Things that go BUMP in the Theatre...


Whether you’re superstitious or not, you won’t have been able to avoid the headlines and social media buzz around today's date: Friday 13th is visiting us again and if you’re one of millions that experiences paraskavedekatriaphobia  (fear of Friday the 13th)then today you may find yourself avoiding activities or trying to ward off bad luck more than usual.

In the world of dance and theatre we're used to certain superstitions cropping up regularly and over the centuries certain customs have become commonplace in the theatrical world as a result. So in honour (fear?!) of the date, we’ve put together a guide to some of the most common ones that arise, as well as a gallery of some characters that are definitely not having a good day.

Read on… if you dare!

It’s bad luck to whistle on or off stage.

Did you know that in the 18th and 19th centuries, stage crews were often ex-ship hands or sailors? As theatrical rigging has its origins in sailing rigging, these crews often worked in theatres when on land, bringing with them traditions and practices used on board ships – one of the most common of which was communicating rigging changes via coded whistles.

It is said that Actors who whistled would confuse the crew working in the theatre into accidentally changing scenery at the wrong time, which could result in injury or death to the unwitting performers on stage.

Never wish a performer good luck!

It is actually widely considered bad luck to wish a performer ‘good luck’ and several expressions have snuck into common usage over the years to replace this with varying explanations behind them!

BREAK A LEG: Whilst this saying has many reported origins, the most logical and widely believed comes from Elizabethan times and was inspired by the act of bending the back leg in order to bow when receiving applause. The longer the applause, the longer the bow and therefore, the longer your leg would be bent – hence the saying developing between performers and crew of ‘break a leg’.

MERDE: More commonly used in the dance world (we don’t like broken legs in the ballet, even metaphorical ones!) this is the French curse word for dung. In the days predating cars, the streets around a theatre were often filled with horse-drawn carriages from arriving crowds and, as a result, manure. Before an evening show, a lot of manure outside a theatre was considered a good sign as it meant a lot of people were attending. It is said that dancers used it as a way of saying ‘watch your step’ when entering a clearly busy theatre!

CHUKKAS/CHOOKAS: Simply meaning Chickens! The exact origin of the phrase is unconfirmed though it's rumored to have entered circulation around the time Australian dancers first began receiving payment for performances. As the gourmet dish of the day was chicken - if the theatre was busy on the night - the pay received from the box office was likely to be good, increasing the likelihood of being able to afford a chicken dinner after the show. The exclamation of "Chookas" (sometimes spelt Chukkas) soon came about as a way of expressing good fortune.

Rogues Gallery - some characters who are NOT having a good day.

Friday 13th is bad but are Mondays worse?

The idea that theatres should close on a Monday was actually inspired by the allegedly mischievous ghost of Thespis of Athens who was reputed to be the first person to speak lines on stage (creating the term ‘Thespian’). Thepis allegedly haunts performance venues causing mischief during shows and so according to superstition, theatres should always be closed one night a week in order to give whatever ghosts reside within a chance to run riot! As Monday nights were often commonly chosen to provide actors with a day off following weekend performances it became commonly misquoted that theatres close on Monday nights to avoid bad luck.

Flowers are fine but only after the show!

It's wonderful for dancers to receive flowers following a performance but traditionally it’s considered bad luck to present dancers with flowers before they go on stage. It was thought around the 19th century that the giving of flowers signified the end of a show and so to give them before they had been 'earned' could result in a production ending its run early.

You should always leave a light burning in an empty theatre.

A popular superstition that has sprung up over the years, holds that every theater houses its own ghost and a light should be left burning to appease them.  Though there are many origins to this story the most popular is that 'ghost lights' provide opportunities for ghosts to perform onstage, preventing them from sabotaging the set or production. Though it's a superstition, the light did actually have practical value: whilst crews clear stages and backstage areas after each show now, in previous years the backstage area of a theatre tended to be full of sets, ropes and other items and so someone who entered a completely darkened space could be liable to be injured!

Have we missed anything?  Drop us a line on Facebook or Twitter and tell us your favourite superstitions, customs and stories. Stay lucky out there!