Some Thoughts on Theatre Supersitions

Kevin R.M. Richardson, A.L.P.

You’re bound to reproach me, Stella.

But I will say this.  I must say it.    

My experience in The Theatre now spans a greater quantity of years than I even admit to having lived, and I have held my peace since pretty much my first day.  I have resisted the urge even to so much as roll my striking olive eyes, lest anyone see the gesture.

But there comes a point at which the madness must stop.  We are standing at that point today, and if I have to be the one to publicly come out against continuing to feed this absurdly humungous Audrey II, so be it.  I won’t be the first Frenchman to be executed by an enraged mob for failing to toe the group-think line during a Reign of Terror, which is what this has become.

So, I’m just going to say it.

I have had it up to my kiwis with theatrical superstitions.

You know the ones.  And you know the people who have invested far too much energy into stirring themselves up into a frenzy over them at every possible opportunity.

Example:  Whether real or synthetic, a peacock feather is slated to appear onstage.  Maybe it’s part of a mantlepiece ornament in Arsenic and Old Lace.  Or maybe you’re putting on Godspell, and Sonia is going to have one in her headband.  Or maybe you have one of those hideously saccharine directors who feels that Children of Eden needs five hundred grade-schoolers parading across the stage and through the aisles of the G.D. house as animals in not just one but both acts, and two of them are going to be dressed as freaking peacocks.  There could be any number of reasons for it, and it may register as anything from crucial to totally inconsequential, but one way or another, it is the plan.

Or so you thought.

Because no, there will be some pot-stirrer horrified at the idea of a peacock feather being in the show.  This person won’t care that several of the roles are inadequately cast (indeed, he or she may account for one of them), but the raised spectre of the peacock feather will become a colossal ordeal.  Unbelievably, it will be a coin-toss as to whether the member of the production staff responsible for the concept carries the day, or whether life will actually be rearranged to accommodate the near-manic conscientious objector.  Either way, everyone connected to the production had better prepare to hear about how the Evil Eye is manifested in the kitschy decorative item, and its presence onstage would spell inevitable doom.  The ax will be occasionally ground at board meetings and cast parties for years to come.

Another example:  Some well-meaning individual is heard wishing a cast member “good luck” prior to a performance.  Now, personally, I would say that “luck” had little to do with any of it - if the overture is playing and you don’t already know whether or not the performance is going to go well, you’re just waiting for lightning to strike one way or another – but a person who had a mother who loved them enough to raise them with basic social graces will graciously accept the excitement-hissed convention, reciprocate, and proceed to live the rest of their life. 

Not the superstition basket case.  He or she will gasp in shock and vehemently correct the offender with a lecture on how, in Show Business, it is actually a dark omen to wish someone good luck.  Instead, they’ll instruct like Ward Cleaver straightening Wally and the Beav out in his den after they’ve pulled a shenanigan, theatre folk tell each other to “break a leg.”  (Alternate version:  if this person is from another country, or feels like practicing the foreign tradition makes them look extra-special, they’ll say “chookahs” instead – and they’ll say it in the shrill, piercing tone of Little Mary Sunshine’s tree-dwelling cuckoobird.)  If we are really lucky, that will be the end of it, but it is more probable than not that the various theories as to the origin of the phrase will start flying through the air, and be promptly raised again at intermission.

Then, there is the ultimate example – the Queen Bee example of all theatrical superstitions – the first one you thought of when the subject was raised.

Heaven help you if you dare to say “Macbeth” in a theatre.

Or in the general vicinity of a theatre.

Or among theatre people, anywhere.

Even if you are in the process of mounting a production of Macbeth.

The reaction would be more forgiving if you had walked in eating a baby.

You.  Have.  To.  Call.  It.  The.  Scottish.  Play.

There will be claims of sudden physical illness brought on by the stress of the experience.  There will be a flurry of inconsistent origin stories about whether William Shakespeare went on as Macbeth or Lady Macbeth when the original cast member suddenly died of tuberculosis, or the clap, or the Bubonic Plague.  There will very likely be outright vicious yelling.

Then there will be insisted-upon remedies:  a total of one or two more than there are persons present, and each of them sworn-by as the only way to avoid whatever non-specific, centuries-old curse has been awakened from the depths of Hell itself.  The virgin who lit the Black Flame Candle must leave the building, spin around three times, utter a profanity, spit like a shanty Irishman, and beg to be re-admitted to the building.  Or they must recite that trite-ass excerpt from the end of A Midsummer Night’s Dream – or maybe something from Two Gentlemen of Verona.  Or they must perform a ritual human sacrifice.  Whatever it is, they had better act quickly, because the collective forces of darkness have been lying in wait since before time began for this opportunity to ruin a mediocre Midwestern community theatre production attended by the local chapter of the Red Hat Ladies.

Oh, for the love of God.

I’m so out of patience for it all, dear hearts.  So exhausted.  So done.

Let’s be real.  The reason why these superstitions exist and have amassed such passionate fanbases is obvious.  Persons who are interested in The Theatre – and, especially, people who are interested in participating in The Theatre – are inclined to have a flair for the dramatic.  In other words, they are more likely than average to get off on being drama queens, making inordinately big deals of things, and assuming a position at the center of attention.

And that’s fine.

When you encounter a touchy, high-maintenance person out in the world, the best thing to do is humor them when you can bear to do so, and let them deal with a case of tough-titty-said-the-kitty when you can’t. 

But as long as we’re piercing the veil, and as long as I’m going to blacklisted anyway for failing to play the game, I will gently propose a reasonable goal:  Can we outgrow this and leave it where it belongs, which is the Drama Club’s classroom at the local high school?  Because there are people in that room who are the proverbial Virgins Who Can’t Drive, who are looking forward to “Hell Week” for the novelty of being at the school as late as nine or ten and having pizza there with the teacher, and who dream of becoming the next Kristin Chenoweth (they’ve never heard of, say, Alfred Drake or Barbara Cook) because they have managed to land an ensemble role in the winter-quarter production of A Year With Frog and Toad.

And pretending to panic over a hand mirror brought onstage or a bouquet delivered before the show looks a lot better on them than it does on grown-ups who are either in the midst of professional careers or creating art as a pleasant, after-work leisure activity.

You may either accept or reject this Cassandra Truth.  Yours the decision.  But now it’s been said out loud for what may be the first time in recorded history, and I, for one, feel better.

Photo: Lobero Theatre