Superstitions in the Theatre

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Updated: Apr 19, 2020
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Today, theatre has been around for many decades and continues to thrive and excel performance after performance. Although, when we attend these plays within the theatre there is much more behind those luxurious curtains. Superstitions in theatre has been around dating back to the Elizabethan Era for as long as many could remember. These superstitions helped the theatre during the past, currently the present, and even in the future to maintain its greatness for further success. Many of these superstitions usually are not taken lightly. Although, many people shrug off superstitions whether they believe them or not, the Theatre doesn’t. These superstitions are very vital and important because breaking them could or could not lead to a terrible show. Some of these superstitions are myths and legends passed down through many generations of theatre that are still today payed very close attention to and are avoided worldwide to avoid a terrible outcome. These superstitions range from the very well-known phrase “Break a leg”, mirrors on stage, trio candles, the ghost light, whistling in the theatre, bad dress rehearsal equals a good opening, and saying the haunted name of Shakespeare most infamous character: Macbeth (Wright).

A superstition that you may have heard of many times in theatre is Replacing “good luck” with the famous “Break a Leg”. This phrase was used in an ironic way that originated form the ancient Greek. “Bowing” the Elizabethan term means to break the leg (Wright). Basically, wishing someone “good luck” forced the opposite and bad luck would occur. It is also known that the word “leg” doesn’t just refer to the actor’s leg, but it refers to the theatrical curtains that are backstage that is a theatre term for “legs”. This means that the actor has crossed from being backstage and has entered the play area, which is a goal for the actor: entering the spotlight (Robinson). The phrase “Break a Leg” also comes from when at the end of a play as the actors gather to the end of the stage people would throw money on the stage and the actor would kneel to collect the money, this is considered ‘breaking the line of the leg’ (Molly).

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We all know the superstition that breaking a mirror resulted in seven years of bad luck but for the theatre breaking a mirror or having mirrors on stage in general could be considered a gateway for evil spirits to cross over into the world of the living (Robinson). Mirrors are considered bad luck in the theatre because mirrors reflect light. Placing a mirror inside the theatre on stage could collide with the lighting design of the production and cause technical issues (Robinson). It’s not impossible to place this mirror so that it doesn’t interfere with the design of the production but doing so could result in blinding an actor who could walk off the edge of the stage and become injured (Robinson). Lately, the mirror superstition has become challenged and has been successful in the musical Chorus Line (Molly). Speaking of bad luck, the unlucky rule of Three. This superstition is also considered a bad luck superstition like the mirrors on stage and the famous “break a leg”. A myth once said that it was considered bad luck for someone to stand next to the shortest candle of the three because this individual would be the next to get married or to die (Molly). Whether this myth is believable or not, having candles lit within a theatre or any building is a safety hazard for a fire occurring. The theatre was packed with many people, and highly flammable fresh paint that anything could have happened with these candles being lit inside the theatre, so they became banned all together.

A widely known superstition in theatre is the ghost light. The ghost light is a light that remains on inside the theatre usually in the center of the stage and all other lights are turned off (Robinson). Is this light just a light that’s left on so those who are entering and leaving the theatre can get around without fumbling in the dark? This might be true, but another reason is theatre ghosts, it is believed that theatre ghost haunt theatres. Many believe that the ghost light is left on because it wards off the ghost’s spirits. Whether this superstition is true or not there is typically some source of light left on within the theatre for safety purposes.

Another form of superstition is whistling in the theatre. Although this tradition does not seem very important, it’s important in theatre. Whistling was taken very highly that it resulted in back luck on and off stage and could have consequences, such as someone being fired (Molly). Whistling in the theatre was considered a jinx (Robinson). Years ago, people such as stagehand or the backstage crew would cue one another by whistling. During rehearsal actors would whistle to those backstage to cue them to lift or drop a specific scenery. This cue mishap could result in a potential hazard of unaware scenery being released which sometimes could result to a dangerous accident occurring (Robinson). Thus, whistling in the theatre was diminished altogether and it’s no longer allowed within the theatre today.

Despite the odds there was some good luck within the theatre. A bad dress rehearsal in theatre meant that the show was going to be a hit the night of. Although this superstition is an old wives’ tale, those in the theatre still believe in it. A terrible final rehearsal equaled an amazing premiere, this bad dress rehearsal relaxed the actors and sometimes it became hysterical and helped relax their nerves for the night of the opening (Robinson). This superstition was a comforting mechanism once the final dress rehearsal completely went south (Wright).

Lastly, the most famous theatrical superstitions were never saying the haunted name of Shakespeare most infamous character ‘Macbeth’ also known as Shakespeare’s “Scottish play”. Saying ‘Macbeth’ in any theatre would result in bad luck for the theatre and even become a curse. Why is speaking this name such a no in theatre? Well, it is said that this play was full of despair, death, and witchcraft which speaking the name from this play was a call to welcome evil spirits within the theatre (Robinson). Others forbid the saying of ‘Macbeth’ because once upon a time the original actor that played this character had dies very tragically during the time of the performance and that the show has been completely been cursed ever since this tragedy (Robinson). If someone was to every speak the forbidden word within the theatre there was a ritual that they had to undo any future curse. The person must leave the theatre building, spit upon the ground, curse, and then spin around three times before entering the building (Molly). Another ritual was to recite any line from Shakespeare’s other plays, Two Gentlemen of Verona or to recite a line from A Midsummer Night’s Dream (Robinson). The line was “If we shadows have offended, think but this, and all is mended, That you have but slumbered here, While these visions did appear” (William Shakespeare).

From the famous phrase ‘break a leg’ to the most famous theatrical superstition ‘Macbeth’, superstitions range from being significantly important to being myths but many of these superstitions to this day still aren’t taken lightly. Not denying the fact that those within the theatre are a superstitious bunch of people, these superstitions and traditions keep the theatre alive and thriving to ensure their main goal: a successful performance. Considering all the wrong that could occur in the theatre, it’s not surprising that there are as many superstitions that there are today. Providing many explanations into the world of theatre, superstitions are important and are still at existence today as they will continue to be decades from today.

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Superstitions in the Theatre. (2020, Apr 19). Retrieved from