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The Scottish play
Shakespeare's play Macbeth is said to be cursed, so actors avoid saying its name (the euphemism "The Scottish Play" is used instead). Actors also avoid even quoting the lines from Macbeth before a performance, particularly the Witches' incantations. Outside a theatre and after a performance the play can be spoken of openly. If an actor speaks the name "Macbeth" in a theatre prior to a performance, he or she is required to leave the theatre building, spin around three times, spit, curse, and then knock to be allowed back in.
There is also a legend that the play itself was cursed because the first time it was ever performed, the actor playing Macbeth died shortly before or after the production (accounts vary). Another version of this legend claims that it was the actor who played Lady Macbeth who died during the play's first production run and that Shakespeare himself had to assume the role. There is no evidence that either version of this legend is factual.
Another legend states that Macbeth was cursed by witches because the play revealed their secrets. Another explanation claims that the original production of the play used actual witches and witchcraft, and so the play is cursed.
Not wishing "good luck"
Generally, it is considered bad luck to wish someone "good luck" in a theatre. Prior to performances, it is traditional for the cast to gather together to avert the bad luck by wishing each other bad luck or cursing – in English-speaking countries, the expression "break a leg" replaces the phrase "good luck". The exact origin of this expression is unknown, but some of the most popular theories are the Shakespearean Theory or Traditional Theory, and the Bowing Theory. If someone does say "good luck", they must go out of the theatre, turn around 3 times, spit, curse, then knock on the door and ask to be readmitted to the theatre. The expression "break a leg" has spread outside of the theatre and is regularly used by non-actors toward actors and in non-theatrical situations. The expression stems from the days of Vaudeville when a performer was only paid if their act made it onto the stage, which mostly depended on audience size and participation. If you walked past the curtains known as 'legs', therefore breaking the sightline of the 'legs', you were guaranteed a paycheck. Therefore 'break a leg' became the commonplace way to wish someone luck.
The Term "Hals- und Beinbruch!" in German is equivalent to the expression "Break a leg (and neck)" and used for the same purpose in theatres as well as in other acting circles.
In Australian theatrical circles saying "good luck" is also avoided, but the replacement is often "chookas!".
In Portuguese and Spanish-speaking countries, before each performance, director and actors gather on the stage, join hands and scream "Muita Merda!"/"¡Mucha mierda!" ("A bunch/a lot of shit!"). The term "A lot of shit" reputedly comes from the success of a play. Where historically people would arrive by carriage, lots of people meant lots of carriages and horses, with the resultant larger amounts of horse droppings. Similarly, in France and in Italy, actors say the word "Merde!" (French) / "Merda" (Italian) just before making an entrance. The French "Merde!" is also popular among ballet dancers across the world regardless of their mother tongue. Also in Italy, and in opera performing circles worldwide, the phrase "in bocca al lupo" or "into the mouth of the wolf" is the analogous negative wish or to instill courage. The response to it is "crepi il lupo" or "may the wolf keel over (dead)" or "may you kill the wolf." A variation on the response is "may you be devoured" which is analogous to the (reverse) bad luck of breaking a leg, albeit certainly a more dramatic phrase.
One ghost-related superstition is that the theatre should always be closed one night a week to give the ghosts a chance to perform their own plays. This is traditionally on Monday nights, conveniently giving actors a day off after weekend performances.
Theatres that have stood for more than a few decades tend to have lots of associated ghost stories, more than other public buildings of similar age.
One specific ghost, Thespis, holds a place of privilege in theatre lore. Some historians once believed that Thespis of ancient Athens (6th Century BCE) was the first person to speak lines as an individual actor on stage (hence the term "thespian" to refer to an individual actor). Any unexplainable mischief that befalls a production is likely to be blamed on Thespis, especially if it happens on November 23 (the date he supposedly uttered the first lines).
One should always leave a light burning in an empty theatre. Traditionally, the light is placed upstage centre. That is, farthest from the audience, centre stage. Several reasons are given for this, all having to do with ghosts:
- The light wards off ghosts.
- A theatre's ghosts always want to have enough light to see. Failure to provide this may anger them, leading to pranks or other mishaps.
- It prevents non-spectral personnel from having to cross the stage in the dark, falling into the orchestra pit, dying in the fall and becoming ghosts themselves.
