Break Your Leg But Never Whistle: How Stage Superstitions Live On


Theaters are superstitious places, places of myth, ceremony and invocation. And no stage superstition has more adherents than that which shrouds Shakespeare’s Scottish play: Whoever in a theater speaks the name of Macbeth aloud, except when rehearsing or performing the play, risks catastrophe.

“I said the title of the Scottish play on stage,” playwright Lynn Nottage recently recalled. “And the next day, my mother died.”

When Will Smith slapped Chris Rock at this year’s Oscars, Twitter wags invoked the curse. Moments before the fight, Rock greeted Denzel Washington, a star of Joel Coen’s ‘The Tragedy of Macbeth’, saying, “‘Macbeth!’ I loved !” When performances of the current Broadway revival of “Macbeth” were canceled after its frontman, Daniel Craig, tested positive for the coronavirus, talk of the curse swirled again.

Admittedly, the “Macbeth” ban originated in nonsense, as an invention of 19th-century critic and essayist Max Beerbohm. In 1898, Beerbohm wrote a column claiming, incorrectly, that a young male actor had died just before the play’s debut. But the taboo caught on, and stories of “Macbeth”-adjacent injuries, accidents, and deaths began to pile up. (Fear not: if you say the name by accident, you can counter the curse by leaving the theater, performing a ritual that often involves spinning and spitting, then asking to return.)

More recently, this taboo has accompanied other stage shibboleths – don’t say “good luck”, don’t wear green, don’t give flowers, don’t whistle, don’t put mirrors on stage, always leave a light on.

Superstition is not unique to the theater, of course. But as Marvin Carlson, drama teacher and author of “The Haunted Stage” pointed out, theater encourages otherworldly thinking. “There are very few haunted banks,” he said. “But they say most theaters are haunted. This is a very, very common feature. There is clearly something in the aura of theaters.

Anjna Chouhan, lecturer in Shakespeare studies, agreed: “These are weird spaces, aren’t they? These are weird spaces where people are performing fantasy, and the emotions are so strong.

A lot of things can go wrong during live performance – a missed line, a missed cue, a wonky prop. Chouhan suggested that actors may subscribe to superstitions and engage in very particular rituals before and after the show in order to keep this eventuality at bay. “There’s a lot to be said for ritual and routine,” Chouhan said. “It’s how you exercise control over things that can’t be controlled.”

Some actors always leave the dressing room on a certain footing, others say a prayer. Some wear lucky charms. “When you take on a character, you’re doing something dangerous. You’re kind of messing with your essence or your soul,” Carlson explained. “You’re taking a charm to protect yourself as much as you can.”

The Times spoke to a handful of performers currently in Broadway shows — believers and skeptics — about superstitions, personal rituals and whether they’ve ever had a moment in theater that flirted with the supernatural. (No “Macbeth” actors would participate. Is there any superstition associated with talking to reporters?) These are edited excerpts from the conversations.

Are there any theatrical superstitions you subscribe to?

Definitely the one on “Macbeth”. Definitely break a leg.

Have you ever had a theatrical experience that seemed out of the ordinary?

The first day we moved into The Booth, the original theater in which “For Colored Girls” opened, there were things falling. In our dressing room, we put a bag on a shelf and it just fell. Kenita Miller is my locker room teammate. We both looked at each other, like, “Oh, Ntozake is here. She is there to greet space.

Do you have a ritual before the show?

I turn on the palo santo for good vibes, good energy. And I play a lot of music just to get in the mood. I’m carrying some crystals that a member of our wardrobe team gave us. If I have to stay focused, I’ll wear a tiger’s eye. If I want to make sure I’m really on top of my voice, I’ll wear blue. This is the throat chakra.

Is there anything special that you keep in your dressing room?

I have a photo of my great-aunt. Her name is Mary Childs. She was an interpreter in her time. A tap dancer. When I was riding she was so encouraging. So I take her to the theatre.

Are there any theatrical superstitions you subscribe to?

I subscribe to most of them. I broke the cardinal about a week ago, said the name of the Scottish play. So I had to go out. I had to do everything.

Have you ever had an experience at the theater that seemed out of the ordinary?

