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Break a Leg but Never Whistle: How Stage Superstitions Live On

Theaters are superstitious places, sites of myth, ceremony and invocation. And no stage superstition has more adherents than the one shrouding …

Break a Leg but Never Whistle: How Stage Superstitions Live On
27.04.2022 17:27
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Theaters are superstitious places, sites of myth, ceremony and invocation. And no stage superstition has more adherents than the one shrouding Shakespeare’s Scottish play: Anyone in a theater who speaks the name Macbeth aloud, except when rehearsing or performing the play, risks catastrophe.

“I said the Scottish play’s title onstage,” the playwright Lynn Nottage recalled recently. “And the next day my mother died.”

When Will Smith slapped Chris Rock at this year’s Oscars ceremony, Twitter wags invoked the curse. Moments before the fracas, Rock had hailed Denzel Washington, a star of Joel Coen’s “The Tragedy of Macbeth,” saying: “‘Macbeth!’ Loved it!” When performances of the current Broadway revival of “Macbeth” were canceled after its leading man, Daniel Craig, tested positive for coronavirus, talk of the curse swirled again.

Daniel Craig in the title role of “Macbeth.”Credit…Sara Krulwich/The New York Times

Admittedly, the “Macbeth” prohibition has its origins in nonsense, as an invention of the 19th-century critic and essayist Max Beerbohm. In 1898, Beerbohm wrote a column claiming, falsely, that a young male actor had died just before the play’s debut. But the taboo took, and stories of “Macbeth”-adjacent injuries, accidents and deaths began to accumulate. (Don’t fear: If you pronounce the name by accident, you can counteract the curse by leaving the theater, performing a ritual that often involves spinning and spitting, and then asking to be let back in.)

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

Superstition isn’t unique to the theater, of course. But as Marvin Carlson, a theater professor and the author of “The Haunted Stage,” pointed out, theater does encourage otherworldly thinking. “There are very few haunted banks,” he said. “But most theaters are said to be haunted. It’s a very, very common feature. Clearly there is something about the aura of theaters.”

Anjna Chouhan, a lecturer in Shakespeare studies, agreed: “They’re bizarre spaces, right? They’re weird spaces where people are performing fantasy, and emotions run so high.”

A lot can go wrong during live performance — a flubbed line, a missed cue, a wonky prop. Chouhan suggested that actors may subscribe to superstitions and engage in some very particular preshow and post-show rituals as a way of keeping this contingency at bay. “There’s a lot to be said for ritual and routine,” Chouhan said. “It’s the way that you enforce your control over things that can’t be controlled.”

Some actors always leave the dressing room on a certain foot, others say a prayer. Some carry lucky charms. “When you take on a character, you’re doing something dangerous. You’re in some way playing with your essence or your soul,” Carlson explained. “You take 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 rites and whether they have ever had a moment in the theater that flirted with the supernatural. (No “Macbeth” actors would participate. Is there a superstition associated with speaking to reporters?) These are edited excerpts from the conversations.

D. Woods, foreground, in “For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide/ When the Rainbow Is Enuf.”Credit…Sara Krulwich/The New York Times

D. Woods

‘For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide/ When the Rainbow Is Enuf’

Are there any theater superstitions that you subscribe to?

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

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

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

Do you have a preshow ritual?

I light palo santo for good vibes, good energy. And I play a lot of music just to get me in the mood. I do wear a couple of crystals that one of our wardrobe team gave us. If I need to stay focused, I’ll wear a tiger’s eye. If I want to make sure that I’m really on top of my voice, I’ll wear the blue one. That’s the throat chakra.

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

I have a picture of my great-aunt. Her name is Mary Childs. She was a performer in her day. A tap dancer. When I was coming up, she was so encouraging. So I bring her to the theater.

Michael Oberholtzer

‘Take Me Out’

Are there any theater superstitions that you subscribe to?

I subscribe to most of them. I broke the cardinal one about a week ago, I said the name of the Scottish play. So I had to go outside. I had to do the whole thing.

