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Dear West End Producer: ‘What are the most famous theatrical superstitions?’

West End Producer West End Producer. Photo: Matt Crockett
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Superstitions have been around for nearly as long as Michael’s Balls. They help make the theatre world a place of magic and intrigue, and learning about these traditions is a fascinating business. So, let’s have a quick look at some of the most well-known superstitions:

No whistling on stage

If you whistle on stage you face the danger of something (or someone) falling on your head. This is because when theatre was originally invented (by Biggins), the people who built sets and worked backstage also worked on ships and in ports (hence the term ‘crew’). In fact, theatre is steeped in nautical terms – including ‘knots’ (backstage crew members love showing off their knot skills). When on a ship, crew would communicate by whistling and they would do the same on stage. So if you mistime your whistle you could be communicating with someone working in the fly floor and end up with a bit of scenery on your head (Whistle Down the Wind always has backstage complications).

Dress rehearsals

Another superstition is that you should always have a bad dress rehearsal, which hopefully means the opening night will be good. The idea is that the actors, crew and the technical team get so worried by the terrible dress run they up their game for the first night – hopefully making it a roaring success. However, this does not mean you should purposefully muck up the dress rehearsal, as this will result in the ripping up of your contract and your role being taken over by a member of the local amdram group.

Macbeth

The play Macbeth, so legend tells us, is cursed. And if you ever say it out loud in a theatre you will be shot glances of anger and disgust. Traditionally, if the name Macbeth is said it brings bad luck and means the show will not get a transfer (even to the Charing Cross Theatre). The reason for this curse is because the witches’ chants are supposedly actual spells Shakespeare copied from real witches (Shakespeare was the pioneer of verbatim theatre). If someone ever says ‘Macbeth’ in a theatre they are legally obliged to jump on the floor, do the splits, run around the building, slap the director, drink half a bottle of gin and defecate on the script.

Break a leg

People say “break a leg” so they don’t have to say “good luck” – as this is considered bad luck. The term refers to bowing, because when an actor bows they “break” the line of their leg (and often the lining of their pants).

Pantomimes

In a panto, it is considered bad luck if the whole show is performed without an audience – so usually the last few lines are not said until opening night. This is all well and good, but is also a bit of a bugger for those actors with bad memories. In which case they revert to their favourite audition speeches and the audience is treated to another half an hour of badly performed classical monologues.

Send questions to your dear agony aunt via Twitter @westendproducer

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