Tradition– it is more than a song title from “Fiddler”; traditions are very important in the theatre, though many think of them as superstitions. Actors have often been somewhat superstitious folk through the years since drama started eons ago–several hundred years BCE. The ghost of Thespis from somewhere around 6th century BCE still is said to haunt the stages; he has a right to since he is credited with the earliest tragedy and giving thespians their name.
These days, of course, we are so enlightened that we scoff at traditions that do not appeal to us. Let me tell you about a few of my favorite theatre traditions and what we know about their origin. Remember that theatre historians at times have no more idea of the certainty of origins than those who probe ancient or even modern history have.
“Break a leg” might sound tacky for one to say to an actor, but there are at least four possible origins for the practice. First, those smirking theatre ghosts that linger in many theatres just wait to try to reverse anything that is hoped for; so “good luck” might well provoke them to cause trouble, while wishing for bad luck might actually get you good.
Another and more probable one has to do with vaudeville. Would you believe that a producer would line up more acts than he needed, and would pay only those who actually got on stage? So, to “break a leg” means to get far enough on the stage to actually be seen–-getting past the “leg,” which is a term for the curtains on the side of the stage that actually frame the performance area, and subsequently means getting paid. When Chita Rivera was at ULM ages ago doing “Anything Goes,” she stressed “Damn that tradition: never says “break a leg” to a dancer.
A third theory: the Duke of York gave Samuel Foote, manager of London’s Little Theatre, a bad horse for a ride they were planning. The ride and prank in 1766 resulted in Foote breaking his leg. To make up for his prank going awry, he granted Foote the theatre license he had been after for some time. The Little Theatre became The Theatre Royal Haymarket (the American musical “Heathers” is playing there now), and achieving success out of disaster became “break a leg.”
There is a fourth possible source: during Elizabethan times it was not uncommon for happy theatregoers to throw money on the stage for the actors. Hence saying “break a leg” might mean hopes for a great show and plenty of cash thrown. Some might relate the practice to activities in certain night clubs, but we won’t get into that.
Money throwing is not always a sign of happiness. In English tradition of the 19th and 20th centuries, throwing pennies meant extreme disrespect; those of us old enough might remember that when Judy Garland was on the way down with all her problems, her performance, I believe it was at the London Paladium, was pelted by pennies. Bad manners, but it was a tradition.
Other than for safety reasons, one never leaves the stage dark when not in use: same say that the so-called “ghost light” keeps ghosts at bay and prevents them from tampering with the set for fun; others maintain that the light gives the more “diva” of the ghosts light in which to perform while all are gone. A more mundane reason is that in the 19th century when theatres were lit by gas, the small flame helped burn excess gas and, was therefore, a safety measure. I prefer the “ghost” reason.
Another mundane reason: when the lights are turned out and the “ghost” light is turned on, it means, according to an old Actors Equity ruling, that if you hang around the stage to chat, you are off the books; don’t expect overtime.
There are many more traditions, but let me comment on just one more this time: do not whistle on the stage. Sailors often found work as stage hands in the theatre; their skill with ropes and knots was invaluable with the advent of “flying scenery” in the 17th century in Italy and later in England. Being accustomed to communicating on shipboard by “piping” a whistle allowed them to communicate back stage. More than once some actor or unknowing stage hand whistled and brought down sets on actors on stage. So now, just to be on the safe side: “no whistling on stage, please.”