USC Digital Folklore Archives / Posts Tagged ‘Theater’
Narrative
Tales /märchen

The Fisherman and His Wife

Text:

Informant: So anyways, it’s something to the effect of, I don’t remember it very well but it was, it was part of a theater thing that we did and apparently it’s a very old story where, like a fisherman catches like some magic fish that, he and his wife were kind of down on their luck, and the fisherman catches a magic fish and the magic fish gives him a wish every time he catches it, but the fish doesn’t like being caught. So, he gets, he gets them like I don’t know, just kind of enough to feed themselves for like however long they want to be fed because they were kind of born destitute and like need it. And he gets it. And then his wife starts to ask for like, more and more and starts to live a more and more lavish lifestyle, so every day he goes back and catches the fish and wishes for some new thing and the, and eventually the fish just gets fed up with it and takes everything away. And it’s kind of, I don’t know if I would call it, yeah sad, I guess it’s a little bit sexist because it’s one of those like “women are gold diggers” or whatever. That’s basically what the message of it is, but I guess in a larger sense, in just relating to the audience members regardless of gender, it’s just “don’t ask for too much” and “don’t get, don’t get caught up in wanting more when you already have everything you need.”

Context: The informant learned this story from a theater group in New Jersey, where he was told that it was a theater story. It had been passed down from other actors. This story was recorded by the Brothers Grimm in 1809 (Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm, Von dem Fischer un syner FruKinder- und Hausmärchen (Children’s and Household Tales — Grimms’ Fairy Tales), final edition (Berlin, 1857), no. 19.). That said, it likely has origins outside of the New Jersey theater community.

Analysis: I tend to agree with the second analysis given by the informant, with the sentiment of “don’t ask for too much.” While it is technically the wife’s desire to have more, that doesn’t mean that the husband isn’t also wanting the same things. At the same time, I also feel like the tale could show how hard work and persistence can lead to getting your goals (at least before they are taken away). Essentially, the idea is to know when one is successful enough to stop taking advantage of others to garner more success when it’s unnecessary. Overall, the idea of complacency and assuming that you can keep all good things is a theme of the tale that resonates with me, especially because of the emphasis on capitalist ideals in America.

Customs
Folk Beliefs
Protection
Signs

Ghost Lights (Theater)

AC: “Ghost lights are really common in theater. So a bunch of theaters have ghost lights, which is like a light that’s always left on at night, in the middle of the stage, it’s usually just a lightbulb on a pole that’s exposed, so they always plug it in and turn it on after every show and at night when the theater’s abandoned. And it’s said to be, like, so the ghosts won’t come out at night if you leave the light on, and it’s the only light on in the theater, but really it’s a safety thing, for like when you come into the theater at night. But it’s like common knowledge that it’s the ghost light, because, like, it keeps the ghosts away.”

Does every theater company or venue you’ve been with do that?

AC: “Do a ghost light? … Bovard [auditorium] has one, the ballroom has one, both theaters that I worked at at home had one, we had one for my high school. So yeah, so far all of them had ghost lights, from what I’ve seen.”

“Well, I learned about them in like middle school, at the Little Theatre of Alexandria. And the Little Theatre of Alexandria is in like a part of my town where, it’s like old town, so it’s considered haunted, and it’s the oldest part of town so it’s like creepy or whatever, it’s historical. So I think that’s- they had such an emphasis on the ghost thing there, which was really weird, I guess it was the house manager who told me that when I first went to take classes there. And I was like, oh that’s cool. And I didn’t think it was a thing at all the theaters, but then at every place I’ve gone there’s been a ghost light. And now I learned it’s mainly for safety obviously. But back then I was like, wow, it’s for the ghosts! And theaters have different perspectives on it. Like I’ve heard from some people that, it’s like, it’s so the ghosts can come out at night, and go into the theater, and play on the stage, but others are like, it’s so the ghosts will stay away.”

How much do people actually believe in the ghostly part of it?

AC: “I mean, obviously we all know it’s, like, not real, and it’s more for safety, but it’s fun. And we always refer to a solo light that’s on as a ghost light.”

Background:

AC has been involved in theater programs for much of her life. She learned it from the Little Theatre of Alexandria, Virginia, and this tradition has occurred in every theater community she has been part of, although there is significant variation in the story surrounding it. It is part of a more general set of theatrical folk knowledge, and in addition to its practical purpose signifies community membership.

Interpretation:

The ghost light folklore is a set of superstitions which surround a feature of theaters which exists for safety’s sake. For practical purposes, the light is simple enough; it is a single exposed bulb, usually an energy-efficient LED or CFL these days, in the center of the stage, in order to provide just enough light that anyone walking around the stage can avoid running into the set or falling off stage. Because most of these theater rooms are blacked out, with no way for outside light to get in, some form of lighting is necessary at all times, at least to help the first person in the room reach a light switch.

