Theater people are superstitious. There are lists of things that are prohibited when you are in a theater, things you must not do, otherwise the performance will go terribly wrong. For example, no actor would ever say the word Macbeth in a theater – it would bring certain disaster. Actors, instead, call it “The Scottish Play” and the title character “the Scottish Lord” in order to avoid pronouncing the word. Whistling in a theater is also forbidden because it brings bad luck to the whistler. And in case you have forgotten, NEVER wish an actor good luck! – tell them to break a leg. Why? Backstage sent artistic intern Jack Tamburri on the hunt of the origins of these superstitions, and he came back with the following list. If you’re not superstitious, then read on, Macduff…
Tell them to “break a leg,” not “good luck!”
This bizarre phrase has a number of purported meanings…
1) If the havoc–wreaking spirits (Sprites) heard you ask for something, they were reputed to try to make the opposite happen. Telling someone to “break a leg” is an attempt to outsmart the Sprites and make something good happen.
2) To break a leg was to hope the actor would have so many curtain calls that his trousers would be creased permanently.
3) In Shakespeare’s time, to break meant to bend. So, bend your leg, means take a lot of bows.
4) One popular etymology derives the phrase from the 1865 assassination of Abraham Lincoln. John Wilkes Booth, the actor turned assassin, leapt to the stage of Ford’s Theater after the murder, breaking his leg in the process. The logical connection from this event to wishing someone good luck is none too clear, but such is folklore.
5) Evidently, in the days of early vaudeville, the producers would book more performers than could possibly perform in the given time of the show, since “bad” acts could be pulled before their completion. In order to ensure that the producers didn’t start paying people who hadn’t actually performed, there was a general policy that a performer did NOT get paid unless they actually appeared onstage. So the phrase “break a leg” referred to breaking the visual plane of the “legs,” or curtains that lined the side of the stage. In other words, “Hope you break a leg and get onstage, so that you get paid.”
6) It came from the understudies telling their primaries to “break a leg” enough times that it came to be considered bad luck if they didn’t say it.
7) In Ancient Greece, people didn’t applaud. Instead, they stomped for their appreciation and if they stomped long enough, they would break a leg. Or, some would have it that the term originated during Elizabethan times when, instead of applause the audience would stomp their chairs – and if they liked it enough, the leg of the chair would break.We‘re in the “dark”
You never say a theater is “closed,” but instead that it is “dark.” If you say a theater is closed, you can invoke plagues, Puritans or embezzlement. A dark night (when there is no performance) is normal and healthy.
Whatever you do, don’t turn off the Ghost Light.
Every theater has a Ghost Light, a light that is left onstage which is never turned off. It’s there to guide the first and last person into and out of the theater. For centuries, a myth has held that the light is protection from spirits, because if the theater ever went completely dark, lonely and resentful ghosts would realize everyone had gone and proceed to cause all sorts of mischief.
In the olden days, stage hands were out–of–work sailors (theaters and ships share a profusion of ropes) who communicated with complex whistles. So, if you were walking around stage whistling a tune, you could accidentally call down a sandbag onto your head!
The “Scottish Curse.”
Don’t say Macbeth, or even quote that play, in a theater. Ever. Theater people believe it will bring disaster. In actual fact, Constantine Stanislavski, Orson Welles and Charlton Heston all suffered some catastrophe during or just after a production of “The Scottish Play.” In 1849, more than 30 New Yorkers were killed when rioting broke out during a performance of the play. Abe Lincoln read it the night before he was assassinated. If someone else quotes from “The Scottish Play“ inside a theater, you must utter the words “Angels and ministers of grace defend us!” Then the offender must leave the house, turn around widdershins (counterclockwise) three times, swear and knock to be readmitted.
The superstition seems to have arisen, in part, from the play’s depiction of witchcraft, still a vital (though contested) belief in 1606, when the play was first performed. Like Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus, in which staged incantations were occasionally reported to have raised real devils, “The Scottish Play“ was believed to flirt dangerously with the “Powers of Evil,“ bringing catastrophe down upon productions over the succeeding centuries.
