Tag Archives: theatrical superstition

Traditional Practice: Whistling in a Theater

Main Piece: 

“Okay, so the first story I’ve got is something that I encountered working in the theatre in Germany. And I, for some reason, when I don’t think about it, whistle. And I remember being in the theater and without consciously doing it I was whistling going down the halls and one of the managers pulled me aside and really reprimanded me and said that, you know, that that was really a bad thing to do. I wasn’t really sure why and then I went back and I asked someone about it and they said that was a really big superstition, and not to do that at all, and it actually goes back to when the theaters used gaslights for lighting. And if the flame went out, the only way that you’d really know that it was out was a whistling sound. And so, if someone was whistling through the halls it could really kind of cover up or hide the fact that the gas light had gone out.”

Background:

My informant grew up in America before departing to Germany for several years to sing in German operas. This happened relatively soon after college, so he was a newcomer to both the professional theatre world and German culture. My informant explains that this is a superstition that apparently extends to American theaters as well. They present it as the product of a practical concern kept up for tradition’s sake.

Thoughts:

This is an interesting example because it started out one of two ways. Either this practice was occupational folklore at first passed between workers at a theater or it was a company or institutional policy and wasn’t originally folklore at all. However, as gaslights were faded out of theaters, this practice remained as a matter of tradition. What’s interesting is that this isn’t a superstition- there aren’t stated consequences for whistling in a theater. The reprimanding person doesn’t say that something bad will happen. It’s simply a forbidden practice because it used to be forbidden. 

Saying Macbeth in the Theatre

Main Content:

M: Me, I: Informant

I: Yeah, uh I think I can talk a lot. About like theatre traditions and stuff. Folklore. There are a lot of thing that you are not supposed to do because its bad luck in the theatre.

M: Go ahead.

I: So uh like you can say uh Macbeth, unless it’s in context of the play that you are in. Like if it’s in the script, you can say it. And that’s just because um do you want me to go into the history of like

M: Uh-hm (yes)

I: Ok, so um the play Macbeth has been riddled with a lot of really bad luck I guess from past productions, its just known to be a cursed play. So you are not supposed to say the name or it will curse your play.

M: Hmmm

I: You are also not supposed to whistle in a theatre.

M: Oh, wait what happens if  you get cursed? If you say Macbeth, in a play, what happens?

I: yeah, so I mean um normally people will just yell at you, but different places have like. Different ways to counteract you know the curse. I remember like I think at our school you would have to go outside, spin around three times and spit on the floor.

M: Okay, gotcha, gotcha. And if you didn’t do that, what was going to happen. In the show?

I: Just ev- things go wrong.

M: Things go wrong. Okay. Perfect

Context: my informant has been a part of the theatre scene since she was a child and has learned a lot about things that are bad luck and traditions in theatre to the point where she now teaches new actors about the lore as an active-bearer.

Analysis: Like I said above, my informant has been an active bearer for this lore given that she has had to pass down this lore to the younger and newer actors. This is an example of how folklore can come out of authored literature, “Macbeth.” Given how unfortunate and riddled with bad luck many past performances have been of this show, which is referred to as “the Scottish play” when talking about it in the theatre, even just saying the name is said to invoke bad luck and curse your show to go horribly awry. Many theatre members, take this very seriously and will chastise your harshly for slip ups, keeping the folklore circulating to new people and reminding the old ones. Luckily, there are a variety of things to do to ‘reverse’ the bad luck, which almost acts as an initiation to the theatre folklore if they are new. Often afterwards comes the telling of all the times that the Scottish play was mentioned by name in the theatre and how each time things went horribly awry, only furthering the believability of the folklore.

Whistling in the Theatre

Main Content:

M: Me, I : Informant

I: You are also not supposed to whistle in a theatre.

M: And then you were saying whistling?

I: Whistling is a no no because um back in the day uh theatres were operated by like sailors and they would whistle to each other to get cues, so if you whistled in a theatre, like the thought was a sailor would hear that and then like drop a sand bag on you. You know?

M: Gotcha

I: Yeah so that’s like thought to be bad luck

M: And that’s still functions in todays society even though we don’t have the sailors anymore.

I: Yeah, yeah

M: Gotcha

I:It’s just— don’t whistle in a theatre.

M: cause then you get bad luck, is someone gonna get hurt or just something is going to go wrong?

I: Yeah all of these are just like bad luck for like the show.

Context: This informant has been an active member of the theatre community since she was a child. She has been in numerous productions. She learned this from those around her and then became an active bearer of this folklore by explaining and passing it down to the younger years.

Analysis: After she learned this theatre lore, she then became an active bearer of this folklore by explaining and passing it down to the younger and newer actors. This folklore had a practical usage back in the days when sailors would operate the theaters and communicate through whistle cues. Thus, whistling would interfere and possibly trigger an accident. However, even when sailors exited from theatre operations, the practice of not whistling continued as it was ingrained as part of the culture. While we have moved from modernity to the digital age with amazing technological the folklore persisted because the practicality wasn’t important anymore as it was more about the history of accidents and ‘bad luck’ associated with whistling in the theatre. Now it’s become a part of what we learn from other actors and if you slip up, oftentimes people will correct you, which helps to keep this folklore alive and circulating.

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.