Theater Superstitions

by: Lauren Hufford

I think most of us know that theater-goers and actors alike are a superstitious bunch, but what are the biggest superstitions in the live stage world? I’ve got the history behind some of the biggest theatrical superstitions right here for you!

“Break a Leg”

It is pretty common practice for performers to be wished “break a leg!” before the performance instead of “good luck,” but where did the phrase come from? I always assumed that it was simply to combat jinxing the performance, but there might be some more historical implications. Some say it might have grown from ancient Greece, where they would stomp their feet instead of clapping. There is also a connection to the Elizabethan term for bowing, “to break the leg.” My favorite origin story, is the most modern, I think and it has quite spiteful undertones. It might have begun from understudies (hopefully jokingly) wishing the actors would “break a leg” so the understudies had a chance perform.

“The Scottish Play”

I didn’t learn of this superstition until high school when my class read Shakespeare’s Macbeth but, in essence, uttering the name of the play on stage or in the theater is a terrible curse. There are several instances of sudden deaths during performances of the play which suggests the curse dates back to its inception in the 17th century. There are a few work-arounds for the curse, however. You can call it “The Scottish Play” or you can say the character Macbeth’s name, but cannot use it to refer to the play as a whole; and if you do slip up, you can run outside, spin three times, spit on the ground and say a Shakespearean insult.


“The Ghost Light”

It is said that the ghost of Thespis, the first known actor in ancient Greece, wreaks havoc upon theaters around the world. The ghost light is a single light bulb lit upstage, center when the theater is empty that supposedly wards off the ghost and any other spirits. Some say, however, that the light does not ward off the ghosts, but gives them a chance to perform on stage themselves when the theater is empty and their actions will not cause any harm. Practically, the light helps stagehands, managers and actors not fall into the orchestra pit and to find the rest of the light switches when the theater is dark and empty. It is also known as an “equity light” because actors tend to enjoy relaxing and talking with costars after a performance. To signal that the actors are no longer on the clock, the stage manager will put the light on stage.


“Whistle While You Work”

This is less a superstition, but I still thought it was interesting. In the beginnings of large-scale productions in Europe, most of the stagehands were out-of-work sailors. Much of the rigging backstage is similar to that of the ships they had experience with. This also meant they had a system of communication, coded whistling. So if you don’t want a sandbag or a huge set piece dropped on you, don’t go whistling across the stage.

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