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Superstitions of the Theatre - Whistling and Luck

Updated on October 6, 2012

Just DON'T Put Your Lips Together and Blow!

While certain folk may whistle while they work, it was forbidden to do so in the theatre. This is one of those superstitions that has it's origins in practicality and safety. A theatre can be a dangerous place to work, and not just because of curses and ghosts.

The rigging and operation of flies was often done by sailors, as they were familiar with ropes and pulleys. This is the system by which scenery, curtains or even actors can be hauled up and down. The riggers would communicate with a series of whistle codes in the days before comms and headsets so if a person wandered around whistling they could easily end up with a sandbag or piece of scenery dropped on them. The same reason applies to no clapping, unless you're in the audience, of course!

Pin Rail Rigging Circa 1927
Pin Rail Rigging Circa 1927 | Source

Break A Leg not Good Luck!

To wish someone 'good luck' before a show is said to invite disaster on the actor or the production, instead the term is 'Break a Leg', which doesn't sound like a kind wish. This tradition has a few accepted origins.

It refers to 'breaking the line of the leg' as one takes a bow, with one foot behind the other and the knee bent, it is a term with military origins as 'taking the knee' was the act of bending down on a knee, also breaking the line. Actors on the Elizabethan stage would often have money thrown at them if they were very good, and would bend to pick it up, thereby breaking the line of leg at the curtain call.

Curtains are another suspected origin of this expression. The side curtains on a stage are called legs and to have to go through them to take a bow or even to get your first show was considered 'breaking the leg', it is a term that comes from a time when the stage curtain would have little wooden 'legs' at the bottom to weigh it down, many curtain calls could result in these legs being broken.

A final theory is that often people would stamp loudly on the floor or bang their chairs up and down which could, if done vigorously enough, break leg of the chairs (or even the punters, considering the 17th century diet!) but meant you had a good show and were likely to get another gig soon.

In dance circles the accepted term for luck is merde, which is actually the French word for sh**, as in poo. When audience members used to arrive in carriages, the more carriages meant more horses = lots of merde. In Australia dancers say chookas, and a South African playwright I once met told me they say chukas, butwe couldn't find out why!


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