Share This:
March 5, 2014 | Theatre,

Superstitions in the Theatre


By Karina Assad

Bristol Old Vic’s and Handspring Puppet Company’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream is riddled with creatures that dwell beyond mortal life. See for yourself:


Spirits have appeared time and time again in many works of theatre. Where does this fascination with other worlds come from? In honor of this spirit-infested rendition of the Bard’s long-celebrated classic, we have compiled a short list of the most popular superstitions in the theater:

1. Break a Leg 

“It’s bad luck to say good luck on opening night!”

This is probably the most well known superstition among theatre people and audience members. Though it is unclear why the words “good luck” are undesirable, the words “break a leg” have a very old meaning. Back in the Elizabethan Era, “breaking” also meant “bending.” Therefore, when Elizabethan audiences, having enjoyed a performance, would throw money to the actors, the actors would bend down (“break” their legs) to pick up the money. Or, when the audience would applaud at roll call, the actors would bow or curtsy — in other words, they would “break” their legs.

2. Peacock Feathers

Peacock feathers are never to be brought on stage — the “eye” on peacock feathers is said to be evil. This belief comes from the Greek myth of the monster Argus, a nasty monster who had eyes all over his body. When Argus fell, his eyes were reincarnated into peacock feathers, the evilness of the monster transferred into the colorful patterns of the peacocks.

Many Thespians fear the evil eye on their sets. Whenever peacock feathers have made it to the stage, reports follow of entire sets collapsing, curtains catching on fire and other horrendous events. Beware the evil eye.

3. Ghosts/Haunted Theaters

Ghosts love a good comfortable theater! It is said that actors are given a night off on Monday nights so the ghosts can come out to play. The first actor to step up as an individual in a performative gesture during a ritual, Thespis is the oldest ghost of the theatre, dating back to Ancient Greece. While he is thought to still haunt theatres in Greece, each theatre has its own ghost and story; here is a glimpse of some of the famous ones:

  1. Balesco Theater, New York City: David Balesco was a big personality producer in the 1920’s. His robe-clad figure can still be seen in an office space that use to be his old apartment building. He is usually spotted following beautiful women around the theater.
  2. Palace Theater, New York City: This stage hosted Judy Garland’s comeback performances of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” and “The Man That Got Away” before she met her bitter end. However, her ghost can be caught lurking by her special exits and entrances door in the pit.
  3. St. James Theater, New Zealand: 3 ghosts roam this theater. The first is named Yuri, a Russian acrobat who fell to his death during a performance. He is blamed for turning the lights on and off unexpectedly. The second is the “waiting woman,” who was constantly booed off the stage during her life; she now hangs around the theater crying hysterically, physically sabotaging other actresses. The third is an all-boys choir who performed at St. James during WWII. They sang their last performance and then boarded a ship, never to be heard from again. Their singing can still be heard backstage and in the wings.
  4. Adelphi Theater, London: Legend has it the ghost of William Terriss can be seen roaming this theater. Terriss was stabbed to death at the stage door in  1897.
  5. Oregon Shakespeare Festival, Ashland: A murdered girl from the late 1800s is said to be caught wandering around Lithia Park. People have told police she has a blue glow around and above her.


A Midsummer Night’s Dream will play at the Emerson/Cutler Majestic Theatre  from March 6-15, 2014. For more information and tickets, visit our website here.


4) Ghost Light 

As one can see, the ghosts and sprits in theater are very much alive. Tradition states to have a ghost light in the theater to comfort the ghosts and keep them at peace. The ghost light is usually a plain light bulb on a lamp stand with no lampshade, placed down center stage. It also has practical function; one can enter a theater without stumbling to a light switch in the darkness.

Not believable?  We have our very own ghost lights in the Emerson/Paramount Mainstage theater and the Emerson/Cutler Majestic theater!

5) Macbeth 

No list of theater superstitions would be complete without mention of… shhh… the play that must not be named!

Macbe — excuse me — The Scottish Play, has been cursed since Shakespeare’s day. According to one theory, this is because Shakespeare used real witch chants in his writing. The witches, unimpressed, put a curse on the play. Another theory is that Shakespeare put a curse on the show, making it very hard to direct. Yet another, more practical theory is that the production would be blamed for its failure to save theatre companies in financial turmoil, many of which would stage the production in the hopes of raising ticket revenues.  Also, the play calls for a lot of stage combat and very low lighting, resulting in a lot of injuries.

Whatever the reason for the curse, here are the famous casualties of it:

  1. During the premiere of the show in Shakespeare’s day, the boy who played Lady Macbeth got sick and died back stage. This caused Shakespeare himself having to go on and play the role.
  2. In 1672, the actor playing Macbeth accidentally took a real dagger on stage and killed Duncan in front of a live audience.
  3. In 1936, Orson Welles staged the production with a real voodoo doctor. The run got a scathing review from a critic named Percy Hammond, who died within weeks.
  4. In Stratford in 1953, Charlton Heston suffered severe burns and almost died after his tights caught on fire during a performance.
  5. In 2013, Kenneth Branagh accidentally hit an actor during a battle scene in a London production; the actor had to go to the hospital after the performance.

Perhaps it is this long history of superstitions and…coincidences…that have informed our inclination to infuse our works of theatre with images and themes of spirits, magic and the occult. Whatever the explanation, it sure does make for a magical night in the theatre. See you in the mysterious forest!



A Midsummer Night’s Dream will play at the Emerson/Cutler Majestic Theatre  from March 6-15, 2014. For more information and tickets, visit our website here.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *