USC Digital Folklore Archives / Posts Tagged ‘Theater’
Protection
Rituals, festivals, holidays

The Drama Cat

The source is a fifth-grade student who has acting in the Seattle Country Day School’s school plays for the past three years.

Can you tell me about the drama cat?

The drama cat is a statue. We worship it before each show, on the opening night of the show.

How do you worship it? 

Well the 6th and 7th graders lead it. And they teach it to the kids in my grade. We do a chant, we have to say “All hail the drama cat” and we build a new shrine for the drama cat each—every time there’s a new show.

Why is it important to worship the drama cat?

It’s really really bad luck if you don’t do it. Or if just one kid doesn’t do it, you’ll have a bad show. So it’s really important that we get everyone to do it. Even if they don’t want to [laughs]

Does [your drama teacher] know about the drama cat?

Yes, he knows about it. He’s friends with it. But he does think it’s distracting if we make the worship too long. Like last show [the drama teacher] got mad at us for doing the drama cat worship too long and not setting up the props.

Will you continue the drama cat when you’re a 6th grader.

Yes I will. I’m going to keep it going and teach it to the next people.

Folk Beliefs

The Ghost of Spangenberg

This piece was told to me by my co-worker who went to high school in Palo Alto, CA. At the high school there was a large theater, called the Spangenberg theater, where the theater students would perform shows during the years. The rumor around the theater was that it was haunted by a ghost. My informant learned the rumor from an older theater student. She felt that the ghost story was both fun (to pass on to a new generation) but also slightly scary because of the small chance that it might be true.

“In our high school we used to have this rumor circling around the theater group that there’s a ghost in Spangenberg. So, we kind of ran with it. It wasn’t written anywhere, we just kind of passed it off as… generation to generation within the theater community at our school. Basically if anything went wrong we kind of just blamed it on the ghost. Supposedly there was a backstory to this ghost, about someone committing suicide in the building, I don’t know much about that, but things that happened were like: I was pretty sure I turned those lights off and I’d be the first one in the building the next morning and the lights were on and I know no one else was in there because the building was locked and I was the last one out the night before, so yeah… things would just come up and terrify you occasionally. There would be random noises, that was terrifying up in the rafters. I didn’t like going there by myself and we just kind of blamed it on the ghost, and because of that if I was ever there last, by myself at night I wouldn’t just be there, you know, taking my leisurely time making sure everything was locked up. No. I would be sprinting. I wanted out, immediately.”

Q: Do you remember who told you about the ghost of Spangenberg? How did they tell you about it?

“It was more of a reference, like, ‘Ooh, watch out the ghost of Spangenberg might mess it up for you” Or ‘don’t let him catch you’ or just kind of like, mocking. And I kind of feel like that’s how I passed it off, too.”

Q: Did you try to scare freshman with it?

Yeah, obviously. It’s what we do. No shame

Q: So, what would you say to them?

The first time I would ever mention it to them I would try not to scare them, actually, just like ‘Oh that’s super weird, it was working yesterday. It’s because of the ghost.’

 

It’s interesting that this ghost doesn’t have a name or any method of identification (even a gender) because generally this kind of “haunted building” folklore would come with some sort of a back story to add to the believability. However, it sounds like the story was believable enough even though the ghost didn’t have any special features.

Game

Kitty Wants a Corner

My roommate, who grew up in Michigan, told me about a theater game that she learned at a theater camp.

The game is called Kitty Wants A Corner. To play it, you stand in a circle with one person in the middle and the goal is to not be in the middle (it’s kind of like being “it”). The person in the middle goes to each person in the circle and stands in front of them, looks them in the eye, and says “Kitty Wants a Corner” as though they’re the kitten and want a spot to sit. You don’t want to give up your space in the circle, so you’ll say “No, go ask my neighbor” so the person moves to the next person in the circle and says the same thing. In the meantime, other people in the circle, mostly people behind the person who is it, will make eye contact with each other, and silently agree to switch places while the person in the middle is distracted. The person in the middle can intercept the switch and try to get a spot in the circle, and the person who didn’t make it all the way has to be in the center.

