Witches, Ghosts, Whistling and Cats – A Guide to Theatrical Superstitions

Floating around the greasepaint and discarded clothes of West End dressing rooms, you’ll usually find the same four things scattered in front of actors’ mirrors : a packet of Twinings Lemon & Ginger Tea, a small can of Silvrikin hairspray, a throat sweet called Vocalzone and a superstitious outlook.  The superstitious outlook is a vital component of the theatrical character, a medieval hangover that is a remnant of the kind of logic that computed that if your saw four swallows flying southwest on a Monday it meant someone would give birth to a child with clubfoot on Tuesday.  If anyone showed the slightly OCD passion for superstition that actors show in any other work environment they would be laughed all the way to the water cooler.   There is a whole range of bad luck and good luck omens within theatres, dozy and incalculable and daft –  and no less enjoyable for their madness.

You cannot whistle anywhere in a theatre.  If you do, you have to go outside the room, turn around three times and ask permission to re-enter (John Barrowman particularly enjoys this).  The same goes for clapping backstage.  Both whistling and clapping used to be theatrical signals for large, heavy parts of the set to be lowered so a whistle or clap at the wrong time could result in an injury.  However, I think the profession has increased its population at such a rate that surely it is time to leave by the wayside those actors stupid enough to stand in the middle of the stage and invite 50 stone imitation cliff faces to squash them.  You must not, of course, any other circumstances, mention the word Macbeth.  If you have to talk about it you must refer to it as “The Scottish Play”.   i.e.  “I went to an audition for The Scottish Play and the Director felt me up and invited me to his Turkish holiday home.  Have I got the part?” or “He was performing in The Scottish Play on tour when his wife left him for that antique salesman in the Wirral.” etc etc.   The reasons are that the word Macbeth will summon burnings, imminent spirits and death by swordplay.  It doesn’t.  It summons difficult lines, being aware of shifting hordes of schoolchildren firing paper pellets at the actors whilst being forced to sit through the story of Scottish regal dynasty by their GCSE set text, lady actors dancing around cauldrons and itchy tights.

Wishing anyone “good luck” is extremely rude.  Don’t do it.  You’ll be forced to spend the next 18 months in solitary confinement with Elaine Paige, and no one on this earth wants to do that.  You have to say “break a leg” for some obscure, slightly pig-headed reason, unless you are in Portugal or Spain, in which case you must shout “Muita Merda!” – “A lot of crap!”  which is funny, because that’s probably what the critics will say too.  So perverse is the fear of magic / bad luck / terrible, awful things happening that actors will often wish each other “bad luck”, in order to stave off bad luck.  Of course, they mean the opposite when they say “bad luck” to their much-loved colleagues.  Don’t they?

One of the marvellous characteristics of working in the theatre is you get to absolve yourself of all personal responsibility by one act : by calling up the sprite-like presence of Thespis.  Should you miss your cue, turn up late for rehearsal, accidentally fuck the director’s wife or break a prop because you were playing football with it in the wings during the interval, you can blame it on Thespis.  If Thespis could only see what is being done in his name he would rouse himself up from a dry, Grecian grave and smack every actor on the head with a brick.  Oh hang on – he can’t because he never existed and is totally made up.  Exited on the wrong side of the stage?  Belched instead of sang?  Wired the costume of the person you are understudying with live electric volts so that you kill them in order to finally fill their dramatic shoes?  Blame the “accident” on Thespis, darling.  If not, you can always blame it on the Union, who are a bit like Thespis – a foreign entity, impossible to get on the phone, inept, incapable and almost certainly entirely made up.  Thespis will happily take your mistakes and sense of responsibility.  The Union, Equity, will take your money, would consider shooting you for a tenner, will not allow any mistakes and, when you are found in that regional production of Seven Brides for Seven Brothers with your head trapped in a revolving set and your brains are being squeezed out of the top of your skull onto the pre-war lino, and you’re calling for your lawyer in order to make your Will, leave you to die in a stagnant, fetid pool of your own blood, vomit and poo.

