~Weird Lingo of Theatre People Explained~
Contributed by Lindsay Palinsky of The Baron’s Men
Article being written by Lindsay going here along with union info and a photo or two.
“Break a Leg.”
“It’s bad luck to say good luck on opening night!”
What?! Why would theatre folks wish injury on each other? Is it because Bella is jealous that Monique got the lead role? Nope. “Break a leg” is a phrase rooted in superstition, and is considered far more acceptable to say than “good luck.” There are a few origin stories to the phrase “break a leg.”
A bit of stagecraft first: You know those tall, narrow drapes hung on each side of the stage? They’re called legs, and they’re used to frame the sides of the acting space as well as to mask the wings, where performers may be preparing to enter the stage. Back to history: in the early days of Vaudeville, producers would book more acts than could actually perform on any given evening, because “bad” acts could be removed from the stage before they were done. In order to ensure that they didn’t have to pay anyone who didn’t actually perform, producers instituted a policy of not paying unless one actually performed on the stage. The way to get on stage was to break the visual plane of the legs that lined the sides of the stage. So, if you broke the leg, you got paid!
A couple of other supposed origins of this phrase come from Elizabethan times, though we do not have 100% verifiable evidence that either of these are the real deal explanation. The first theory suggests that Elizabethan audiences would stomp their feet, stools, and chairs instead of applauding at the end of a performance. If they were overwhelmingly pleased, they would smash their stools and chairs so hard that the legs would break. The second, and more likely, was that to “break a leg” meant to “take a bow.” In Shakespeare’s day, men would bow by stepping back on one foot and bending their knee (literally breaking the line of the leg).
Whichever origin you choose to believe, just remember the wise words of Producer Max Bialystock, “It’s bad luck to say good luck on opening night!”
“Thank you, 5.”
“Hey, Alex, go put your pants on!”
In Austin, we have a number of small, intimate venues where the audience and cast/crew may be in very close proximity before the show. At City Theater, for example, the dressing rooms are adjacent to the ticketing area and lobby. So, it would be no surprise for many Austin theatre-goers to hear the phrases, “Ten minutes to places,” and, “Thank you, ten!” Why do theatre people need this call and response? Doesn’t everyone have a clock on their phone or wear a watch? Surely adults actors are capable of telling time... aren't they?
It’s tradition. Stage actors were historically poor and watches or clocks were expensive. “Time” was not at everyone’s fingertips as it is today. For hundreds of years, the vast majority of the population had to rely on the tolling of church bells to know what time it was. Through the late 20th Century, accurate time was hit or miss. Clocks and watches had to be wound every night, which is why “my watch must be slow/fast” was part of everyday conversation.
Stage Managers are responsible for “calling time” because their clock IS the show clock, and it is their responsibility to make sure that everyone is on the same page. If a show starts at 7:30 p.m., that is 7:30 p.m. on the Stage Manager’s watch and no one else’s. Stage Manager Rita Deibler says that in a smaller venue where she can walk between the dressing rooms, when she calls “X minutes to places,” she enforces the “Thank you, X” call back so she “know[s] everyone heard me. Otherwise, I will call you out. ‘Sally, I know you’re brushing your teeth, thumbs up if you heard me.’ Or, ‘Alex, hey, Alex, it’s five to places go put your pants on.’” She said she once “made up a story about how a show had a three-day late curtain because no one knew what time it was.”
In larger venues such as the Long Center, where dressing rooms, backstage, and the Stage Manager’s station are spread out, an intercom system is used. No one is verifying that the actors are calling back, but many still do, out of respect for the Stage Manager and as a way of focusing their own attention on what preparations still need to be done.
If only we each had a personal Stage Manager to keep us on schedule all day long! “Five minutes to your seventh Zoom call of the day.” “Thank you, 5!”
“Apparently when all the lights go out, the ghost thinks it has been abandoned and causes accidents to happen on the set.”
Upon entering an empty theatre, you’ll likely see a bare bulb on a pole in the center of the stage (or, an LED strip light strapped to a mangled music stand with zip ties, depending on the theatre). This light ensures that the first to arrive and the last to leave the theatre don’t accidentally plummet into the orchestra pit or a trap opening or smack into a set piece. But there may be other reasons to have one...
Like most theatre mythology, there are several historical possibilities for the origin of ghost lights. First, the practical ones: Back when theatres were lit with gaslights, the ghost light acted as a pressure relief valve, and that necessary stayed on as a tradition once electricity was installed. One legend tells of NYC firefighters piling up in the orchestra pit during a false alarm call to a dark theatre, resulting in a fire code requirement that a light be left burning when theatres were vacant.
Spookier legends tell us that the light keeps theatre ghosts away. Others say the light keeps the theatre ghosts company overnight while the actors are gone — and that it’s important because if a theatre ghost feels abandoned or unhappy, it causes accidents to happen on the set! Still others say it is to protect the theatre ghost from injury, since sets change frequently — because if a ghost is injured due to darkness, he injures actors as payback.
Another urban legend tells of a burglar braking into a theatre one night before the advent of the “ghost light.” He fell off the stage into the pit, breaking both legs and was found there ghostly pale and moaning in pain the next afternoon (theatre people don’t do mornings). Even though he was trespassing, he sued the theatre for maintaining an unsafe space and won! Ever since, theatres leave a light on to reduce liability risk.
Others report that keeping a ghost light onstage was one of the earliest mandates of the Actor’s Equity* union in order to allow rehearsal pianists to see the music without producers having to pay an IATSE** crew member to be present just to turn on the lights for a rehearsal! This may be why some theatres call it the Equity Light or Equity Lamp.
During the current pandemic, references to the ghost light abound. Our own Austin Playhouse is calling their 2020 online offerings The Ghost Light Season. The reverence for the idea of ghost lights has become a communal fire of sorts for people of the theatre since the shut down in March 2020. If you love theatre, enjoy this essay written by New York playwright and actress Patricia Noonan about ghost lights. We sure hope to be able to give our ghost lights a break, and see each other in a theater again — safely and soon.
DON’T say Macbeth in a theatre!
“1) exit the theatre building, 2) spin around three times, 3) spit, 4) curse, and 5) knock to be let back in.”
To avoid cursing whatever play is in production in a venue, theatre people avoid saying the title of William Shakespeare’s play Macbeth while inside. You may hear people call it “The Scottish Play” instead. Outside a theatre and after a performance, the play can be spoken of without fear, but if an actor says the word “Macbeth” in a theatre prior to a performance, they must perform a ritual to deactivate the curse and right the upcoming performance.
The righting ritual varies according to location, but always seems to be some variation of 1) exit the theatre building, 2) spin around three times, 3) spit, 4) curse, and 5) knock to be let back in.
The words of the witches’ incantation are also avoided before performances (“Boil, bubble, toil and trouble,” etc.), just to be on the safe side.
Some say the bad luck curse of The Scottish Play was initiated during Shakespeare’s time when the actor playing Lady Macbeth died suddenly during the first performance. Legend has it that Shakespeare himself had to assume the role of the bloody somnambulist queen. There is zero proof that this story is true, which does not matter at all. If we wanted truth, we would be accountants rather than theatre people.
Left: William Shakespeare, Right: The witches in Austin Shakespeare’s 2008 staging of Macbeth. (Warning: Do not read this caption out loud if you are in a theatre!)
All The Theatre Vocabulary You Never Knew You Needed
We’ve introduced you to a few theatre traditions, superstitions and phrase origins already, but if you’re hungry for more, check out this extensive list of theatre terms by Theatre Crafts!