SOM logo

Contrary to what many “non-theatre people” may think, the actor’s experience of being part of a production is much more than just the characterizations you see onstage. The backstage community develops and grows just as the onstage performances do. We learn a little more each day about the others we share our performance time with – more about their lives, and especially their likes and dislikes.

The backstage area is a varied scene. Many actors and actresses are so busy within the show that they pretty much confine themselves to their dressing rooms – not out of a sense of isolationism, but entirely because they have stuff to do to get ready for their next scene. Those of us who have limited roles, whether in characterizations or scene changes or helping someone with a rapid costume change, have a lot of time to sit and chat or joke – swapping knowledge and stories.

Topics of discussion range from such normal things as food, television theme songs and personal theatre histories to bizarre tales of spiders, our families or other life experiences beyond the pale. A recent chat, for example, had to do with theatre superstitions. In this case, the boys in our dressing room naively talked about “Macbeth” and had said the Shakespearean tragedy’s title three times when I decided to step in and educate them to the somewhat prevalent superstitious belief that saying that play’s name inside a theatre may cause bad things to happen to the production there, or the actual building, or both. You never say “Macbeth”, you say instead, “the Scottish play”. If someone speaks the forbidden title, they must wipe away the curse by going outside the theatre building, spinning three times, spitting, cursing and then and only then, knocking on the theatre door to ask permission to reenter.

One of the boys took to the notion immediately, and the other did not.

So, I decided to look up the origin of this superstition (and others in the theatre community) so that I better understood it’s origin and it’s power.

Googling “Macbeth superstition”, I found a page on the website Wikipedia entitled “Theatre superstitions” – just what I was looking for. On this page I found out that Shakespeare’s play “Macbeth” is considered a “cursed” play.

Quoting the Wikipedia entry on this page: There are several possible origins for this superstition. One is the assumption that the song of the Weird Sisters is an actual spell that will bring about evil spirits. Another is that there is more swordplay in it than most other Shakespeare plays, and the more swordplay must be rehearsed and performed, the more chances there are for someone to get injured. Yet another idea is that the play is often run by theatres that are in debt and looking to increase patronage. Another superstition is the belief that the Globe Theatre was burned down during a performance of Macbeth, but it is revealed that this was actually during a performance of Henry VIII.

There is also a legend that the play itself was cursed because the first time it was ever performed, the actor playing Macbeth died shortly before or after the production (accounts vary). Another version of this legend claims that it was the actor who played Lady Macbeth who died during the play’s first production run and that Shakespeare himself had to assume the role. There is no evidence that either version of this legend is factual.

Another legend states that Macbeth was cursed by witches because the play revealed their secrets.

Another legend claims that the original production of the play used actual witches and witchcraft, and so the play is cursed.

Given this rather flimsy set of explanations, my own feelings about the “curse” are challenged. Though I am not a superstitious person by nature, I have normally gone along with the notion that, “hey – we don’t say that particular play title inside a theatre”. When I ask myself – “why not?” – I cannot explain it other than to say, it is just theatre lore (and frankly, I don’t want to be the one who finds it necessary to stand outside the theatre, whirling three times, spitting, cursing and asking permission to reenter.)

Another superstition of note is the well accepted notion that one doesn’t wish another performer “good luck” before they go out on stage. Saying good luck is bad luck. And interestingly, almost everyone, whether they are engaged in theatre or not, knows of the preference to say – “break a leg” instead. But what are the origins of this well-known and long-standing show business belief?

Once again turning to Wikipedia, I learned the following interesting possibilities. As written on that site:

1) To “break a leg” is archaic slang for bowing or curtsying; placing one foot behind the other and bending at the knee “breaks” the line of the leg. In theatre, pleased audiences may applaud for an extended time allowing the cast to take multiple curtain calls, bowing to the audience. (from phrases.org.uk)

2) In the time of Ancient Greece, people didn’t clap. Instead, they stomped for their appreciation and if they stomped long enough, they would break a leg. Or, some would have it that the term originated during Elizabethan times when, instead of applause the audience would bang their chairs on the ground — and if they liked it enough, the leg of the chair would break. (From “Theatre Superstitions – Steppenwolf Theatre”)

3) One popular, but false, etymology derives the phrase from the 1865 assassination of Abraham Lincoln. The story goes that John Wilkes Booth, the actor turned assassin, claimed in his diary that he broke his leg leaping to the stage of Ford’s Theatre after murdering the President. While Booth’s roles as an actor are not well remembered, wishing an actor to “break a leg” is to wish them a performance worthy of remembrance. However, the fact that actors did not start wishing each other to “break a leg” until the 1920s (more than 50 years later) makes this an unlikely source. Furthermore the phrase has distinct origins in other languages that well predate the late 19th century. (From Mark Israel, ‘Phrase Origins: “Break a leg!” – mainly, among other sources)

4) There are many non-literal references this expression could be referring to, among them:
a) A popular alternative theory concerning the physical “legs,” or side curtains, of the theatre proposes that the company of actors should rush onstage through the curtains to take a considerable amount of bows, thus “breaking a leg (side curtain)” in the process. (From Worldwide Words)
b) To get a leg up, and catch your big / lucky break. (from phrases.org.uk)

5) In the days of Vaudeville, companies would book more performers than could possibly make it onstage, but would only pay those who performed. Since the Renaissance, legs have been used as part of the masking in proscenium theaters, which remain the most popular style of theater to this day. Thus, to make it on stage, one had to enter the line of sight of the audience or “break a leg”, to be paid. (From “Theatre Superstitions – Steppenwolf Theatre”)

All these theories, but no definitive answer – it always seems that way with superstitions and the like, doesn’t it?

Meanwhile, I am sure our backstage talk will continue to look for oddities, solutions and better ways to do almost everything.

If you are interested in attending Rodgers and Hammerstein’s The Sound of Music at Beef and Board Dinner Theatre in Indianapolis, ticket information can be found by calling 317-872-9664. The show opens May 16 and runs thru June 30. Further info about the show can be found at http://www.beefandboards.com .

*Show picture from The Sound of Music by Julie Curry

Advertisements