Though they’re perfectly sensible, sane and rational in every other possible way, theatre folk are a rather superstitious lot. So to mark this Friday 13th, theatre impresario and masked Twitter phenomenon West End Producer – who was himself born onstage during a performance of Titus Andronicus - delves into the murky, sometimes confusing world of theatrical traditions and superstitions, and tells you everything you should (and shouldn’t) do…
The Green Room
The green room is the place where actors and stage management sit, bitch and drink. It is a place of sanctity that offers a change of scenery from the stage and dressing rooms. Of course, most green rooms carry a ‘public health warning’ as they are never cleaned. But they are very important places and usually have a TV, microwave and kettle. Indeed, some green rooms even have a selection of magazines to keep people occupied. Magazines that comprise mostly of porn. Which is a sure way of keeping actors quiet during the interval.
There are many thoughts and theories about where the term ‘green room’ originated, but here is my favourite. In Restoration theatre – in the late seventeenth century – costumes were elaborate and very expensive. And they were never washed. So actors had to be extremely diligent in keeping their costumes clean. This is why Restoration plays are traditionally performed in specific poses and stances – with the arms outstretched and legs apart – so that costumes do not touch and rub, and get dirty. However, theatres are filthy places, and the very nature of performing in them resulted in costumes and actors getting dirty and sweaty. The task of keeping costumes clean was particularly difficult when a character was expected to ‘die’ on stage. The thought of having an elaborate ‘writhing around on the floor death’ used to terrify Restoration actors as it was a sure way of getting their costumes dirty. This is where the green room came in. The green room was used to store a lot of green material (rather like the baize on a snooker table) – and at the precise moment an actor had to die, someone would run on stage and lay down a piece of this material so the death could happen without the costume getting filthy. Because lots of these strips of green material were left in a room near the stage it became known as the ‘green room’.
The other reason it is called the green room is because if you are an actor who spends a lot of time in there you will be ‘green with envy’ that you aren’t spending more time on stage playing a bigger part, dear.
No Whistling On Stage
You should avoid whistling on stage – or indeed offstage – for fear of things being dropped on your head. This dates back to when the people who used to build sets and help with rigging were hired from ships and boats in port. And as anyone who has worked backstage will know, crew members delight in showing off all the different knots they know – knots which were passed down and learnt from sailors.
On ships, the sailors would communicate by whistling certain calls and tunes which meant particular things (like ‘drop the sail’) – and this is how sailors also communicated in theatres. So if an actor whistled on stage he could accidentally be instructing a sailor/crew member to drop in a piece of scenery.
However, there are times when this tradition can be rather useful – particularly if you are understudying someone and fancy a go at the role. Simply do a lot of whistling at the appropriate moment and hope that a sailor drops a nice bit of heavy scenery onto their head. Naughty, dear.
The play Macbeth is apparently cursed, and if anyone says the name aloud in a theatre it is thought to bring bad luck. To get around this, people call it ‘The Scottish Play’.
It is cursed because apparently the witches’ spells are actual spells that Shakespeare copied down and used in the play. I find this rather hard to believe, and haven’t seen any actual evidence – unless, of course, the spell is to make the actors playing Macbeth and Lady Macbeth have an affair. In which case the spell definitely works, dear.
Another reason for this superstition is that Macbeth contains more sword fights than any other Shakespearean play – so there is more chance of an accident. It is also believed that shortly after the first production of the play, the actor playing Macbeth died. I have subsequently seen many actors playing Macbeth who looked like they were dying on stage night after night. Bless them.
Traditionally, if an actor says ‘Macbeth’ in a theatre they have to leave the building, do a 10K run, down two pints of cider, sing ‘The Circle of Life’ backwards, rub a copy of the Complete Works of Shakespeare all over their naughty region, and defecate on a recently graduated drama student.
In a pantomime it is considered bad luck to perform the whole piece without an audience – which means that it should never be fully performed before opening night. This can be something of a problem during dress rehearsals – when it is vital to do a full run. The way superstitious directors get around this is by not allowing the actors to say the final two lines of the show (which are traditionally rhyming couplets) until the opening night. This is fine if those two lines are easy, but a bloody nightmare if they’re not.
There is also the belief that the ‘good’ characters (Fairy Godmother/Genie) should only enter stage-right, and the ‘bad’ characters (Abanazar/King Rat) should enter stage-left. This is because in old theatres the baddie would make their first entrance rising from a trapdoor that was always on the left side of the stage. Also, in folklore, the ‘good’ side is always the right side – which explains why Ant is always on the left, and Dec is on the right, dear.
The Dress Rehearsal
There is a silly superstition that if you have a bad dress rehearsal you will have an excellent opening night. I understand the idea – that if the dress is a complete failure then nerves, energy and a desire to make it work will empower you to have a marvellous first show. Personally, though, I much prefer it if the dress rehearsal is a success. For one thing there is usually a photographer present, taking photos for front-of-house and marketing purposes – and we don’t want bad photos going front-of-house, otherwise what will the box office staff think? And secondly, I often invite industry friends to see the dress rehearsal – or ‘open dress’ as it is known – alongside colleagues, friends and theatre staff. It is a marvellous way of getting a true audience reaction – which is invaluable for the actors. It also provides the perfect opportunity for me to show off in front of all my friends, dear.
‘Break a Leg’
The term ‘break a leg’ is said to actors so that people can avoid saying ‘good luck’ (which is considered bad luck).
The term itself refers to bowing, because when you bow you bend at the knees and ‘break’ the line of your leg. Hence ‘break a leg’ means ‘take a bow’.
It also refers to when audience members used to throw money onto the stage during the curtain call – causing actors to break the line of their leg by kneeling to pick up the money. I always think it such a shame that this tradition no longer happens – as most actors I know love getting on their knees for money.
It is also bad luck for actors to bow if they feel they haven’t performed well and don’t ‘deserve’ it. However, if this rule was followed properly there would be a lot of actors out there who would never bow at all. You know who you are…
The above is an edited extract from West End Producer’s hilarious book Everything You Always Wanted To Know About Acting (But Were Afraid To Ask, Dear). Packed with wit and marvellous indiscretion, full of gossip and insider knowledge, and with enough savvy advice to kickstart a career, it’s a practical – and sometimes deliciously impractical! – guide to everything you need to know about showbusiness.
To get your copy at a 20% discount – no voucher code required – click here.