Author Archives: Sarah Kirby

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.


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.

Family Ghost Story After Relative’s Sudden Death

Context: The informant, a 20-year-old female college student, was describing stories and 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 highly personal family ghost story relating to the sudden death of her uncle in the San Francisco marathon when she was young.


Informant: Okay, so… my uncle passed away in the San Francisco marathon. It was very sudden because he died while he was running, and he was extremely physically fit and no one could have ever predicted that this would happen. But, on that day, we were up in Tilden Park, as a family. And I was hiding in the bushes with a stick and poking the stick around. And I’m like young. I’m like six or seven. So, I’m poking around with a stick and my mom is like, “Where’s L—?” And then she looks around, and she sees what I’m doing, and she’s like, “What’s going on? What are you up to in the bush?” And I tell her that I hear a voice… and I have no recollection of doing this! My mom actually told me about this when I was doing an interview with her for a project, so it was really an emotional thing to find out. But basically I was with the stick, hearing a voice that was saying, “Long live my sisters.” And so it was really really shocking to hear when she told me this. It was almost like my whole body froze. I didn’t know that my uncle had passed away, but I told her I heard a voice that sounded like my uncle, saying, “Long live my sisters.” And so that was really wild and it had a huge effect on my mom because she knew that he had passed away. It was super weird that I was having this voice in my head, but she said that I told her that is was my uncle’s voice, coming from San Francisco — it sounded far away. I said it was in San Francisco, but that I could hear that it was leaving. So, it was like a goodbye from him. My mom talked a lot about it with the adults in my family. Especially since I was so young, it’s just a really strange thing to have a feeling about. She didn’t tell me until I was much older, but she talked about it with her sister a lot. And I think it was crazy and I think it was something that really helped throughout his passing because my mom is a very spiritual person. We don’t really believe in God or anything, but we believe in spirits. And we found a lot of comfort in the fact that one of us received a message that our uncle was okay, and that he was leaving with a message about bringing power to his sisters. That’s kind of how my mom took it.

Informant’s relationship to this item: The informant was visibly touched and emotional as she recalled the events of her uncle’s passing, as well as the interaction her mother claims that she had with him from beyond the grave. The story clearly holds significant weight for the informant, who only learned of it in very recent years. The story was also very impactful for the informant’s mother and aunt, as they firmly believe that their brother’s ghost was sending them a comforting message with the goal of easing their grieving processes and helping them progress after his death.

Interpretation: I completely understand how this occurrence would be both surreal and comforting to the informant and her family after the sudden loss of her uncle. The informant’s young age, the specific details she used when describing her uncle’s voice, in addition to the fact that she was unaware of her uncle’s passing at the time all make the interaction particularly inexplicable. The story definitely falls under the category of friendly ghost stories, which typically feature deceased family members communicating with their relatives with the supposed goal reassuring and comforting them after tragic losses. Additionally, the nature of the informant’s uncle’s voice, which she described as sounding “far away” and slowly drifting further, emphasizes the widespread belief that ghosts exist in liminal spaces, in which they are not fully alive or dead.

Jewish Names Superstition

Context: The informant, a 19-year-old female college student, was sharing different folk beliefs that are shared by members of her religious community. She was describing how the traditions carried out by Ashkenazi Jews have impacted her life and continue to do so, today. The following is an excerpt of our conversation, in which the informant describes a tradition involving the naming of children that varies radically between Ashkenazi and Sephardic Jews.


Informant: The two main types of Jews, I guess, are Sephardic Jews, who are of Spanish descent so they were kicked out during like the Christian Crusades, and then there are Ashkenazi Jews, who are more traditionally what you think of when you think of what a Jewish person looks like.  Sephardic people have blue eyes and they’re tan — they’re Spanish. But like I’m Ashkenazi, and they’re like Polish, Russian, and Eastern European. There’s a ton of different traditions that distinguish the different types of Jewish people. So, Ashkenazi Jews believe that it is bad luck to name somebody after somebody who is living. So, like my sister’s name is Jamie and my grandfather’s name is Jaime. So, they thought they were naming her after him when she was born and they were like, “You can’t do that. It’s bad luck.” I guess it’s because you’re like keeping the memory of someone who is still alive. I don’t totally know why it’s bad luck. So basically, Ashkenazi people don’t name people after the living because they believe it’s bad luck, but in very religious Sephardic cultures, it is tradition and grandparents expect to have their grandchildren named after them. So like, if you have a Grandma Rose, she’ll be pissed if her granddaughter isn’t named after her. So, the names mean a lot and they get carried down through the living.

Informant’s relationship to the item: The informant, who was raised by an Ashkenazi Jewish parent, was taught that naming a baby after a relative who is alive is bad luck. This superstition clearly had an impact on the informant because it almost resulted in her sister, Jamie, being named a different name, so she would not be named after their grandfather, Jaime. The informant is also very fascinated by the cultural differences between Ashkenazi and Sephardic Jews, despite both groups studying the same source material.

Interpretation: The radically different cultural practices and superstitions that define Ashkenazi and Sephardic communities demonstrate the distinction between institutional religious beliefs and folk religious beliefs. Another example of this distinction is the Catholic superstition that one’s mouth will fill with the blood of Christ when they bite the host during the sacrament of Eucharist — a belief that is not found in the bible. Both Ashkenazi and Sephardic Jew study the same source material: the Torah. However, the Torah does not state anything about the practice of naming children, so both superstitions have clearly developed over time within the distinct cultural groups and schools of thought. The superstition also shows that names and family lineages hold a lot of significance across cultures. However, different folk groups will define this significance in radically different ways. While Ashkenazi Jews believe that naming a child after a living relative serves as a bad omen because it appears as if you are predicting or waiting for that relative’s passing, Sephardic Jews expect children to be named after living relatives as a sign of honor and respect.

