to do the opposite of whatever wish was spoken. So if you wished for good luck, they would make everything go wrong.
  • In Shakespearian days, to “break” meant to “bend”, meaning, taking lots of bows.

Saying “Break A Leg” in the theatre didn’t start until the 1920s, Whatever you believe, it’s usually “bad luck” to say “good luck.

Theatre Superstition Whistle while you work?

It is considered bad luck to whistle on or off stage, as someone (not always the whistler) will be fired. You might have been told to never whistle on or back stage but never knew why.

The History: Back in the 1600’s, stagehands were out of work sailors. Theatres and ships used a similar amount of ropes. Set pieces and people were raised and lowered in by rope, sand bags, and the strength of some mighty sailors. Before the nifty invention of headsets, whistling was used to cue other men backstage to raise or lower ropes. So if you were onstage and whistled you might face a sand bag to the face.

Nowadays, theatre shows are cued either with lights or, more often than not, the technicians and stage management can talk to each other using radio “cans” or walkie-talkies, so there is no need for whistling.  People continue to be superstitious about whistling in theatres in case there are any ghosts of former stage crew lurking in the fly tower, waiting to drop a stage weight or move scenery at the first sound of an actor whistling to himself in the wings.

Theatre Superstition Box Office Comp

This superstition seeks to ensure financial success.  It insists that  the house manager must refuse to admit a person with a “comp” (free ticket) until after at least one paying patron has entered the auditorium.  Doing otherwise, according to this superstition, dooms the production to failure.

Theatre Superstition theatre stage makeup boxesMakeup

Never use brand new makeup on opening night, and never, ever clean your makeup box during a run of a show, or a disaster shall ensure.

Theatre Superstition First Women in

It’s bad luck to allow a woman to be first to enter his theatre on opening night

The History: In 1866, what was to become known as the “first American musical” was about to open in New York at ‘Niblo’s Gardens’.  This history-making production was a gaudy extravaganza called The Black Crook that was some five and a half hours long.  At the time no one was aware of the historical significance of this production or that it was the beginning of America’s major contribution to theatre arts.  No, it was merely an accidental conjoining of a theatre manager desperate to get some production, any production, to fill his theatre, plus an unemployed ballet company, some spare scenery, and a desperately cobbled together script about some sort of fantasy world.  The script made little sense, but that didn’t matter: There were beautiful dancing ladies in skimpy costumes!  (Of course you’ll recognize that tradition in today’s musicals.

On opening night September 12, William Wheatley, the manager of Niblo’s Gardens, was at the theatre’s entrance as the audience was about to enter.  To his shock, the first person in line was a woman.  “No!  You cannot be first,” Wheatley said, pushing her away.  “To allow a woman to be the first to enter would ruin the success of the play!”  The Black Crook ran 474 performances, a gigantic run for its time, and its success of course prompted dozens of imitations, giving rise to what we know today as the “Broadway Musical Theatre.”

Wheatley later claimed the huge success of The Black Crook was due to the way he refused to allow a woman to be first to enter his theatre on opening night.

Theatre Superstition Mirror, Mirror…

It is bad luck to have mirrors on stage.

We all know of the superstition that breaking a mirror is seven years bad luck. It is believed that breaking a mirror on stage will cause seven years of misfortune for a theatre.  However, having a mirror on stage can cause technical issues, such as reflecting light into the audience or into places never intended to be lit. It can also be a source of distraction for vain actors. This is always in challenge, especially since A Chorus Line’s famous mirror scene.

Theatre Superstition Broken Mirror

Almost universally, this superstition includes that the bad luck would last for seven years. The superstition of bad luck surrounding breaking a mirror has existed long before metal or glass mirrors were actually invented. Before modern glass or metal mirrors were produced, reflections of one’s self were seen in rivers, ponds, pools or bowls. If the reflection looked distorted, it was believed that disaster would strike.

The History: The origin of this belief stems from an early interpretation in Roman times that each person’s body undergoes a physical regeneration every seven years. A broken mirror signified a break in the person’s health and well-being, going back to the theory of the mirror being the reflection of the soul.

In 15th century Venice, Italy, when glass mirrors backed by silver coating were first produced, they were prohibitively expensive. Servants of the wealthy, who most often would be in the position of cleaning or moving a mirror, could never afford its replacement, if broken. The punishment or threat of breaking a mirror became that of having to serve for seven years as an indentured servant to the mirror’s owner.

