Actors and theatre folk in general are notoriously superstitious. This is probably explained by the fact that there is so much potential for disaster involved in live performance, and it is useful to be able to blame catastrophe on powers beyond our control. Although it would be a gross generalisation to suggest that all actors believe in the various superstitions, most do observe the taboos for fear of upsetting their superstitious colleagues. Thus we find that in theatres all over the world, the following practices are right out:

  • Wishing people good luck: Perversely, "Good Luck" is the worst thing you can wish an actor before he or she goes on stage. The very utterance of those words, or indeed any analogous phrase, will inspire despair in the superstitious actor, who will take it as an omen that only bad luck will attend his or her performance. The favoured alternative is "Break a leg", but any formula of words which expresses your hope that the actor will be visited by physical injury is acceptable.
  • Whistling in the theatre: Whistling anywhere in a theatre building, either during rehearsals or performance, is anathema to the superstitious actor. If a careless assistant director or stage manager thoughtlessly whistles a cheerful tune while carrying out some technical task, you will see superstitious actors clutching at their heads in despair, as if the lighting rig were about to collapse around their ears.
  • Naming the Scottish play: Apart from actors who have to speak it as part of a line, the word "Macbeth" is not used in the theatre. Instead, Macbeth is termed "The Scottish Play", and woe betide any poor fool who pipes up, "Oh, you guys are rehearsing Macbeth, right? I love that play!" This particular superstition was sent up in a classic episode of Blackadder, in which the foppish actors had to perform a preposterous and painful ceremony whenever somebody said "Macbeth". Various ceremonies do exist to purge the ill fortune incurred by saying "Macbeth", but they are in general less elaborate.

These superstitions are perhaps on the wane in today's modern, scientific age, but one would be wrong to assume that it is kosher to make fun of them among other theatre folk. Some still take them seriously, and as theatre is the most collaborative of art forms, it is important to be sensitive to even the most irrational of your colleagues' preoccupations.

As an addition to the above, the reason why whistling in a theatre is considered bad luck:

Back in the days before cans sets (integrated headphones and a microphone to talk to other people working backstage) were around, the people doing the flying would communicate with each other with whistles. This would give them their cues to lower or raise scenery, or do anything else with regards to flying.

If you were walking across the stage, and happened to be whistling, then one of the flyers might think it was someone giving them a cue, and you may very well get something dropped on your head. Of course, these days, this is not an issue, but, like so many things, it has turned into a superstition.


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Macbeth The Scottish Play
Much of the superstition of Macbeth the Scottish Play originates from witchcraft which is featured prominently in Macbeth the Scottish Play. The invocation of the Powers of Evil has supposably conjured devils at the first performance of Doctor Faustus in 1592 (or there abouts).

Some rationale for the Scottish Curse has been the dim lighting which makes it much easier to make a mistake or trip over something. Furthermore, there are 8 scenes that involve combat (with axes, daggers, swords, etc...). Adding in the fog or smoke (which makes the stage slippery and things hard to see) and trap doors and other theater special effects, there are many opportunities for the accident prone novice, and more than enough for even a seasoned veteran to spawn a disaster. And just for fun, toss in the fact that it is the shortest of Shakespeare's plays and thus the least likely to be completely rehearsed (something added at the last minute to the repertoire, after all, everyone knows Macbeth the Scottish Play).

Break a leg
In many places (including gambling) it is bad luck to wish someone good luck. Thus, the flip of the luck. Another possible origin is that it was a wish to literally break the leg - or rather, bend the knee as part of a deep bow to acknowledge the applause. May other possible origins abound.

It is bad luck to whistle on stage
When the modern theater was still in its infancy, people were needed to be stagehands. Where can you find someone who is familiar with knots and not afraid of high places. The first stagehands were likely to have been sailors (who brought with them a whole host of superstitions themselves). The way that sailors communicated much as they did on the ship - with whistles. Consider, what would happen if you whistled the sound for 'drop set' while standing under it. Bad luck indeed.

It is bad luck to knit in the wings
With the combination of the magic of knots and the use of knots in the theater this superstition has grown. Nowdays, it is more of intrest to knitters than the actors and stage crew.

It is forbidden to say the last line of a play, except in performance

The "R Word"
Heavy cord. It is considered rude in some circles to say the word in the theater, for in an earlier age, it spelled the end for many actors.

The Ghost Light
Often, a lamp is left burning in center stage when the theater is unoccupied. While this acts as a night light, it also keeps the theater ghosts from becoming lonely and resentful.
The superstition about "The Scottish Play" seems to stem from two sources:

1) The more mild, and seemingly more logical argument is that theatres only produce Macbeth when they are in financial trouble and about to go under, because the show always sells. It's classic, easy to understand Shakespeare, it's famous, and it's short - the shortest of the Bard's plays. So the superstition goes, that you (as an actor) don't want to be employed in a company doing Macbeth, as you're likely to be out of work soon.

2) The more extreme and superstitious argument is that The Three Witch's curses in the play are real, and therefore the play itself is cursed. Believers of this superstition often frequently believe that it's just as bad, or worse, to quote from the play - as you would invoke a curse on the production. Some even go to the lengths that they won't say the name of the play or quote it even outside the theatre, as you'll curse everything in sight.

As stated above, there probably as many ways of removing the curse you put on the theatre / production as there are actors. The way I was taught, goes something like the following:
1. You must leave the theatre and go outside.
2. Turn around three times, clockwise.
3. Spit over your left shoulder.
4. Swear.
5. Say "Angels and Ministers of Grace defend us." (Incidentally, this is a line from Hamlet, but I am unsure as to why this particular phrase is uttered.)
6. Depending on how superstitious the cast and director are, you may be required to ask permission to return to rehearsal, etc.

Keep in mind, whether or not an actor believes that either of the above reasons for the curse are true, virtually any actor will be mortified if you utter "Macbeth" inside or around the theatre. As a general rule, just don't do it. The only accepted reason for saying it in a theatre is if the play is being produced. When referring to the characters of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth, it's best to say "Big Mac" and "Lady M.," or something along those lines.

In any case, just don't do it, as actors are generally a wild and ravenous bunch (due to lack of money for food), and will likely tear you to shreds if you take the word “Macbeth” lightly.

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