10 of the best: Theatre superstitions

Image: Curtain Call of The Taming of the Shrew, Shakespeare's Globe 2016, © Matt Humphrey

You can’t work in the theatre industry for long without encountering one of these long-held superstitions

1. ‘Break a leg’

Saying ‘break a leg’ rather than ‘good luck’ before a performance is de rigueur for theatre pros. One origin of the phrase is the idea that when you take a bow, you break the line of the leg, so the more often you do this the better the performance has been.

2. Saying ‘Macbeth’

Beware the theatre professional that utters the name of ‘The Scottish Play’ backstage – you’ll be met by a chorus of tuts. There are many theories why saying ‘Macbeth’ is bad luck; one idea is that old rep companies staged the play as a guaranteed money-maker when times were hard, so the mere suggestion of it was considered an omen. Not everyone adheres to it though: When Curtain Call interviewed James McAvoy he told us he has no qualms about saying Macbeth, adding: “even Harry Potter says  Voldermort”.

3. Theatre ghosts

Theatreland is awash with ghosts, from famed pantomime dame Dan Leno at the Theatre Royal Drury Lane, to Sir Herbert Beerbohm Tree at Her Majesty’s. The ‘ghost light’ that keeps a stage lit when no performance is taking place is believed to deter their presence.

4. Whistling in the wings

It’s considered bad luck to whistle backstage. This one has a very clear origin: Stage managers used to whistle their cues, so an idle whistle could easily be misinterpreted by the stage crew. In the age of mics and cans, you’re probably fine.

5. Sleeping with the script

Some actors swear that if you sleep with the script under your pillow you  subconsciously  learn the lines as you slumber. It has no basis in science, but we’d be lying if we said we hadn’t tried it! 

6. Mirror mirror on the wall

The presence of mirrors on stage is considered bad luck by some. The reasoning is both practical (mirrors can reflect lights into the audience), and psychological (especially vain actors may be distracted by their own reflections).

7. Peacock feathers

Another item considered bad luck on stage is the peacock feather, which has had associations with the curse of the ‘evil eye’ since Greek times. This is not a superstition unique to theatre, but has been adhered to by many costume departments down the years.

8. Doctor Theatre

Actors often refer to the supernatural effects that performing can have on ill-health. Many have got through performances in far from ideal condition due to a sure-fire combination of adrenaline, focus and Berocca. 

9. Wearing blue

The idea that wearing blue costumes is unlucky goes back to the days when blue dye used to be very expensive, so theatre companies that used a lot of it would often find themselves in tough financial straits. And conversely, they would often use it as a desperate way of proving their wealth.

10. Flowers

No first night is complete without a dressing room filled with bouquets. But ideally they should be given after the performance – no-one wants to jinx it by giving them beforehand. Although a rare sight now, flowers used to be tossed on stage at the curtain call – or rotten vegetables if it hadn’t gone well.

Image: Curtain Call of The Taming of the Shrew, Shakespeare’s Globe 2016, © Matt Humphrey