As for why the ghost beliefs sprung up around the safety light, there could be multiple explanations.  One is simply that theater communities have generally superstitious tendencies, and such traditions come about easily. Another is the mysterious nature of the light itself. Pitch darkness and loneliness tend to be intimidating due to their uncertainty, and this single bulb in a deserted theater is the one thing preventing the stage from being completely black.

There are two main ghost beliefs which AC mentioned here. The one she mentioned first is that the bulb keeps the ghosts away. Theaters, particularly older ones such as the Little Theatre of Alexandria in her hometown, are prime grounds to be inhabited by ghosts, who might seek to cause harm to the theater company. The second ghost belief around these lights is a sort of inversion of the first. Rather than keeping the ghosts away, the light is meant to allow the ghosts to play. Perhaps the ghosts are those who were actors in life, and to allow them to play onstage is to appease them and keep them happy. Both beliefs share the idea that unhappy ghosts around the theater will harm theatrical productions, causing things to go wrong.

Gestures
Initiations
Kinesthetic

Break a Leg with associated gesture.

AC: “So we have this thing where we bite our thumb and, okay you gotta do it with me or else I’ll look like an idiot! So you bite your thumb, then link pinkies, and say ‘break a leg.’ So we mainly do it backstage like right before the show, and you go around and do it to people, and all the freshmen would be really confused, because we didn’t tell or show them it until right before the first show, and then they’d find about it and we’d go up to them biting our thumb with our pinky out expecting them to do it, until they saw other people doing it and figured it out. But then I was done with high school and we stopped doing it since it would be weird.”

Was this localized to your high school theater community, or do you know if it was more widespread?

AC: “I’ve heard of versions of it, but as far as I know my high school was the only one that did that specifically.”

So was this like a rite of passage or a form of initiation into the group?

AC: “We did it before every show, but on opening night it was the most important and was a bit of an initiation ritual.”

AC: “So imagine you’re a scared freshman on opening night and someone comes up to you like (demonstrates) and you’re confused, then eventually you figure it out.”

At some point, were you the confused freshman trying to figure out what was going on?

AC: “Yeah I remember looking around and then seeing this one girl do it and was like, oh.”

To do the gesture, one holds their hand with pinky and thumb outstretched, bites the thumb with the nail pointing down, and goes up to another person. They mimic the gesture, then hook pinky fingers together and say, “break a leg,” around the thumb. It comes out sounding slightly muffled.

Background:

AC knows about this gesture, along with its ritual aspects because of her own participation in it. She learned it from older actors and crew in the process of more generally being initiated into her high school theater community, and continued to carry out the gesture and tradition throughout her high school theater experience. Her participation was partly due to the gesture being a symbol of in-group membership. Knowing how to respond to someone else doing the gesture signifies that one has at least some experience with theater, has been part of at least one show, and as such, is part of a community.

Context:

AC demonstrated the gesture in response to my questions about the folklore of theater communities.

Interpretation:

In addition to the gesture being a marker of community membership, the learning of it is an initiation ritual. From AC’s descriptions, the first show of the year is more generally overlaid with elements of initiation rituals for freshmen and other new members of the theater community. The entire process of preparing for a performance, particularly in the days surrounding the shows, can be an ordeal of sorts, albeit an entertaining one. By taking part in the same ordeal, new members and established members of the theater community can bond through shared experience. The “Break a Leg” gesture itself is a small element of this; new members share the experience of once being confused and having to figure out the gesture with those approaching them.

Customs
Folk Beliefs
Folk speech
Protection

Break a Leg

Content:
Informant – “Break a leg is when you wish to wish an actor good luck in a theater. You can’t say good luck, you instead say break a leg.”

Context:
JK – “When did you first hear it?”

Informant – “I heard it many years ago when I was performing and around stage people. They just told me that’s what you do.”

JK – “Why do you think this practice exists?”

Informant – “I was told that the gods of the theater, if you told someone good luck, the mischievous gods would intercede and that person would screw up. But if you didn’t say that, if you told them the opposite, the gods wouldn’t have anything to respond to and they wouldn’t notice that person. It could also be that the applause would be so great that you would have to take a bow. And the traditional bow, in the Victorian bow, you would have one leg in front of the other and to bow you would break your leg. Well not literally, but it would be like bending your knee in a weird way.”

Analysis:
There is also a humor to the wish. Before it became a cliche, telling someone to break a leg may have been a way to get them to laugh and relax before going on stage.

