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Whitman Wire

Whitman news since 1896

Whitman Wire

Whitman news since 1896

Whitman Wire

Theatre superstitions, rituals center-stage at Harper Joy

As theater superstitions extend back prior to the Greeks and Romans to the oral tradition of storytelling, it’s no surprise that strange sayings, superstitions, traditions, myths and ghosts are alive and well inside the walls of Harper Joy Theater. Inside Whitman’s theater are posters of plays and musicals and pictures of actors young and old–all radiating stories just waiting to be told. Here is a look behind the curtains:

Many idioms have been inherited from traditions of theater and are intended to bring good luck to the actors.  It is well known that before a show an actor often says “break a leg.” According to Garrett Professor of Dramatic Art Nancy Simon, in Germany, too, theater professionals say “Hals- und Beinbruch,” which literally translates to “neck and leg fracture” but conversationally functions the same way as “break a leg.” The use of this phrase may stem from a superstition that to wish someone good luck is bad luck; conversely, to wish someone bad luck, such as to break a leg, would be good luck.

Cynthia Croot, assistant professor of theater, said that they sometimes say “Merde!” in the theater as an exclamation of good luck.  This French word translates as “shit.” Simon also noted that in Italy actors say “in the mouth of the wolf,” especially for operas, and “tchin-tchin,” which is a type of toast to good luck.  The true sources of theater idioms are often shrouded in mystery, but the art’s affinity for superstition has kept them alive.

One of the main rules is to never say “Macbeth” inside a theater. Croot explained that actors choose to say “the Scottish play” instead. To reverse the bad luck if an actor says “Macbeth” in the theater, the actor is supposed to perform a series of actions.

“The actor must spit on the ground and turn around five times or perform other rituals to be cleansed from the bad luck,” Croot said.

Simon explained the history of this superstition.

“In the 19th  century, when a theater company was about to perform a play and things weren’t working well or there were technical problems, they would put on ‘Macbeth’ to buy time and cover up the problems,” she said.

The name of “Macbeth” thereby became associated with technical problems, though it was originally a way to cope with dysfunction.

Another superstition: it is bad luck to whistle in a theater. Simon explained that this is because in the past, a whistle was the cue for moving the props. Whistling at the wrong time could result in people getting hurt and the show being interrupted. If an actor whistles in the dressing room they are supposed to turn around five times and knock at a door.

Stories of ghosts in the theater have also been carried throughout time and have developed into many new ghost stories. Whether or not these stories are true, they add dramatic flare to the theater.

“Every theater has its ghosts,” said Kevin Walker, the technical director of Harper Joy Theater.

“Theater ghosts are generally good luck and benign. Most of them were involved in theater themselves,” said Simon.

There are some spirits that seem more aggressive, however. Simon told a story of how when she was a student at Whitman College there was a girl that was painting something from a bosun’s chair that was hanging from a rope. The rope snapped, the girl fell and was seriously injured. Some theater majors at that time attributed the accident to a ghost.

“Superstitions are often personal for each person,” Simon said.

When Simon was a student, for instance, she used to cross her fingers on both hands before each show. Senior Devin Petersen, a theater major who mostly works on design, asks the Harper Joy ghosts for good luck and inspiration. And some pre-show traditions are religious: senior Ben Moore says that he used to say the Hail Mary before shows. Other actors pray to the patron saint of the theater, St. Genesius.

Although not technically “religious,” these actors perform superstitious traditions with religious regularity.

“One of my friends used to religiously take a pre-show shit,” Petersen said.

The theater, a place where fiction is made to appear like reality, is the perfect breeding ground for wild superstitions.

“Everyone loves superstition,” Simon said. “All these traditions pass around from time to time.”

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    Fritz SFeb 14, 2011 at 9:36 pm

    Always fun to read about stage traditions. But the ban on whistling in the theater has more to do with scenery than moving props.
    Years ago, when theaters began to store light bars, set items or other scenic changes up above the stage, they enlisted sailors to install and rig the necessary equipment. These maritime workers bestowed much of the terminology still in use today: lines, deck, battens, (belaying) pin rail, etc. Whistles were used at sea to direct the raising and lowering of sails. The former seamen borrowed this practice, too, as a way to to cue the lifting and lowering of the scenery etc from above the acting area.
    If anyone idly whistled in a theater, they could trigger any number of events onstage, perhaps even dropping a set piece on an unsuspecting actor or two.