“Break a leg!” To the theatre novice, that phrase, yelled at said novice before they take the stage, may sound a bit cruel and vindictive.
The uninitiated actor may be taken aback and, instead of pondering their lines as the curtain draws up, they’re left thinking “I don’t even know that guy! Why does he hate me so much? What did I do? And how does he plan to ensure that my leg gets broken?”
Well, gladly, most of us, even those of us who have never set foot on the stage, understand that “Break a leg!” is actually a well intentioned wish of good luck for the actor or actress and the performance that they are about to give.
That being said, it still sounds a bit harsh.
There is no doubt that theatre culture has its subtleties and its own set of rules, many of which are completely foreign to the outside world. Some of these fall under the heading “Superstition.” A few of these superstitions are incredibly fascinating and we have decided that theatre can’t keep these things to themselves anymore.
What follows is a listing, of sorts, of how one should conduct themselves when in a theatre production (or just in a theatre). Sit back now and enjoy this bit of subculture so very popular here at Interlochen Center for the Arts, and beyond!
Let’s start with the aforementioned “Break a leg!” It is considered bad luck within the theatre community to wish a performer “Good luck!” So, this phrase caught on as an acceptable replacement. The theories behind how this phrase gained popularity are many, but the most prevalent of them involve breaking “the line of the leg.” In other words, when one needs to kneel down after a performance and pick up all of the many flowers tossed onstage by the adoring audience, one is “breaking the line of the leg.” Similarly, the bow at the end is performed by placing one foot in front of the other and bending at the knee, once again “breaking the line of the leg.” Many other theories abound, including an actress who actually broke her leg and the fact that many curtain calls involve moving on and off the stage via the wings, causing a “break in the legs,” “legs” being the sides of the curtain. Who knows where this originated from?
Next, we’ll tackle ghosts. Theatres are often overrun with wispy apparitions and, as would be expected, they come with many rules and regulations attached. For example: there should always be a light burning in an empty theatre to ward off ghosts. However, one would assume that this light should be turned off for the one night per week all ghosts should have alone on the stage to offer up their own performances. This night is usually a Monday, which is rather convenient in that it magically results in a three day weekend for the theatre’s staff and actors.
Sticking to the slightly creepy, it is considered extreme good luck to give a bouquet of flowers to the director and leading lady after the closing night’s performance. Harmless enough, right? Wrong. These bouquets must be stolen from a graveyard. This tradition began, no doubt, back in the day when theatre performers were somewhat less than well compensated for their efforts and these folks took notice of the abundant free flowers available at nearby graveyards. The offering has now come to symbolize the death of the show and the fact that it can now be put to rest.
Moving on to whistling and how one should never do it backstage. This is also considered bad luck. This belief has carried on to this day, even though theatres have become somewhat more sophisticated. You see, in years gone by, a whistle would mean that a sand bag needed to be dropped or a scene was to come to an end or even that a que was fast approaching. One could literally be bludgeoned to death by a falling prop or cause an entire production to go into disarray with a bit of careless whistling.
When attending The Scottish Play (or perhaps The Bard’s Play), one must be quite careful to never utter its actual title within the theatre - Macbeth. This superstition is one of the most prevalent within the theatre world. Legend has it that Shakespeare his-own-self placed this curse, with the help of actual witches from whom he drew inspiration. He placed this curse so that no one, save for him, could properly direct this bit of theatre. If you say “Macbeth” in a theatre, thus cursing the entire performance, you can remove the curse in a number of ways: leave the theatre, spin three times while cursing, spit on the ground, then beg to be let back in; recite a line from another Shakespeare work; brush yourself off; run around the theatre counter-clockwise; repeat the name three times while tapping your left shoulder.
Ah yes, the art of theatre. It can mystify and bewilder. And it can certainly confuse. But now, you may consider yourself a bit of an insider, a bit less confused and a bit more cultured. It’s all a bit of wonderful, both on stage and behind!