There may be no other holiday with more appeal for theater people than one when you dress up in costumes and makeup and have fun taking on a different persona. Theater people also like their superstitions and traditions, and Halloween is steeped with those as well. In honor of the spookiest night of the year, here are 13 theater superstitions and peculiar traditions that are perfect for celebrating the “ghosties and ghoulies and things that go bump in the night.”
A bad dress rehearsal means the show will be a hit.
This is an old wives’ tale and no one is quite sure how it started (perhaps it was the quiet prayer of a high school drama teacher?). Many theater folks cling to the idea that a bad dress rehearsal is a good omen for a successful opening night. Occasionally, there is the coincidence that a disastrous final rehearsal precedes an amazing premiere, but this most likely is the result of a prepared production, committed artists, and a large-dose of adrenaline, not a deus ex machina.
Blue should not be worn on stage.
The idea that blue should never be worn on stage is a superstition that not many thespians have heard. Perhaps this myth has not survived as strongly as some other superstitions because the reason behind it is no longer relevant. At one point in theater history, blue dye was the most expensive of all the fabric colorings. Producers, in an effort to discourage the spending of money on such luxuries, started a rumor that blue costumes were unlucky. Even then, the economics of theater were a dicey risk.
Never light a trio of candles.
An open flame on stage is already a risk that many theatres would prefer not to take. The more burning candles in a production, the greater the chance that a fire can get out of control. Many theatres have burned down thanks to the use of open flames, especially during times when theatres were made of thatched roofs (Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre burned down when a cannon was set off during a production of Henry VIII). Then why aren’t we supposed to have lit candles in threes? It is believed that the person who stands closest to the shortest candle will be the first to die. Why do people believe that? The origin to that superstition was extinguished a long time ago, but we still follow the rule.
Turn on the ghost light before leaving the theatre.
When you enter a darkened theatre, there are many potential pitfalls, such as open trap doors and orchestra pits to fall into, scenery to walk into, props and furniture to fall over. The ghost light remains turned on in the center of the stage when all other lights have been turned out. It’s merely a matter of practical safety. Or is it? The lore of almost every theatre usually involves a few theatre ghosts who haunt the place. Many thespians believe the ghost light wards off these spirits, while others believe they are there to give the spectral divas a lighted area to perform in. Whether it is for safety or for actual ghosts, I think we are all grateful its glow keeps us from having accidents and turning into freshly minted theatre ghosts ourselves.
Never bring a peacock feather on stage.
Peacock feathers may be beautiful, but an actor is never supposed to carry one on stage. The superstition is inspired by the pattern on the feather that, to many, looks like the evil eye. No theater production wants to risk offending an audience with this malevolent curse, which is supposed to bring misfortune or injury to anyone who casts it.
Mirrors on stage are bad luck.
Is it the fear of the mirror breaking, resulting in seven years of bad luck, or is it the old superstition that mirrors are a gateway for evil spirits to cross over to the world of the living? It is neither. Mirrors are considered bad luck because they reflect light, which is tricky to place on stage without wreaking havoc with the lighting design of a production. Of course, it can be done, but a wrong hit with a spotlight and you could easily have a blinded actor who might just walk off the edge of the stage.
Whistling backstage in a theatre is considered a jinx.
This superstition grows out of a practicality: In the good old days of theater, scenery was manually lifted into the air by men hoisting it with ropes (there were no hydraulics or advanced rigging systems to make it safer and easier). The stagehands would cue each other by whistling. An actor who whistled backstage might accidentally cue a stagehand to lift or drop scenery, potentially putting an unaware performer at risk of being crushed by a wall or a sandbag. The best way to make sure you didn’t become a theatre ghost was to refrain from whistling altogether. The rule has stuck and become a superstition.
Beware of the ghost of David Belasco.
Located at 111 West 44th Street, Broadway’s Belasco Theatre is one of the Theatre District’s finest old showhouses. Many people also happen to believe it’s haunted. It is suggested that the ghost of David Belasco, the theater impresario who was known by some as “The Bishop of Broadway,” continues to oversee the happenings at his namesake theatre. Some who have worked at the theatre have reported seeing his spirit sitting alone in the balcony or wandering the lobbies, occasionally stopping to speak to patrons. Could it be the ghost of Thespis messing with us, or is Mr. Belasco still ever-present, making sure things are running smoothly?
Never give a performer flowers before a show.
Giving a performer flowers is one of the great traditions of the theater. It’s a way of telling an actor that you loved what they did on stage. However, it is taboo to give a performer flowers before a show. It seems that tradition opposes rewarding an actor for their work before they have delivered it. Which leads us to …
Give the director a Graveyard Bouquet.
When a theater production closes, it is considered good luck to give the director a bouquet of flowers stolen from a graveyard. This macabre symbolic gesture (theater folk love their symbolism) obviously denotes the end of a production (its death). Historically, actors did not make a lot of money, so one might assume that this was an inexpensive way to say thank you to their director while buttering him up for the next round of auditions.
Beware of a visit from the ghost of Thespis.
When something goes wrong in the theatre, those in the know will point to the ghost of Thespis as the culprit. Ancient Greek sources identify Thespis as the first actor to step out of the chorus and play an actual character. He is the father of all thespians. When theatres are not lucky enough to have their own ghosts, they rely upon Thespis to be the scapegoat for all the problems that might plague a production.
Say “break a leg” instead of “good luck.”
A person is never supposed to wish an actor “good luck,” but instead they are supposed to say “Break a leg!” Though it may seem maudlin to do so, many theater folk believe there are mischief-making spirits of the stage who use their magic to force the opposite of what you wish to happen. Another theory comes from the idea that the word leg does not refer to an actor’s leg, but to the theatrical curtains that mask the backstage that are known as “legs.” “Breaking a leg” means you’ve crossed from the backstage into the playing area, the ultimate goal of an actor: entering the spotlight.
Never say Macbeth in a theatre.
If you are an actor, you may have learned this one the hard way. It is considered bad luck to say the name of Shakespeare’s “Scottish play” inside of a theatre. If you make this egregious mistake, there is no doubt that your fellow actors will become disgruntled and begin suggesting a series of counter curses you must follow to undo the damage. Reciting any line from the lucky play Two Gentlemen of Verona is one way out of the mess you have created. Some will tell you to recite 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.” For the more athletically inclined, one should exit the theatre, spin around in a circle three times, and spit. Why is saying Macbeth a theatrical no-no? Well, some of the play draws on witchcraft incantations that supposedly call upon evil spirits. Still, other superstitions suggest that the original actor who played Macbeth died tragically during the performance and the show has been cursed ever since.
Mark Robinson is the author of the two-volume encyclopedia The World of Musicals and maintains a theater and entertainment blog at markrobinsonwrites.com.