USC Digital Folklore Archives / Posts Tagged ‘theatre’
Life cycle
Stereotypes/Blason Populaire

The Red Lady

Title: The Red Lady

Category: Folk Object

Informant: Julianna K. Keller

Nationality: American, caucasian

Age: 20

Occupation: Student

Residence: 325 West Adams Blvd./ Los Angeles, CA 90007

Date of Collection: 4/09/18


The “Red Lady” is a large red bong used by a select group of the theatre community at Trinity Valley High School in Fort Worth Texas. None of the students know the exact origin of the object, they believe that it was purchased by the school’s theatre department for use in one of their shows many years ago. The “Red Lady” has been passed down from senior to senior in the theatre department as the years have gone by. The “Red Lady” is given to a trusted member of the group and it’s their responsibility to care for and keep the secret of the object— While still maintaining its hiding place on school property.


Ms. Keller was fortunate enough to have earned the “Red Lady” her senior year of High School and was abel to share this story with me. She said she earned it because she was known for smoking marijuana and for being an excellent “chill” actress of her senior class. When it cam time for her to graduate, she then passed the bong down to a rising upperclassman.


Personal Thoughts:

We had something similar at my high school on the cheerleading team. The senior captain was in charge of the “spirit stick” all throughout the year and for maintaining the level of excellence that our team had achieved that previous year. I wound’t say a “sprit stick” and a bong are extremely similar, but they could be used as motifs to describe the same sort of seniority earned possession.

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

Theatre Superstition

Main Piece: Theatre Superstition


The reason behind “break a leg”


My brother is a theatre major, and over the last semester he performed in a couple plays and when we’d go to see him, my mom would always tell him to “break a leg” and I never knew why that was said so I asked him.


“It is a common thing in theatre to say break a leg as a good luck omen because back in the day in Germany when the applause would come, the audience would stomp their feet. The idea behind ‘break a leg’ is to have such a good performance that the audience would applaud so hard and stomp so hard they would literally break their legs.”




My brother Ty had been involved in theatre during his middle school years and didn’t do much else until he got to college. He picked up on this tradition through being around the theatre and other actors. This is a pretty commonly known saying, but he also did not know the meaning behind it until he began acting in productions.

Ty likes this tradition because everyone kind of just says it as a thing you do when you are wishing an actor or actress good luck, but no one really knows why or where it came from. Ty is the kind of guy who finds out a fact and wants to make sure everyone he can tell knows it, so almost every time someone close to him tells him to break a leg, he asks if they know why it is said.




My brother told me this when I went to one of his plays during the spring and I wished him good luck and told him to break a leg. He asked me if I knew why I said it and being his brother I responded with some sarcastic comment like “I actually just want you to break your leg while you’re on stage,” and he proceeded to tell me the meaning behind it.

Since every actor knows of this saying and almost all theatre goers know it, it is thrown around very often at a production, and is even used outside of theatre to wish good luck in general whether it be in sports or giving a speech. Of course it does not have the same meaning when used outside of a theatre context, but it has become just a universal saying for “good luck” in whatever activity is taking place.


My thoughts:


I’ve known about this saying for as long as I can remember, with it being used in TV shows and when I would go to see my brother perform in middle school and even when I was involved in the 6th grade play at my elementary school. Once I found out the origin of the saying I had a new appreciation for it, because I had all these far out explanations in my head as to why it was said, anywhere from an actor in history who was so into his character he broke his leg on stage to it being traditional that the new actor would be scared with this saying thinking “why do they want me to break a leg?”

I use this saying with basically every event that could condone telling someone good luck before they partake, even my roommates going to take a test or if they have an interview. I probably won’t use it as much now knowing the meaning behind it, but I will definitely whip out that fact next time I find myself at a play.

Folk Beliefs

Ghost light (Theatre)

Allegra:  I think this might be pretty common folklore, but every theater has a ghost. Sometimes, in particularly old theaters, a ghost can cause disruptions if not appeased.

Me: Have you ever experienced a theater ghost?

Allegra: Yes. Many times. Our high school theatre had a ghost who would take the bra from a quick change pile and move it to the opposite side of backstage. Well, perhaps that wasn’t a ghost. Probably just a bad techie. Anyway, yes the ghost light is kept on in empty theaters (theaters which are not in rehearsal or performance) to appease the ghost, and I suppose for safety reasons as well. People do not want to be fumbling around in a dark theatre when they enter.

Me: What do they look like?

Allegra: Well it’s a lightbulb on top of a metal stand, and there is usually a cage around the light. Whoever leaves the theatre last is supposed to plug it in so that the next person can see.

