Break a Leg! Superstition and the Theatre

The theatre world has always had its own rules, language and superstitions, but have you ever stopped to wonder just why this is the case? How did the phrase "break a leg" come to mean "good luck!" and why is whistling around a stage bad luck? While these rules may be closely observed and passed down through the years, the reasons that they became rules may just surprise you.

1 - Break a Leg

If you ever want to see an actor get upset, wish them "good luck" just before they go on stage. However well it is meant, this is just taboo inside the theatre world and you may see the recipient of your good wishes break out in cold sweats at the sound of it. The reasons for this vary depending on who you speak to, but just some possible explanations are:

  • That a performer should be so energetic or sing so high and loud that they "break" the legs of the stage. These days, the legs of the stage are the side curtains.

  • That evil sprites inhabited the theatre and would try to do the opposite of what was said. So if you wished good luck on a performer, the worst would happen and vice versa if you wished bad things for them.

  • In Shakespearean days, break sometimes meant bend. It could be that the well-wisher meant the performer to do so well that they had lots of bows at the end of the show.

While the origins of the phrase have been lost to history, it is definitely best to avoid saying good luck anywhere near a theatre!

2 - Mirrors

It is rare to find a mirror used on stage and it is often said that to have a mirror on stage will end in a bad show or bad luck for the performers. While it is true that it is a well known superstition that breaking a mirror will lead to seven years of bad luck, the lack of mirrors on stage is probably down to the sheer impracticality of having a highly reflective surface on stage. There are probably two main reasons for this:

  • Stages have to be lit just so to make sure that audiences can see the action and the last thing a tech crew will want is a mirror throwing light in all the wrong directions or dazzling a poor audience member. Those spotlights are bright and looking at them (even a reflection) can get old very quickly.

  • A mirror is reflective and if you are stood to one side of a mirror that is set at an angle, you can be sure that anything or anyone you can see is also able to see you. The magical world that is created on stage ends at the wings and the backstage area can be extremely utilitarian and functional: the last thing anyone wants is for audience members to be able to what's happening in the wings and have their enjoyment ruined.

This is not so much of an issue anymore because we have tricks that can be used to cut down on a mirror's reflective qualities and modern lights can also be very finely tuned and focused: that said, any time a director talks about using a mirror on stage, this is always accompanied by plenty of groans from the actors!

3 - Whistling

It is a big no no to whistle on or even backstage. The reasons given for this can sometimes be fantastical, including tales of ghosts and spirits! The reality however is much more prosaic and practical.

The original stagehands were often out of work sailors who had been trained to communicate using whistles. Certain whistles would be used to give different commands such as raising or lowering set pieces and could even mean to drop the heavy candelabra suspended above the stage.

For someone who didn't understand the whistles this could end up being fatal and so the rule was set - no whistling anywhere around a stage.

4 - Keep the Light On!

Oddly, this one is not practised at the Prim Raf Theatre (electricity costs you know!) but it has historically been a rule in theatres that a single light is left on at all times to illuminate the stage. This is often said to ward off bad spirits or to keep the ghosts happy, but it's more practical than that.

In most theatres the light switches for the main lighting are hidden away; there are also many obstacles and dangers such as small rat runs, orchestra pits and other equipment. It can be a hazard for the first in or last out to have to navigate this maze in the dark, so the light was left on. In our theatre, we have light switches that can be accessed before someone has to enter the auditorium or working areas, so the light doesn't have to stay on.

5 - The Green Room

This one is not so much a superstition, but is ubiquitous in the world of theatre. Why is the cast's rest area called a green room even if the walls and floors are often any colour but green?

One theory suggests that this goes back to the days of limelight, which was used before electricity. Limelight gave out an intense light that hurt the actor's eyes and left green ghosting in their vision. The green room (painted green back then) was supposed to be soothing to their eyes after being on stage.

There are plenty of other theories, but one notable theory relates to the makeup worn by actors in the past. It needed time to cure after it was applied or it would crack and peel on stage in the lights. The "green" makeup would be given time to cure in the green room where the actors could sit quietly and not move around.

I hope you enjoyed finding out about some of the rules and superstitions that exist in the theatre. There are plenty of others such as never naming "The Scottish Play" or never taking real money on stage. The theatre really is a world of its own.

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