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 theatre superstitions to blame…

Major Theatre Superstitions

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.