It is noted that one way to avoid the bad luck associated with breaking a mirror is to take the broken pieces and bury them underground and under the moonlight.

Theatre Superstition No Backstage Visitors

There should be no visitors to dressing rooms during dress rehearsals, or something bad will happen to someone’s costume during a performance.

Theatre Superstition Blue & Silver & Yellow...

Certain colors have been proven to have an affect on our daily lives. Red symbolizes passion or rage, green symbolizes wealth, purple signifies calming and soothing feelings. It is believed that wearing blue garments without silver lining is bad luck, and will make actors forget their lines.

The History: In the early days of theatre costuming, it was extremely difficult to make blue dye, and thus expensive to purchase. Companies that were failing would wear blue garments to try and fool their audience as to their success, and likely go bankrupt due to the cost of the costumes. The silver that countered it was proof of a successful company, as it proved to the audience that they could afford real silver or they had a wealthy backer.

Additionally, yellow was seen as bad luck because it was the symbolic color for Satan in old morality plays during the Middle Ages. As for green- well, when you’re show was outside and you’re wearing green, you might be hard to spot, lost in the trees and bushes.

Theatre Superstition Snagged entering the stage

If a costume catches on a piece of scenery as the actor goes on, the actor must immediately retrace his steps and make a new entrance, or else suffer misfortunes of all sorts during the rest of the performance.

Theatre Superstition Loose Threads Must Be Snapped Off

If an actor finds a loose thread on their costume, another performer 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.

Leave an empty unsold seat

Leaving a seat open for the theatre’s ghost will maximize chances of a smooth performance.

The History: Many theatres globally believe that their buildings contain spirits of people who have performed there, working on a production as a technician, or were involved in the construction of the building (even if the person did not die there). It’s common for theatres to leave an empty seat unsold open to honor the theatre ghosts.

Another thought is that if ghosts are watching the show, they won’t venture onstage to meddle with the production.

Theatre Superstition Giving Flowers

It’s considered good luck traditionally to give the director and/or the leading lady, after closing night, a bouquet of flowers stolen from a graveyard (never give flowers before a performance – They are yet to earn them so it’s bad luck!)

The History: Graveyard flowers are given on closing night to symbolize the death of the show, and that it can now be put to rest. The rational origin is that theatre was, as most people who have worked in the industry will tell you, never a greatly profitable profession and despite being macabre, graves were a great source of free flowers.

Theatre Superstition Live Flowers on Stage

Live, real flowers on stage are bad luck. Perhaps because they’ll wilt under the heat of theatrical lights, which thespians believe will also wilt their performance or show. Even placed downstage, or worse, carried on to present on stage.

Theatre Superstition Fake Props

There are several props that are considered bad luck to have the real things on stage.

For example, it is seen as bad luck to use real money or jewelry on stage. These might derive from the fear that real money and jewelry are too luxurious to have onstage, or might be stolen.

Theatre Superstition Peacock feathers

Peacock Feathers should never be brought on stage, either as a costume element, prop or part of a set as chaos will ensue. It is believed that the eyes on a peacock feather represent The Evil Eye and their manifestation on stage is believed to have caused sets to collapse, theatres to catch fire, and other disasters.

The History: Many veteran thespians tell stories of sets collapsing, curtains catching alight and other disastrous events during performances with peacock feathers. The feather is said to represent a malevolent ‘evil eye’, that bestows a curse on the show. The association between peacock feathers and the evil eye is best illustrated by the Greek myth of Argus, the monster whose body was covered with a hundred eyes, these eyes were transferred to the tail of the Peacock.

Theatre Superstition Exit with your left foot foreword

When exiting a dressing room, it is believed that actor leading with your left foot is a sign of good fortune.

Conversely, it is important for visitors to enter with their right foot forward.

The History: No-one is really sure of its origin, however many believe it stems from the many left-handed superstitions — many actors, writers and other creatives seem to be left-handed…

Theatre Superstition Knock on Wood

To knock on wood or to touch wood is done to ward off unlucky consequences, get rid of evil spirits, to undo something that is said that could possibly tempt fate or to bring good luck.