My roommate learned it at camp in Michigan, so she was surprised when they played it at her improv class at Second City in Hollywood. She thought it was strange because the person teaching the game in Los Angeles had no connection to Michigan. The informant had also only ever played the game at the camp before, it wasn’t part of her high school theater program at all. It’s likely that this game spread through actors moving around (which is common) since I have also heard of/played variations of this game, but it wasn’t exactly the same thing. If the game was an official “theater game” it would be the same everywhere, but there’s variation in how it’s played in different places.

Customs
Folk Beliefs
Magic

Don’t say “Macbeth” backstage

“Macbeth–the Scottish play. You can’t say it backstage during a performance.”

 

Actors are probably the most superstitious professional group on the planet. Among their more common superstitions is the idea that “the Scottish play” – Macbeth – is cursed. Simply speaking the name of the play backstage will bring calamity upon whatever production is being put on, so actors call it “the Scottish play” instead. There are legends about bad luck following the productions of Macbeth, but at this point, the superstition is likely kept up just for traditions’ sake. However, my informant was adamant about the fact that she would not speak the name backstage, even though she doesn’t personally believe in the curse; apparently, enough actors do believe in it that it is better to refrain than risk their wrath.

Customs
Folk Beliefs
Protection

Break a leg

“You can never say ‘good luck,’ you have to say ‘break a leg.’”

 

My informant grew up in the theater. This is perhaps the most common superstition among stage performers. Although my informant wasn’t sure exactly where the tradition comes from, it is likely that performers don’t want to jinx their show by talking about luck or anticipating a good show. Instead, “break a leg” does just the opposite – it wishes harm on the performer so that the opposite will happen.

Game
Rituals, festivals, holidays

Riding the Pony

“One of them, our biggest one, was called ‘Riding the Pony’ and you might’ve, I might’ve told you about this before, or something, or you might… other people do it too. Yeah, it’s a bunch of people standing in a circle and then people will go in the middle, like 5 or 6 people will go in the middle, and then everyone goes: ‘C’mon baby let’s ride that pony. C’mon baby let’s ride that pony.’ And under that, while that’s happening you’ll, the people in the middle, will run around the circle and then they’ll find someone, so it’ll go: ‘C’mon baby let’s ride that pony. C’mon baby let’s ride that pony.’ You go ‘front, front, front’ and then you go, ‘side, side, side’ and ‘back, back, back’ on them and then you say, ‘This is how we do it.’ And you switch and then new people come in and do it so it’s just, like ‘C’mon baby let’s ride that pony. C’mon baby let’s ride that pony. Front, front, front. Side, side, side. Back, back, back.’ Switch. And you do it. And you just do it a million times, um, and it’s really fun ‘cuz when you’re doing the ‘front, front, front’ part, people are, like, grinding up on each other and stuff. And in the back you’re, like, hitting your butts on each other and just pushing each other out of the circle. So that’s a huge, like, energy thing for us that we would do.”

My informant was very involved in the theatre program at his high school, Dos Pueblos High School, in Santa Barbara, CA. This was a game that the casts of shows he performed in would play before a performance. It was a fun thing to do, but also a good warm-up to increase energy before a performance. My informant enjoyed telling this story and he laughed about it a lot.

Rituals, festivals, holidays

Improv Warm-up Rituals

“So in improv, because usually there’d be a lot of improv people, within shows, we would get together and, um, the girls would do something where they would just, like, talk about being womanly and then would do– they just go, “fem, fem, fem-prov” and it was femprov. Um, and then the guys would get together and we’d huddle together and this was, like, a big secret thing that no one knew what we did, but we’d go in, like, a corner, like, far away from everybody else and we’d, uh, start slowly, really slowly chant, we’d start chanting the words: “Gay, penis, sodomy, gay.” (LAUGHS) And we start really quiet. You go, “Gay, penis, sodomy, gay.” And you get bigger and bigger and bigger. Do you remember the ‘rape, kill, pillage, and burn?’ That they do here? It’s like that. You just get bigger and bigger and bigger in your circle and you run round and round and round and round and you just finish going “GAY, PENIS, SODOMY, GAY” just like running around. It was really weird but just a lot of warm-upy– like feel connected…