All the time. Some people are scared of this stuff. I welcome it. Interestingly enough, we went to Yankee Stadium a week or two ago. We went to the bullpen in the outfield. There was so much energy there. So yes, I absolutely believe in it. And I like to think I’m sensitive to it. I try to submit to it, to embrace it.

Do you have a ritual before the show?

Before going on stage, I find a place in the theater and I get down on my knees and surrender to the universe, I simply express my gratitude for this opportunity.

Have you ever had an experience at the theater that seemed out of the ordinary?

Never in a creepy or frightening way. But every time I walk into an old house on Broadway, I get on stage and look at the house and think of the amazing people who have seen that exact sight before me. I took the stage here at the Barrymore, where the original “Streetcar” was. I said “Stella!”

Do you have a ritual before the show?

I made my debut on Broadway in “La Cage Aux Folles”. An actress, Christine Andreas, told me to come down on stage when the audience comes in to feel their energy and send your energy. I’ve done this since.

What about an after-show ritual?

I reward myself with a pint of ice cream.

Have you ever had an experience at the theater that seemed out of the ordinary?

I’ve been to theaters by myself. When I was on tour in Scotland, there was this room that had a piano that I played on. One night I was up there all alone. And I certainly felt something. There was nobody, but I had the impression that someone was there.

Do you have a ritual before the show?

I have to floss and brush my teeth before I go on stage. I want this clarity in my mouth. It’s a reset point. So before the show, and at intermission, I floss and brush my teeth.

Or an after-show ritual?

I like to sip a tequila and a good Japanese whiskey waiting for me. But it depends on the room. Sometimes it’s hard to get rid of and I need a shower. It’s this idea of ​​cleaning.

Have you ever had an experience in a theater that seemed out of the ordinary?

I am often the last person to leave. You would think because of all these rumors and stories, that it would be a scary place. But there is no more peaceful and comfortable place to be than alone in a theater. It really is the most magical feeling, just feeling protected and not alone.

Do you have a ritual before the show?

The only ritual I have is to warm up. It takes about 45 minutes. I like to do it at home. I don’t want to worry about who can hear me.

Or an after-show ritual?

During “Waitress” [while playing the show’s protagonist, Jenna], I did – whiskey and usually a bag of potato chips. My voice doctor at the time told me, “You have to leave her in the theater. You can’t take her home. It literally hurts you, bringing his pain home with you. I loved him so much. I didn’t want to leave her.

Are there any theatrical superstitions you subscribe to?

Not whistling is one. The other has a light on somewhere. You never want to see a dark scene.

Have you ever had a theater experience that was out of the ordinary?

At Empire Hackney. It’s in London. It’s a place where Laurence Olivier has played and all the other great British actors. They were always talking about how he had ghosts. I remember arriving early one day and hearing the locker room doors close. I went upstairs and there was no one there.

Do you have a ritual before the show?

I have a piece of chain August Wilson gave me on the opening night of my first Broadway show, “Gem of the Ocean,” and I have a picture of my dead wife. So it’s the ritual: I blow him a kiss and I hold this piece of chain.

Do you have a ritual before the show?

When I get to the theater, which is usually at least an hour before curtain time, the first thing I always do is put on my costume. I don’t really function in my role until I put the costume on. People laugh at me, but if I don’t, I get really nervous.

Or an after-show ritual?

I try to be the last actor out of the building. Honestly, I feel like I’m locking up the theater for the night. I don’t know why I like it.

Is there anything special that you keep in your dressing room?

I’m very into smells. I have a cool mist diffuser and 12 different scent bottles. I try never to have the same perfume twice.

Are there any theatrical superstitions you subscribe to?

I’m not saying good luck. It’s always breaking a leg. The good news is that I can’t whistle. So I don’t have to worry about it.

Do you have a post-show ritual?

It’s either a hot Epsom salt bath or a cold immersion bath, which is a nightmare. And I have these air compression boots that I put on at home. If I don’t do one, I feel like it’s going to affect the next day’s show.

Is there anything special that you keep in your dressing room?

It’s called a miraculous medal [a devotional item]. I first discovered them through my late mother. Whenever someone was sick or going through a loss, she gave them to people. There was one she had that was very special. We pinned her when she passed. It means a lot to me. So when I get nervous, that’s my talisman.

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