The History: It is believed by some that the superstition dates back to ancient pagan times and the belief that spirits or deities lived in trees, and knocking on the tree or touching it would acknowledge them and call upon them for protection from misfortune.

Irish folklore states that the act of touching wood sends a thank you to leprechauns for some good luck. The Greeks worshiped the Oak tree because it was sacred to Zeus and the Celts believed in spirits living in trees. Touching those trees brought good luck.

Today, it is acceptable to knock on wood-like surfaces for good luck. There are times when people even knock on their own heads for luck when there is no wood around.

Theatre Superstition The Last Line

It has been considered bad luck to say the final line of a show before it opens. Therefore, most rehearsals skip the final line of the play, or invite a few family, friends, and reviewers to see the dress rehearsals.

Theatre Superstition No Bowing

In addition, taking bows to an empty house is considered a bad omen. It is a tribute that the show is not complete without the audience. Actors believe final bows should not take place, or be rehearsed, until the absolute final dress rehearsal.

Theatre Superstition Walking Under Ladders

Although this superstition is common worldwide in all walks of life, in the theatre it is also taken very seriously. Theatres are dangerous places, ladders are often placed backstage where it’s dark, and walking under and A-Frame or standard ladder can be dangerous. In the theatre, if accidentally walking under a ladder, you must immediately leave the theatre, and ask a member of the crew for permission to re-enter the theatre.

Theatre Superstition Hauntings

Ghosts haunt theatres and should be given one night a week alone on the stage.

The History: Depending on your theatre the stories will change, but there is one specific ghost, Thespis, who has a reputation for causing unexplained mischief. Thespis, of Athens (6th BC) was the first person to speak lines as an individual actor on stage, thus the term “Thespian” to refer to a theatrical performer was born. To keep the ghosts of the theatre subdued, there should be at least one night a week where the theatre is empty, this night is traditionally a Monday night, conveniently giving actors a day off after weekend performances.

Theatre Superstition Crossing Fingers

Crossing two fingers (the middle and index finger) is a very common superstition. It is mainly done to ensure good luck and prosperity or to give courage and support to yourself or another individual. For triple good luck some people cross not only their fingers, but their arms and legs at the same time.

The History: Some theories indicate that the origin of crossing the fingers dates as far back as the fourteenth century. In the pre-Christian era, crosses (for example, the Solar Cross, although there were many other variations of crosses at that time) symbolized power and unity, and the middle of the cross represented all that was good. People made wishes on the mid-point of the cross to ward off evil so that nothing would get in the way of the wish they wanted to fulfill.

That tradition evolved into crossing fingers between two people. One person would make a wish, the other person would help solidify the wish by putting his index finger onto the other person’s index finger, making the sign of the cross. Later it evolved into a single gesture — a person would cross his own two fingers for his own good luck or someone else’s.

Theatre Superstition CATS Gus Makeup DesignA Black Cat

A black cat usually is considered bad luck.  Not in theatre, however.  They think it brings good luck.  (Think Gus, the Theatre Cat)

There are some stories of actors who had a “black cat experience” right before going on stage and gave a show-stopping, better-than-ever performance.  Therefore, of course, the black cat made that great show happen.  (Hey, no one expects theatre folks to be logical!)  Some actors even bring a black cat backstage.

Cats have always been considered the very best fortune-producing acquisitions a theatre can possess, and are welcomed and protected by actor and stagehand alike.

But if a cat runs across the stage during the action of the play, misfortune is sure to follow. Bad luck will also come to those who kick a cat.

The History: In ancient Egypt, all cats, including black ones, were highly regarded and well protected from death and injury. It is customary in England and Ireland that black cats bring good luck.

During the Middle Ages, black cats were seen as evil demons and companions to witches and that they should be destroyed. Because they were seen as demons, it was believed that a black cat crossing your path (or walking on stage during a performance) would block your entrance to heaven. The paranoia surrounding this superstition caused the destruction of a lot of black cats, as well as the killing or severe punishment of anyone who took care of them.

Theatre Superstition Squeaky Shoes

If an actor’s shoes squeak while he is making his first entrance, it is a sure sign that he will be well received by the audience.

To kick off his shoes and have them land on their soles and remain standing upright, means good luck to him, but if they fall over, bad luck is to be expected. They will also bring him all kinds of misfortune if placed on a chair in the dressing-room.

