We actors are a fanciful people. We enjoy drama. We invest a good portion of our life to it. We believe that what we do and say is important enough to warrant an audience and we find joy in exploiting our own emotions for the enjoyment of others. A culture so rich in highs and lows could not be without a tradition or two. We just tend to choose superstitions as traditions. These are my top five favorite traditions and their origins as passed down to me. I could research the origins. I suppose, but that would defeat the purpose. These were passed to me by oral tradition. And I want them passed to you intact. And besides, as a bloke much smarter than myself once said,
“Never let the truth get in the way of a good yarn.” -Mark Twain
1. The Scottish Play. It is rumored that ill fate will befall the cast of any show should the name of the Scottish King be spoken. Macbeth. The story, as it was told to me, is this. The play was commissioned by King James I. He was fascinated by the occult and in fact wrote one of the first books on the subject. Shakespeare, wanting to cater to James’ fancies added the witches. And used actual spells for the witches lines. Thus the curse was born and is perpetuated as long as the play continues to be produced. Fortunately, their are as many remedies as their are productions of the play. They all seem to involve leaving the theater spitting, swearing, turning, knocking, waiting to be invited back in, and apologizing to the cast. (I do all of them, just to be safe) And let the record show that some of the most reasonable and cynical actors I know have sworn to the truth of the curse.
2. Never whistle back stage. This one seems to have pretty reasonable roots and is generally agreed upon. Before the time of pin rails and counter weight fly systems back stage was crewed by sailors. Hence so much of our nautical terminology. Deck. Crew. Etc. These sailors would cue each other by whistling. So, an actor whistling back stage might accidentally fly in a prop or end up with a sand bag on his head.
3. Break a leg It is considered bad luck to wish someone good luck in the theater. Now, I am not sure that this one is true, but man, I like the explanation. In the days of the Globe, women were not permitted to act. So, yes, Juliet was a dude. And during bows, should the cast get a standing ovation, they would bow a second time by curtseying. Thus, breaking a leg for the second bow. So the expression “Break a leg.” In its day meant ‘get a standing ovation’.
4. Ghost Light There should always be a light burning in an empty theater to ward off ghosts. A light is turned on and placed downstage center to give ghosts enough light to see by, which keeps them at bay. This began for a much more obvious reason. The backstage area of a theater is usually full with props, set pieces and costumes. This gives people crossing these areas a light to see by. It’s also known as the “Equity Light” or “Equity Lamp” because Equity rules require a light on in the theater at all times. This light is often named "Stanley".
5. Peacock feathers – Peacock Feathers should never be brought on stage. The Peacock Feather is said to be the evil eye of Argus. Argus was a monster whose body was covered in peacock feathers and these eyes were cast to the tail of a peacock by the Greek gods. So, a theater fool hardy enough to allow them onto the stage shall suffer the wrath of the curse of Argus.
These are my favorites. Which begs the question, “Do I believe?” I will say this: I am not a superstitious man. Yet, I adhere to these superstitions. I do it for two reasons. One is simple. To respect the process of my fellow actors that do believe. But more importantly, it is because they are traditions! We actors have our own language. Up is down. Down is up. Right is left. Left is right. Lights are lamps. Stages are decks. Curtains are rags. We have our own beliefs. Ghosts. Grey men. Thespis. Good luck. Bad luck. And we have our own superstitions that have grown to be traditions. Believe or not, I am happy to be part of this subculture and revel in the opportunity to take part in its traditions. And besides, it is better to be safe than sorry.