Customs
Folk Beliefs
Magic

Never Say Macbeth

Content:
Informant – “You know the story of Macbeth. There are a lot of witches in that play. Legend has it that the curses that they say are real. If you say the name of the Scottish Play in a theater needlessly, that theater is cursed. The name summons the witches and curses. To reverse it, you have to run around three times in a circle and spit, or say your favorite curse word. You also get shunned by your cast, which is not fun.”

Context:
Informant – “I heard it from my freshman theater teacher. He was crazy. I said Macbeth in class once and he yelled at me ‘YOU NEVER SAY THE SCOTTISH PLAY’S NAME.’ He almost threw a chair at me.”

Analysis:
I can’t think of any practical application for this superstition, so I believe it exists to create a more complex theater subculture. If you know about it then you are more of an theater person than those who don’t.

general
Initiations
Kinesthetic
Rituals, festivals, holidays

Pre-Show Rituals

Abstract:

This piece is about pre-show theater rituals at Mira Costa High School. It deals with all the students in a theater production following and believing a tradition of naming a celebrity that will come to the show and a song that is sung before the show.

Main Piece:

“Before a play at my high school, every single time, we would have a big speech. It was always a senior and they would be like “okay guys, like blah blah blah.” We’re all emotional. Then we would get in two lines looking out at the audience, and we’d be super emotional and then they would always flip it like “And you know what? Beyonce’s coming here tonight. So we have to perform for her.” And they would always choose like a random celebrity and honestly, my freshman year, they said Selena Gomez was coming and I like didn’t know it was a tradition, so I was like “why the hell is Selena Gomez coming and how does everyone know she is coming?” And luckily I didn’t say anything, but I was like really confused. And then afterwards we would go upstairs and get shoved into this tiny room. And the seniors would be in the back of the room and we would all hold hands and sing Piano Man every time before a play. And there were these little traditions, like there was always one person on the harmonica, and at another part we’d have to kick out a leg and another part where he references a girl or something and we’d have to kiss the person to the left of us on the cheek. Then when you’re going out of the room there was always this picture of something provocative and you’d have to jump up and slap it at the doorway.”

Context:

The informant is a 19 year old from Manhattan Beach who was involved in theater productions at her high school by playing in the orchestra. She learned these traditions after her first production with the school and had to quickly catch on so she was not left out.

Analysis:

Any kind of tradition before a big event is significant to those involved because it promotes unity as a group and good luck. I think name-dropping a celebrity after a big emotional speech is a funny way of reminding the performers and those involved that there is pressure, but to also have fun with the process. Not explaining that it is a joke I think is part of the ritual, and also enforces the idea that there is an “in group” (the theater kids who know the ritual) and an “out group” (students who are not involved in theater). The part about the tiny room is strange to me too because it almost feels like an initiation into the world as well.

Customs
Game
Humor
Material
Musical

Gag Gifts Before Theater Productions

Abstract:

This piece is about traditions before the first production and the last production at Mira Costa High School in Manhattan Beach, California. It mainly focuses on gag gifts, but touches on the last show’s medley tradition as well.

Main Piece:

“B: Another thing we would do in theater, for the first performance we would do everyone would exchange gag gifts and you didn’t know who it was. The first couple of years we would try to do it with everyone, but it got really confusing because it was just so many people. And no one in the pit knew who was in the cast or tech because we just didn’t spend as much time with them and so then we just did it in the pit that was nicer because we knew everybody. And it’s always stuff like… like I got a bag of rice one year. And then the last year I actually got my boyfriend, and he hates snakes so I got him a ton of fake snakes and put them on his drum set. And then he hates tomatoes and beans so I bought like five cans of tomatoes and beans. And then on the last performance, you’re suppose to reveal yourself and give like a real gift.

C: You give a gift every performance?

B: No just the first one and the last one. Because we had like seven performances. And for the last performance, like the last piece, we would meld it and make a bunch of cuts in the music and make it one big piece. After everyone gets their claps, like at the end of the show, then everyone from the cast will come down and surround the pit. And then we will all be playing. And we make the cuts so it basically goes through every big song in the performance. And it’s cool because the cast is right there and singing into the pit.”

Context:

The informant is a 19 year old girl who attended Mira Costa High School for all four years and was extensively involved in the theater productions at her school as a musician in the orchestra. She has played music since she was young. She first learned of this tradition freshman year after her first performance with the theater club.

