A Theatregoer Guide to Traditions, Rituals, Superstitions, and Rules by Photojournalist Lisa Pacino
As noted in Playbill, Theatre is steeped in tradition, rituals, and superstitions that add to its mysticism and magic. Over the centuries, many customs have become an unquestioned part of the business that we call show. While most know it’s “bad luck to say good luck on opening night” (or ever), we dig into theatre history to unearth the origins of these rules.
Vanessa Williams, Cicely Tyson, and Cuba Gooding, Jr. on stage, Broadway’s The Trip to Bountiful, 2013. Photograph by Lisa Pacino.
Say “break a leg” instead of “good luck.”
Why is it bad luck to say “good luck” to an actor? Some thespians believe there are theatre ghosts or fairies who like to cause mischief by making the opposite of what you want to have happen occur. Phrases like “break a leg” and “merde” are meant to confuse these theatrical pixies and defeat their obstinate ways. A wish for something bad will yield something good from them. But why specifically the well-wish to “break a leg?” The widely-accepted explanation is that the “leg” being referred to is not the human appendage, but rather the curtain that hangs in the wings, masking the backstage. Breaking a leg means you have broken past this barrier and made it successfully onstage! Some evidence suggests this phrase was born with early vaudeville when performers waited backstage and it was decided in the moment if their act would go on that performance. If they were sent on, they had broken the leg. (Then they just had to watch out for the hook.) Other theories support that “break a leg” goes much further back, perhaps to Elizabethan England, where audiences threw money when they enjoyed a performance (fruits and vegetables for a bad one). Actors would have to bend over to collect their rewards, thus breaking the line of their leg. Money = Breaking legs = Success.
Do not whistle in the theatre.
In the 1600s, theatres began to employ mechanisms to fly scenery, props and, sometimes, actors. The rigging of theatrical fly systems was very similar to that of many sailing ships. So it was only a matter of time before sailors found work in the theatre crew. On the seas, sailors communicated to each other through a code of whistling. When they began working in theatre, this means of communication followed. A certain combination of whistles could mean instructions to raise or lower scenery. If an actor happened to go across the stage whistling, the operators of the fly system might easily confuse their ditty for a cue — clearly dangerous for anyone underneath who might get crushed by a wrongly executed scene change. Despite the advent of headsets (and the fact that we don’t whistle signals anymore) tradition is tradition.
Never mention “Macbeth” in a theatre.
Even whispering the name of one of William Shakespeare’s bloodiest plays inside a theatre is a most egregious taboo. In fact, to do so will raise the ire of most theatre folk to a panic. There are a variety of speculations as to why saying the play’s name in a theatre is considered bad luck. One possible genesis for this superstition comes from the incantations of the three witches in Macbeth. It is believed that Shakespeare adapted these spells from actual books of black magic. This opened the play up to forces of darkness which are supposed to plague productions of what most now refer to as “The Scottish Play.” Another theory claims that the actor playing Macbeth in the original production died in an accident, and Shakespeare, himself, had to go on in his place. It is believed that all subsequent productions are now haunted by this actor and his dismal fate. If you do make the mistake of saying “Macbeth“ in a theatre, there are some countercurses to ward off doom. Go outside the theatre, spin around in a circle three times and spit. Another antidote: Recite any line from Two Gentlemen of Verona (considered a lucky play) or this line from A Midsummer Night’s Dream: “If we shadows have offended, think but this and all is mended, that you have but slumbered here, whilst these visions did appear.”
Alan Cumming star of Broadway’s Macbeth, opening night, April 21, 2013. Photograph by Lisa Pacino.
Avoid placing a peacock feather onstage.
Why is a beautifully ornamental bit of plumage bad luck in a theatre production? The pattern on a peacock feather creates an eye, or (according to legend) an evil eye, which brings bad juju to a production. The idea of the evil eye hidden in objects extends back as far as the Ancient Greeks. Peacock feathers were also feared by early Europeans as they were part of the ornamentation of Mongol hordes who invaded parts of the continent during the Middle Ages. For a long time, peacock feathers were looked upon by Europeans as part of a dark and bloody history. Much like the Macbeth curse, you don’t want such savagery and evil associated with a production.
Turn on the ghost light.
Never leave a stage entirely dark. Just don’t do it. Practicality might be part of it, since there is always a plethora of obstacles (furniture, trap doors, and orchestra pits) that could lead to accidents in the dark. But there is a second common sense explanation. When theatres were first lit in the early part of the 1800s — before electricity — the lights were powered by gas. Gas is, of course, combustible and could build up pressure within the gas lines. Running the flame of a ghost light in a theatre during non-performance times burned excess gas and eliminated the pressure that might result in an explosion. Though we no longer use gas to light our theatres, the tradition remains intact. More superstitious theatre folk also believe that the ghost lights help to keep spirits at bay, including the ghost of Thespis (the first actor), preventing them from playing mischievous pranks. Take that Thespis!
Do not give gifts of flowers before the performance.
The reward of flowers should only be bestowed upon performers, directors and playwrights after a show plays in front of the audience and the artists have earned their accolades. To do so beforehand tempts the fates to intercede and ensures a lackluster show. There was also a rather grim tradition that has faded over time, which involves giving the leading lady and the director a bouquet of flowers stolen from a graveyard upon a show’s closing —symbolizing the death of the show.
Broadway’s The Phantom of the Opera, curtain call with stars Norm Lewis and Sierra Boggess, 2014. Photograph by Lisa Pacino.
Ban blue onstage.
Though the success of The Blue Man Group seems to have nullified this superstition, it still remains a common one. Going back several centuries, blue dyes were expensive and difficult to make. A theatre troupe’s success was often judged by its ability to afford blue costumes. In an effort to deceive audiences into believing they were more successful than they actually were, failing troupes would spend the money they had to procure blue costumes. In order to make the distinction, successful troupes began pairing blue costumes with silver adornments, since only a flourishing troupe could afford such a luxury. Today, blue is still thought of as a sign of failure and an unlucky costume color and is only acceptable when paired with silver.
A bad dress rehearsal means a great opening night.
Anyone who has been in a play or musical knows of the superstition that a bad a dress rehearsal is supposed to guarantee a successful opening. Wishful thinking, hope and a touch of denial seem to be the foundations for this line of thinking. Theatre is obviously a magical experience for many, but its success grows out of careful planning and hard work. A bad dress rehearsal can be the result of a tired cast and crew who are slogging through a final run-through of a show that has been rehearsing for several weeks. The opening night audience, plus a little adrenaline, reinvigorates the performers so that the careful planning and hard work suddenly come together. How’s that for some clever logic? —by Mark Robinson, 2015
Broadway’s The Phantom of the Opera, Norm Lewis, 2014. Photograph by Lisa Pacino.
Lisa Pacino and Under The Duvet Productions are based in New York. Photography services are available worldwide. If you wish to book photography services, receive information, and/or license images for commercial and/or promotional use please E-mail: UnderTheDuvetProductions@gmail.com
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