We’d also get all the improv people together and play something called “Golden Ball of Light” where—this would take forever—but, um, you stand in a circle and, um, you say, ‘Imagine that there is a golden ball of light starting at your toes and it’s working your way up. And now it’s into your feet. And there’s a golden ball of light and it’s covering all of your feet and everything’s, from your ankles up now,’ and you’d just work your way up… and once your body’s covered, which takes such a long time. Cause like, ‘Oh, it’s in your hair, it’s coming out of your hair…” And then the golden ball of light is—and everyone’s supposed to have their eyes closed just focusing on this golden ball of light—it comes up and it connects you to all the actors in this room, and now it’s going up it’s connecting to all the audience members and all that And it’s connecting you to anyone who’s ever been in a show before. And then just all of humanity. And now it’s, the golden ball of light, it’s up in the universe and you just feel it, you feel everyone’s presence, you feel everyone. And then you take a deep breath. So its just… it’s one of those things, ya know.”

My informant remembered quite a few rituals that were done in theatre at his high school. He enjoyed remembering all the details about somethings he hasn’t done it quite awhile and said that discussing them made him very nostalgic. Theatre games and warm-ups are done almost always when performing. Not only is it beneficial for cast energy, it is also a way for the cast to bond together.

Customs
general

Pre-show theater traditions

My informant describes himself as a “theater kid” in high school. He told me the rituals he and the other cast members go through before every show they perform. He said that the male and female members of the cast start out separately, and that they have slightly different traditions. This is his description:

“I obviously don’t know all that much about what the girls do before a show, because it’s kept secret. I do know they listen to… What is that 90s song? Oh, it’s ‘If You Wanna Be My Lover’ by the Spice Girls. And they listen to that and dance around, and I don’t really know what else they do. But the boys… There is a knife that has been kept up in the suspended ceiling of the boys dressing room for several years know, and we use the same knife to cut up lemons every show. And then we listen to Bohemian Rhapsody, and jump around and are crazy, and everyone eats a slice of lemon and throws it in the urinal. I don’t know who started the lemon tradition, but I know that the senior class that was there when I was a freshman… it had already been there for a few years when they were freshmen. So that’s about ten years now. So after the lemon eating, they do a stupid chant. It’s really sexist and terrible, so I don’t think I should repeat it. I actually didn’t participate in it for awhile because I was like, ‘This is stupid.’ And then the girls came up with their own rival chant, so now I participate because sexism is fine as long as it’s an eye for an eye? Right? No. Whatever, anyway… We yell this chant in the dressing room, and because the girls and boys dressing rooms are right next to each other, we like, will have battles between the girls and the guys to see who can be louder, which is usually the guys. And then everyone gets together and we get in a circle, and we pass a pulse around by squeezing each others’ hands in a circle. And we do a big a chant together which is not sexist and is just weird, which is, ‘Everybody, have fun tonight! Everybody, wang chung tonight! And in the honor of Kristin Wendel, let’s kick some ass!’ Kristin Wendel went to my high school several years ago. She was a very quiet girl who yelled, ‘Let’s kick some ass tonight!’ before her last show of her senior year. Anyway, another thing we do is, if you haven’t yet performed in our auditorium, we make you kiss the stage. It’s very low-key hazing, basically.”

This is a tradition that initially creates purposeful rivalry, but it ultimately ends by unifying the students. The chants the cast members yell divides them by gender, and they compete against each other to see who is louder. Furthermore, the nature of the chants is apparently quite sexist. Despite these divisive aspects, my informant says these traditions bring the cast together. They also pump up their energy and get them all excited to perform. They convert all their nervous anxiety into positive exhilaration. Another function of these customs is to remember and pay homage to those who came before them, such as Kristen Wendel. The fact that they repeat these same rituals before every show means that they keep the customs that had been in place for years alive. In this way, they are connecting their past to their present. By teaching these things to younger members of the cast, they also ensure that they are building connections to the future. Each student likely hopes to leave some kind of legacy, and for a few of them, a part of that will be the new variations they make on the pre-show rituals.

 

Customs
Folk Beliefs

“Don’t say ‘Macbeth’ in a theater.”

