10 Theatre Superstitions Explained
Theatre is full of superstitions, traditions and just plain strange, inexplicable stage behaviour, passed down through generations of actors and backstage workers. Learn how to navigate your way through a show without offending anyone.
1. The 'Scottish Play'
Just don't say that name on stage (unless it's actually in one of your lines). There are countless reports of supposedly-cursed productions of Shakespeare’s Macbeth, ranging from injuries and misfortune, through to death and a theatre burning down. Many say the superstition derived from the witches’ spells and the Bard's inclusion of real curses in the script.
Plenty of people still decline from using the name within a theatre, either out of belief or just politeness. Rowan Atkinson beautifully torments two actors in an episode of Blackadder, by repeatedly mentioning Macbeth. I’m turning around and spitting over my shoulder as I write this. Just in case.
2. Break a Leg
The traditional way to wish a performer good luck, without ever using those words, which are considered unlucky. No one really seems to know exactly where this came from.
Some say it refers to bowing to rapturous applause at the end of a show, where you have to bend (or ‘break’) a leg. Others, that it refers to the leg line of the stage – crossing (or breaking) from the wings to the seen part of the stage. Once an actor was seen on stage, they would also be paid for that appearance, so to ‘break a leg’ meant you would be earning a living.
Or it could just originate from the darker side of many an understudy left waiting in the wings while a principal takes to the stage.
3. Taking your script to bed with you
Not just a reference to those hard-working actors desperately reading scripts by torchlight until their eyelids shut. This saying actually comes from people who would sleep with their script under their pillow in the belief that the words would somehow transfer through the feathers and into their heads during the night.
Almost certainly, at least one of you will now try this with your next show.
4. Sending Flowers
Yes, it’s lovely to receive flowers to your dressing room, but the timing is more important than many people realise.
Sending flowers before the show can be considered bad luck. It presumes that your performance will be brilliant, instead of confirming that it was. Of course, it can be tricky squeezing into your seat with a lovely bouquet of fresh flowers and maintaining them throughout a sell-out, summer show in a theatre without air-conditioning, but it's still politer.
Another macabre tradition was to present the director with a bunch of flowers stolen from a gravestone when a show closed. This Graveyard Bouquet symbolised the death of the show, but also probably came about because buying flowers was expensive for poorly paid actors.
5. Theatre Ghosts
Many theatres leave a light on stage, long after everyone has finished work and gone home.
Officially, this is to appease the ghosts that frequent our acting spaces but really, it’s just because dark theatres are creepy places where people can easily get freaked out if they can’t see where they’re going. And in the modern day, it probably ticks a box in someone risk assessment by reducing the likelihood of someone crossing the stage late at night and ending up in the orchestra pit, which can be a scary place at any hour.
The Phantom of the Opera demands that "Box 5 is left empty for his use" at every performance, and some theatres leave empty seats locked open for their ghosts. Superstition also used to dictate that a theatre stage was empty for at least one night a week to appease the ghosts. Presumably, this was back in the days before that other frightening theatre spectre: the Box Office Sales Figure.
6. The Last Line
This was a new one on me, but saying the last line of a play in a theatre, without an audience present (or bowing to an empty house) is considered bad luck.
Companies aware of this often get around the issue by inviting a limited number of people to a dress rehearsal. My experience of rehearsing curtain calls suggests this is a far better solution than leaving them to chance on opening night.
7. Peacock Feathers
Early theatre folk were a highly superstitious bunch, seemingly wary of anything that could bring bad luck down on them or their show.
Considered to contain the ‘evil eye’, peacock feathers should never be on stage, whether attached to a peacock or not. Unattached feathers bring bad luck and, when presented in large quantities, presumably already suggest bad luck for the peacock.
8. Don’t whistle on stage
Years ago, sailors were often employed as Flymen in the theatre, with their knowledge of rigging and ropes. In the days before cans and cue lights were invented, the crew would often whistle to call in scenery from the grid.
Back then, it was genuinely dangerous for anyone other than the Flyman or Stage Manager to whistle on stage. Who knows what might have been flown in thanks to a few stray notes?
Nowadays, it’s unlikely a whistling actor in Miss Saigon will wind up with a helicopter landing on their head, unless they’ve upset the crew.
9. Three Candles (not to be confused with four candles)
Superstition says that the person nearest the shortest of a trio of candles on a theatre stage will be either the first to die or get married.This puts quite a responsibility on the actor tasked with lighting the third of three candles. Whether you love or hate the nearest cast member, try to be subtle about this.
Having a mirror onstage is considered extremely unlucky, and not just by the lighting designer who has just lost any remaining control over where the light will be reflected. Pity too, the cast member whose role requires breaking a mirror every night of the run, ensuring eternal bad luck for Equity minimum.
On the other hand, carefully placed mirrors can be a great source of comfort for producers who want to create the impression of having a larger company onstage than their budget allows.