Leadership / 10.18.23
Teddy’s Top 5 Theatre Superstitions
Actors, directors, playwrights, stagehands, ticket office personnel. They are a creative group of people … a passionate group of people … a superstitious group of people! And as we get deeper into October and approach Halloween, some of their superstitions are taking on seasonal urgency. I know mine are!
Apart from being a weekly columnist for INTIX, I’ve also had several one-act plays and monologues produced for the stage, and my wife is an actress and director who’s worked in New York, Washington and North Carolina. One of our favorite superstitions in this business of show is that whistling on stage … it's extremely unlucky! The roots of this irrational belief (or is it?) date back to the 17th century and are detailed here.
But that got us thinking. What other legends and old wives’ tales compel thespians, producers and ticket office pros to think twice as they make stage magic happen each night? Yours truly polled a group of professionals from all sides of the house to come up with the below “Top 5 Theatre Superstitions.”
Read on (if you dare):
- The Ghost Light
The superstition most cited by our interviewees was the famous (or infamous?) “ghost light.” Most even spoke of it in hushed tones, including Charlotte St. Martin, President of The Broadway League Inc. “One should always — always — leave a light burning in an empty theatre!” she says.
The ghost light.
Lauren Kennedy Brady, Producing Artistic Director at Theatre Raleigh, explains, "The ghost light is the most widely accepted superstition in theatre around the world. Everyone knows that theatres are haunted. A ghost light is a single bulb left burning whenever a theatre is dark. Some say it is to chase away negative spirits. Others feel it lights the way for the ghosts that are said to inhabit virtually every old theatre, acknowledging them and giving reverence to what came before. Either way, that light ensures that no one takes an accidental tumble off the stage, dies, and then haunts the theatre for eternity … [chuckling] Theatre people are so dramatic!"
Though it is a superstition, St. Martin notes that the ghost light does indeed have practical value as Brady mentioned. The backstage area of most theatres tends to get cluttered with props and other objects. So, someone who enters a completely darkened space is liable to be injured while hunting for a light switch.
Chris Stasiuk, Box Office Treasurer at the St. James Theatre in Manhattan, even finds the ghost light strangely comforting after hours. “The glow that it leaves in a darkened theater always gives me a bit of a thrill. It’s creepy and homey all at once,” she says.
- Actual Ghosts
Many believe that while theatres were dark during the pandemic, they still teemed with life inside. If you have spent any time by yourself or with just a handful of people backstage in an old theatre building, you can’t help but start to sense some … presence. And if you linger there, sooner or later you are going to be like The Cowardly Lion in “The Wizard of Oz,” gnashing your teeth, wringing your hands and repeating, “I do believe in spooks! I do, I do, I do!”
Kelley Monts de Oca, Director of Ticketing at Playhouse Square in Cleveland, is one such believer. She says, “For me, my favorite superstition is that nearly every theatre has a ghost. In college, ours was Twila who hung out backstage in the grid. Ghosts always make for some fun and interesting stories!”
Among the more famous ghosts of the global stage is actor William Terris, who was fatally stabbed on his way into the Adelphi Theatre in London in 1897 and now apparently has permanent residency there. Meanwhile, legendary choreographer Bob Fosse is rumored to still walk the aisles and balcony seats of The Lyceum on Broadway.
- Don’t Say ‘Macbeth!’
Few things can strike fear in the heart of someone as steady and confident as multi award-winning stage director and playwright Joe Calarco. But one of them is this superstition: “I wouldn’t use the word ‘favorite,’” he says. “But the superstition that makes me most nervous — and the one that I’m most conscious of not doing — is saying ‘Macbeth’ in the theater! Make sure you say ‘The Scottish Play’ instead.”
Timothy Locklear, Managing Artistic Director of North Raleigh Arts and Creative Theatre (NRACT), concurs: “One of the biggest superstitions I have is never allowing anyone to mention ‘The Scottish Play’ — aka ‘Macbeth’ — inside the theatre. Some of the teens and younger actors think it's funny and have done it. I, in turn, make them do the ritual of ‘breaking the curse!’"