My informant described himself as a “theater kid” in high school. He told me about a folk belief that was held by the members of his school’s theater. According to him, it is bad luck to say the word “Macbeth” in any theater. He thinks that this folk belief is quite widespread in theaters around the world. This is his description:

 

“I actually have no idea where the Macbeth tradition came from. I think it might just be… I heard a rumor that the opening cast of Macbeth on Broadway—when it was first on Broadway—all got mono during the rehearsal process, so that might have been it. And I know that happened with the first cast at my high school when we did Macbeth a few years ago. Like, six of the twelve people in the cast all got mono. I think I heard of this superstition for the first time when I first said it in the theatre, because someone was like, ‘You can’t say that in the theatre!’ And I was like, ‘What?’ So I got in on this conversation about all this bad stuff that has happened. And at first I thought it was stupid, but then that night, there was a short circuit backstage and like, sparks flew out and ignited a piece of carpet. And we didn’t have wings my theater; we had garage doors on the sides of the stage because… well, Illinois state funding. And one of them just fell down in the middle of a set change and hit someone in the head. And a costume change didn’t work, and something ripped. And lots of bad stuff happened that night and I don’t know why, other than attributing it to the fact that ‘Macbeth’ was said in the theater that day. So now I’ve learned to call it ‘The Bard’s Thirteenth Play’ or something like that, or like, ‘The Play That Starts with M.’ So yeah, that’s where that came from, and I have like, weirdly believed in that ever since.”

 

Folk beliefs—or “superstitions”—like this one are very common in drama and theater environments. Performers are very aware that they are under a significant amount of pressure to make sure everything to goes right during the show. This can be quite stressful because there are so many things that are out of their control, from technical difficulties to illnesses that plague the cast. Perhaps by not saying a certain word, they are making an attempt to curb the things they cannot control. Furthermore, it gives them what they see as a rational explanation for why things do go badly sometimes. It provides them a scapegoat for the problematic issues that can arise during a performance. They shift the blame to an old curse on a forbidden word; this explanation is widely accepted in the theater community. My informant admits being quite skeptical of this at first, but the suspicions were confirmed for him when a string of disasters occurred after “Macbeth” was uttered in his theater. That was enough evidence for him; he does not want to be the reason for future problems by being the person to say “Macbeth.” It may simply be that he was expecting things to go badly, so when they did, he immediately linked them to the folk belief. Yet who is to say that this word does not have the power to curse a theater?

Folk Beliefs

Theatrical Folk Belief: Ghost Light

Informant: “At the end of each theater performance a lone light is pulled onto the stage because legend has it that without a light ghosts play around and will mess up the set so you have to leave a light on”

The informant heard another version of the folk belief which says that “the light is turned on so that when the ghosts go to play around on the stage they have a light to see and don’t bump into things on the stage.”

The informant learned about this folk belief when he served as a member of the technical theater production crew for his high school. The light would be set “in the middle of the stage every time there was a set onstage, from the first time work is begun on the set until the last night of the performance.” The informant said that this tradition was passed on from the older crew to the younger crew informally because the younger crew would learn from example when they saw the older crew place the light on the stage. According to the informant, this was not an important duty and was actually seen as something akin to a chore. As a member of the technical crew, the informant would have to “drag the light out every night” after the performance. Putting up the light was “just something that needed to be done before the tech crew could go home.” Also, according to the informant, the light consisted of “a light bulb on top of a portable light stand.”

The informant does not believe in the “superstitious” reason for putting up the light, but he says there are practical reasons for the light. The informant said “the reason for the light is so that no one walks onto the stage in the dark and trips over something and breaks it.”

The informant said that the light is important because the tech crew sometimes has to work on the set after hours, and they have to cross the stage to get to the electrical panel to turn on the set lights. Thus, it is helpful to have a light so they can see and not bump into things on stage or fall off the stage. In addition, the crew has put a lot of effort into making the set so they want to prevent it from being damaged.

I thought this was an interesting folk belief because not only does this belief have superstitious roots, but it is also extremely practical. From talking with the informant and from online research, there are many different theatrical superstitions, and some are more common and widely used than others. From what I could find, this particular folk belief is very popular, even the Broadway stage uses the ghost light.

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