Break a Leg? What Does That Mean?

Have you ever heard someone say "break a leg" and thought to yourself "that sounds mean", or wondered why you shouldn't say Macbeth in a theatre? Well read on, because we will try to explain some of the most well known theatre superstitions and traditions.

Break a Leg

While it may sound mean spirited, this very popular saying essentially means "good luck". As with all old traditions, it is difficult to pinpoint which origin story is true. It is believed by some to be unlucky to wish someone luck, so a substitute is to wish that they "break a leg". In days gone by, during the bow or curtsy at the end of a show, the performer had to bend their leg After a good performance they would have needed to bow or curtsy multiple times as the audience kept applauding. The hope was that you had to bow or curtsy so much that you would end up breaking your leg. The better your performance, the higher the chances that you would break a leg from all your bowing or curtsying.

Another origin story for the saying comes from the height of vaudeville from the 1890s to the 1930s. The curtain at the front of the stage is referred to as the "leg", and back in the days of vaudeville, performers were only paid once they stepped on stage beyond the leg, and so were seen as "breaking a leg". It would make sense to wish that a performer "break a leg" since that would mean that they got paid for the night. Check out this article at Wikipedia for even more possible origins: Break a Leg.

Don't Say Macbeth in a Theatre!

This superstition dates back many years, and has many origin stories. The tradition in theatre is that it is bad luck to utter the name of the famous William Shakespeare play, Macbeth, while in a theatre. One possible, but probably untrue origin, is that the curse began when Shakespeare wanted the incantation his witches say in the play to be realistic. Legend has it that he approached some practicing witches and got them to tell him an incantation, or stole it while secretly listening to them. When the witches found out he used their spell in his play, they put a curse on Macbeth. File this under "we think this is probably not true, but it is so good we hope it is". You are allowed to refer to the play as "The Scottish Play" while in a theatre, and you can still say the names of the characters of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth. If you accidentally say the title of the play in a theatre, follow these simple cleansing rules:

-leave the theatre immediately

-turn around three times

-spit over your left shoulder (gross!)

-recite a line from another Shakespeare show

Out of respect for theatre tradition, most people refrain from saying "Macbeth" in a theatre, even if they don't believe in the curse.

Bad Dress Rehearsal=Good Opening Night

There is a common saying in theatre, that if you have a bad dress rehearsal, it is a good omen that you will have a good opening night. There is no real origin for this one that we could find, but it is a very widespread sentiment. Inevitably, theatre artists will run into a bad dress rehearsal at some point in their lives. A dress rehearsal when it seems that everything that can go wrong, goes wrong. The reason this saying is so prevalent is that the dress rehearsal is when all of the elements of theatre are finally in place. Actors may be rehearsing for the first time with the show prop, or have had a last minute costume piece added. Technicians, who rehearse far less than the actors, are working out the final bugs in their boards or on their call sheets. There may be a small audience or big audience of invited guests. This is essentially the last rehearsal before opening night. Of course things are going to go wrong! But this is when everyone rallies together. This is where the true ensemble is built. Mistakes were made, then corrected. Now, a theatre group shouldn't aim to have a bad dress rehearsal for tradition sake, but, if a bad dress rehearsal happens, they still have time to fix things before the show opens.

Do Not Whistle Backstage

This one is based on real life dangers! In the modern theatre spaces of today, there are many things that are operated by computers. Scenery and actors being lifted up by rope, the stage revolving, or even the curtains opening and closing are often controlled with a touch of a computer key. Years ago, before computer technology, these things are done by hand (which is still the case in many theatres today). One of the cues to operate a rope that lifted an actor or technician was a whistle. Back then, if someone whistled backstage, this may have cued the operator to start lifting a piece of scenery, which could have put lives at risk. This tradition has mostly stuck around, and is why it is often considered unlucky to whistle backstage.

While this is not a full list by any means, we hope that this was educational. Heard of any others? Have you heard of other origin stories for some of the ones we listed? Let us know in the comment section on the blog or on one of our social media posts.

Also, don't forget to get your tickets to our production of Little Women by Marisha Chamberlain, which runs December 12-21, 2019, by clicking here!

Written by Albertus Koett, Artistic Director, Tree House Youth Theatre

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