Analysis:

This reminds me of the game White Elephant that is often played at Christmas time, but mixed with Secret Santa. In White Elephant, you are suppose to get bad gifts so that when people open up the gifts they want to steal to get better gifts. However, the element of Secret Santa comes into play with the idea that there is only one person who has you to give gifts to. In both Secret Santa and White Elephant, and this theater tradition, I think the main purpose of the gift is to show a sense of care – even with the humor involved. When the informant talked about getting her boyfriend, it seemed that the gag gifts were funnier to both involved because they knew a lot about each other. These types of games can be played with close friends or family or in larger groups as well.

Folk Beliefs
Protection

Macbeth in the Theatre

Context: Subject had worked Theater production in high school and had been exposed to many superstitions surrounding ideas of bad luck, prevention, and reversal methods.

Informant:

[Speaking face to face in a lounge while studying for classes]

“The whole Macbeth rumor… where if you are in a theater and you say the word ‘Macbeth,’ you have to leave the theatre and… is it spin backwards in three circles, or forward…?”

“Um… I feel like it might be backwards”

“I think you have to spin in three circles backwards and like… spit or something. Um, and basically, people are very superstitious about it, even if it’s not… even people who aren’t generally superstitious or worried about it. Like my friend who studies stage management at Syracuse… um… was like… complaining to me about some kid who said Macbeth in the theater and refused to do the circle thing and their play went horribly… And she legitimately believed it was his fault. And in a way, it’s interesting because just since you think it’s going to ruin the play, like you subconsciously ruin it yourself… so that’s interesting.”

Introduction: The informant was introduced by fellow theater crew members when they joined stage production in high school.

Analysis/Interpretation: This is interestingly, a common phenomenon seen within the theater community. Given that I hadn’t been exposed to theater until becoming employed at one, I hadn’t been exposed to any theater folk beliefs or customs. As of recently, I have come to see more commonalities between theater-based folklore. Specifically, regarding Macbeth, it seems as though much of what is actively practiced and reinforced within the theater community, consistent amongst even the most different regions is contingent upon ideas of prevention of bad luck from pursuing during a production.

Folk speech
Rituals, festivals, holidays

High School Post-Rehearsal Chant

Ritual:

“At the end of every rehearsal, no matter how tense it ended, no matter how bad of a note it ended on, we said this chant. It was something like, “I have one last thing to say, goo cacti. Wu-tang, wu-tang, wu-tang crew ain’t nunckuck, who? With tight groups and apple…proceed.” So how this came to be was that apparently our director started it when he was at that high school and people over the years just added on different phrases to it. Cacti was the name of my director’s friend group in high school I think.

Context:
This was the post-rehearsal ritual of a high school theater group in Los Angeles.

Informant Background:

The informant is 23, from Los Angeles.

My Analysis:

High school in general is a place that likes to memorialize people. While sports teams can hang banners in gyms to immortalize sports achievements, high school theater groups must come up with alternate methods to preserve their “greats”. For example, the kids in my high school theater program would save costumes of respected peers as a way to preserve their memories. This chant seems like another way of doing that as well. The actual chant is completely indecipherable of any sort of meaning to me, and the informant I interviewed couldn’t explain any of the segments besides the first one, “cacti”. Therefore, it seems that each group of kids that adds to it gets to add their own private meaning to the chant through their own nonsense word. This is an example of cultural intimacy that would seem weird to outsiders, which only makes members of the group more proud of their tradition.

Adulthood
Childhood
general
Rituals, festivals, holidays

Senior Send Off in High School Theater Community: Ritual

Folk Tradition:

This was a senior tradition in theater. After our last performance of our last show, the director would invite all the seniors back into the theater after everyone had left and we would look at the ghost light and he said, ‘Right now is just a time for you to be with all the characters you’ve played here, so this is a time to say goodbye to them. So, we would go on stage and remember through action. We would go through different entrances or funny moments in shows and there was no end time. We would stay until we said goodbye.”

Context:

This would take place after the seniors’ last performance with their high school theater program in their Los Angeles public school.

Background:

The informant is 21, from Calabasas, and an actor.

My Analysis:

This is a folk piece with a lot of levels. First and foremost, the concept of the ‘ghost light’ is a folk belief that a light must always be left on in every theater for the ghosts that haunt the space. Though not every theater has someone who died in it, most theater spaces are regarded as sacred by the community and the residence for supernatural beings/occurrences.  The idea of everyone gathering around to stare into the ghost light is a way of symbolically channeling the spirits. It is interesting that the theater teacher prompted the students to say goodbye to the characters they played because it aligns these fictional characters with the actual spirits regarded by theater communities everywhere (symbolized in the ghost light). It could also be interpreted as summoning previous versions of oneself (the self that did perform these characters). High school is a very transformative time for many people, so summoning and saying goodbye to iterations of yourself over those years could be a very cathartic task for students before they leave for college.

[geolocation]