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5 Theatrical Traditions and Where They Come From


What do you mean ‘break a leg’?

Theatre folk are a superstitious breed! There are several well-known traditions still observed today, here are their origins…

1. NEVER say good luck, say ‘break a leg’

There are many theories on the origins of ‘Break a leg’, including, simply, that it was another way to say ‘take a bow’.

It has also been traced back to 1766 when Samuel Foote, the Manager of the London’s Little Theatre, was thrown from his horse and broke his leg. Foote had been riding with the Duke of York, who had given Foote a bad horse as a prank. The Duke of York felt so bad about the accident he granted Foote the theatre license he had spent years lobbying for. The Little Theatre became the Theatre Royal Haymarket and the saying ‘Break a leg’ came to represent achieving success out of disaster.

2. NEVER leave the stage completely dark

A light, often a bare bulb, is still left on the stage of many theatres so it is never completely dark. This is called the Ghost Light.

In the early nineteenth century theatres were, to their peril, lit by gas. There were hundreds of theatres fires between the installation of the first gas lighting system in Philadelphia in 1816  and London’s Savoy Theatre becoming the first to be electrically lit in 1881 . Leaving a flame burning overnight would prevent pressure building up in the gas lines and a subsequent explosion. 

It is also believed to give the theatre’s ghosts a light to perform by, so they don’t curse the production!

3. NEVER use a Peacock Feather onstage

A peacock feather onstage is believed by many thespians to cause bad luck, technical failures and general chaos.

The feather’s pattern includes the ‘evil eye’ , an ancient curse mentioned by Plutarch, Plato and even in the Bible.  But roots for this fear can also be found in the thirteenth century. A favoured decoration of the East, peacock feathers have been associated with the Mongol hordes . The Mongols terrified the Europeans, by 1242 they had invaded as far as Hungary. It was only the death Ögedei Khan (successor of Genghis Khan) that prevented the hordes advancing into Austria and the rest of Europe.

4. NEVER say Macbeth in the theatre

Saying ‘Macbeth’ in the theatre is believed to curse a production, most thespians refer to it instead as ‘The Scottish Play’.  Recent Macbeth disasters include an actor being struck by Kenneth Branagh’s sword during his 2013 production. 

A death during the first ever production in 1606 and the supernatural language of the play have been blamed for the curse , but it is most likely related to the popularity of the show. Macbeth has always been a crowd pleaser and theatre companies, running out of money, would perform it as a final (normally unsuccessful) resort. 

The large amount of violence onstage (at least 6 murders, a suicide and a battle)  have also contributed to the incident count…

5. NEVER whistle in a theatre

Flying set pieces began appearing in theatres from the mid seventeenth century, the first Venetian Opera House opened in 1637 and English travellers reported back that they had seen “admirable change(s) of scenery, noble settings of the riches kind, machines and wonderful flying chariots”.  

Seventeenth century sailors often found employment rigging and flying in theatres. As on a ship, they used to communicate with each other through whistles, different whistles meaning commands like ‘bring the set in’ and ‘all clear’. If an unlucky actor happened to be walking across the stage whistling, they could find a set piece coming down from above…

Ps. Other theatre superstitions include: 

  • Never apply make-up with a rabbit’s foot
  • Never say the last lines of a show before opening night
  • Never paint the Green Room green
  • Never open a show on a Friday
  • Never place shoes or hats on dressing room furniture
  • Never knit in the wings
  • Never wear new make-up on opening night
  • Never say the Theatre is closed (that could invoke the plague) instead say it’s ‘dark’
  • And NEVER exit the dressing room right foot first