Customs
Folk Beliefs
Homeopathic
Magic

Theater Occupational Superstition: Don’t Whistle in the Theater!

Interview Extraction:

Informant: “Ok, so you want to hear the story about why you don’t whistle in the theatre? One reason is that supposedly the first riggers* in the theatre were sailors. And sailors received their orders via whistles, which supposedly carried better than voices in the wind. And so you didn’t want to be backstage randomly whistling ‘Two Gentlemen from Veronia’ and have the scenery come crashing down on your head because you were whistling the cue* for the sailors who were doing the rigging.

The other supposed origin of that superstition is, in the days of gas lit theatre there were a couple of stage hands who’s job it was to wander around and relight any gas jets that had gone out because other whys you would get sort of a large pocket of unburned gas that would eventually get to another gas jet and you would have a big fireball and the theatre would blow up and… that was bad. So they were listening for a particular whistling sound that supposedly this gas jet that wasn’t lit would make and you didn’t want to distract them from their fairly important work.”

Analysis:

This superstition was not one that I was aware of prior to my informant mentioning this belief in one of his class lectures.  The belief is that it is bad luck to whistle in the theater, and doing so will doom the production you are working on.  There are no known ways to cut the curse.  The superstition of whistling in the theater is similar to the superstition that walking under a ladder is bad luck.  Both superstitions serve as a way to teach safety, because if someone were to break those beliefs they would get hurt.  Something could fall off a ladder and hit them on the head or a piece of scenery could fall on top of them.  You are more likely to get told to stop whistling in the theater because you are distracting the production crew than you are to be told to stop whistling because it is bad luck.  Working in theater can be very dangerous if you are not aware of your surroundings because crew members are constantly moving heavy equipment.  Distracting people from their job not only serves as a danger to yourself, but to others as well.  In that sense, whistling in the theater becomes homeopathic magic because it really will bring your production bad luck due to the destruction and distraction it can cause.

However it is unclear which one of the two stories is the true origin of the superstition.  There is a possibility that the true origin of the whistling superstition came from the first story my informant mentioned, because that theory is more well known to people in the theater than the gas-jet theory.

My informant was born in 1961, Connecticut.  He has more than 30 years of experience in theater and has worked on over hundreds of productions.  He continues to work on theater productions today, and serves as the associate professor of theater practice and technical direction at the University of Southern California. He lives in Los Angeles, CA.

*Riggers: is term that describes someone in charge of moving or lifting heavy objects using a pulley system.  The term comes from sailing speech, in which a rigger is someone who uses ropes to hoist the sails on a ship.  This is exactly what a rigger in theater does, but instead of hoisting sails they are hoisting scenic pieces.

*Cue: is a term used in theater that means a signal to do something.  A signal or cue indicates that it is time to move a part of the set or play a certain song for the production.

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