The theatre is a revered art form with ancient roots.
It is sacred to many cultures. Over the years, it has brought about mystical, unexplainable, and even gruesome circumstances. As a result, people of the theatre have developed long standing and deeply ingrained superstitions to ward off these bad omens.
Here are some of the most long standing theatre superstitions and their creepy origins:
Bad Dress Rehearsal Means a Good Opening Night
Let’s start with one of the theatre superstitions everyone’s experienced. All of you theatre actors know what I’m talking about – the night before opening when everything is going disastrously. Somehow the lights no longer match your marks, so you have to re-tape everything; you have to stop every few minutes because the sound system isn’t working; actors who came to the first rehearsal with everything memorized suddenly forget their lines or lyrics; someone ALWAYS falls…. And everyone leaves the rehearsal frustrated, having a meltdown, and on the verge of quitting.
And then, somehow, miraculously, it’s opening night. The curtains part and the play is the best it’s ever been. Nobody knows how this superstition got started (probably some terrified director having a bad last rehearsal trying to boost the cast’s morale), but it has come to be a very real thing.
This is one of the most well-known theatre superstitions. Every theatre has at least one ghost, usually a former living performer from that theatre. That is why it is tradition for theatres to respectfully leave a seat open in the audience during performances. This allows the ghosts to watch the plays. When the theatre is empty, the ghost light is left on in order to honor the ghosts of the theatre and let them roam around the empty stage. In fact, Mondays are left as dark days to give the ghosts more time to fully inhabit the theatre. They perform upon the stage that in life was their haven. Many people also believe that if a theatre is left completely dark, the malevolent ghosts of the theatre will think that it is now uninhabited and wreak havoc.
One particular ghost is known to haunt all theatres and performances – the ghost of Thespis. He is famously the world’s first actor from Ancient Greece. On November 23rd in 534 BC, he broke from the chorus and said lines as a character, supposedly playing the Greek God Dionysus. Many people viewed this as blasphemous, and he became a very controversial figure. So, if there is any unexplained mischief that happens in the theatre, especially on November 23rd, Thespis of Icaria may be the culprit.
Never Light Three Candles On Stage
This is one of the theatre superstitions with roots in pragmatic reasoning, which is the danger of burning down the building. A famous example of this was when Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre burned down due to a cannon set off during Henry VIII. However, the superstition only applies to candles as set pieces, not candles being used for any other purpose. It also only applies to candles in threes. This comes from the rule of threes, which states that good and bad events happen three at a time. Applied to the theatre, if there are three lit candles on stage, the person next to the shortest candle will either be the first to marry or the first to die.
No Whistling Backstage
This theatre superstition has intriguing origins. Before we had mechanical means of rigging sets, lighting, and backdrops, people manually had to perform these tasks. Sailors generally were hired as backstage crew because they quite literally “knew the ropes” since the rigging was very similar to that of ships. Sailors would often communicate with each other by using different whistling cues. Therefore, if an unsuspecting actor were to whistle, it might confuse the crew and cause them to drop heavy equipment. This would cause injuries and harm to the set.
Forbidden Items On Stage
The ancient Greeks believed that bringing peacock feathers on stage would cause misfortune. This is because the beautiful design on the peacock’s feather is actually a likeness of the evil eye.
Authentic jewelry is not allowed on stage or backstage because of its tendency to disappear; only costume jewelry is acceptable. This probably came from the theft that occurred when real jewelry was left backstage. However, it has become known as a bringer of bad luck towards people who wear real jewelry on stage.
Mirrors are considered bad luck because they reflect light and have been known to cause impaired vision by blinding the actors. There is also the more mystical origin of this superstition which implies that mirrors reflect the soul of a character. This means that if an actor were to catch his own reflection, he would see the soul of his character and be distracted, especially if he was portraying someone evil. Still others believe that if someone looking over a person’s shoulder into a mirror will be unlucky for the person who is being overlooked. This stems from the belief that the undead have no reflection.
No Wearing Green or Blue
Ever wondered where the term “limelight” came from? Back in 1879 when the spotlight was invented, they used a chemical called quicklime. It caused the light to cast a greenish hue. This meant that if the actors were wearing green, they would not be seen. To further the anti-green superstition, actor and writer, Moliere, was performing his play “The Invalid” when he started to hemorrhage due to a coughing fit brought on by tuberculosis. He fought through the remainder of the play, but died a few hours after curtain call. The color of his costume? Green. Additionally, green is known to be a sign of the devil, particularly if it is the color of a vest, tie, or hat.
The blue superstition, on the other hand, has less gruesome origins. It was the most expensive color for dye so producers perpetuated the rumor that blue was an unlucky color to wear on stage. However, if the costumes were blue with silver trim, this signified wealth and prosperity and was considered lucky. The superstitions associated with blue and green still exist today.
No Shoes on the Table or Chairs
This superstition has strong roots in the U.K. There are a few different theories as to the origins of it, each of them as grisly as the last. Some believe that it comes from the hangman’s noose. When convicts were hanged, their shoes would scrape the wooden scaffolding of the gallows, which represents a table. Others believe that it comes from the tradition of placing the boots of deceased miners on the table to signify their demise. Then, there is the more rational reason, which is avoiding spreading germs.
Whatever the origin, many believe that placing shoes on a table or chairs backstage will bring about bad luck. This includes summoning thunder storms, tempting fights, and, for actors, stuttering and stumbling over their lines. The remedy for placing shoes on the table is for the person who committed the blunder to remove them and then spit into the soles of the shoe.
Never Say the Name of the Scottish Play
This may seem counterintuitive to not be allowed to say the name of a character from a play, or even to quote the play, but the origins of this superstition reach back all the way to the playwright himself, William Shakespeare. This play has been notorious since its first performance of inciting violence, mischief, and even death. Legend has it that on the very first opening night of this play in 1606, the man who was playing Lady Maccers died. Shakespeare himself went on as his replacement.
Since then, there has been a slew of actors who have died, audience riots, and other violence incited by this unlucky play. Additionally, the original performance did not use scarves or other old tricks to signify blood; they used actual pigs blood, which has since been thought to attract bad luck. However, there are cures for the curse. If you accidentally utter the name, you can go outside and spin around three times and spit. The other well-known cure is to either recite a line from Shakespeare’s lucky play “The Two Gentlemen of Verona”, or 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.”
Even iconic theatre performers and directors can attest to the bad omens this play brings. Chareton Heston, Orson Welles, and Constantin Stanislavski have all befallen misfortune during productions. I myself witnessed a set collapsing after one of the actors said the cursed name.
The Graveyard Bouquet
This ghoulish tradition dates back many years. It is said to be a good omen to present the director and sometimes leading lady with a bouquet of flowers stolen from a graveyard after the last performance of a show. It is said to signify the end, or the death, of the play, and that it can now be put to rest. This superstition probably started with the fact that being an actor is not generally a very lucrative profession and graveyards are a great source of free flower bouquets. It is also well-known that presenting someone with flowers before the performance is bad luck, as the performer has not yet earned the reward.
As an actor myself, I have fallen victim to many of these theatre superstitions.
When you’ve spent as many years in the theatre as I have, you see and feel things that you don’t experience anywhere else. Lights that won’t turn on, mysterious figures that dissipate into thin air, a cold breeze when the air conditioning isn’t on… The theatre is a unique place, full of wonder and questions. So, the next time you’re in a theatre, pay respect to the ancient traditions. Enjoy the mystifying and magical experience.
Do you know of theatre superstitions not listed here? Let us know in the comments!
My name is Andrea and I live in Los Angeles, California. By day, I am in actor and by night I am working towards a degree in nutritional science.