Though it's a superstition, it does have practical value: the backstage area of a theatre tends to be cluttered, so someone who enters a completely darkened space is liable to be injured while hunting for a light switch.
Ghosts in Broadway Theatres
- Radio City Music Hall: The Hall's builder, Samuel Roxy Rothafel, is said to appear on opening nights accompanied by a glamorous woman spirit.
- New Amsterdam Theatre: Silent film star and former Ziegfeld Follies girl Olive Thomas is said to have appeared several times since her tragic death in 1920. Thomas may be the most sighted ghost on Broadway, although to date she has only appeared to men. The Disney Corporation, which restored the theatre in the 1990s, actively promotes the idea that Thomas haunts the theatre and makes accommodations for her presence. A large photograph of her hangs in the lobby of the New Amsterdam next to equally large photos of more famous Follies stars.
- Belasco Theatre: The top floor of the theatre is said to be haunted by its namesake David Belasco, who lived in an apartment located there.
- Palace Theatre: The former premiere vaudeville theatre is said to be haunted by more than 100 ghosts. According to the article, actress Andrea McArdle saw the ghost of a pit cellist during her 1999-2000 run as Belle in Beauty and the Beast.
- Lyric Theatre: On December 21, 1909, the ghost of playwright Clyde Fitch allegedly appeared onstage during the final curtain call on opening night for his last play, The City. He strode to center stage, took a bow, then vanished before the eyes of the startled cast and audience. (Fitch had died on September 4 of that year.) The Lyric was one of two theatres demolished in 1996 to make way for what is now called the Foxwoods Theatre.
- Al Hirschfeld Theatre: Formerly the Martin Beck Theatre, it's believed that Beck's ghost is annoyed with the 2003 name change. During that year's revival of Wonderful Town, there were several reports of props and other items that were mysteriously moved or went missing.
Related to a similar rule for sailing ships, it is considered bad luck for an actor to whistle on or off stage. As original stage crews were hired from ships in port (theatrical rigging has its origins in sailing rigging), sailors, and by extension theatrical riggers, used coded whistles to communicate scene changes. Actors who whistled would confuse them into changing the set or scenery and could result in injury or death. In today's theatres, the stage crew normally uses an intercom or cue light system.
- No real money should be used on stage. This may derive from gamblers' superstitions about money, or it could just be a sensible precaution against theft. In a similar vein, it is considered unlucky to wear real jewelry on stage, as opposed to costume jewelry.
- It is bad luck to complete a performance of a play without an audience in attendance, so one should never say the last line of a play during rehearsals. To get around this, some production companies allow a limited number of people (usually friends, family, and reviewers) to attend the dress rehearsals.
- In some companies wearing the t-shirt of the play being produced before opening day is considered bad luck. Other companies however hold the exact opposite opinion, and actually encourage their actors to wear the shirt as often as possible before opening night to increase ticket sales.
- A bad dress rehearsal foretells a good opening night. Possibly, this is an example of sour grapes. However, it has a tendency to be true in that cast and crew are scared straight by a bad dress rehearsal and therefore fix their mistakes by opening night. (Alternatively, a director may offer this superstition to boost the confidence of the actors after they were disheartened by the bad dress rehearsal.)
- A company should not practice doing their bows until the final dress rehearsal.
- Gifts such as flowers should be given to actors after a show, as opposed to before.
- Peacock feathers should never be brought on stage, either as a costume element, prop, or part of a setpiece. Many veteran actors and directors tell stories of sets collapsing and other such events during performances with peacock feathers.
- Some actors believe that having a Bible onstage is unlucky. Often, other books or prop books will be used with Bible covers.
- Some words and phrases are used during pre-stage warm-up sessions by actors. One of these is the Western Shoshone term "poo-wa-bah" (possibly meaning "doctor-water"). This term is used notably by director Francis Ford Coppola (who talked about it in Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker's Apocalypse, a documentary on the making of Apocalypse Now) and his daughter Sofia Coppola (who is seen performing this ritual, along with her cast, in "Lost on Location", a making-of documentary included as a special feature on the Lost in Translation DVD).
- Specific colours
- Blue is considered unlucky, unless countered by wearing silver. As blue dye was once very costly; a failing acting company would dye some of their garments blue in the hopes of pleasing the audience. As for the silver to counter it, one would know that the acting company was truly wealthy if it could afford to let its actors wear real silver.