Those seeking rational reasons for the “Scottish Curse” have pointed to several features of the play as conducive to accidents: dim lighting and stage combat chief among them. Authentic productions often use broadswords, which are heavy and difficult to wield deftly, capable of inflicting considerable blunt trauma. Moreover, as Shakespeare’s shortest and one of his most popular plays, Macbeth has often been a last–minute addition to a company’s repertoire when the company is in financial straits late in the season. Therefore, it can be dangerously under–rehearsed, and it can portend the closing of the company (which probably would have closed regardless which play was chosen).
And many, many more…
Wearing the colors blue and yellow will cause actors to forget lines. Wearing green is unlucky. There should be no peacock feathers inside a theater. No real flowers, mirrors or jewelry should ever be used on stage. You should use a rabbit’s foot to apply makeup. You should never clean your makeup box. You should NEVER wear brand–new makeup on opening night. Never place shoes or hats on chairs or tables inside the dressing rooms. Always exit the dressing room left foot first. Absolutely no knitting in the wings. Never open a show on a Friday night. And never speak the last line of a play before opening night.
The Scottish play
Main article: The Scottish play
Shakespeare‘s play Macbeth is said to be cursed, so actors avoid saying its name (the euphemism “The Scottish Play” is used instead). Actors also avoid even quoting the lines from Macbeth inside a theatre, particularly the Witches incantations. Outside of a theatre the play can be spoken of openly. If an actor speaks the name Macbeth in a theatre, he or she is required to leave the theatre building, spin around three times, spit, curse, and then knock to be allowed back in. There are several possible origins for this superstition. One is the assumption that the song of the Weird Sisters is an actual spell that will bring about evil spirits. Another is that there is more swordplay in it than most other Shakespeare plays, and the more swordplay must be rehearsed and performed, the more chances there are for someone to get injured. Yet another option is that the play is often run by theatres that are in debt and looking to increase patronage.
There is also a legend that the play itself was cursed because the first time it was ever performed, the actor playing Macbeth died shortly before or after the production (accounts vary). It is also said that the original production of the play used actual witches and witchcraft, and so the play is cursed.
The YTV/Discovery Kids children’s program “Mystery Hunters” actually tempted the curse by uttering “Macbeth” and demonstrated several ways to counteract the curse in the episode “MacBeth/Salem Witches”. The superstition is even parodied in an episode of The Simpsons. While visiting London, the Simpson family comes across Sir Ian McKellen outside a theater showing “Macbeth.” Every time “Macbeth” is said, something happens to McKellen; among others, he is struck by lightning numerous times, and a chunk of concrete falls on his head. Jimmy Neutron also made direct reference to the curse when the school performed “Macbeth in Space”. In the middle of the play, a tornado rips the school off its foundation, potentially killing everyone inside. Because it is a children’s show however, no one was injured, and the tornado was caused by Jimmy’s machine, albeit was built for the play and created weather pattern during the performance.
Wishing bad luck and cursing
Generally, it is considered bad luck to wish someone good luck in a theater. Prior to performances, it is traditional for the cast to gather together to avert the bad luck by wishing each other bad luck or cursing.
In English-speaking countries, the expression “break a leg” replaces the phrase “good luck“, which is considered unlucky. The expression is sometimes used outside the theatre, as superstitions and customs travel through other professions and then into common use. If someone says “good luck”, they must go out of the theatre, turn around 3 times, spit, curse, then knock on the door and ask to be readmitted to the theatre. (Note that this is the same ritual one is supposed to use when accidentally mentioning or quoting from The Scottish Play in a theater.) The exact origin of this expression is unknown, but some of the most popular theories are the Shakespearean Theory or Traditional Theory, and the Bowing Theory. This expression has so entered the mainstream that it is used by non-actors toward actors and in non-theatrical situations.
In Portuguese and Spanish-speaking countries, before each performance, director and actors gather on the stage, join hands and scream “Muita Merda!”/”¡Mucha mierda!” (“A lot of shit!”). Instead of saying “break a leg”, those who want to wish good luck to the performers wish “mierda” to them. Similarly, in France, actors say the word “Merde!” just before making an entrance. The French “Merde!” is also popular among ballet dancers across the world. To say “break a leg” in ballet is considered just as much bad luck as saying “good luck”, considering it’s a physical art.