Venezuelan Suitcase Superstition on New Year’s Eve

Context: The informant, a 20-year-old college student who was born in Venezuela and raised in Boston, Massachusetts, described various rituals and superstitions that relate to both her passion for theatre and her Venezuelan nationality. The following is an excerpt from our conversation, in which the informant recalls a Venezuelan superstition that people take part in during New Year’s Eve celebrations.


Informant: In Venezuela, New Years is a huge holiday. It’s not as big as Christmas or Easter, but it’s still pretty big, and we have a few things that we do that are like really unique to Venezuela. So one thing we do is we grab a suitcase that represents good travels and we run around the block once. This is kind of supposed to represent running around the world and so it’s basically done so that you can travel in the new year. Basically, if you don’t do that, it means that you won’t travel to a different country or somewhere else that’s new. I’ve done it since I can remember, with my family friends. We didn’t have a block when we did it, so we would run up and down their huge driveway. But basically in Venezuela, when it wasn’t… you know… deadly and violent, we would go around the block. We always did it and I always thought that it would come true, and it usually did! I think a lot of people know of it… I don’t know if everyone does it. I definitely believe that there is some truth to it. Because, you know, if you do something then you’ll put it into action. You’ll be like, “Oh, I did that, so now I should probably travel.” But yeah, I think it was definitely a staple part of my New Year’s celebrations growing up.

Informant’s relationship to the item: The superstition is clearly significant to the informant because she started practicing it when she was a young girl growing up in Venezuela. Even after moving to Boston, she continues to practice the superstition at every New Year’s Eve celebration with family and friends. The informant also acknowledges that there is a psychological element to the superstition; she feels that because she practices the ritual, it plants the idea in her head that she should travel and that makes traveling one of her resolutions in the new year.

Interpretation: This Venezuelan New Year’s Eve superstition and ritual serves as a prime example of folklorist Jame George Frazer’s theory of sympathetic magic, particularly homeopathic magic. His theory describes the belief among folk groups that certain practices can be carried out on a smaller scale that then produce major effects on a larger scale, or “like produces like.” An example of a superstition that involves homeopathic magic is the belief that whistling on a fishing boat will encourage the wind to pick up and a storm to start. The act of running around one’s neighborhood with a suitcase in tow in order to have good travels in the new year is very similar. Whether or not the superstitions are valid is a subject of debate, and belief in the ritual’s magic will vary among communities, but there is likely some truth to the informant’s statement about the psychological impact of performing such a specific superstition. Additionally, the country’s current economic crisis has forced more than a tenth of Venezuela’s population to leave the nation in the past few years. Thus, the suitcase ritual now also serves as a reminder of this tragic exodus, demonstrating how the significance of rituals evolves over time.

Works Cited:

To read more about James George Frazer’s theory of Sympathetic Magic, refer to:

Dundes, Alan. “The Principles of Sympathetic Magic.” International Folkloristics, Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 1999, pp. 109-118.

Chinese Superstition: Eyelid Twitch

Context: The informant, a 19-year-old Chinese-American college student, shared this proverb with me on the Lunar New Year. We were discussing how her parents raised her to embrace her Chinese-American identity. She began describing several cultural superstitions that she was taught as a child and continues to practice today


Informant: Alright, so I’m not sure if it’s all Chinese people or just my family, but… so basically… you know when your eyelid twitches? I’m sure it happens to everybody, but whenever my right eyelid would twitch… like whenever I was younger, I would run to my mom and go, “Look! My eyelid is twitching!” And she would be like, “Is it your right eyelid?” And I would be like, “Yeah.” And then she’d be like, “That’s bad luck.” But then if it’s my left eyelid, apparently that’s good luck. So now every time my left eyelid twitches, I get really excited about nothing and when my right eyelid twitches, I get really nervous in case something bad happens.

Interviewer: Do you know where your mom learned the superstition?

Informant: I actually don’t. I’m sure it’s just been passed down through our family forever, but it might also just be like a wider Chinese thing because Chinese people are weirdly superstitious about a lot of things. But yeah, I still practice it, and I’m sure I’ll pass it on to my children.

 Informant’s relationship to the item: Though the informant does not know the origin of the superstition, or why it is practiced by her family members, she has believed in the superstition since she was young and continues to believe it today. She mentioned that, depending on which eye it is, her eyelid twitching will either fill her with excitement or dread, due to the folk belief associated with it. Because it is a lesson that her mother taught her as a child, she also plans on passing the superstition on to her children.

Interpretation: The cultural superstition shared by the informant is an example of a sign superstition. Sign superstitions involve the belief that certain random happenings are signs that either good or bad luck is imminent for the viewer. Magic superstitions differ from sign superstitions in that the person who desires the good luck/fortune usually has to deliberately complete a specific task in order to acquire the good luck. Sign superstitions occur randomly and without warning, to either the pleasant surprise or the chagrin of the viewer. Additionally, sign superstitions usually have some sort of historical or psychological element associated with them. For instance, a black cat crossing one’s path is widely considered to be a bad omen because black cats were associated with witches in medieval times.