Analysis: A ghost light goes along with many superstitions in theatre. (Never say Macbeth, a bad final dress rehearsal means a good opening night and vice versa) The ghost light superstition seems ridiculous but it is a serious practice among Thespians. As artists, actors are prone to letting the supernatural have more sway. Perhaps this is because their imaginations are more active than dryer fields of work, or because their work is so subjective and a bad show can be the result of events outside of their control. In either case, a ghost light is one of many theatre superstitions well alive today. 220px-Ghost_Light_on_Stage

Folk Beliefs
Folk speech

The Show Must Go On

Saying: “The show must go on”

Meaning: Regardless of what happens on or off stage, the show must continue.

Analysis: This saying in showbiz is a testament to the commitment it takes to put on a full performance. It also says a lot about the performer’s commitment to the audience. No matter what may befall the performers, within reason, the people who came to watch must be honored.

Folk Beliefs
Rituals, festivals, holidays

Ghost Light

Background information:

My informant is a theatre major from New Jersey, now living and studying in Southern California. She has told me about many superstitions from the theatre and film world, and this particular one is about the ‘ghost light’ that must be on all sets. There are two reasons for having this light, a practical and a superstitious meaning. I have physically seen this light on one of the sound stages in Warner Brothers studios in Burbank, where the guide concurred with what my friend told me about ghost lights. She doesn’t believe in this superstition, and finds it a little creepy when working late at night when this is the only light on. She is signified in this conversation by the initials B.I.

Main piece:

B.I.: Basically ghost lights are a kind of bare bulb light, usually, which is left on all the time on a set or in a theatre. They’re a bare bulb lighting in a metal frame, in a tall stand. They serve two purposes. Practically, they’re for lighting up a stage or a sound stage out of hours as normally there would be no lights on if a person was working out of hours. The second reason is more superstitious. They say that the ghosts of the stories haunt the sound stages and the theatres, I don’t know if they’re literal ghosts or metaphorical ones, and that the light drives them out. It’s said that all theatres and sets have ghosts, and sometimes people say that having the one light on allows for the ghosts to perform on the stage out of hours, so they’re not unhappy with the living and leave the actual performances themselves alone.


Performance Context:

This piece of folklore was related to me in a larger conversation about film and theatre superstitions, in which she related to me the superstitions about “The Scottish Play.” I asked about this superstition in particular after seeing a ghost light on set on a tour of Warner Brother in Burbank.


My thoughts:

It seems that the entertainment industry is very focused on superstition. This seems to me to stem partly from the insecurity of success in film and theatre, and the ability to be famous one day and ruined the next. Whilst these are standard facets of the industry, these kinds of superstitions act as a kind of regulating influence, a way for humans to control both their personal fate, and in general the uncontrollable. Overall, one could see most forms of mythology and legend as ways of putting order on those things which are physically unknowable by humans. The idea here that it may be the ghost of a particular performance locates the tale very clearly in the film/theatre world, yet the practical usage of the light as a way for people working out of hours to see both legitimizes those working under the guise of needing light, but believing in the superstition, and actually allows them to get work done. As many sound stages sets in particular do not have overhead lighting, as light is normally moved around during the production, the presence of one stable light allows people to work out of hours without having to interfere with the set.


Stealing Props

There’s this huge tradition in theatre… our high school theatre… uh, department… where after we close a show, everyone in the cast and crew, like, steals one of their props or, like, a piece of the set or something. And we’re not technically supposed to do that, like, all the props and sets are supposed to, like, be deconstructed and put back in the vault, but, like, nobody actually cares. But um… yeah, my first show at the high school, I didn’t know this was a thing, so I didn’t take anything, which… I cry (laughs). But then for the spring show my freshman year, I… we did Pippin and I was one of the, like, farmer guys in Act Two, which, like… wooo, big role, I know, but, um… during strike, I almost forgot about that, but, uh… fortunately, I was just walking around backstage after school one day, and I found my hat that I wore for the show, which was just, like, a really redneck-looking baseball cap… and it was just lying on one of the tables backstage… I don’t know if, like, somebody forgot to put it back with all the costumes or something, but, like, yeah, I just decided to take it, because I’d forgotten to take any other props, and, like, you know, it was my first speaking role in a high school show… I mean, a small one, but you know, and so… yeah, I guess I just wanted to keep it. Uh… but yeah, I’ve seen people walk away with… like, whole pieces of sets that they just keep in their rooms, I guess, or, like… just other props… I know the middle school kids are starting to take props from their shows that they do, too, so… I guess it’s spreading (laughs). But yeah, I guess it’s kind of a problem within the theatre department, you know, like, we’re supposed to give them back so they can use them for future shows, but, like, in all honesty, they hardly ever do, they mostly just sit there in the prop vault for years… and, like, honestly, our school has enough money to just buy new props if they need to, so, like… nobody actually cares that we’re just stealing props and set pieces, and it’s… it’s pretty cool to, like, keep parts of shows you’ve been in or worked on, so we just do it.



