Thespians are more superstitious than regular folk. It's hardly surprising when you consider the theatre has always been a mystical, magical place full of trickery and creativity, and because live performance as we know it today has origins in the dark arts.
Most experienced thespians have witnessed the young actor who gets kicked out of the theatre for mentioning the name of ‘that Scottish play’ and who then has been forced to turn around three times, spit and beg for permission to return before his fellow actors will begrudgingly allow him back inside.
While most educated people would disregard such ridiculous beliefs, why do so many thespians fly off the handle when someone kindly wishes them good luck; and where do all these fantastic and irrational beliefs originate?
We know that many superstitions have a logical explanation. In the days before electronic communications the stage crew would use different whistles to communicate instructions and cues. So strolling across the stage enjoying a casual whistle might have resulted in you being fired or possibly whacked on the head with a piece of unexpected scenery.
It is also feasible that leaving the ghost light on in an empty theatre has more to do with preventing the crew from tripping over scenery on their way out than protecting the production from mischievous spirits.
Some say that it’s unlucky to use real money on stage. I assume the bad luck starts when the money gets pinched and needs to be replaced in time for the next performance. While having mirrors on stage is almost certainly bad luck because of all the lighting problems it creates.
Many theatre superstitions are less obvious in their origins and for these we might only be able to creatively speculate as to how they began. For instance there are a number of fabulous stories behind the good luck intended when wishing a performer a broken leg.
One popular belief is that during Shakespearean times to break was to bend, so some believe that to break a leg would mean a performer would earn so many curtain calls that they would permanently crease their trousers.
Others believe that evil theatre spirits might conspire to make the opposite of your wishes come true and so would never sincerely wish good luck to a fellow performer.
An even more outrageous theory from Ancient Greece explains that patrons who enjoyed the performance immensely would stomp their feet for so long, they would actually break their own leg.
However a more plausible explanation from early vaudeville suggests that not all the performers who were billed would get the opportunity to appear on stage and thus get paid, so to ‘break the leg’ was to pass the theatre legs and get onto the stage.
The origin of the ‘Macbeth’ superstition is equally unclear. Some are certain that Shakespeare himself has cursed the play, preventing anyone else from directing it properly. Others believe that Shakespeare got the words from a real coven and the witches cursed the play after not enjoying how they were portrayed. More logical explanations include the high rate of injury from all the sword fighting and the number of companies that went bankrupt soon after performing it.
We’ve often heard it said that a bad dress rehearsal is a precursor to a terrific opening night; but in my experience this has never been the case. I also doubt that anyone has ever sat through a woefully bad production and pondered how terrific their dress rehearsal must have been!
Why is it a green room when it is so very often painted different colours? Unlikely theories include green as a calming colour, green soothes your eyes from harsh theatre lights, it was the room where actors used to be paid and that actors wore green to show off their occupation.
Most of these are usually dispelled because the Green Room was known as green in the 1700’s when actors were paid with coins, theatre lights are also relatively recent and there is no other record of actors choosing to wear green . My favourite plausible theory is the Gaelic word grain means sunlit and the green room was the only room in a theatre with windows.
Theatre people seem to really enjoy sharing ghost stories and legends entwined with their superstitions and so it is not surprising that many theatres around the world claim to have their own resident ghost.
The Paris Opera House is one of the most famous hauntings and inspired the original story of The Phantom of the Opera. Human remains were found on the site during excavations in 1910 and later a construction worker was famously killed by a falling chandelier. Sound familiar?
Grauman’s Chinese Theatre in Los Angeles is supposedly haunted by actor Victor Killian who was bludgeoned to death and now roams the courtyard looking for his killer, and many men claim to have seen ex Ziegfeld girl Olive Thomas still wearing her green costume as she haunts the New Amsterdam Theatre in New York.
So what happens when you attract bad luck to your production or you upset the theatre spirits? It’s easy to believe a production can become cursed when you look at some shows that seem to have attracted an endless stream of bad luck. Spider-man: Turn Off the Dark which recently closed on Broadway is a perfect example.
Many believe this production at Foxwood Theatre to be cursed and you have to wonder if the large number of people who resigned during the rehearsal process could have believed the same. Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark was plagued with problems that started long before it opened, including five serious cast injuries, a crew member suicide, long delays, budget over runs and very mixed reviews.
Perhaps Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark fell casualty to an unconnected string of unfortunate events, maybe it was cursed or perhaps it was not to the liking of the playwright Clive Fitch who was said to haunt the Lyric Theatre in the same location the Foxwood Theatres now stands.
Regardless of what we personally believe, superstitions are a fascinating part of our rich and colourful theatrical history. Do I believe? I’d like to say I don’t, but please don’t wish me good luck for opening night. What about you, what is your favourite theatre superstition?