10 Theatre Superstitions (And Where They Come From)

Written by Ashleigh Gardner

August 8, 2016

Ever tell somebody to “break a leg”? Or shoo someone out of the theatre after they’ve said “Macbeth”? There’s a reason theatre people live by superstitions, and they’re well-founded! Check out the list below for some common theatre superstitions and where they come from.

10. No real jewelry or money allowed on stage.

Superstition: Having money or real jewels/silver/gold onstage will result in missing props or broken sets.

Origin: In the Elizabethan theatre, it was common for money and jewels to go missing if an actor or technician was down on their luck. When props have real value, thieving members of the company (or trespassers in the theatre) might steal cash or jewelry used in the production.

9. Leave a seat open.

Superstition: Leaving a seat open for the theatre’s ghost will ensure a smooth production.

Origin: Many theatres have reported that their buildings contain spirits of people who have performed there, worked on a production as a technician, or were involved in the construction of the building (even if the person did not die there). It’s common for theatres to leave a seat or two open to honor the theatre ghosts. (Another thought is that if ghosts are watching the show, they won’t venture onstage to meddle with the production.)

8. Leave the ghost light on when you leave.

Superstition: Ghost lights are left on in respect of any spirits in the theatre, making sure to give them light after the living have left.

Origin: A “ghost light” is a single light typically placed downstage center that illuminates the edge of the stage. Many theatres have reports of ghosts who visit occasionally or maintain permanent residence in the building. But this superstition may help prevent more ghosts from inhabiting the theatre. Ghost lights are used so that a technician or an actor can find their way across the stage without tripping over the set or props in their search for a lightswitch.

7. Don’t wear blue.

Superstition: It’s bad luck to wear blue onstage unless you wear silver with it.

Origin: In the older days of theatre, blue was one of the most expensive dyes to obtain. Theatres that were struggling would use blue dye in their costumes to try fool their audiences into believing the theatre was successful. Inevitably, the theatre would go under because of the cost of the costumes. If a theatre had a wealthy donor (sometimes called an “angel”), they would be able to include both blue and silver in their costumes, proving the theatre was performing well financially.

6. Give the gift of graveyard flowers.

Superstition: It’s considered good luck to give actors flowers from a graveyard after the closing night of a show.

Origin: Many times, performers and their actor friends wouldn’t have enough money to buy fresh flowers from the market, so they went to a local cemetery and took flowers that had been left on a grave. Graveyard flowers are also given on closing night to represent the death of the show and the transient nature of theatre. (These days, it’s generally frowned upon to steal flowers from your local graveyard. Stick to aging your own bouquet by buying them a few days ahead of time.)

5. No mirrors onstage.

Superstition: Having mirrors onstage is considered bad luck; if one breaks, it means bad luck for the theatre, not just the performer.

Origin: Having mirrors onstage can cause many technical issues, like reflecting light back into the audience’s faces, into the eyes of technicians, or lighting areas of the stage that aren’t supposed to be lit.

4. Bad dress, good show!

Superstition: If you have a bad final dress rehearsal, you’ll have a stellar opening night.

Origin: Some theatre professionals think that bad opening nights are caused by actors becoming too comfortable with the success of their performances on final dress, and they therefore aren’t as focused and prepared on opening night.

3. No whistling in the theatre.

Superstition: It’s bad luck to whistle in the theatre; someone will be fired or injured soon thereafter.

Origin: Before walkies or comms were invented, techs would use a system of whistles to communicate with each other. If a tech other than the stage manager whistled, another tech might call a cue before it was due. For example, if a rigger heard a whistle too soon, they may have dropped a backdrop too early, causing serious injury to another technician or actor on stage.

2. Say, “Break a Leg!” not “Good luck!”

Superstition: Saying “Good luck!” to a performer will result in a string of bad luck for that evening’s performance.

Origins: There are a few origins of this particular superstition. The first comes from Elizabethan England when actors were sometimes thrown money after a good performance. They would kneel down to pick up the coins, “breaking” the straight line of their legs. Another origin comes from the vaudeville era when there were multiple acts scheduled, but not all went on. The curtains on the sides of the stage are called legs, and if a vaudeville actor were to “break a leg,” they would have made it onstage to perform that night (and get paid). The final origin comes from taking bows after a show. When an actor has finished a performance, they often place one leg behind another to bow during audience applause.

1. Don’t say Macbeth!

Superstition: Saying “Macbeth” when not performing the play will bring about a string of unfortunate events.

Origin: Often referred to as “The Scottish Play,” Macbeth was often performed by theatres that were in financial trouble. Companies would spend so much money on the production that they would go bankrupt instead of saving the theatre. The other explanation of this superstition lies in the legend that the witches’ lines in Shakespeare’s play are real incantations, and uttering the name of “Macbeth” without performing the play is seen as a mockery of the witches’ ceremony. The ritual used to counter the mention of “Macbeth” goes as follows (but is different with many theatres and troupes): exit the theatre, spin around three times, spit over your left shoulder, curse, and knock to be let back inside the theatre.

Ashleigh Gardner received her AA in Theatre/Drama/Dramatic Arts from Valencia College and her Bachelors Degree in English Literature and Masters Degree in Literary, Cultural, and Textual Studies from the University of Central Florida. She is a playwright, an actor, and PerformerStuff.com’s Editor. 
Photo credits:
#8: Photo by Yousef Al Nasser on Unsplash