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Superstitions Connected with Actors and Actresses

The theater has a large body of time-honored superstitions than any other branch of the arts, and actors and actresses are renowned for their often obsessive preoccupation with protecting their luck. Many leading performers insist on following the same routine before each appearance and carry charms of various kinds; they may also refuse to change any detail of their costume if they have had success while wearing it. Zsa Zsa Gabor, for instance, though famous for her fabulous jewels and costumes, always wears a worthless child's ring for good luck.


Whistling in a dressing room is regarded as particularly unwise and the offender may well be asked to leave the room, turn around three times, and spit or swear before he or she can beg to be allowed back in. This taboo my well date from the days when changes in scenery were signaled by whistles, rather than by tannoy. Similarly, wishing an actor good luck before going on stage is considered to invite disaster by tempting fate, hence the tradition of telling an actor to "break a leg" (presumably because worse mishaps than this are unlikely).


Certain plays are said to be especially unlucky, usually because they incorporate supernatural scenes or references to witchcraft. Actors are almost universally reluctant to quote from or even to name Shakespeare's tragedy Macbeth, preferring to refer to it instead as the "Scottish play." With its ghosts and witches' invocation of supernatural spirits, the play is notorious for the long list of serious (even fatal) accidents that have befallen productions over the years. Incidents blamed on the tragedy have included the destruction by fire of the theater in Lisbon where it was staged in 1964 and a spate of accidents and illnesses that plagued a production presented by the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1967. The play's unlucky reputation was hardly relieved by the once widespread practice of presenting it as a means of boosting receipts in otherwise unsuccessful repertory seasons. Similar fears surround the pantomimes of Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves, Babes in the Wood, and Bluebeard, all of which also have undesirable reputations.


The color green has particularly strong associations with ill fortune in the theater and many performers refuse to wear it (a particular problem in the case of works featuring Robin Hood in his Lincoln green). Casts have even been known to return scripts bound in this color. This mistrust may date back to the days when by convention a green carpet was laid down when a tragedy was to be performed, or else to the use of limelight, which cast a greenish glow over the stage and tended to make actors dressed in green invisible to the audience.


Other taboos connected with the theater include:

1. Prohibitions on the use of real flowers, drinks and jewelry on stage.

2. Never allowing peacock feathers to enter the theater (or, in the USA, a picture of a peacock or ostrich).

3. Never setting candles in groups of three either in the dressing room or on the stage.

4. Never allowing performers to be presented with bouquets at the stage door before the play has begun.

5. Never wearing blue or yellow (which has the power to make performers forget their lines).

6. Never dropping a comb or spilling a make-up box (which must never be tidied up).

7. Never looking in another performer's mirror while he or she is putting on their make-up.

8. Never putting one's shoes on a chair in the dressing room.

9. Never hanging pictures in dressing rooms.

10. Never using yellow for stage curtains.

11. Never siting a peephole to view the audience anywhere but in the middle of the curtain.

12. Never allowing knitting in the wings (a superstition associated with the magic of knots).

12. Never opening a new show on a Friday.

13. Never speaking the final line of the script before the first night.


The presence of a cross-eyed person backstage is considered ominous, and a black cat crossing the acting area similarly warns of ill luck. A good dress rehearsal is also widely considered a bad omen (probably for the very good reason that it may promote a false sense of security). Picking up a threat of cotton from the dressing room floor and finding that it will go all the way round one's finger without breaking is said to be good luck among performers and a sign that a contract is in the offing. Other welcome events include an actor's shoes squeaking on his first entrance, discarded shoes landing flat on their soles, finding that one has been given a part that calls for the wearing of a wig, and the first ticket for a production being bought by a relatively elderly man or woman. Somewhat perversely, falling over during the course of a performance is said to bring a production good fortune (as long as it does not happen on a first entrance, in which case the performer is fated to forget his lines). One Continental superstition, incidentally, suggests that lines can e learned more easily if the actor or actress sleeps with the script under his or her pillow.

6 comments:

  1. Very interesting! I never knew there were so many superstitions! Great post.

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  2. In my family if you sneeze you have to pulll your ear to keep the devil out. I don't know if this work for people in the theater.

    Arthur

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  3. Hi Kate. Great article. The color green was also once the color paint used in the actors' waiting room lounge, thus dubbed, "the Green Room" even today. Legend says that the room was green because the flat matte-based mint green paint was the least expensive paint to buy. Many actors and costume people also consider it bad luck to be any later than 15 minutes before the call time for a rehearsal or play. Call time at 5PM means be there by 4:45PM for good luck :)

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  4. What a great post! I love all this theater stuff. I'm surprised by many of the superstitions you pointed out!

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  5. Kate:

    Fun stuff! However, I noticed your list of "other taboos" has thirteen items...

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  6. I've been in theater since literally the womb and I am so happy to see that many of these superstitions are dying out in place of sheer practicality. Like the makeup spilling and sharing mirrors, when there are a million people running around trying to get ready, if you tried to hog a mirror or didn't clean up your mess, you're in trouble! Unfortunately, the whole MacBeth and Goodluck taboos are still alive and well.

    This was a fun list to read through, it is so silly how supertitious actors are!

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