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Very Superstitious: Sense and Sensibility’s Cast on Theater Rituals

With Halloween here, we asked the cast of Sense and Sensibility about superstitions and how they protect themselves against ill luck in the theater. Find out which tricks (and treats) they use to make sure the show goes on!


Featuring: Laura Rocklyn, Michael Glenn, Connor Hogan, Lisa Birnbaum, Cate Brewer, and Sara Dabney Tisdale

Surveying our group of actors about their theatrical traditions, it became clear that superstitions and pre-performance rituals vary greatly from person to person. Lisa Birnbaum gives a red rose to everyone involved with a production on opening night, and when she had trouble finding roses on Capitol Hill, Birnbaum called in her mother to “save the show” by delivering them to the theater a half hour before Sense and Sensibility’s curtain. Laura Rocklyn carries “lucky” objects with her, explaining:

I have the butterflies off of the pair of sandals I wore as Bianca in The Taming of the Shrew on my first tour, a star that I wore in my hair as Fleta in Iolanthe, a little cloth flower I was given in A Classical Fool, and a few other knickknacks that make me smile.  Actually, my make-up case is a bit of a good luck charm since it is a Caboodle I have had since my first professional gig when I was one of Mother Ginger’s Children in The Richmond Ballet’s Nutcracker in fourth grade!

While Birnbaum and Rocklyn have tokens for luck, some actors are superstitious about their routines. Cate Brewer tries to replicate pre-performance patterns, Connor Hogan runs through the prologue to Henry V as a warm-up, Sarah Dabney Tisdale strikes “the Wonder Woman pose,” and Michael Glenn will sometimes walk through his blocking or take a moment center stage to “ground himself in the space.” These are usually part of a larger warm-up and preparation process that prepares each actor for their performances. Says Glenn, “Everything we do is weird! Warm-ups, dressing room rituals, backstage tactics. We’re an emotional, creative lot, we actors.”

At the same time that each actor has their own individual quirks, there are a number of common theater superstitions that actors share. For example, Tisdale and Rocklyn try to avoid wishing people “good luck,” and Rocklyn and Birnbaum avoid whistling in the theater. “Whistling used to be the way the stage hands would cue each other for scenery to fly in,” explains Birnbaum, “So if you whistled in the theater, someone could have a drop fall on them.”

Sarah Siddons as Lady Macbeth

There is, however, a taboo that overshadows all others. Ask anyone in theater about superstitions and you are bound to hear about one in particular: the curse of Macbeth. Often referred to as “the Scottish play” by members of the theatrical community, legend has it that speaking the name in the theater is a guarantee of disaster befalling a production. Shakespeare & Beyond discussed actor perspectives on the curse in a post last week, but examples of its destructive power continue to crop up. Hogan tells the following story of why he believes:

The reason why I don’t say the name of the Scottish King in a theater is because I once witnessed so called ‘ill-consequences’ of breaking that rule. In the theater building at my alma mater, the halls outside of the dressing room had framed pictures of past performances, dating all the way back to 1901. In the green room during dress for Mother Courage and Her Children, a friend of mine was talking about how the tradition was dumb, and needed to be done away with, and decided then was a perfect time to say the dreaded title. No more than a minute later, we heard one of the framed pictures drop off the wall, and shatter. We went out to investigate, but saw no one—just the frame broken on the ground. We went over to pick it up, and the picture was of the 1930 production of Macbeth. Ever since then, I’ve believed the superstition.

While all of the actors we spoke to cited the Scottish play as a superstition to be respected, there was some disagreement as how best to counteract the curse. Birnbaum suggests the person who said the name “best talk to those spirits they summoned right away,” Brewer knocks on wood, and Glenn was once made to exit the theater, run around it, and knock to be let back in. Rocklyn similarly makes any offender exit the theater, but then they have to turn around three times and spit before being granted re-entry.

Of course there are some who don’t believe in such things. Describing herself as a skeptical person, Tisdale says:

I’m rather irreverent and mischievous about NOT obeying the “Scottish play” rule, so I don’t think a person who accidentally says that word should do anything to counteract it. But I do get a kick out of it when some actors freak out and correct others. I’d like to think Shakespeare would laugh, too.


 

Jamie Smithson as Edward Ferras and Maggie McDowell as Elinor Dashwood.

Don’t miss Sense & Sensibility at the Folger! For tickets and more information, visit us online or call the Folger Box at 202.544.7077.

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