In the tradition of paradox that is the theatre, neither ghosts or black cats are an ominous sign.   A black cat is a convenient lucky charm, although sadly the theatre cat has been a victim of Health & Safety and there are less of them these days.  West End theatres are hundred year old hellholes of environmental madness, riddled with rats and mice, most of which are looking for an audition.  The cats would kill the mice, thereby ensuring they can’t get one.   The most distinguished of the West End Theatre cats was the much-loved Beerbohm at The Gielgud (when it used to be called The Globe).  He was from an ancient theatrical lineage, having been born in Her Majesty’s Theatre down the road and had the official title of  Principal Mouser.  I met him a couple of times in the costume room at the Gielgud when he was an old boy where he would find a particularly expensive piece of tailoring and sit and moult on it. 

“I’m too old for all this now, darling,” he said to me on that autumn afternoon in 1992.  “I mean, those bastard tap dancers took my worm pills – they must have thought they were something else, dear.  And now, I have Camden Council coming in to look at the mouse problem.  So vulgar.  I’ve got twice as many legs as any one of them, I can see in the dark, I’m highly intelligent and sinister all at the same time, I am felis catus, a natural hunter. I’ve been petted by Diana Rigg, for God’s sake. And they DARE to breathe a word about my mousing.  Peasants.  I remember what darling Sir John Gielgud-y used to say….”

Then he’d fart, roll over and dream of dead, gutted fish.  Beerbohm’s prayers were answered though.  A theatre carpenter offered him retirement out in Kent, where Beerbohm spent the remainder of his days pasting photographs of his favourite dead mice in his theatrical scrapbook.  Apparently his last word’s where “Felicity Kendal’s been at my KiteKat.”

A portrait of him still graces the foyer where he imperiously looks down his whiskers at tourists buying gin and tonics at the bar.  He is the only cat to have had his own obituary in The Stage.  The Noel Coward Theatre has two cats, none of which command themselves with Beerbohm’s nobility or suaveness.  One of them ate Princess Margaret’s bouquet during a gala performance, and both of them appeared impromptu on stage on a regular basis.   In the 1970s, the Theatre Royal Drury Lane had a much-loved cat called Ambrose, who’s frequent appearances on stage so angered Michael Crawford that he tried to ban him.  Apparently, the cat felt the same way about Crawford.  The cat won.

Beerbohm, The Globe Theatre’s  (Gielgud) Principal Mouser, late of this parish, working his diva look, bringing the theatre good luck and squashing someone’s edition of The Stage.

If the black cat’s presence isn’t enough to ensure your insecurities that the show will go without hitch, you can always refuse to rehearse the curtain call until the day on which you will actually be performing it.  It is considered bad luck to arrange the curtain call, which is astonishing.  Possibly the only part of the play where the director has to choreograph 14 narcissists simultaneously arriving on stage desperate to suck up applause and adoration, desperate to step on each other, ignore each other, fling arms around to blot the appearance of the others out, trip each other up and perform further blasphemous acts and no one considers it wise to rehearse it in good time. They would rather wait until 5pm on the night of the first preview, when the cast’s nerves are shot to ribbons, when they ignore the precedence of casting, put the cast’s actorly noses out of joint and make a right mess of it.  A further, more lunatic version of this is never to rehearse the last line of the play.  Ever.  A play cannot be finished until it’s rehearsal is finished.  The last line remains unspoken.  This means you can be doomed to spend three weeks in a draughty church hall listening to:

“And, so!  The murderer is———!”

Director, purple-faced, with a bit of diabetes, throws A4 notebook onto the floor and stands up. “No, Harold, darling.  Last line sweetie!  No. DON’T SAY IT.”

This can happen throughout the entire rehearsal process.  Most of the actors don’t know (or care) who the murderer was because they haven’t read all the play yet. 

