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

High School Theater Pre-Show Ritual

Folk Ritual:

Before a show we would go outside of the theater – literally outside of the building. This was in high school. We would stand in a circle and do pass the squeeze. Stand in a circle and squeeze hands one at a time. Then, we would all run in the middle and say “The Raven” by Edgar Allen Poe as a chant, but it changed based on the show we were in. We would insert the show name in there somewhere. And then the boys and girls would split up, so I don’t really know what the boys did – I think it would get pretty rough. The girls would stand on a little raised curb and hold hands and sing a verse from “Bye Bye Birdie” really loud. Then we would all go back in the circle and you would say ‘got your back’ to people as you walked into the theater and tap them on the back.”


This was the pre-show ritual for a public high school’s theater program in Calabasas, CA. The informant said it was a “tradition there for as long as I ever knew, and this would have been between 2014 and 2016.”

Informant Background:

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

My Analysis:

The separation by gender in the high school theater ritual seems to be a trope. I believe this is related to the age of the performers and the ‘otherness’ placed upon the opposite sex by society in that age of physical development. The boys moshing is another trope I’ve seen in these contexts, perhaps the males feel a need to exert their stereotypical “manhood” by becoming violent before they perform a socialized as “femme” extra curricular activity, theater. The girls also perform their gender by standing on a higher platform, perhaps symbolizing being above violence, and singing while holding hands. This performance of peaceful sweetness paints the picture of stereotypical femininity.

Choosing to say “got your back” is a safe theatrical well wishing before a show as “good luck” is considered bad luck. “Break a Leg” or “Merde”, the French word for shit used to mean good luck, are violent and gross, making them potentially inappropriate for high school kids. Therefore, the invented “got your back” makes a sweet substitute. Finally, choosing to chant “The Raven”, while dark, also gives what they are about to do an air of sacredness due to its fame and fear it instills.


Overtly Sexual Theater Tradition at a Catholic School

Main Piece

It’s only done at shows, after we do this whole energy circle and this prayer because its catholic school. Then, whoever’s in charge says “practice room, practice room, etc” to whoever is relevant, which we use as one of the dressing rooms, it’s in the hallway. The two people who are the presidents of the musical or whatever, or whoever is willing to do it goes like, everyone take two fingers, and place them on your nipples! [Over one’s clothes] And rub and hum! And then you go, “louder” and then you go “louder” and then you go “scream!” and then you go “have a good show everyone” and someone turns the lights on [the lights are turned off during this ritual] and then everyone runs out.”



Nationality: American

Location: Long Island

Language: English

The informant learned the tradition from other students, and it has been going since at least 2013, but likely much longer. The informant laughed a lot while telling me this tradition, so it seems to be lighthearted with the intention of being fun. However, the informant did say that it was quite weird. Most often included in the tradition are those who would be considered “popular.”


The informant attended a coeducational Catholic high school where this practice took place.


This tradition is an example of high schoolers being overtly sexual and although it is seemingly harmless, it also seems very odd and potentially uncomfortable given the potential age gap between Seniors and Freshmen. That said, traditions like this seem to be very common amongst theater groups. I am curious as to the exact reason behind this phenomena.


Folk speech

“Dark in Here!”

Context & Analysis

The subject is a BFA in USC’s School of Dramatic Arts Acting program, which is extremely competitive. I asked him if he knew of any theater traditions or sayings specific to USC’s theater program. I included the full dialogue of our conversation below for clarity.

Main Piece

Subject: ‘Dark in here’ is a big one for the BFA’s. Any time the lights turn off someone just has to go ‘Dark in here!”

Me: What’s the context of that?
Subject: It was a line in a scene and we—Mary Jo probably made them do that line for an hour straight.

Me: Who’s Mary Jo?

Subject: Mary Jo Negro is the head of undergraduate acting at USC, she’s our acting professor, she’s the one that cuts us [laughs]

Me: So what play was it taken from?

Subject: It’s a 10-minute play called ‘Tape’. It’s very bad. [laughs]

Me: So why did it become a saying within the BFA’s?

Subject: Uh, because we’re the ones that had to run through it for an hour—it was just that line. And so then every time the lights turn off we’d have to go ‘Dark in here!’—so the lights turn off and he [the main character] goes ‘Dark in here” and so now any time any professor ever turns the lights off somebody goes “Dark in here” and I hate it [laughs].


Ghost Light

“So the ghost light is that light you leave on in the back of a stage, or any theater. And you do it for, like, the spirits in the theater, or like, um, the souls of the departed who wish to participate.”

This folk object/tradition was described by a friend while we were eating lunch at a restaurant. I asked him when he had first heard of this tradition.

“Uh, my production and design overview class, uh, freshman year of high school.”


Ghost Light

“The ghost light, oh. Honestly I don’t know a whole lot. I remember, I know…so what it looks like is, it’s this…it’s kind of like a stand that has wheels, with a light on top. Usually blue, I think. At least, the one I saw was blue. Um, and I believe it’s there…I know it’s there at the beginning of plays. Like, I think it’s to light up the stage so that there’s some sort of lighting so that people can see somewhat and don’t fall, ‘cause stages are dangerous.”

This folk object/tradition was described by a friend after class ended. She worked in theaters (where this tradition takes place) during high school, but she does not anymore.

I asked what she knew about the origin of the name:

“I haven’t really heard many stories about it that have to do with the name. Um, yeah, I don’t remember why it’s called ghost light. Maybe ‘cause it floats, and people are like, ‘Floating lights are ghosts!’ But I really don’t know.”

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.


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.

Folk Beliefs

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.

Folk Beliefs

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.