USC Digital Folklore Archives / Posts Tagged ‘theatre’
Customs
Folk Beliefs
Game
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Magic
Musical
Rituals, festivals, holidays

Theatre Rite of Passage: Pre-Show Game

Context: The informant, a 20-year-old female college student, was describing rituals, related to both her family and her passion for theatre, that she believes help define different facets of her identity. The following is an excerpt from our conversation, in which she describes a pre-show ritual that she witnessed several USC MFA Acting students take part in during a production.

Text:

Informant: So, last year, the first show that I worked on at USC was doing the spotlight for the MFA repertory. Um… and so I was doing the spotlight for a show called A Bright Room Called Day and it was for the third year MFAs, so they’re in their last year. And it was incredible to sit up in the light booth and watch this really tight ensemble just like completely vibe with each other and fall into place so effortlessly. And I got to see so much from the outside-in that was very inspiring, and it was so cool to observe the rituals they had formed through three years of spending so much time together, creating and growing. And so, they did this thing where, before the show, they would all gather in a circle um… and for a while I couldn’t tell what they were saying, but I ultimately figured out that they were saying this chant where on of them would say, “Get in your body!” And then everyone else would say, “Get in your body!” Um… but then it got really like intense and loud and it was hard to even like keep track of whose voice was saying what. And, basically, this whole eruption of sound would turn into passing the word “bah” across the circle, so you would just throw your hands up in someone’s face — the face of the person standing next to you — and say, “Bah!” And then it would… you know… it was just like lightning! It would just shock through each person. Usually it would go around the circle, but sometimes someone would stop and turn it the other way and people would get in these matches where they would yell “bah” back and forth at each other. And everyone in the circle was so invigorated and clearly so dedicated to committing to each other. So, that was a really amazing ritual to observe.

Informant’s relationship to the item: Though the informant did not personally take part in the pre-show ritual that she observed, she was clearly affected by witnessing other USC students participate in such a high-energy, impassioned, and invigorating display of connectedness. She describes feeling inspired by the game as an outside observer, as well as how the pre-show game seemed to energize each player and provide the entire group with a sense of cohesiveness. While she only watched the game from afar, being able to witness the passion of the production’s actors also seems to have filled the show’s crew with energy and excitement. It also seems to have made the informant feel more connected to the entire process.

Interpretation: The folk chant and game in which the actors participated appears to be some sort of pre-show ritual that the entire ensemble used in order to connect with one another and energize themselves before a show. Such rituals are common in the theatre, as well as other occupations in which people do not have total control over their actions or the ultimate outcome of their craft. There is a psychological element to these kinds of rituals, which some people believe to be magic, because they allow the participants to feel as if they have some level of mastery over the universe. The informant’s account is also interesting because it serves as an example of the distinction between active and passive bearers of folklore. The informant — who only witnessed and did not participate in the game — can be considered a passive bearer of the other actors’ folk game. The actors who participated in the game and, thus, performed that piece of folklore are considered active bearers of the pre-show ritual. However, if the informant decided to teach the game to others, she could become an active bearer of the ritual, 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.

Gestures
Humor
Initiations
Life cycle
Material
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

Description:

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.

Context/Significance:

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.

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
Protection

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.”

 

Background:

 

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.

 

Context:

 

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.

Customs
Folk Beliefs
Gestures

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
Proverbs

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
Myths
Narrative
Protection
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.

Customs
general

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.

 

Thoughts:

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.

Customs
Game
Humor

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.”

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