The tradition of stealing props or set pieces is a highly sentimental one. After working for weeks or sometimes months on a show that closes after a few performances, those involved in it want to keep pieces of the show to remember it by, especially since a show’s closing is usually very emotional (the same informant, as well as others, tell me of cast parties during which everybody cries the whole night). It also allows cast and crew members to show others or “prove” that they were a part of a particular show, since they have a keepsake from it. This tradition also points to high school students’ desires to break rules and get away with “sneaking around” behind the adults.


The catch phrase game in improv theatre

The following informant is a performer for an improv troupe at USC called Second Nature. She told me about this game they play in order to warm up when I asked her how they get ready for performances.

“There’s this game that’s been played for generations in Second Nature, where everyone has their own catchphrase, and so you go around in a circle and like I have six catchphrases and you have six catchphrases, and the way that the game is, is that I pass my catchphrase to you, so like one of my catch phrases is ‘what a DUMP!’ and one of yours might be like ‘or when are we?’ I don’t know, so they just pass like that and it’s just something that’s weird and so everyone keeps their catchphrases and its kind of passed on, like the funny catch phrases are always well-remembered… whenever you come on to the troupe, its like your duty is to learn, to come up with six catchphrases and they can be anything that you want and we play as we warm up, so like every rehearsal we warm up for 15 or 30 minutes, before and then before shows we warm up 15-30 minutes and then I’d say almost always play that game before hand. It’s always the same catch phrases for yourself. There are no written down rules, we just pass it along to each other and really good catch phrases from generations stick around ”

The above game is similar to the type of games Second Nature plays during shows, and it’s easy to see why they use it as a warmup. Different troupes have different strategies and techniques, but Second Nature’s inherited method appears to be the catch phrase game. It’s quite possible that the nature of the game itself has been transformed through the many generations, as improv is, after all, a theatrical art that is constantly changing; every performance is unique and ephemeral because of the inherent nature of improv, which is short for “improvisation.”

Rituals, festivals, holidays

Gypsy Robe

“I use to do community theater at this place called Starstruck. Theater people are just weird in general and we love weird traditions and culty kind of stuff, anything that nobody else might know about is great. A gypsy robe is a tradition with this theater company that you work on the show, you work really hard, and then everybody votes on who gets the gypsy robe. If you’re new, maybe somebody might tell you what it means, but probably not. You just have to figure it out when it happens. So we all load into the theater and it’s opening night and we all go to the stage to warm up. We do a group warmup: singing, dancing, weird theater shit. And then it comes the part when it gets really emotional and the director gives a speech like “You guys have done such a great job, we’re so ready, it’s going to be great, it’s going to be sold out.” Stuff like that; weepy weepy, cute, inspirational stuff. Whatever. So all that happens and its right before they let all the people in the house. The house is all the audience seats. We’re all on the stage and they can’t let the audience in until we get off. So then the director, as though she has a secret to tell, ‘Ok so some of you may know about this and some of you don’t know yet…’ I’ve been in their children’s shows and professional shows but when I first got introduced to it I was in high school so it was a really big deal. She points backstage and the stage manager would go and get this robe. It says ‘gypsy robe’ on the lapel and has trinkets on it from every show they’ve ever done. Well since they started the gypsy robe anyways. The trinket is embroidered onto the robe with the show name and attached is a prop, or a piece of the set or a piece of costume. It supposed to have something to do with the show but sometimes the things are random and then it’s like an inside joke and therefore even cooler, but doesn’t make sense. *laughs* So then the director takes a full sweep around the circle, showing off the robe, talking about the robe, saying what it means and gives the background, and says ‘One person has stood out and we all voted and came to the conclusion that _____(name)___ deserves the gypsy robe!’ She would then meaningful walk over the gypsy robe to the winner. It’s always a person who doesn’t have a really big role. It’s probably someone whose done a lot of shows with them already, put in your dues kind of shpeal, and you probably deserved a way better role than you got, but you stayed with the show and were in ensemble and didn’t really complain about it. It’s a prize but it’s pretty political now that I think about it. You’ve got the gypsy robe, you’re basically like MVP of the show/ Miss Congeniality of the show. So they put the robe on you and you’re so excited and then someone starts the gypsy robe song. I think it’s a real song but they put different words to it. “Cotton candy, sweet n low, let me touch your gypsy robe.” I can’t remember the rest of the song but, everyone is clapping, and stomping, dancing around the circle. The winner starts from their spot and run/dance around the whole circle. Everyone is supposed to touch you, like a pat on the back but some people use this as an opportunity to get weird. The winner makes it back to their spot and everyone is still singing and dancing. It’s like a dance party and then everyone cheers for the winner. The winner is suppose to wear the robe every night of the show, as they’re getting ready, before the show, every show. ”

Did you ever win the gypsy robe?