Theatre Superstition The Green Room

The Green Room for centuries has been an inherent part of theatrical architecture.  The first reference to it seems to be in a play by Thomas Shadwell called A True Widow, 1679.  We may not know why it has that name but we are certain about what it is—a cozy backstage room for actors to assemble when they are not on stage, logically near the dressing rooms with quick access to the stage.  To help actors catch their cues for their entrances, in the Green Room are monitors that broadcast the plays action and, often, the audience responses.

The Green Room also is the place where audience members come after a production to embrace the cast.

Theatrical lore insists that the Green Room must be a nice, attractive room–after all, it is special, the theatre’s “living room,” a show place, a gathering place for actors, and the only backstage space to which audiences are invited–and that everyone must take pride in keeping it neat.  Woe to the person who clutters it or turns it into a personal storeroom, demonstrating a selfish self-centered arrogance that shows no respect for the theatre, its traditions, or its actors!

On opening night, quite often the Green Room is creatively decorated with images of the play in progress, flowers, festive streamers and banners, keepsake gifts from each actor to each actor, and supportive cards and telegrams.  The decorations give the room a festive quality, celebrating “another opening, another show,” as the Cole Porter song from Kiss Me Kate says.

But while we know what it is, we don’t know why it is green.  Why not blue or red or some other color?  Pure and simple, we just don’t know.

The History: Because we don’t know, there are a lot of different stories.

  • One common theory is that the color green is soothing to eyes that have been exposed to intense stage lighting, but that theory falls apart when we remember that Green Rooms existed when theatres were lit by candles, which were hardly intense.
  • Another theory has it that in the Sixteenth Century actors wore green to show their occupation or, perhaps, their allegiance to their particular patron, but that’s pretty shaky and mostly untrue.
  • Some people point out that early theatre was presented in the town’s center–“on the green”–but how that creates the place called the Green Room is too much of a stretch for me to accept.
  • Sometimes you’ll hear that the room is green because it is a soothing color, but this concept is based on Twentieth Century century psychological theory.
  • Another reason is that it is called green because actors would be paid in this room–but the Green Room started in England, and English money isn’t green like US currency.  Besides, in the 1700s they would most likely be paid in coins, not notes.
  • The “Grian Room”? There are “hundreds of Gaelic words in English, like whiskey, galore, farmer, drover, pony,” and that “golf being a Scottish game it has the Gaelic terms caddy, divot, and fore!”  He therefore offers “Grian Room,” from Gaelic, “grian” meaning “sunlit,” and says “greenhouse” comes from that root as it is a sun-house (“Tigh na Ghrian”).  “In many of the theatres I have worked, the Green Room was the one one with windows, so maybe…
  • In the 18th Century the Prince of Wales maintained a romantic liaison with a singer at the Opera.  In order for him and his entourage to meet privately with this lady and her friends, the Royal Opera House in London remodeled a space to be used for that purpose.  It was painted green.

Pure and simple, we just don’t know.  Whatever the reason for its color, the Green Room is a firm part of theatrical lore.  It has been a fixture in theatre for centuries.  It also has spilled over to television—guests waiting to go on camera will wait in The Green Room.

Theatre Superstition gypsy robe ceremonyThe Gypsy Robe

One obscure (to non-professionals) ritual of Broadway specifically is that of the Gypsy Robe.

(UPDATE: in July 2018, the name changed on Broadway to The Legacy Robe)

Every season a new Gypsy Robe is created, and it is given on opening night of every new Broadway show to the chorus member (no leads) from that show who has the most Broadway chorus credits. The entire cast and crew of the new show is present for the ceremony, as is the previous gypsy and a representative from the Actor’s Equity Association.

All present stand in a circle, and upon receiving the robe, the new gypsy walks three times around the circle while cast members touch the robe for luck. Following the ceremony, the new gypsy must visit every dressing room to bless the show. Before the robe is passed on to the next gypsy upon the opening of their show, the current gypsy must add a memento or souvenir of their show to the robe and the entire cast signs it.

While most of the retired Gypsy Robes are in the possession and care of Actor’s Equity, three are at the Lincoln Center Library for the Performing Arts and two are at the Smithsonian.

First written for my Buy site in 1996 as a compendium to my Theatre History, later published inside my TheatreTerms app.