Superstitions: they’re sometimes effective, sometimes obsessive. Athletes have them, actors have them, and plain ordinary people have them. I bet you can name a few popular theater superstitions, even if you’ve never set foot on a stage:
*Never say MacBeth inside a theater
*Never whistle in a dressing room
*Never wish another actor “good luck”
I myself have had many superstitions over the years. Sometimes, I would eat the exact same meal before every performance that I had on opening night. During one production it was spaghetti, during another it was a peanut butter sandwich and a glass of 7up, and in another it was exactly two thirds of a can of corned beef hash. (What did I do with the leftover thirds, you ask? Ate two of them on the third night, of course.) This sort of routine helped me feel prepared before every performance, because everything was happening in the same predictable fashion. But, more than anything else, it began teaching me that I had to get better about what I chose to eat on opening night.
Do these superstitions do anything to conjure a mystical enchantment or invoke a blessing from the gods? I’m sure they don’t. But many of them are romantic, time honored traditions, and I really do believe they make an actor perform better. For the people who practice them, superstitions likely have a real psychological effect by reassuring that they’ve done everything they’re supposed to in preparation for whatever comes next. For an actor, it’s a process of taking the time to mentally organize yourself and steel your nerves before you take the first step out there on that big, bright stage.
Many theater superstitions are based on the concept of doing something that will somehow improve another actor’s performance. If you say break a leg, it’s a benediction to your castmates, and the only way for you to receive the same in kind is for someone to say it back to you. This promotes altruism, comaraderie, selflessness, and interaction with each other backstage, which is exactly what needs to happen onstage as well. We actors need to bond with each other in order to develop enough trust to let our personal guards down and express our raw emotions for you, the audience, to see, and that is fostered in part through superstition and tradition.
Here’s something I do every single night, on every single show: when the stage manager calls places, I walk up to every actor, touch them, and say “break a leg.” Sometimes, it’s a clap on the shoulder, sometimes it’s a handshake, but it ensures that there’s at least one moment of personal interaction with each one of them before we all take the stage.
Here’s another one that’s become a custom at Little Fish: the Go Bayside. Holly was a featured extra on the TV show Saved By the Bell, where the characters would shout “Go Bayside!” as a rallying cry for their fictitious high school. Anytime a combination of Holly, myself, or company member Margaret Schugt are involved in a theatrical production, we’ll use that as a way to bring the cast together in the final moment before we go onstage. If you come to Pick of the Vine and stand outside the dressing room right before the show begins, you’ll hear us do it every night.
No, they’re not magical or metaphysical, but superstitions do work, even if it’s by virtue of the placebo effect. And as long as there’s romance in the theater, there will be room in my heart for them.