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William Shakespeare's play Macbeth is said to be cursed, so actors avoid saying its name when in the theatre (the euphemism "The Scottish Play" is used instead). Actors also avoid even quoting the lines from Macbeth before performances, 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 one of the performances, they are required to perform a ritual to remove the curse. The ritual may vary according to local custom: one is to leave the theatre building, or at least the room occupied when the name was mentioned, spin around three times, spit, curse, and then knock to be allowed back in. This particular iteration of the ritual is documented in the play The Dresser and its film adaptations.
One 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 this legend is factual.
"Break a leg" vs. "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 or traditional theory, and the bowing theory.
In Australian theatrical circles saying "good luck" is also avoided, but the replacement is often "chookas!" This may be due to the belief among some dancers that saying "break a leg" may actually result in broken bones.
One should always leave a light burning in an empty theatre.
Though it's a superstition, it does have practical value as well: the backstage area of a theatre tends to be 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.
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 death in 1920. Thomas may be the most sighted ghost on Broadway, although to date she has only appeared to men. Disney, 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.
- 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). It is thought that he began this pre-show ritual at his undergraduate alma mater Hofstra University where the tradition continues in Hofstra Drama Department productions.
- Specific theatres
- 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, 2017 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. Archived from the original on 2006-10-01. Retrieved 2007-12-06.
- "Chookas!" Archived 2011-08-08 at the Wayback Machine, By Colin Peasley, manager, Education Programme for The Australian Ballet
- "Theatrical Superstitions and Saints". Retrieved 2007-12-06.
- Viagas, Robert. "The Ghosts of Broadway" Archived 2012-07-01 at the Wayback Machine, Playbill website, published 2005-06-10, retrieved 2012-06-14.
- Khan, Shazia (2009-10-26). "Ziegfeld Girl's Ghost Said To Haunt Broadway Theater". NY1. Archived from the original on 30 January 2013. 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