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

All the time. Some people get freaked out by that type of thing. I welcome it. Interestingly enough, we went out to Yankee Stadium a week or two ago. We went out to the bullpen in the outfield. There was so much energy there. So yeah, I absolutely believe in it. And I like to think I’m attuned to it. I try to submit to it, embrace it.

Do you have a preshow ritual?

Before I go onstage, I find a place in the theater and I get down on my knees and just give over to the universe, just express gratitude for this opportunity.

A.J. Shively

‘Paradise Square’

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

Never in any kind of scary or frightening way. But whenever I go into an old Broadway house, I go onstage and look at the house and think about the incredible people who have seen this exact view before me. I went out on the stage here at the Barrymore, where the original “Streetcar” was. I said, “Stella!”

Do you have a preshow ritual?

I made my Broadway debut in “La Cage Aux Folles.” An actress, Christine Andreas, told me to go down to the stage when the audience is filing in to just feel their energy and send your energy out. I’ve done that ever since.

What about a postshow ritual?

I reward myself with a pint of ice cream.

Ramin Karimloo (right, with Beanie Feldstein) as Nick Arnstein in “Funny Girl.”Credit…Sara Krulwich/The New York Times

Ramin Karimloo

‘Funny Girl’

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

I’ve been in theaters on my own. When I was on tour in Scotland, there was this one room that had a piano that I would play. One night I was up there on my own. And I certainly felt something. There was nobody there, but I felt like someone was there.

Do you have a preshow ritual?

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

Or a postshow ritual?

I do like a sipping tequila and a nice Japanese whiskey waiting for me. But it depends on the part. Sometimes it’s hard to shake it off and I’ll need a shower. It’s that idea of cleansing.

Shoshana Bean

‘Mr. Saturday Night’

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

I’m often the last person to leave. You would think because of all those rumors and stories, that it would be a scary place. But there is no more peaceful, 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 preshow ritual?

The only ritual I have is making sure I warm up. It takes like 45 minutes. I like to do it at home. I want to not be worried about who can hear me.

Or a postshow 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 was like, “You have to leave her at the theater. You can’t bring her home with you. It’s literally hurting you, taking her pain home with you.” I loved her so much. I didn’t want to leave her.

John Earl Jelks

‘Birthday Candles’

Are there any theater superstitions that you subscribe to?

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

Have you ever had an experience in the theater was out of the ordinary?

At the Hackney Empire. That’s in London. It’s a place where Laurence Olivier performed and all the other great British actors. They were always talking about how it had ghosts. I remember coming early one day, and I was hearing dressing room doors close. I went up and there was no one there.

Do you have a preshow ritual?

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

Shuler Hensley (left, with Hugh Jackman) as Marcellus Washburn in “The Music Man.”Credit…Sara Krulwich/The New York Times

Shuler Hensley

‘The Music Man’

Do you have a preshow ritual?

When I get to the theater, which is usually at least an hour before curtain, the first thing I always do is put on my costume. I’m not really functioning in my part until I get the costume on. People make fun of me, but if I don’t do that, I get really nervous.

Or a postshow ritual?

I try to be the last actor out of the building. It honestly feels like I’m locking up the theater for the night. I don’t know why I enjoy that.

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

I’m very big on smells. I have a cold mist diffuser and 12 bottles of different scents. I try to never have the same scent twice.

Jennifer Simard

‘Company’

Are there any theater superstitions that you subscribe to?

I don’t say good luck. It’s always break a leg. The good news is, I am incapable of whistling. So I don’t have to worry about that.

Do you have a postshow ritual?

It’s either a hot Epsom salts 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 of those, I feel like it’s going to affect the show the next day.

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

It’s called a miraculous medal [a devotional item]. I first found out about them from my late mother. Whenever someone was ill, or going through loss, she would give them to people. There was one that she had, that was very special. We had it pinned to her when she was passing. It means a great deal to me. So when I get nervous, that is my talisman.

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