The Theatre Royal Drury Lane is Britain’s most haunted theatre.  In fact, a theatre is only a genuine theatre if it has a black cat in residence and a ghost.  Actors love to recount stories of that time they saw an uncanny visitor, pale, death white and hollow of face, although they often forget to add that it turned out to be their agent.  Actors love getting a sense of ghostly frisson by the idea that some old dear is hovering about the dress circle doing hauntings and suchlike things that dead people do.  The most famous of London’s theatre ghosts is the imaginatively titled “The Man in Grey”, at the Theatre Royal.  He appears only in the daytime and apparently is keen to watch rehearsals (he’s probably been waiting to hear the last line for the last 150 years to see how the damn thing ends).  As a thespian ghost, he’s relentlessly dull.  I mean, he just hasn’t put any thought into his performance or presence, duckie.  The appearance of him is a wonderful omen that the impending show is going to be a success.  He is dressed as an 18th century nobleman with a tri-cornered hat and a grey cape.  Oddly, he appeared during the rehearsals of “Oklahoma!”, “Carousel”, “South Pacific” and “The King and I” which suggests he is actually from the Oscar Hammerstein estate and has come to collect royalties.  As an 18th century nobleman, I imagine he’d find mid-20th century theatre a bit surprising.   Imagine his correspondence:

My dear—I alighted to my usual post in The Olde Theatyre at Drury Lane to find the place much altered.  Syphilis Sally, wont of height and wooden of leg, is no longer purveyor of fine oranges in the marketplyce.  In her post I found a rugged gentleman of native charm who was pinning paper notices on people’s carriages regarding parking facilyties.  In the theatre I was taken aback.  Gone are the Comedies about parrots and dear old Lady A and gone are the swills of beer and rakish gentlemen.  In their place I found a diverse piece of machinerie which was loathe to take my money and produce a Whole Nut for consumption.  Alas, dear lady, Twas a fool I was made, as I gave this diabolical machine my sovereign and I did not get a Nut.  It produced a strange rectangle coating in purple shiny paper and twas not a Whole Nut.  Or a Half Nut.  I took my usual seat in the theatre and I thought my eyes confounded me when I saw a dozen farmyard workers making a jolly song and dancing with metal taps on their feet, making a devils abomynation, singing about Oh What a Beautiful Morning.  Twas not a morning of beautee.  Twas horrid.  I shall forthwith locate the assistant stage manager and lodge my complaint and make mine sentiments known, I thought.  Alas, I found him in a small, sordid, black box at the rear of the auditorium, playing Bejewelled Blitz and unconcerned with my ague and temper…..

p.s. Have you heard whether they’re recasting Mamma Mia yet?”

Anyway, don’t be disappointed if you don’t see “The Man in Grey” in the evenings.  You can always listen to Dan Leno rehearsing his clog dancing routine in his dressing room, another one of The Theatre Royal’s hauntings.  Thankfully, dead theatre critics have yet to rise from their cantankerous graves and cause more misery than they did when they were alive.  

A whole range of further superstitions are rarely known these days.  You must never clear out your make up box.  If you do it might mean you’ll never work again.  You must step out of your dressing room onto your left foot.  If you find a thread you must tie it around your finger, if you wear blue on stage it is bad luck unless it is countered by something silver – it’s a whole host of craziness that actors give weight to, and sometimes prioritise over something like calling their agent.  Rather than theatres being traditionally spooky places were ghosts hang out, is not the rich superstition of ghosts, whistling, cats and claps the unifying religion that actors identify themselves with?  Is all this because actors are so terrified at jinxing any employment, so desperate to avoid the label “resting”, so enthrall to a profession where bad pay and maltreatment go so often hand-in-hand that they put importance on this balderdash as a kind of employment insurance?   The rituals, the cleansing, the homeopathy, the fault lines, the ley lines, the lines to learn, the break a leg cards – it seems the theatrical community – an irreligious, liberated community by nature  -self-imposed just another organised faith with its own orthodoxies, fears, limitations and outdated rules by which it is doomed to live by.  Somewhere in the back of the theatre, you can hear the cat laughing.

Please return to The London Bluebird if you enjoyed this.  This blog is updated every Thursday. 

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One response to “Witches, Ghosts, Whistling and Cats – A Guide to Theatrical Superstitions

  1. Pingback: Break A Leg | Theatre Room Asia

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