- Green is also considered unlucky. This is said to date from the time when most performances were given out-of-doors. Wearing green would make it hard to distinguish the actor from grass/trees/bushes in the natural setting beyond the performing area. Another possible cause of this superstition is that green light tends to make actors look corpse-like. In addition, Molière, the famous French actor and playwright, died from pulmonary tuberculosis just hours after performing in his own play, Le Malade imaginaire (The Hypochondriac). He was wearing green and, since then, it has been believed unlucky for actors to wear green during a performance. Despite this superstition, the off-stage waiting area for actors is referred to as the green room.
- Yellow is another that is considered unlucky. This is said to date from the days of the religious plays. Yellow was the color worn by the actor playing the devil.
- Specific theatres
- Many Broadway producers believe that the "Curse of the Bambino" extends to the Longacre Theatre. Therefore they avoid backing productions at the Longacre for fear of losing their money to a box office bomb. The theatre was one of the many assets that Boston Red Sox owner and Broadway empresario Harry Frazee sold at the same time that he sold the contract of Babe Ruth to the New York Yankees.
- Many people also believe that theatres located on the streets east of Broadway may be cursed because they often house productions that have lower box office takes and fewer total performances than those staged on the west side of the street. This does not apply to theatres with addresses on Broadway, such as the Winter Garden Theatre which has housed several Tony Award-winning productions as well as two of the top ten longest-running musicals in Broadway history -- Cats and Mamma Mia!.
- Some Broadway producers have also complained about the Foxwoods Theatre (formerly known as the "Hilton Theatre" and "Ford Center for the Performing Arts"). Completed in 1998, the main complaint is that the 1829 seat theatre's cavernous auditorium has poor sight lines and acoustics, making it difficult for audience members in distant seats to see or hear the actors. Mel Brooks (whose Young Frankenstein ran for 14 months there) made a different complaint about the theatre's acoustics, stating that its size also makes it difficult for performers to hear the laughter of the audience. The theatre opened with the two-year, 834 performance run of the original production of the musical Ragtime. This was followed in 2001 by the four-year, 1524 performance run of the revival of the musical 42nd Street. Normally, this would have given the theatre a good reputation, but its poor reputation grew exponentially in 2010-11 with the seemingly endless production problems of Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark, which had already set the record for most preview performances five months before it officially opened on 14 June 2011. See also the Lyric Theatre under "Ghosts of Broadway Theatres" above.
- Before My Fair Lady began its six-year, 2717 performance run at the Mark Hellinger Theatre in 1956, that theatre was thought to be cursed., It had been switched back and forth several times between being a motion picture theatre and a live stage theatre. From its opening in 1930 until the opening of My Fair Lady, the 1949 musical Texas, Li'l Darlin' had the longest run at the Hellinger -- nine months and 293 performances.
- Garber, Marjorie B. (1997). Shakespeare's Ghost Writers: Literature as Uncanny Causality. Methuen. pp. 88ff. ISBN 0-416-09432-5.
- Kerr, Euan. "Mystery surrounds roots of the Macbeth curse", MPR News, Minnesota Public Radio website, published 2010-02-05, retrieved 2012-06-14.
- "Theatre Superstitions". Backstage Magazine. Retrieved 2007-12-06.
- "Chookas!", By Colin Peasley, manager, Education Programme for The Australian Ballet
- "Theatrical Superstitions and Saints". Retrieved 2007-12-06.
- Viagas, Robert. "The Ghosts of Broadway", Playbill website, published 2005-06-10, retrieved 2012-06-14.
- Khan, Shazia. "Ziegfeld Girl's Ghost Said To Haunt Broadway Theater", NY1 website, published 2009-10-26, retrieved 2012-06-15.
- Gamerman, Ellen. "A Web of Superstition: As 'Spider-Man' suspends construction, some wonder if a theater is cursed", Wall Street Journal website, published 2009-08-28, retrieved 2012-05-30.
- Hetrick, Adam. "Troubled Spider-Man Turn Off the Dark Delays Broadway Opening Again". Playbill website, 2011-01-13, retrieved 2012-05-30.
- Internet Broadway Database page for the Times Square Church