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Why "Break a Leg"? 10 Theater Traditions Explained

Theater is filled with storied traditions, developed and preserved over its centuries-long history, which dates back to playwright Aeschulys in 472 B.C.  While some of these customs seem to be rooted in some degree of practicality, others have become outdated or simply never had any elements of reality. But no matter if it's a local stage show or a major Broadway production — or if it's a comedy, musical, or drama — these long-abided theater traditions and superstitions are still going strong.

Tell Performers to "Break a Leg"

Person laying their leg cast on a couch with crutches resting on top
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Ironically, wishing someone "good luck" in the theater is actually, well, bad luck. Instead, it's common practice to tell entertainers to "break a leg." That may seem like an odd way to wish them well before a show, but the tradition is rooted in superstition. Many believe that spirits, like ghosts and fairies, may inhabit theaters and be looking to cause trouble. If they hear "break a leg," they'll actually do the opposite, meaning good will come from the wish. But that's not the only explanation, according to Playbill. A different theory suggests that the "leg" in question is not a limb but a curtain that hangs in the wings, so "breaking" it means making it onto the stage. And yet another explanation dates back to Elizabethan England, when audiences used to throw money on the stage to show their appreciation, so when actors "broke" the line of their leg, they were actually bending down to collect their earnings.

Always Leave a Ghost Light On

Various light bulbs hanging from the ceiling taken from the floor
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If you ever find yourself in an otherwise empty theater in the middle of the night, you'll likely see a single bare bulb glowing onstage. All the intricate sets and props can make navigating a stage feel like winding through a maze, so it makes sense that a night light of sorts is left on when everything else goes dark. But the fact that the light is called a "ghost light" hearkens to a different explanation. "The superstition around it is that theaters tend to be inhabited by ghosts, whether it's the ghost of old actors or people who used to work in the building," stage manager Matt Stern, who has worked on Broadway in shows including Wicked and The Phantom of the Opera, told Atlas Obscura. "[G]host lights are supposed to keep those ghosts away so that they don't get mischievous while everyone else is gone." Other explanations relate to the historical need to relieve pressure on gas valves in old theaters, or legend of a thief falling in the dark, breaking his leg (literally this time!), and suing the theater.

Never Say "Macbeth"

Book including "The Tragedie of Macbeth"
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Shakespeare's shortest tragedy is the Voldemort of the theater world. Many people believe the play is cursed, since so many mishaps have happened in its 400-year history. Legend has it that for the very first performance circa 1606, William Shakespeare himself had to go on as Lady Macbeth because the actor playing the role suddenly died, according to History.com. Another actor was supposedly killed onstage in Amsterdam in the 17th century, when a prop dagger was replaced by a real one. Riots have also plagued the play at times, with the most tragic being a New York production in 1849 when 22 died and more than 100 were injured. As even a mere mention of the title may bring similar disasters, the play that shall not be named is often referred to as "The Scottish Play" or "The Bard's Play" instead. Of course, not everyone believes in the so-called curse — after all, a play that has been performed regularly for so many centuries is bound to suffer some misfortune. For those who do buy into it, though, there are ways to reverse the bad luck: According to the Royal Shakespeare Company, you have to leave the theater, spin in a circle three times, spit, curse, and then knock to be let back in.

Hope for a Bad Dress Rehearsal

Play cast members on stage
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You might think that the final rehearsal before opening night, when everyone onstage is dressed as if it's a real performance, should be when everything goes off without a hitch. But thespians believe the opposite: "Bad dress, good opening." Although the exact origins of the superstition are unknown, according to Backstage, performers swear by the phrase. It makes sense, in a way: The odds of things going spectacularly wrong two nights in a row are slim, especially if a cast and crew have time to address and prepare for those contingencies between a rehearsal and the performance. And if things are going to go wrong, it's better that they go wrong without an audience.

Don't Whistle Backstage

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As far back as the 17th century, before stage managers became standard, productions had people called prompters, whose job it was to make sure everything flowed smoothly during the course of the show, Playbill explains. In the days before electricity, these prompters needed a way to indicate to folks backstage that a scene was changing, so they would use a bell or whistle. To avoid confusion, everyone else was strictly prohibited from whistling, lest they trigger an unintended (and potentially dangerous) set transition. When electricity came along, flashing lights and intercoms took over. Yet the tradition remains — this is one occupation where you shouldn't whistle while you work.

Avoid Wearing Blue

Blue dyed fabrics hanging outside
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As Broadway Direct explains, blue dye used to be among the most expensive, so producers claimed it was bad luck in an effort to keep costs down,. But that deception led to another, Playbill adds: Some theatrical troupes would splurge on blue costumes to make it seem like they were doing better than they were. To one-up them, troupes that were actually doing well added silver, which was even more difficult to afford. Thus, unadorned blue ensembles became a symbol of false success.

Ban Peacock Feathers and Mirrors From the Props

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Any good prop master knows to keep peacock feathers far away from the stage. The natural design of the feathers contains an "evil eye" pattern that is thought to bring bad luck in the form of technical failures and chaos, History UK explains. The eye's curse (which is not unique to the theater) can be traced back to Plato and even the Bible, while the fear of the feathers themselves has existed since at least 1242, when they were linked to Mongols who advanced into Europe. Another item to avoid? Mirrors. While it's a widely believed superstition that breaking a mirror causes seven years of bad luck, even unbroken mirrors should be kept offstage in the theater, since they can mess with the lighting design. Of course, there are exceptions to this rule — most notably in the staging of "The Music and the Mirror" from A Chorus Line.

Sleep With Your Script Under Your Pillow

Close up of a script from a play
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A shortcut for actors to learn their lines, according to Backstage: Sleep with their scripts under their pillows. While clearly there's no such thing as the words magically lifting off the page and into their brains, the superstition lives on — but it only works if they also actually take the time to memorize those lines!

Give Flowers After a Show, Never Before

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First do the work, then receive the appreciation. It makes sense to present flowers to performers after they've graced the stage, but according to Playbill, this tradition is about more than just rewarding someone for a job well done. Superstition dictates that it's actually bad luck to give flowers before the show, for fear that something will go wrong to make the performance unworthy of beautiful blooms. Another (now less-common) floral tradition was to give the director and leading lady a bouquet stolen from a graveyard when a show closed, representing the death of the production.

Sing "Happy Trails" at the End of a Run

Black headphones sitting on a wooden table
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Whether it's the end of a particular actor's run or the entire close of a show, it's tradition for the cast and crew to gather to sing Roy Rogers and Dale Evans' 1950s tune "Happy Trails." While the origins of the tradition are unknown, according to the Lincoln Center Theater, it endures today as a way to bid a fond adieu and wish your castmates well: "Happy trails to you / Until we meet again / Happy trails to you / Keep smiling until then."

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