Tag Archives: theatrical superstition

Gertrude the Theater Ghost

Main Piece:

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

AH: “So when I was at Salinas High, I was very active in theater. And the first year of my theater program, the older classmen have always told the freshmen about gertrude who is our theater ghost. And I kinda thought that it was all bullshit at first, you know, I didn’t really believe in ghosts, and I didn’t think that it was anything worth paying attention to until my sophomore year. Now the story behind Gertrude, is um… Gertrude was one of the first students at Salinas High back in…..actually I don’t remember when the school opened. But the story was that she was one of the first students there, the first freshman when the school opened. And she was in love with a boy from the opposing school, and he was colored as well. So it was a big to-do. And one night she snuck out to go see him, and he got caught, and he got beaten up by some of her family members. And so he ended up dying from the beating. And she was just so overwhelmed with grief, and she was in the basement of the theater, which back then I don’t remember what it was, at one point it was a bowling alley… but yeah, she went down to the basement and took her own life. And so she has continued to haunt Salinas High for the rest of eternity.”

CB: “Why do you think that the upperclassmen would tell the underclassmen the story?”

AH: “I used to think that the upperclassmen told them to try and scare them and as a kind of hazing sort of thing. It wasn’t until my sophomore year that I actually thought gertrude might be real.”

CB: “Well why do you think it’s important to share the story still?”

AH: “As a warning for one, because some scary shit goes on. Like some really unexplainable stuff has happened. And so we explain it with Gertrude, you know, it’s kinda our way of reasoning. And I think that it also passes down a certain tradition to kinda keep a connection between older and younger generations.”

CB: “And what does Gertrude mean to you?”

AH: “Gertrude will forever hold a place in my heart as my first theater ghost. She probably scared the shit out of me more than any other theater ghost I’ve ever encountered.”

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. Every theater has a different ghost, with a different personality. The story and moral associated with the ghost changes depending on the theater in order to represent the values associated with the theater.

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:

Growing up in Salinas, my informant was in a very diverse community with staggering differences in socioeconomic status. This led to a lot of racial tension. It makes sense that their ghost’s story would portray this tension, however it’s interesting that it is portrayed as tragic. By doing this, this specific theater makes it clear what sort of attitudes are and are not tolerable within their community. My informant cites that the older members of the community told the new members as a warning against the actions of the ghost, but I believe that it was also told as a code of conduct. The older members used the story as a way to acknowledge that bigoted sentiments are common in the larger community, but to remind the new member that they are not tolerable in their theater’s community. My informant also cited the ghost as a means to explain unexplained incidents. She claims the ghost is memorable because of these incidents and her belief in it. In this way, by first explaining the code of conduct, and then by introducing the new members to a shared belief, the story telling acts as an initiation ritual. Once the new member accepts the code of conduct and respects the beliefs, they are a member of the community.

Not Saying Macbeth in a Theater

Context

The informant is my 18 year old sister and the information was collected from an in person causal interview. She is a senior in high school who is very involved in the theater at her school. Her close circle of friends include many of the people she was in plays with and spends much of her time practicing singing and some dancing. She is describing a superstition her and her theater friends from her high school theater program share.

Piece

LA: We are not allowed to say Macbeth unless it is part of the play. If you do say that it is bad luck. Yeah, it had actually happened. One time Karina [theater friend] said Macbeth and then Kayla [another theater friend] was like, “No!” Then there was a rope and it started sparking with fire. It started like smoking while we were in the theater. So that is something you never ever do. 

CA: Why specifically Macbeth?

LA: I don’t, maybe I think is it because it is really hard of a play to do and back luck because Macbeth had bad luck in the story so I think that is why. 

Analysis

The connection between superstition and the theater seems to be very common. It is a very liminal space where people take on different personas and invoke the spirits of the people they represent. The goal is not to evoke the negative experiences of those you are portraying. Not only is the supersition espoused, but also enforced by other members of the theater showing the level of belief among them. The experience with the smoking rope reinforces their belief in the superstition and they will be more likely in the future to follow the practice more strictly and encourage others to do so. 

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.