“Break a leg!” and other theatre superstitions

Theatre Superstitions blog

What do you mean you have an apartment for rent on the 13th floor? No thanks! Careful with that mirror because if it breaks you’re facing seven years of bad luck. Watch out for that crack in the sidewalk because you’ll break your momma’s back! Hurry, find some wood and knock on it to ward off bad luck. Ah, superstitions. We all know they’re silly, but yet we totally continue to buy into at least a few of them.

The theatre community in particular is a superstitious bunch. I’m sure you’ve heard gasps if you ever told an actor, “Good luck” instead of “Break a leg!” But where do these superstitions come from? Here’s a look at some of the most enduring ones and their back-stories.

  1. Break a leg: Okay, so no one really knows where this one came from but there are a few good theories floating around. Some say it’s because in Elizabethan England good performances resulted in money being thrown on stage so actors had to kneel down to collect it, “breaking” the line of the leg. Others think it’s because apparently evil spirits like opposites so if you wished for good luck everything would go wrong. But in that case, wouldn’t you just tell the actors, “bad luck”? Anyway, other people still think it is because you should perform so hard, or sing a note so high in opera, that you break the legs of the stage
  2. The Ghost Light: Dark theatres can be pretty creepy and are apparently frequented by ghosts. I’m getting spooked just writing that! So, to keep the ghosts at bay there is always supposed be a light burning in an empty theatre. Today, the tradition lives on for more practical reasons: so no one breaks a leg (see what I did there?) when all the lights are turned off backstage and the crew is leaving the theatre.
  3. Whistling: There will be no whistling while you work in the theatre! It is considered bad luck for an actor to whistle on or off stage — for good reason. You see, back in the day off-duty sailors used their rigging skills to manipulate sets or curtains. At sea, these guys communicated through a series of complex whistles so they did the same thing when working at the theatre. The wrong whistle might cause a sandbag to come flying down on your head. Even with walkie-talkies, this superstition remains.
  4. Script under your pillow: Science would tell you that the idea of sleeping with your script under your pillow to learn your lines faster is totally foolish. But don’t tell actors that. The belief is that this technique helps “diffuse” the lines into your memory. Personally, I wouldn’t rely solely on this method. Just a suggestion.
  5. The Scottish Play: We all know not to say the “F” word but in theatre it is the “M” word — as in “Macbeth” — that is banned. According to history, the play is cursed and the History Channel sites instances of mysterious and sudden deaths during performances of it. Also, the play itself is filled with witches, spells, bad luck and prophecies. Instead, theatre folks call it “The Scottish Play” or “The Bard’s Play”. But people are bound to slip up, right? If an actor makes a Macbeth oopsy, he or she must exit the theater, spin three times, spit, utter a Shakespearean insult (or an equally vulgar profanity) and then knock to be allowed back in.

If being involved in theatre interests you as much as the superstitions, get the skills you need with Centennial College’s Theatre Arts and Performance program. It covers everything from courses in acting, movement and voice to audition skills, learning how to get an agent and creating your own dynamic demo reel.

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