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Theatre Lore: Where does it come from?

There are many superstitions and traditions associated with theatres and theatre people, who may or may not be more superstitious than the rest of the populace. Live performances have often been interrupted by strange or dangerous events-like assassinations, audience revolts, fires and ghostly visits-leading theatre folk to invoke the support of Lady Luck. Following is a list of ways of courting good luck and avoiding bad with some explanations of possible origins:

Never wish an actor "Good Luck!" before a performance; instead say "Break a Leg!"

To break a leg in this context may mean to bend the knee, as one does when one is kneeling to someone else, or possibly curtseying to the audience during a curtain call. You may be saying "I hope you have to take a lot of bows after the performance!"

Don't avoid black cats.

Speaking of luck, in most contexts a black cat is considered a sign of bad luck, and we'll avoid having one cross our path. In the theatre, the opposite is true. If you see a black cat backstage, or have one rub against you, you may deliver a better than usual performance.

Wish an opera singer "toi toi toi" (rhymes with "joy") instead of "Break a leg."

This is symbolic for spitting over the other person's shoulders three times. We couldn't find the origin of this practice, but visitors to this site may have some theories.

Don't whistle onstage or backstage.

In the old days, sailors were often employed backstage and the same whistled cues they gave each other for raising and lowering sails on water were used to raise and lower scenery and drops. An unauthorized whistle might result in an unexpected piece of scenery or counter-weight dropping from above the stage.

Avoid using real mirrors onstage.

Mirrors break, and that brings bad luck. They can also distract an actor and break concentration. And they are fiendishly difficult to light, reflecting beams of light from the lighting instruments in hard-to-control ways.

Avoid using peacock feathers onstage.

The "eye" on the peacock feather may refer to the Evil Eye.

Actors shouldn't peek through the curtain at the audience before the show.

This superstition seems a bit strange in a world where many theatres no longer use the curtain, but the curtain has been a presence in theatre for centuries, and there were traditions and superstitions associated with it. So, if you do peek through a curtain before a show, you may see someone in the audience-friend, relative or critic-whose presence may make you nervous and unable to give your best performance. Or someone in the audience may see you, and be distracted. Practically speaking, bodies lurking behind the curtain can shake the curtain, create bumps, and generally compromise the desired pre-show effect of smooth professionalism.

Avoid quoting from Shakespeare's Macbeth, or even mentioning the name.

You'll hear actors referring to "The Scottish play" or "Lady M". The play features three witches (!!!) and has had a history of disasters associated with it-a bad luck double-whammy. Actors or backstage visitors who break taboos surrounding "the Scottish play" must leave the theatre, turn around three times outside the stage door, spit, swear and ask to be let back in. Another less elaborate remedy is for the offender to say, "Angels and minister of grace defend us!" while quickly crossing him or herself.

Avoid wearing the colour green.

The "Limelight" of 18th and 19th century theatres canceled the various shades of green when used in costumes and sets. Check out the Info Zone to find out other reasons why green was unpopular in the theatre.

Most of the many theatrical superstitions (and we've listed only a few) originate in the efforts of theatre people down the centuries who wanted to produce excellent, effective and safe shows. Theatres can be dangerous places: scenery flies up and down, actors move from bright light to dark wings, props and set pieces may end up in the wrong place and become dangerous obstacles, hazardous materials - both toxic and flammable - are commonly used in set and prop building and decorating. We learn a lot about theatre history and theatre conditions by examining what our predecessors feared and courted. What superstitions will we pass down?

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