“I didn’t. I was ‘supposed’ to get it for Grease but then I didn’t. It was ok though, I liked the girl who got it. I was supposed to get it though so it was shit. It was extra political that year. Her mom was the costume designer.”

Have you heard of other theater groups doing this?

“I think they stole this idea from somebody else because I was with this performing arts center since 6th grade and they didn’t start it until 9th grade. ”

Even though you never technically won it, would you say this made it more fun and added to your experience?

“Mmm. Ehh. It was just kind of like a thing we did. It was just a nice thing we did on opening night. It’s nice to have tradition but it wasn’t an end all be all.”

I did some reserach and discovered the ‘gypsy robes’ are commonly given out in Broadway Musicals and goes back to the 1950’s. The ‘gypsy’ comes from “their continuous travel from job to job in show after show.” Some robes from popular musicals have even been housed in museums.

I thought it was interesting that she didn’t identify too personally with the tradition even though she was a member of this troupe for several years. It is most likely because she was snubbed and did not receive the award.

Rituals, festivals, holidays

International Thespian Society Initiation

There are a lot of ritualistic things that theatre people do – can you talk about one of them that you partake in or have done?

I remember in high school there was this whole ritual for joining the International Thespian Society. Which is a thing apparently. And when you performed in two productions at my school, you qualified to join this society. And all that was required of you was two days. One day you had to come in dressed based on whatever theme was going that year – for us it was fake Greek gods. So I had a robe on and cat ears, and I was a cat god- because nothing better than cat gods in any sort of area. The second day was a Saturday where we showed up to school, no one was there —

When did you dress up as a cat god? Where was it that you had to do that?

At school. During a school day. All day. Every student had a bunch of questions. I was just – “I have to do this to join the International Thespian Society. I’m a theatre student. You should know me by now.”

Saturday we showed up to school, no one was there – it was about me, and some other people. And then one of the theatre students I knew well, Gabi, I believe she walked up and said “Ok, we’re going to blindfold all of you.”

How many were there?

There were – I think it was twelve? And it was just her. And then all of these other people showed up and blindfolded us. And essentially what they did – they first off started shouting abusive things at us, which I suppose is part of any initation ceremony – so there was that. And we had to put our hands on each others shoulders and had to walk around our school just blindfolded, trying to help each other out, saying “ok, there’s a step right there, watch out.” And then finally we entered my theatre room, which at the time was just like – was very cramped, small, room, which wasn’t in very good condition. But they had it completely candle-lit, which was lovely. And we took our blindfolds off and had to recite some – thing. Some speech. Which we did. And we were all accepted in! And then afterwards it was very nice, there was a jovial feast, and then our final part of that day was we each had to perform something. Um – which none of us knew about. We had to essentially improvise something related to the theme earlier, the fake Greek gods. So I did my thing about being a cat god, and what it’s like to be a Greek cat god – you don’t get much respect in Greece as you do in Egypt. So that sort of thing. So – and yeah, that was about it. That was the whole initiation into the International Thespian Society.

I take it you enjoyed the process?

Overall. I mean, it could have been politer during the abusive compliments. But I don’t hold it against them.

What year were you?

I was a senior a the time.

You never took part in the ritual with those later?

No, I didn’t, because I got into theatre very late in the game. I like – uh – when I was a freshman, second semester I said “Hey, that theatre looks sort of fun, I should try that.” Then tenth grade – we put on like three productions per year. And I tried out for all of them, didn’t get in to any of them. So that was disappointing. But then over the summer I went to this summer theatre camp where I played Greg from A Chorus Line who’s just fantastically gay. And has a song about hiding an erection – in front of a lot of young kids. So obviously… their parents enjoyed it. And then I came back, eleventh grade, and got Lloyd Dallas in Noises Off! So that was like my first production, and yeah.




Informant took part in the ceremony when being initiated, and it marked an achievement in their life. They never got to experience it on the other end, which maybe makes it a more magical experience