Theatrical Superstitions

 In Theatre Blog

NOTE: The opinions expressed within this article belong solely to the Author and do not necessarily reflect those of the Elmwood Playhouse itself or its governing body or volunteers.

The Ghost Light

A ghost light should always be burning in an empty theatre. A “dark” theatre is a theatre without a play. There is nothing sadder than an empty house and a stage without play. Elmwood Playhouse is never really dark, as there are always workshops, rehearsals, construction, children’s theatre programs, and our second stage series, Sundays at 7. Traditionally, the light is placed downstage center. That is, closest to the audience, center stage. Several reasons are given for this, all having to do with ghosts:

  • The light wards off ghosts.
  • A theater’s ghosts always want to have enough light to see. Failure to provide this may anger them, leading to pranks or other mishaps.
  • It prevents non-spectral personnel from having to cross the stage in the dark, falling off the stage, and becoming ghosts themselves.

Another ghost-related superstition is that the theater should always be closed one night a week to give the ghosts a chance to perform their own plays or relive their glory days. This is traditionally on Monday night, conveniently giving actors a day off after weekend performances.

One specific ghost, Thespis, holds a place of privilege in theater lore. On what has been estimated to be November 23, 534 BCE, Thespis of ancient Athens was the first person to speak lines as an individual actor on stage (hence the term “thespian”). If you don’t have your own ghost(s), any unexplainable mischief that befalls a production can be blamed on Thespis.

Break A Leg #@%!!

“May you break your leg,” meaning that the performance should be so wonderful that the actor would be obliged to break the leg – that is – bend the knee – in a deep bow acknowledging the audience’s applause.

It is considered bad luck to wish someone good luck in a theater. If someone says “good luck”, they must go out of the theatre, turn around 3 times, spit, curse, then knock on the door and ask to be readmitted to the theatre. (This is the same ritual one is supposed to use when accidentally mentioning or quoting from The Scottish Play inside a theater.) In other countries, instead of saying “break a leg”, you might say “Mucha mierda!” (“A lot of shit!”). Or “Hals und Beinbruch,” meaning “break your neck and bones.” In France, actors say the word “Merde!” just before making an entrance. The French “Merde!” is also popular among ballet dancers across the world. Wishing “Break a leg” in ballet is not a good thing.


It is very bad luck to kick a cat. It is lucky, however, to have one in the theatre.

Box Office Superstitions

The house manager must refuse to admit a person with a “comp” (free ticket) until after at least one paying patron has entered the auditorium. Doing otherwise, according to this superstition, dooms the production to failure. In the box-office, if the first purchaser of seats for a new production is an old man or woman, it means to the ticket-seller that the play will have a long run. A young person means the reverse.


It is considered bad luck for an actor to whistle on or off stage. As original stage crews were hired from ships in port (Theatrical rigging has its origins in sailing rigging), sailors, and by extension theatrical riggers, used coded whistles to communicate scene changes. Actors who whistled could confuse them into changing the set or scenery and possibly causing injury.

The Scottish Play

Shakespeare’s play Macbeth is said to be cursed, so actors avoid saying its name (the euphemism “The Scottish Play” is used instead). Actors also avoid even quoting the lines from Macbeth inside a theatre, particularly the Witches incantations. Outside of a theatre the play can be spoken of openly. If an actor speaks the name Macbeth in a theatre, he or she is required to leave the theatre building, spin around three times, spit, curse, and then knock to be allowed back in. Possible origins for this superstition include the assumption that the song of the Weird Sisters is an actual spell that will bring about evil spirits.

Miscellaneous Superstitions

  • No real money should be used on stage. Similarly, it is considered unlucky to wear real jewelry on stage, as opposed to costume jewelry. (Where’s that big pile of cash and gold bracelets I left on the prop table?)
  • It is bad luck to complete a performance of a play without an audience in attendance, so one should never say the last line of a play during rehearsals. To get around this, some production companies allow a limited number of people (usually friends, family, and reviewers) to attend the dress rehearsals.
  • A bad dress rehearsal foretells a good opening night.
  • A company should not practice doing their bows before they feel they deserve them.
  • Gifts such as flowers should be given to actors after a show, as opposed to before.
  • Peacock Feathers should never be brought on stage, either as a costume element, prop, or part of a set. Many veteran actors and directors tell stories of sets collapsing and other such events during performances with peacock feathers.
  • A common superstition held by actors is that sleeping with a script under their pillow will help them to learn it faster. This is sometimes known as “learning by diffusion”.


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