One ghost-related superstition is that the theater should always be closed one night a week to give the ghosts a chance to perform their own plays. This is traditionally on Monday night, conveniently giving actors a day off after weekend performances.
Theaters that have stood for more than a few decades tend to have lots of associated ghost stories, more than other public buildings of similar age.
One specific ghost, Thespis, holds a place of privilege in theater lore. On what has been estimated to be November 23, 534 BCE, Thespis of ancient Athens (6th BCE) was the first person to speak lines as an individual actor on stage (hence the term “thespian” to refer to an individual actor). Any unexplainable mischief that befalls a production is likely to be blamed on Thespis, especially if it happens on November 23.
One should always leave a light burning in an empty theatre. Traditionally, the light is placed downstage center. That is, closest to the audience, center stage. Several reasons are given for this, all having to do with ghosts:
- The light wards off ghosts.
- A theater’s ghosts always want to have enough light to see. Failure to provide this may anger them, leading to pranks or other mishaps.
- It prevents non-spectral personnel from having to cross the stage in the dark, falling into the orchestra pit, dying in the fall and becoming ghosts themselves.
Though it’s a superstition, it does have practical value: The backstage area of a theater tends to be cluttered, so someone who enters a completely darkened space is liable to be injured while hunting for a light switch. 
Related to a similar rule for sailing ships, it is considered bad luck for an actor to whistle on or off stage. As original stage crews were hired from ships in port (Theatrical rigging has its origins in sailing rigging), sailors, and by extension theatrical riggers, used coded whistles to communicate scene changes. Actors who whistled could confuse them into changing the set or scenery, though in today’s theatres, the stage crew normally uses an intercom or cue light system.
Script under pillow
A common superstition held by actors is that sleeping with a script under their pillow will help them to learn it faster. This is sometimes known as “learning by diffusion”. Script under the pillow is said to have caused bad luck.
- No real money should be used on stage. This may derive from gamblers’ superstitions about money, or it could just be a sensible precaution against theft. In a similar vein, it is considered unlucky to wear real jewelry on stage, as opposed to costume jewelry.
- It is bad luck to complete a performance of a play without an audience in attendance, so one should never say the last line of a play during rehearsals. To get around this, some production companies allow a limited number of people (usually friends, family, and reviewers) to attend the dress rehearsals.
- In some companies wearing the t-shirt of the play being produced before opening day is considered bad luck. Other companies however hold the exact opposite opinion, and actually encourage their actors to wear the shirt as often as possible before opening night to increase ticket sales.
- A bad dress rehearsal foretells a good opening night. Possibly, this is an example of sour grapes. However, it has a tendency to be true in that cast and crew are scared straight by a bad dress rehearsal and therefore fix their mistakes by opening night. (Alternatively, a director may offer this superstition to boost the confidence of the actors after they were disheartened by the bad dress rehearsal.)
- A company should not practice doing their bows before they feel they deserve them.
- Gifts such as flowers should be given to actors after a show, as opposed to before.
- Peacock Feathers should never be brought on stage, either as a costume element, prop, or part of a setpiece. Many veteran actors and directors tell stories of sets collapsing and other such events during performances with peacock feathers.
- Some actors believe that having a Bible onstage is unlucky. Often, other books or prop books will be used with Bible covers.
- The color blue is considered unlucky, unless countered by wearing silver. As blue dye was once very costly; a failing acting company would dye some of their garments blue in the hopes of pleasing the audience. As for the silver to counter it, one would know that the acting company was truly wealthy, so to enable actors to wear real silver.
- The color green is also considered to be unlucky. This is said to date from the time when most performances were given out-of-doors. Wearing green would make it hard to distinguish the actor from grass/trees/bushes in the natural setting beyond the performing area.
Like any business, theatre is about making money. It is a bad omen to start off a show with an ’empty’ cashbox. Many house managers will ask comp ticket holders to please wait to be seated, until a paying customer has entered the house.