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Many theater patrons would be surprised to learn how many theatrical superstitions and backstage rituals still exist in modern acting companies. When actor Patrick Stewart took on the title role in a Broadway production of Shakespeare's tragedy Macbeth, for example, he had to learn not to mention the name of the play while within the walls of a theater. Using the euphemism "that Scottish play" in place of the actual title is a long-standing tradition.
There are several theories behind this particular superstition, many of which surround the use of incantations during the opening scene. According to legend, real witches were originally cast to play witches in early productions, and the spells they used were said to be authentic. It is said that a witch cursed the play as revenge for revealing these secret incantations. Several actors and others connected to subsequent productions died under mysterious circumstances, so cast members traditionally avoid announcing any upcoming productions of Macbeth, lest they attract the attention of the witch and her curse.
Another type of theatrical superstition involves the use of fake props in place of real items of value, such as antiques, jewelry, or real flowers. This behavior has some practical value, however, since those items may become lost, broken, or stolen during a production run. Real flowers must also be replaced regularly, and the potential for slips and falls on a wet stage is always present. Some theater companies also believe that real antiques carry with them the spiritual energies of past owners, both positive and negative, and negative energy could affect performances.
The use of a real Bible or other holy relic is also discouraged onstage. Prop masters often use a common book and a fake cover to simulate a Bible onstage rather than show disrespect for a sacred text.
The personal behavior of actors and other theatrical workers is also a source of superstition in the theater. Whistling is considered to be bad luck, primarily because it was the preferred communication method for stage hands, and an unplanned whistle could signal an unexpected and dangerous change of scenery. Since modern technical crews now use computerized cuing systems and mobile phones instead of sailor's whistles, whistling in the backstage area is no longer the dangerous practice it once was, but it is still avoided.
Actors in musical productions are also not allowed to hum or sing songs from the actual show before a performance. During rehearsals, actors are also not supposed to deliver the final lines of a play, since no theatrical performance is considered "complete" without an audience. Actors who violate these unspoken rules and rituals may be asked to perform a penance before rejoining the cast. In the case of Macbeth, for example, any actor who mentions the real title within a theater must immediately leave the building, turn around three times, utter a curse word, and then ask for permission to re-enter the building.
Some theatrical superstitions concern the use of certain colors in a production. The color yellow, for example, is considered unlucky in many older theater companies because it originally represented Satan in early morality plays. Even the use of a yellow clarinet in the orchestra is considered a evil omen.
Another unlucky color, at least onstage, is green. While the luxurious backstage area known as the Green Room is universally seen as a good thing, the use of the color green onstage could prove troublesome. Some suggest that actors who wore green during outdoor productions could become camouflaged by the natural greenery visible behind the stage.
While most leading actors appreciate gifts, there are some superstitions associated with certain gifts as well. Flowers should never be presented to an actress before a performance, only afterward. In fact, one old belief required the presentation of flowers stolen from a graveyard, a tradition apparently started out of financial necessity by struggling acting troupes.
There are also superstitions surrounding the behavior of actors both onstage and off. Tripping before making an entrance is considered to be good luck, as is having a bad dress rehearsal. In order to avoid cursing onstage, many casts meet backstage just before a performance and shout a chosen expletive several times to essentially get it out of their systems. Pinching an actor before he or she takes the stage is also considered good luck.
The one thing a well-wisher must never do is wish an actor good luck. This is perhaps one of the best-known theatrical superstitions still in effect today. There is a belief among certain theatrical professionals that ghosts tend to haunt empty theaters and are keen to produce the opposite result of whatever requests they hear. In order to thwart these spirits, actors often say the opposite of what they actually mean. By telling someone to "break a leg" instead of "good luck," the hope is that the spirit will be tricked into providing real good luck for the performer.
Ghosts also play a role in another superstition known as the Ghost Light. Because ghosts can only inhabited dark spaces, a special "Ghost Light" is traditionally left burning on the center of the stage at night. This light is intended to hold malevolent spirits at bay, but it also provides enough illumination for early crew members to find their way backstage without tripping over sets or other obstacles. Many theaters are also closed one night out of the week, commonly Mondays, in order to allow the theater ghosts an opportunity to visit the darkened stage and perform their own plays.
There are some theatrical superstitions that seem to defy logic, however. The use of peacock feathers in any form or fashion is said to be bad luck, primarily because the "eyes" of a peacock's plumage represent the Evil Eye. Knitting is also discouraged both on and off the stage, ostensibly because the needles could cause damage to costumes or be stepped on by actors. Even carrying a makeup box is considered a bad omen, since it represents an amateurish trait in a professional actor or actress. Boxes should also never be cleaned out to make room for new supplies of makeup, either.
Some of these beliefs have fallen by the wayside in recent years, but many of them are still regularly practiced by established theater companies. These backstage rituals may seem odd or archaic to outsiders, but many actors observe them as both a tribute to the ancient theatrical traditions and as a means to produce a consistent level of incident-free performance for their audiences, much like professional sports teams observe their own pregame rituals.
I didn't know the origin of the "ghost light" term - thanks for enlightening me!
Good piece. It is surprising to know that even in this space traveling era, a few of the learned section of the society continue to maintain and further their superstitious beliefs. Thanks for posting this write-up.