Theatre Superstitions

By Lauren Ball

Did you check your calendar today? It's a very special day. Fear of Friday the 13th is a bona fide thing (it's called friggatriskaidekaphobia, fact fans) but hey, get over it. We bloody love it. So in honour of Friday 13ths past, present and future, we've taken a look at superstition in this wonderful world of ours: Theatre. Basically we're into it.

The Scottish Play

One of the most well-known theatre superstitions surrounds Shakespeare's tragedy Macbeth. It's seen as bad luck to say the name of the play, which is referred to as 'The Scottish Play' instead. The origins of this are unknown, although there are several theories, ranging from the practical (the play contains a large amount of swordplay, so injuries are more likely) to the fantastic (the play was cursed by witches because it revealed their secrets). Some theories have been debunked over the years; it was believed that the Globe theatre was burned down during a performance of Macbeth, but in fact it was Henry VIII playing at the time, so we must look elsewhere for our curses. For our money, the best origin story comes from the very first production of Macbeth: legend has it that their Lady Macbeth died during the run leaving Shakespeare himself to step up and assume the role of the fiend-like queen. Sadly there is no evidence to suggest this ever actually happened. Perhaps the most likely reason is that, given the popularity of the play, it was often staged by theatres that were in debt in a last ditch attempt to increase patronage - this wasn't always successful, and the theatres would close shortly after.


Peacock Feathers and the Evil Eye Curse

Take thy beak from out my heart and get those feathers off my stage. The peacock feather is said to represent an evil eye that will curse a performance, and there are many stories of disasters befalling productions that used peacock feathers as props or costume elements. The Greek myth of Argus Panoptes, the 100-eyed giant, backs this one up: according to mythology, he was a faithful watchman to Hera, the Queen of the Gods. When her husband Zeus ordered his death, she preserved his eyes in the tail of a peacock in tribute to him.

It's bad luck to say "Good Luck!"

Keep your well-wishes - curses and misfortune are more gratefully received. The phrase "Break a leg!" has been customary in English-speaking countries since the early 20th century, possibly stemming from the term for side curtains on stage, which are known as 'legs', and the notion that the performer must break through them to deliver a great show or receive a curtain call. Alternatively, it could be referencing a wish that the performance be so successful the actor would have to bend their knee in a bow, or to pick up the coins that were sometimes thrown by appreciative audiences.

Theatre types around the world have their own good luck alternatives. Here are a few of our favourites.

Theatre Ghosts

Many theatres claim to be haunted and have their own specific ghost stories... although that's worthy of blog post altogether. A more generic ghost-related superstition is that theatres be closed one night a week (often a Monday) so the resident ghosts can perform their own shows.

Thespis of Icaria

One ghost who gets around a bit is that of Thespis of Icaria, an ancient  Greek writer and actor, credited as the inventor of tragedy and perhaps the art of acting as we know it today (the term 'thespian' is derived from his name). According to Aristotle, he was the first person to portray a character on stage; theatre had previously consisted of dithyrambs (choral performances sung or chanted in unision) and any individual lines were delivered by storytellers speaking as themselves. On 23 November, 534 BC, Thespis took to the stage as the god Dionysus, and any unexplainable mischief that befalls a production on this date is attributed to him.

Fun fact: Thespis won the first documented competiton to find the best tragedy at the City Dionysa in Athens. He also invented theatrical touring. What a guy.

Ghost Lighting

Leaving a light burning in an empty theatre will ward off ghosts - or, as an alternative theory, will stop ghosts getting stroppy (and pranky) due to lack of vision. It is traditionally placed downstage centre and is fairly sensible as superstitions go; a lit theatre is much easier to navigate, so a ghost light stops the living coming to a sticky end while crossing a dark stage.

No Whistling Please, We're Actors

You know how to whistle, don't you Steve? Well don't. The no whistling trope comes from sailing ships, which have a similar rule: stage crews were once hired from ships in port, and riggers used coded whistles to communicate. A whistling actor would confuse them, scene changes would go tits up and someone would be out of a job.

Colour Me Lucky

Be careful with your costumes - there are some colours that are strictly off limits if you're the superstitious type. Blue should be avoided unless countered with silver, as blue dye was once very expensive and failing companies would clothe their company in blue in a bid to please the audience, often going bankrupt in the process. If the actors were also wearing real silver, however, they weren't just fronting; they had bare dollar. Green is also a no-go, likely a hangover from the days when performances would take place outdoors, and an actor in green became hard to distinguish from the surroundings. The French actor Molière also died mere hours after wearing green in a performance of his own play The Hypochondriac. Poor chap, I hope he appreciated the irony. But the off-stage area is referred to as the Green Room anyway, just to keep you on your toes. Finally, ditch the yellow garments: in the days of religious plays, yellow would be worn by the actor playing the devil.

Got all that? Then you're good to go. Oh, but don't use any real money on stage. And don't say the last line of the play during rehearsals. And whatever you do, don't practise your bows until the final dress rehearsal. Yeah, this could go on for a while.