Stage superstition: It’s no joke
Peter Ivanov’s introduction to the world of superstitious theater types happened in his late 20s when he quoted “Macbeth” while getting ready for a performance in the men’s dressing room.
He thought it harmless. Besides, the Shakespeare tragedy has numerous quotable lines.
He was tragically wrong.
After letting the quote slip, Ivanov was kicked out of the dressing room. He was required to spin around three times in the hall, quote Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” and beg to return. Only then was he permitted to finish getting ready for the performance.
“I thought it was a joke,” Ivanov said.
But superstitions and luck in the world of arts and entertainment are no joke. Although musicians and artists may have individual superstitions when it comes to their craft, it could be argued that no group of people are more superstitious — and dramatic about it — than actors and dancers.
“I wished they would have taught me in school,” Ivanov said, “because I learned the hard way.”
Now a professor of theater at Mesa State College, Ivanov is years removed from his early performance days in Florida when he thought the most important thing was his lines. Now, he knows the superstitions of the stage should be taken seriously.
Outside the theater, people can quote “Macbeth” or even say the word “Macbeth” whenever they want. However, once inside the theater, people are barred from doing anything associated with the Shakespeare tragedy. The play is thought to be cursed.
“I can’t speak the word because I’m in the theater right now,” Ivanov said in a Friday morning interview.
One of the required antidotes to uttering cursed words from “the Scottish play,” is quoting “Hamlet.”
“I don’t know why that is,” Ivanov said. “It just is.”
Another theater superstition is whistling back stage where, in the days preceding wireless communication, whistling was a way to signal cues. Actors who whistled were liable to get drilled by a falling curtain and possibly killed.
“I’m constantly yelling at my students to stop whistling,” Ivanov said.
He and his students are well aware hand-held radios have been invented, but Ivanov is preparing theater majors for a life after college where they will need to know whistling is forbidden.
Theater types also think peacock feathers are bad luck. Real props, such as a real Bible or real fruit, also are bad luck.
And it is unthinkable to allow a stage to go completely dark before or after performances. That superstition is linked to the belief that a single light upon a stage allows the spirits of deceased thespians to perform when no one is around. Consequently, the main stage at Robinson Theatre is never completely dark, Ivanov said.
Then, there is the superstition that saying “break a leg” instead of “good luck” is necessary because wishing someone “good luck” was actually bad luck per old pagan beliefs, Ivanov said.
“Oh yes,” Ivanov said. “It is considered bad luck to say good luck in the theater.”
In reality, avoiding the term “good luck” is not only tied to acting. Dancers and some singers also avoid the term.
Before recitals, dancers say a French expletive. The superstition is traced back to Paris when horses were the primary mode of transportation and deposited onto the streets a certain substance that dancers did not want to step in, said Matthew Lindstrom, assistant professor of dance at Mesa State.
The expletive became a superstitious way to wish a dancer good luck. Likewise, classical singers utter, “toi, toi, toi,” as a way to say “good luck.”
Lindstrom likes to inspire his dancers before a recital with hand-holding and words from the heart. However, he ends the heart-to-heart with something funny to lessen nerves. He always does it.
Other area entertainers also have personal superstitions they hold to.
Calvin Hofer, head of the music department at Mesa State, has a personal superstition that he never showers before a performance to avoid losing his edge.
The director of any Creative Avenues play always wears a fez, a cone shaped hat, for a good show. Owner Joy Potter doesn’t know why.
Allen Bradley, the bass player for the local band Jack+Jill, always wears dark red, gray and black argyle socks for gigs. He got them last year from a hospital after a stage broke under him, gashing his leg so badly he needed stitches.
Playing while wearing the hospital socks became a running joke among the band members, then it turned into a superstition.
“Now that I’ve put myself into the habit of wearing them, I’m kind of worried ... I might forget them for (a gig),” Bradley wrote in an e-mail. “They help keep the bad juju of stages breaking away from me.”
For the past 25 years, Kirk Gustafson, music director of the Grand Junction Symphony Orchestra, has kept his father’s pocket watch in his front pocket for all performances “with fairly good success, so I don’t want to rock the boat,” Gustafson said in an e-mail.
Interestingly enough, his father is still alive.
Gustafson did note that superstitions “are by nature, irrational,” and he won’t get much argument on that point.
It’s difficult to find people more dramatic than people who have to be dramatic on stage.
When asked what superstitions artists have, with the exception of the occasional individual superstition, artist and head of Mesa State’s art department Suzie Garner said, it’s “a theater thing.”