What an enormous magnifier is tradition! How a thing grows in the human memory and in the human imagination, when love, worship, and all that lies in the human heart, is there to encourage it.
Recently, I was brought to tears by a NY Times article written by John Lithgow about his discovery of a wonderful tradition at the National Theatre (see link bottom of the page.) I was amused and surprised how easily my tears came. Then I realized it’s the very traditions and superstitions of theatre that I love so madly and deeply.
At least once or twice or three times a school year, one of my younger drama students would speak the name of the Scottish play during rehearsal or class. My reaction was always well-measured melodrama. I’d gasp loudly and my eyes would widen to horrified orbs. I’d look around the space with such terror – as if the Gods would strike us all down immediately. Then promptly and fiercely I’d shove the poor kid out the door while explaining to the rest that he/she must spin thrice, spit, swear and knock on the door, begging for forgiveness and our permission to be let back in.
“You really want us to swear?”
“You must!” was my response.
“With all your might!”
This was one of my favorite teaching tricks. Every student was mesmerized; even the most disinterested came to life as I explained how this superstition came to be. No matter what the rehearsal or lesson plan had been that day, for the next half hour we talked about Shakespeare, superstitions and and the importance of traditions in our everyday lives.
The students wanted to know if I was superstitious. A few had the gall to even test me. That was the cowboy of the group, the yahoo, the little sheister who’d call out the “M” name over and over again – proving to the rest of the ensemble that he or she was no coward, and didn’t believe in such nonsense. So there, Ms. Kish!
Jonathan M. called out the name of the Scottish king repeatedly at a tech session one evening prior to production. We were using scaffolding for the hang rather than a ladder. I recall Jon was playing the part of George in The Actor’s Nightmare and he was quite smug when nothing terrible happened that evening. It was quite late when we called it quits and decided to finish the hang early the following morning. Cast and crew showed up and the half-asleep SM asked for the 10 foot high scaffolding to be wheeled to another area. She had forgotten that there were six fresnels on top of it, out of sight, and so we were all shocked as three of the lamps were knocked off and came crashing down one by one toward the heads below. Fortunately the screams were loud enough and the crew jumped out of the way – just in time. Nonetheless, all three, very new and expensive fresnels were smashed beyond repair. All of us angrily reminded Jonathan of his blasphemy the day before but he defiantly refused blame for this accident.
The Gods were not happy. They got revenge.
During Jon’s first performance, he completely and quite ironically forgot George’s lines and had to improvise one entire scene. The day of his second performance, Jon badly sprained his ankle and had to painfully walk with a crutch. And in the middle of his third and final performance, there was a power failure. The audience sat in total darkness for ten excruciatingly long minutes before the lights came back on.
Finally, Jon, who is now 30 and an alumnae of the Sheridan Musical Theatre program, became a believer! No-one now is more wary of the curse than he.
Six years after she died, I still hear my mother’s voice in my head before every performance. Before each show, she, a transplanted Berliner, would wish me “Hals und beinbruch.” The translation of this is break your neck and your leg (compared to our simple break a leg). Oh, those funny, funny morbid Germans!
The French say “merde” and the Spanish say “mucha mierda” meaning much shit. Opera singers are known to say “toi, toi, toi” before a performance to ward off any spells or hexes, and Australians reportedly call out “chookas” before a performance. The common denominator is it’s believed to be bad luck to wish good luck; therefore, it must be good luck to wish bad luck.
And so it goes….. Never turn of the ghost light when the theatre is empty. Never whistle on or off stage. Never bring a peacock feather onstage or wear costumes of blue and silver or the colour green. Always leave the dressing room left foot first. Do not knit in the wings. Do not burn three candles at the same time during rehearsal or performance. And never, ever, ever say the last line of the play before opening night.
But do I believe all this?
I believe that we create energy – good or bad, and it’s better to create than to destroy. I believe Theatre is a colossal and noble tradition that is greater than you and I, and as such, it is something worthy of our collective honour. Yes, I believe in the traditions – whether they are the superstitions practiced for hundreds of years, or the personal traditions every actor and director creates for himself.
I always wear black on opening night. I have one other personal tradition – a ritual I’ve shared with each and every one of my companies over the years. Before every show, the cast and crew, sit in a large circle holding hands. Together, in unison, we recite:
The Theatre is Magic
The Magic is Theatre
May the Blessed Magic Begin.
Tradition. What a magnificent magnifier, indeed!
To read John Lithgow’s article: