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Actors are a superstitious bunch

Why they wish each other broken legs

CURSED?: Macbeth, like Theater Artists Olympia’s production pictured here, is never quoted or cited by name before a show; instead, it’s called euphemisms like “the Scottish play” or “Mackers.” Courtesy TAO

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There are two theater superstitions even non-actors know. First, "good luck" is replaced with "break a leg." We theater folk have no idea why we avoid the phrase - John Wilkes Booth is sometimes credited - but the taboo spans the globe. In Australia, the alternate blessing is "Chookas!" In Latin countries, actors gather before performance to cry, "Mucha mierda!"- literally, "Loads of sh*@!" Before internal combustion, full houses meant plenty of carriages - and horses - parked outside the theater. That got messy, but put dinero in actors' pockets. To this day, ballerinas around the world invoke "merde!"

Second, Macbeth is never quoted or cited by name before a show; instead, it's called euphemisms like "the Scottish play" or "Mackers." There are plausible reasons to believe the show is cursed. It has name recognition plus action and gore, so companies tend to stage it when desperate for cash. If the company goes bankrupt anyway, its downfall is blamed on its "unfortunate" selection of play. Also, Mackers has more swordplay than most Shakespearean dramas, so it's likelier actors will get hurt. Rainn Wilson says the only time he uttered "Macbeth" on stage, a lighting instrument fell on his foot.

The older and grander the theater, the more likely it is to be considered haunted. Most venues leave a light on between performances for safety; that light is known as "the ghost light." Each company seems to have its own superstitions, but whistling is discouraged; real money, peacock feathers or Bibles onstage are said to be unlucky; and a bad final dress rehearsal is said to equal a great opening night. That last one's almost foolhardy - actors tend to pull themselves together to protect their own dignity, but a show should run smoothly by final dress.

Some actors rely on repetitive "lucky" behaviors. Jack Lemmon said, "It's magic time!" before walking on stage or filming a shot. Peter Sellers refused to wear green. Kathleen Turner won't put shoes on any table. Geoffrey Rush keeps a plastic Daffy Duck in his pocket. Jamie-Lynn Sigler refuses to change underwear between performances (yuck!). Kristin Chenoweth prays before each show. Megan Hilty says a mantra, and Annie Potts paces. Cameron Diaz knocks on wood. Liev Schreiber looks in a mirror and says, "I love you" to his grandfather.

Locally, actor-director Pug Bujeaud sings "It Had to Be You" before each performance. Actor Deya Ozburn arrives early and sits alone on stage. Like Ian McKellen, actor-director Samantha Camp prepares for each show in the same order of steps. Actor Chris Cantrell won't say "Mariah" on an outdoor stage.

John Munn, artistic director of Lakewood Playhouse, says he knows it's "silly" but enacts an old antidote: the only way to dispel the Macbeth curse is to walk out an open door and pirouette thrice. Then he adds his own variation: he says a line of Shakespearean dialogue and swears upon reentering the building. May we recommend "Merde?"

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Michael Dresdner said on Sep. 10, 2012 at 8:44am

Don't forget the opera version of break a leg -- "in bocca al lupo" (into the mouth of the wolf) -- and the backstage superstition Lynn Geyer always enforces at Lakewood; no whistling backstage. She told me it's because prior to walkie talkies, light cues were often transmitted by whistling, which was easy to hear but unobtrusive.

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