Friday, March 2, 2012

Ghosts of the Theater

Since being back on stage again, I've been reminded of all the little traditions and weird superstitions that go along with the theater. Little traditions and weird superstitions that were first instilled in me by my director at Waynesburg, Eddie. For all his occasional constant creepiness, I really do miss his opening night speech about being artists and how strictly he adhered to theater superstitions that aren't taken as seriously at the Academy. There have been many times when someone has walked whistling across the stage and I cringe inwardly and have to fight against screaming out, "No whistling on-stage!!!!"

So, since I've had to refrain from dumping my nerdy superstitions on my fellow non-aware thespians, I will do it here. These are some of the best, the worst, and the funniest traditions and superstitions that I hold near and dear to my heart. Enjoy!

  1. No Whistling On Stage. This is extremely bad luck and bodes no goods-ville for the production. The superstition dates back to the old days of theater when the sets were still operated by men up in the rigging who would control the fly system. At the time, the counterweights used to "fly" components of the set (curtains, lights, scenery, etc.) between scenes were normally sandbags. Since the crew couldn't yell at each other during a show, they would use various whistling codes to queue when to release varies ropes and pulleys, normally resulting in the dropping of a sandbag. If an unfortunate passer by was walking across the stage and whistling a random ditty, the fly crew could mistakenly interpret it as a queue and release a sandbag on top of the unsuspecting bloke. Lights out for that poor fellow.
  2. Never, Never, NEVER, Say The Word Macbeth Inside A Theater. Always to be referred to as "The Scottish Play" within theater walls and, to the more superstitious, everywhere else as well. Seasoned actors know not to utter the word of one of Shakespeare's bloodier tragedies. The reason? Plain and simply, it's cursed. So many strange and terrible events have surrounded the production of this show in theater history, including tales that one actor died in a fight scene when one of the prop daggers was replaced with a real one. If anyone ever, by accident or not, utters the taboo name, one must perform a "cleansing ritual." My favorite? Running outside, spinning around three times, spitting, and shouting "If we shadows have offended!" from A Midsummer Night's Dream. Here are a few other reasons why some (me) believe the tragedy is cursed:
    1. The spells cast by the three witches in one of the scenes are real curses Shakespeare "borrowed" from an actual coven of witches who were so offended when they found out, they cursed the play.
    2. The character H---- was not originally in the script and including her will intensify the curse.
    3.  There are a plethora of intricate fight scenes that are cause for accidents with or without a curse.
    4. It is a financially draining production which could be the reason why many theaters went belly up after its production.
    5. Shakespeare himself cursed the play so none but he would ever direct it. 
  3. Never Wish An Actor "Good Luck." It's always "Break A Leg." Mostly because, again, theater people are superstitious, so if you say "good luck" you're just tempting the fate gods to rain bad luck down upon you. Another understanding is in the definition of bowing, placing one foot behind the other to "break" the line of the legs. To "Break Legs" would insinuate to have such a good show and the audience applauds so long, that one is required to take many bows. 
  4. Always Leave On A "Ghost Light." Practically speaking, this started for safety. If anyone has ever tried to navigate across a stage in the pitch black, it's near impossible not to hurt yourself. There is no way to get your bearings, no wall to run your hand along, just wide open space. Leaving a light (normally set downstage center) lit for the late night passer by is just plain courtesy. However, the story that Eddie always told us that I believe to my core is that we leave a light on so that the Spirits of the Theater can come and perform for each other long after the last cast and crew member has left the theater. Every play and musical has an energy to it and after the show closes, the spirits of that show remain and reenact it on their own. There's also the belief that when a great actor of a particular theater passes on, his or her spirit comes back as a benevolent force for that stage. 
    Every theater has its own ghost story. Here are a few:
    1.  The Palace Theater in London never sells two seats in the balcony as they are always reserved for the theater ghosts.
    2. While rehearsals are underway at the famous Drury Lane Theater in England, it is considered good luck to see the Man In Grey.   
    3. Just the other night, one of the actors in Fiddler was talking about how he was there late at night and the lights kept flickering for not reason accompanied by strange noises. He finally had too much and decided to leave. As he was leaving he said out loud, "Ok, I get the point, I'm leaving now"  only to get to his car and realize he left his cell phone inside. Upon entering the theater again, one of the light bulbs (that was off) exploded and rained glass over his head. He grabbed his phone and left. 
  5. The Final Bow. I'm not sure how many people do this if Eddie and I are the only ones. The truth is that I adopted this tradition from him way back during my freshmen year after playing Agnes in the heart-wrenching three-woman show Agnes of God.
    On closing night at the end of the show, after all the lights are off (except the Ghost Light of course), after everyone has left, the last clap applauded, the costumes hung away, the last bow taken, there is one final bow. One Final Bow on a darkened stage to an empty audience. Bow Stage Left. Bow Stage Right. Bow Center Stage. And then right in the middle of that stage, in the very center, turn around and Bow Upstage, back towards the seats. It is a ritual of saying thank you - to everyone involved in the production - but mostly to the Spirits. A thank you for allowing me to partake in my character and share the joys and sorrows. It is the final touch to put the show to bed.
    Back in my Waynesburg days, it was a bonding moment for me and Eddie, a moment to thank the Spirits together and then sit on the top step and talk about all the highs and lows of the show. After West Side Story my senior year, it was a moment to say a tearful goodbye. 
It's hard to have this moment at the Academy since we strike the set immediately after our final performance. There's so much bustle that the Final Bow usually has to wait until the set is taken down and there are only remnants of the energy that lingers in the drapes, in the seats, in the curtains, in the very walls. 

There's something very noble and beautiful about The Stage. And it's for all the little reasons above and so much more that I am so grateful to be able to participate in such an age-old tradition. Tradition. Tradition! Without tradition, our lives would be as shake as....A Fiddler On The Roof!

And on that note....

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