Friday, November 13, 2009
FRIDAY THE 13TH, ACTOR SUPERSTITIONS AND "THE SCOTTISH PLAY"
Today is Friday the thirteenth, and what better day to mull theatrical superstitions and Shakespeare's play Macbeth, or, as it is referred to by knowing actors the world over, often in hushed tones --the Scottish Play...
Image (right) Sir Henry Irving as Macbeth.
Superstition is a remarkable thing. Everybody knows not to walk under a ladder. That a black cat crossing one's path is sure to bring bad luck, and that breaking a mirror can bring seven years of calamity down upon the breaker.
The origin of these superstitions is easy to imagine. The job foreman, way back in the Year One, most likely walked under a ladder and had a hammer or brick fall on his head. Passed down through generations of ladder users, that one is obvious.
Cats are inscrutable and mysterious and some people just hate them outright. Black cats, with their cool, half-lidded green eyes, even more so. Seems obvious that an early hater of domestic cats started that one.
And as for breaking mirrors, the first dividend of bad luck from breaking a mirror seems to me to be getting cut from the shards of glass.
Origins of superstitions seem based on common sense and the reminder not to do anything stupid that would bring calamity down on the unlucky bastard's head.
But what about actors and theatrical superstitions, many brought down throughout the ages and that are as old as the profession itself?
Take for instance, the phrase "break a leg". Used universally instead of saying "good luck". ("Break a leg", I should mention, is not used prior to a ballet performance, probably for obvious reasons...). Mel Brooks, in the musical version of The Producers, devotes a whole song as to why thespians never say "good luck" on opening night, lest they jinx the show.
Whistling in the dressing room or onstage by an actor is also considered taboo. This one may come from the 18th century, and the slim historic evidence that theatrical stage rigging (the flies and backdrops) were rigged and operated by ex-sailors, and sailors used a coded language of whistles as signals. For an actor to whistle might confuse the cues and bring a sandbag down on somebody.
The belief that ghosts are present in theaters is also a widely held, universal belief. Hence, all theaters keep a "ghost light" on when the stage is not in use, usually placed dead center stage. It's there, naked bulb left burning all night, to ward off the theater's resident revenant. Most likely it's there to keep the nightwatchman from falling off the lip of the stage and into the orchestra pit in the dark...
And then there are the plays themselves that are thought to be cursed, and bring bad luck to all. And no other play holds that distinction in western theatrical history more than Shakespeare's Macbeth.
The list of nevers and must-not-do-says with Macbeth are legendary. You must never say "Macbeth" in a theater unless you are rehearsing or performing the play. The usual remedy to lift the curse is to have the offender go outside, turn three times and spit over their shoulder, then re-enter the theater. An actor must never quote any of the witches lines out of context at any time. Sometimes, the character of Hecate (thought by some to be an addition to the text not created by Shakespeare), holds some kind of curse, and is cut entirely from the play, only to leave the three weird sisters and their incantations intact.
Image (below) Olivier as Macbeth.
I'm going to assume that, if you're reading this blog, that you have at least a basic idea of what the story and plot of Macbeth is, so I won't re-cap it here. Suffice to say that much legend is created around a horror show that contains witches, black magic, murder, revenge and demented "vaulting ambition"; such stuff is sure to grab one's imagination.
I think that the real reason Macbeth is considered the "cursed play" is that so often, in its long history since about 1623, that it's mounted and rehearsed so quickly. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, plays were often slapped together in less than a week before being put before an audience. It's a relatively contemporary idea to have the luxury (and money) to rehearse a play for four weeks or more. Macbeth is full of sword fights and violence, and since the modern effects and stage designs of the 19th Century, producers have done everything under the sun (and with a fresnel and projector and elaborate stage machinery) to create special effects to achieve illusions to enhance the play and entertain the audience.
Combine speed in preparation with a play often dimly lit and mix in a dozen actors rushing around with swords often under-rehearsed, and you have a recipe for injury and catastrophe. Naturally, then, it's the play that's cursed and brings bad luck, and no human error is involved or is to be considered! There springs the legend...
Curious what an actor who was currently performing Macbeth at the time of this article's posting thought of any of this, I contacted my colleague Rik Deskin in Seattle, who is performing the title role with the Eclectic Theater Company, now through November 21, 2009.
