By Ethan Craft
When I was but a young teen thespian, I remember being in a production of George Orwell’s 1984 and sitting in the Greenroom while waiting for my next scene. Conversation was light, and I was mainly the kind to keep to myself anyway, but I remember overhearing one of my castmates warning a newcomer to our little troupe, “Don’t upset Gus.”
“Who’s Gus?” The newbie asked out of curiosity, which sparked quite a lively conversation amongst the actors.
Long story short: Gus was the ghost that haunted the theatre and has been known to be quite the poltergeist when agitated. It should also be noted that Gus specifically had a vendetta against modern technology. I guffawed to myself, not 100% on board with the whole mythos of the theatre itself. I was young. I was a fool. I remember the next performance. Before I went on stage, there was a sudden outage of the Audio-Visual Technology that we were incorporating into the show. Of course, the show must go on, and we had a workaround set in place, but when we went to check what the issue was…all of the cables had been unplugged and rearranged into a configuration that could only be described as a “baffling knot of incorrectness.” It was at that moment that I decided to never anger Gus again.
Why do I bring this story up? Sure, it is a chance to wax poetic about my past acting life, but mainly because when I saw the lineup for the shows that the Oregon Shakespeare Festival (OSF) is putting on this season, I was suddenly inspired by one show to discuss the superstitions and unspoken rules to remember when on the stage. Which show is that? I’m gonna say it in a few seconds, but first I’ll allow any theatre people who might be reading this aloud to remove themselves from the theatre that they’re in or make other adjustments. Are you good? Okay.
“Macbeth.” The Scottish Play.
This play has been plagued with misfortune and bad luck since its first production in the 1600s. As legend says, during this initial performance, the actor who was hired to play the Lady Macbeth died unexpectedly and had to be recast. From then on, this tragedy is said to be the cause of real-life tragedy involving mysterious deaths, accidental stabbings on stage in front of an audience, sandbags falling from the rigging, and multiple riots. Click here to read more.
On a more personal note, when I went to write this blog post, I had been stricken with illness multiple times and had to keep pushing my completion deadline. Now you might say that I am not saying it in a theatre, so I must be safe. But is life itself not a stage and all the people merely players?
Okay fine, I’m 90% sure it is purely coincidental, and my own fascination and love for The Scottish Play might make me a little biased, so let’s get into some more fascinating superstitions of the theatre, shall we?
Do not whistle in a theatre otherwise you might become a theatre ghost yourself
This superstition originated before we had the marvels of modern technology such as headsets and com systems. In these olden times, techies backstage used whistles to signal to each other when to fly in sets, lights, and other rigged systems. Due to this, whistling in the theatre was a potential danger to unsuspecting folk who might find a random sandbag or light falling on their head from the ceiling. Though we don’t have to worry about that as much now, it is still considered bad luck and could jinx you.
Do not bring a peacock feather on stage
This is one that I wasn’t very familiar with, mainly because I don’t believe I have ever been in a show where it would have come up. This superstition comes from realizing that a peacock feather pattern looks like an evil eye. To avoid unintentionally casting this curse of misfortune and harm on an unsuspecting audience, it is best to be avoided altogether.
Refrain from giving flowers before the show (except for one exception)
Ah, who doesn’t love getting flowers? I think people should be gifted flowers more often, but please, give them after the show and never before. Flowers can be seen as a sign that you love what they did on the stage, and praising an actor who has yet to deliver a performance is one way of cursing them to a bad, or worse lackluster, show. So what’s the exception? That would be in the case of a Graveyard Bouquet for the director when the show is closing, symbolizing the death of the show. People used to steal these bouquets from graveyards, hence the name, but I really must encourage you to NOT steal, no matter how symbolic it may be.
“Break a Leg” never “Good Luck”
There is a lot of debate to the origin of this superstition, and as legends as old as this one go, who is to say what the truth is? I heard that this refers to the days when you would only get paid as an actor/vaudevillian performer if you made it on stage, and to get to stage you have to pass through “the legs” of the curtain. Therefore, hoping someone breaks a leg just was a way to say, “Hope you make it on stage and get that coin.” Another possibility is that, in Shakespearean times, people would throw coins onto the stage if they loved the performance, so you would have to break the straight line of your leg to pick these coins up. It’s also possible that this came about from understudies wanting their time in the spotlight, wishing the leads would “break a leg” so they could have the fortune of gracing the stage. Regardless of origin, it’s never “Good Luck.”
Leave a ghost light on stage
I have done my fair share of stage managing, and because of this, I was oft the last person to leave the theatre, and being the last person meant one thing: leave a ghost light on in the middle of the stage. Of course, in a dark theatre it’s mainly thought of as a way for people to see where they’re going so they don’t hurt themselves when they leave or come in. But it is also a way to dissuade the theatre ghosts from acting like tricksters and causing mayhem while the cast and crew are away. This includes Thespis, the first known actor in ancient Greece, and Gus from the Ritz Theatre, who I mentioned above.
There are so many more superstitions from the theatre world that I could talk about, and really they are quite fascinating if you ask me, but this blog is getting a bit long so I’ll just encourage you to investigate it yourself.
Personally, I referenced broadwaydirect.com, backstage.com and steppenwolf.org, for my list, but there are a lot of great resources out there. I’ll also encourage you to check out our OSF collection at the Ashland Library, a personalized collection where we will feature materials that relate to this current season and is also feeding my inspiration behind this blog series. Finally, I will implore you to check out the production of The Scottish Play, running at OSF from March 19th to October 12th. If you would like a primer to get a taste of what is my personal favorite Shakespeare play, check out some of these materials that JCLS has to offer.
One final note that I am dutifully required to say in an attempt to free us from the curse of the Scottish Play: “If we shadows have offended, think but this and all is mended, that you have but slumbered here, whilst these visions did appear.”