Tag Archives: Theater

The Frozen Fruit Cake

Main Piece:

Informant describing a tradition from the theater at his high school:

“At my high school during the fall play, there was this tradition of giving a frozen fruit cake to the favorite freshman by the senior class. The freshman was someone who was like really funny or helped out a lot or did stuff like that. Then that freshman would hold onto it until they were a senior and then gift it to a freshman and the pattern would continue over and over every year”

Background:

The informant went to a public high school in New Jersey with an active theater department. 

Context:

The fruit cake was gifted after closing night of the play each year. The informant told me about this when discussing traditions in his high school theater department. 

Thoughts:

This tradition mirrors a lot of experiences in an American high school. A lot of importance is put on certain things that in any other sense would not mean anything. This fruit cake is a symbol of honor and importance given by a senior, the most powerful type of person in the eyes of a high school freshman. Outside of high school, the senior/freshman dynamic does not mean anything. The continuation of fruit cakes being given and kept until senior year keeps the theater department connected year after year. It creates value and connection through a frozen dessert that otherwise would not hold weight.

The Tradition Surrounding Mary Draper Ingles in Virginia

Main piece:

“There’s this story from my hometown of Bradford, Virginia about this woman named Mary Draper Ingles who, during the 1750s, was kidnapped by a group of Native Americans. She might have had a child at the time, but she was kidnapped by these Natives and then eventually escaped and then followed the rivers from Ohio back to Virginia where she lived in Bradford for a while until she died but there’s several parts of the town that remember her including an annual theater production.” 

Background:

The informant for this piece is a man in his early 50s who was raised in a small town called Bradford in southwest Virginia in the New River Valley. This area had broader ties to Appalachian culture as a whole and he lived there throughout his childhood and teens. This story is a local story about a real woman but whose kidnapping and return is sometimes doubted. Regardless, the town uses the story to establish a local identity, especially in the form of an annual theater production.

Context:

This story was shared with me during an encounter with my informant wherein I asked if he had any examples of local Appalachian folk culture. The conversation occurred in his backyard alongside family and friends.

Thoughts:

I find this story fascinating as the figure of the piece is entirely real. Mary Draper Ingles was a real woman who was kidnapped by Native Americas in the 1750s. However, the story of her return has become crucial for the identity of Bradford, Virginia. She is a proud figurehead for the community, which ties the community to their specific place and argues their right to exist. What is even more interesting is how the town still romanticizes the story. As mentioned above, the town hosts an annual theater production about her. While this might veer outside of folklore because it features authored literature, the traditions done around the piece are more folkloric in nature. This places the story in a strange level of liminality. It is both real and fiction, authored and folklore. This binary is interesting and is used by the natives of Bradford to establish identity.

Theater Ghost Spotlight Ritual

Here is a transcription of my (CB) interview with my informant (AH).

CB: “Can you tell me about that ritual for theater ghosts?”

AH: “Uh so have you ever heard of the ghost light?”

CB: “No”

AH: “So its tradition in theater that when you shut down at the end of the night that you leave a single light, its gotta have leads on it traditionally, and it even goes back to shakespearean times, you know they would leave a candle out or a lantern out so that the ghosts wouldn’t burn down the stage, but then, you know, sometimes the candle would burn down the stage.  But you leave a light out in the middle of the stage, and so the rest of the theater is completely black except for that light in the middle of the stage. And so the tradition is that you leave a spotlight out in the middle of the stage so that ghosts of theater past are able to perform for their audience.” 

CB: “That’s really interesting. Where did you first hear about that?”

AH: “I heard about it in theater at my high school. My theater technician teacher taught us that one”

CB: “And so, why do you think that people share it?”

AH: “It’s a very important tradition. Rumor has it that if you don’t leave a light out, its bad luck and your theater will be doomed to never have a successful show again.”

CB: “What does the ritual mean to you?”

AH: “Um, it’s more just something that I do because it was something that I was taught to do and less because it means anything to me. I think that it’s important to the theater community as a whole to put the ghost light out. It’s a superstition, and it kinda calms a certain type of feeling. And I find, but I’m not this way, but theater people in general tend to be more superstitious than your average individual.” 

Background:

My informant has spent many years actively involved in theater programs, and attended a high school with a very active program. There are tons of stories of theater ghosts, and the tradition can be seen going back to ancient times. With the stories come different rituals to appease the ghosts and protect their theaters. My informant has shared with me varying different stories about theater ghosts which she believed in to different degrees. She expressed that she didn’t completely believe in this ritual, but that she often partook in it out of respect for the community and the sentiments associated with it.

Context:

My informant called me with stories prepared after hearing that I had been interviewing other members of our family for folklore. We had a fun and casual conversation, exchanging versions of stories that we had heard growing up.

Thoughts:

I believe that many people within the theater community are attracted to superstitions because success in the arts can be very unpredictable. By working to appease the ghosts and performing traditional rituals, the theater community is able to reclaim a sense of agency over their success. The ritual also provides a scapegoat in case that a show doesn’t go well. The members would be able to avoid criticism of their personal performance, and instead blame a ghost. Theater is an incredibly old profession, and because of that traditions that have died out elsewhere are still passed down within theater communities. My informant cited the ritual as going back as far as Shakespearan times. I believe the ritual was likely a part of a larger theme of beliefs in ghosts, hauntings, and traditions that can appease them that are no longer popular. 

For another variation of a ghost spotlight see Andy Wright’s article “The Story Behind the Ritual that Still Haunts Broadway” published on Atlas Obsurca. https://www.atlasobscura.com/articles/the-story-behind-the-ritual-that-still-haunts-broadway

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.