Don’t Whistle Onstage! Theatre Superstitions from Our Cast
Most of us have heard someone say “break a leg” to an actor instead of wishing them good luck. But do you know why thespians avoid using the phrase “good luck?” And did you know that saying “break a leg” is a part of only one of many superstitions alive and well in the world of theatre?
Here to help us investigate this fun—and spooky!—topic are the actors in residence for ArtisTree’s Music Theatre Festival. I recently asked them to talk about their favorite theatre superstitions and any personal experiences on the topic they’d like to share.
Renee Kathleen Koher, who performs in all three shows this fall, is particularly intrigued by the so-called ‘ghost light.’ A ghost light is a single bulb left burning whenever a theatre is dark. Popular lore holds that all theatres have at least one ghost, and that an illuminated lamp will appease these ghosts and keep them from acting out (no pun intended). Renee commented, “I love the idea of having a light out for the ghosts and ghouls to play around in.” The practicalities of leaving a light on in the theatre are, of course, obvious: anyone bumbling around on stage in the dark could easily trip on the set or fall into the orchestra pit. Some think that stage lights offer ghosts the opportunity to satisfy their desire to perform without having to disrupt an actual production. And did you know that, with over a century of history within its walls, the Palace Theatre in London to this day keeps two seats permanently bolted open to provide seating for its ghostly residents? For more about the ghost light, click here.
Theatre superstition also extends to the personal level. Many actors have personal rituals they enact before a show to ensure a good performance. Renee, for example, always gives the crew a high five before each show. “It’s just a nice way to connect with the crew, wish them a good show,” she said. “It came about sort of as a joke, where I used to do it all the time. Then one show I didn’t and something went wrong, and the deck manager jokingly said it was because I didn’t high five them.” Ever since that incident, Renee makes a point to high five everyone “just in case!”
Lyn Philistine, who appeared as Woman 1 in I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change, also has a few rituals she completes before each show. “Yoga, meditation…I usually have my chakra towel up and some protection symbols around me…also lots of lozenges, tea, and water,” said Lyn. Taking a few moments in this quiet space allows her to focus before each show.
“Actors and ballplayers are pretty equally superstitious,” observed Scott Moreau, who plays Man 2 in I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change and El Gallo in The Fantasticks, Scott avoids whistling on stage unless directed to do so. “I believe the lore is that flymen (who were often sailors on leave) communicated to each other via whistle calls as to when to bring in or take out drops. So, if you happened to whistle the wrong thing at the wrong time, you could end up with a drop on your head,’ said Scott. “I recently played the Fulton Theatre in Lancaster, PA, one of the last existing hemp sandbag houses in the country. Each time a fly comes in, you can hear and feel sand coming down from the fly loft. They have recently renovated and removed the sand bag fly system, but I certainly wouldn’t want to mess with those theatre gods by whistling there.”
Scott is also superstitious about one of the biggest taboos in theatre: uttering the name of a certain Scottish play by Shakespeare. In the theatre world, the play Macbeth is believed to be cursed, and players avoid saying its name in the theatre lest they incur back luck. As there are stories upon stories of the misfortune that has befallen actors and patrons of this play, it is commonly referred to as “The Scottish Play.” Should anyone intentionally or accidentally say the title, that person must invoke the countercurse: exit the theatre, spin around three times, spit, and then ask to be let back inside. Scott noted, “I’m so superstitious about that that I don’t even say the name of the play in everyday life.” He shared a story from a year ago about a set piece labeled with the name of the play: “One of the other actors came up to me, noticed it, and under his breath remarked, ‘Oh! [the name of the play]’…I choked. I told him I couldn’t believe he had said it or that the props department had put it on stage. At intermission I told him that he had better cleanse himself.”
And why do thespians tell one another “break a leg?” It may refer to the theatrical draperies—or ‘legs’—on the sides of a stage. “The story I have heard and believe to be true stems from the days of Vaudeville,” said Scott. “Performers were added to the bill on any given night, but would only get paid if they performed. The curtains, or ‘legs,’ would part (break) to allow performers to enter stage. Wishing a fellow performer well by saying ‘break a leg’ meant ‘I hope you get to go on stage and get paid.’”
The theatre is a place we go to have our imaginations stimulated, where people and objects appear and disappear, and where we can travel to far distant lands and times without ever leaving our seat. It’s no wonder the realm of theatre is so full of superstitions and otherworldly beliefs. Are we really to believe that the magic of the theatre is limited only to performances? I suppose we’ll all have to go sit for a spell under the ghost light and find out.
Karen Rodis is the Arts Programming Coordinator at ArtisTree Community Arts Center.