Good Luck Traditions for the Theater

Performers come to the theater with quirky traditions to conjure good luck.
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If you say the name of a certain Shakespearean play aloud in a theater, you must leave the room immediately, turn around three times, spit on the ground and knock on the door to request re-entry. That's one of the remedies for violating a sacred tenet for protecting the production from harm. Theatrical good luck traditions are as much superstition as they are lucky custom but performers swear by them as an indispensable part of the magic that makes a good show.

1 Pavarotti's Nail

Each theatrical discipline has its good luck superstitions, just as each performer cultivates rituals and mantras to guarantee a good show. For super-tenor Luciano Pavarotti, the high-Cs were guaranteed with a bent nail in his pocket. Early in his career, Pavarotti believed a talisman would help him manage his nerves but he didn't have a medal or another lucky object at hand. As he walked through the wings to the stage, he saw a bent nail on the floor, slipped it into his pocket and proceeded to bring the house down. From then on, stagehands would strategically scatter a couple of real bent nails for Pavarotti to find on the path from dressing room to the freezing garret in La Boheme or the court of the emperor in Turandot. As long as he had one tucked into his costume, the show could go on.

2 Break a Leg

Actors would rather suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune than hear "Good luck!" before a show. Good luck means the reverse in theater and the correct salutation to deliver for a memorable performance is "Break a leg!" That might seem counter-intuitive -- and no one can say precisely how the tradition started. But it's an accepted -- and insisted on -- convention, taken seriously by many actors. "Break a leg" might have originally hewed to the belief that good wishes tempted the gods to be capricious and deliver curses instead of blessings. It might also come from the practice at the Globe and other theaters of bowing with a flourish and bent knee. The performer would be "breaking a leg" on the occasion of enthusiastic applause for the evening's entertainment.

3 That Scottish Play

Never, never so much as whisper aloud in a theater the name of Shakespeare's tragedy about the thane of Glamis who becomes the king of Scotland by murder most foul. The checkered history of "Macbeth" performances spawned its own dark legends and the superstition is now firmly entrenched. Its history is as murky as the heath where Macbeth and Banquo encounter the witches. Some say Shakespeare included a real witches' curse in the dialog of the prophecies. Others point to the death of the boy who was to play Lady Macbeth on opening night, necessitating a last-minute appearance by the playwright in the role. There have been horrible accidents, sudden deaths, reported fatal stabbings with real knives and swords during the fight scenes, and productions that were doomed to economic and artistic failure. Cautious thespians always refer to it as "that Scottish Play" just to be safe.

4 The Ghost Light

Theaters are haunted by the actors who've trod the boards and the characters brought to vivid life there. The creakings and clankings of an empty theater hint at ghostly presences who may need appeasement. It may seem practical to leave a single light onstage when the place is unoccupied -- a dark theater is pitch black and an unwary performer or worker could stumble over scenery or into the orchestra pit if entering without light. But the real reason to leave a light on is for the ghosts. Unfortunately, no one is sure whether the light keeps mischievous ghosts at bay in the shadows or illuminates their own spectral performances once the living have departed. So a "ghost light" stays on long after the curtain falls, to placate the spirits who rule the empty stage.

Benna Crawford has been a journalist and New York-based writer since 1997. Her work has appeared in USA Today, the San Francisco Chronicle, The New York Times, and in professional journals and trade publications. Crawford has a degree in theater, is a certified Prana Yoga instructor, and writes about fitness, performing and decorative arts, culture, sports, business and education .