Q: First and most pressing question to get out of the way: have you kept the gate keeper and his "knock, knock, knock" speech in your production?
RIK DESKIN: Yes we have kept the Porter and that speech. We literally need that scene to fill the time it takes to clean the fake, sticky blood off Lady Macbeth's and my hands before we get back for the latter part of that scene.
Q: In your past theatrical experience, have you ever encountered anyone who took the uttering of "Macbeth" (outside of doing the show) seriously as bad luck, and made the utterer go outside, turn around three times, spit over their shoulder (or perform some other "remedy") ?
RIK DESKIN: Yes. This is my third production of MACBETH to work on. My first was while at Cornish College of the Arts. There was a belief that we had invoked Hecate to curse the performance space in an already haunted building, so several members of that company had to do the ritual at various times throughout the rehearsal period.
Q: I have a couple of "actor superstitions" (or more accurately, rituals) that I do every night before a performance. One that comes to mind is that, regardless of the source of the costume, at least one article must be owned by me (underwear doesn't count; but a ring does). Do you hold and follow any superstition or ritual to see that a performance goes well or is "trouble-free"?
RIK DESKIN: I'm not typically a superstitious person but my ritual before a performance is to simply read through the entire script and go over my lines. If I run out of time, it does nag at my confidence.
Q: Can you tell a story about another actor's superstition or ritual that amused or surprised you?
RIK DESKIN: Hmmm. I cannot recall anything that surprises me but I'm always amused.
Q: "Macbeth" is known as "the bad luck play"; why do you think that is?
RIK DESKIN: A lot of hype. The dark themes and very nature of the play seem to lend themselves to frightening people and every production (that I've worked on at least) has strange coincidences that lend credence to the curse.
Q: Any mysterious or unfortunate happenings with your current production?
RIK DESKIN: One of our actresses had just been cast or may have just auditioned for a role and was mugged later that night. Coincidence or is it? ;)
Q: Did the subject of "the bad luck play" come up with the director and cast, and how was it handled?
RIK DESKIN: The director did a lot of dramaturgy and empowered us at the beginning with the notion that since we are doing the play, we were exempt from the curse.
Q: Have you played McB before?
RIK DESKIN: No. I only read it out loud in Senior English during High School. But I've always wanted to play the role. In previous productions I was part of the crew on my first, The Porter and one of the Witches for the second.
Q: One of Shakespeare's shortest plays, but most complex characters. What's been the greatest challenge?
RIK DESKIN: Fundraising. We always beg and borrow, recycle and upcycle all of our design elements and have resulted in a production that looks like we had money to spend. On a personal note to truly address your question, as an actor I felt that I could not play this role until I had some other roles under my belt. So my track leading up to Macbeth has been Antigonus, Abrams, Porter/3rd Witch, Oberon, Don Pedro, Sebastian, Hamlet & Jacques.
Q: What scene do you approach each performance with exhilaration and can't wait to play; and which comes with a little apprehension?
RIK DESKIN: I love Act III, Scene 4, the Banquet scene. It's a great long, creepy scene where I see Banquo's ghost but no one else does. I always have a little apprehension before Act V, Scene 5, The Tomorrow and Tomorrow scene. It's one of the most famous of Shakespeare's soliloquies and I want to make sure I do it justice. It's very powerful and a brilliant definition of acting and a great companion to Jacques' "All the World's a stage...". Plus it has that great emotional underpinning of the shock of Lady Macbeth's death.
Q: now that you've had a chance to get your teeth into McB, what is your favorite Shakespeare character you've played to date? What character haven't you done, but dream of doing?
RIK DESKIN: Macbeth. Definitely Macbeth has been my favorite. I think it's my best work. Roles I want to play are Iago, Henry V, Richard III, Prospero, Brutus & Petruchio. The great thing about Shakespeare's plays is that there are so many great roles for all ages. My goal is to at least work on all 37 plays once. This is my 10th.
Q: Any final thoughts on McB this round?
RIK DESKIN: I'm glad that I've gotten to play this role and am grateful to all of my family, friends and colleagues that helped make it happen. 8 more performances to go. http://www.eclectictheatercompany.org
To Rik and the cast in Seattle I say "Merde!", and to all of my readers--happy Friday the 13th!