And what is that ritual? In the words of Short Round, “Hold onto your potatoes!” Lori Lentner Schwartz, Operations Manager at Toby’s Dinner Theatre in Columbia, Maryland, says, “You are never — and I mean never — to say the name of Shakespeare’s ‘Macbeth’ inside a theatre! It is extremely bad luck and tragedy will befall whatever production is happening … Don’t say the name. Just don’t! Actors will lose their minds and make you go outside and run around the building three times. It’s not worth the risk!”
- Don’t Say ‘Good Luck’ Either!
Perhaps the most famous superstition — the one most well-known outside of theater circles — is one cited by stage and screen actress Maryann Plunkett: “Never say ‘Good luck!’ to an actor. Always say, ‘Merde!’”
In French, “merde” means “crap” or “sh*t.” But in this case, the word used in place of “good luck” dates back to before automobiles when people had to take carriages to the theater. If so many audience members were showing up for a show that there was stand-still traffic, the horses would inevitably have to relieve themselves in front of the theater. And so, “merde” being tracked into the theatre was a sign that the show was a big success!
Of course, more commonly, we wish our actors not “good luck,” but “break a leg.” There are several theories as to how this superstition developed, from understudies sitting in the back rows of theatres politely wishing the various principals would literally break a leg so they could go on in their place to the Abraham Lincoln assassination in 1865 when actor John Wilkes Booth broke his leg upon leaping to the stage from the balcony where he had just murdered the president. For additional theories on the origins of "break a leg," click here.
- Personal Superstitions
And then there are the personal superstitions that have developed among those who have dedicated their lives to entertaining the masses live and in person. Plunkett’s actor-husband Jay O. Sanders, currently appearing on Broadway in “Purlie Victorious” opposite Leslie Odom, Jr., says, “Maryann and I both have a thing about going through the whole script before each and every show!”
But perhaps actor James Brown-Orleans has the most detailed personal superstition — one that has developed over 21 years of playing Banzai on Broadway in “The Lion King.” This article closes with his below anecdote:
“My favorite theatre superstition is this. I have to be at the theatre hours before my call time! At the very, very, very latest, one hour before the curtain goes up — and even that for me is too close for comfort — or I start getting physically ill. After 21 years of doing the show, you’d think I’d be able to just saunter to the theatre a half-hour before the show, waltz into my dressing room, have a cup of coffee with my Netflix and a side of Facebook, and get ready to go on.”
He continues, “This superstition of mine has been greeted with raillery from some of the stagehands in my show, especially when they get to the theatre sometimes for an 8 a.m. work call and there I am, standing at the call board signing in 12 hours early for an 8 p.m. show. ‘Superstitious nonsense!’ That’s what a friend of mine once declared it. Then one day, after visiting me in New York thinking I had all the time in the world, I decided to be a gentleman, walk past ‘The Lion King’ theatre on West 45th, and escort her over to her bus station at the Port Authority on West 42nd. I kid you not. Soon as we passed the theatre and my body realized we weren’t going in, I started getting sick to my stomach! Almost food-poisoning-like.”
It wasn’t long before they both agreed that it was best for James to turn around and go back. He concluded his story thusly: “I got to the theatre, bolted into the stage door, didn’t even say hi to the doorman for fear of crapping my pants, and I headed straight for my dressing room. But instead of making a mad dash into my ‘office’ — aka the toilet — something immediately pushed me over to the mirror at my station, grabbed my hand, and began applying my makeup on my face. As soon as the makeup kissed my skin … the stomach cramps, the nausea, the fever, even the ill feeling that was this close to making a comeback … they all, like ghosts, just vanished into thin air!”
“Superstitious nonsense?” he concluded. “OK. But it has served me well over the years. After 21 years, I’m proud to say I never have been late to the theatre or had to call out of a show because of traffic or a sudden accident in the Lincoln Tunnel, or the subways not running. My superstition always has me in my dressing room chilling like Hakuna and Matata!”
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Tags: Theater , Leadership