The Surprising Stories Behind Unusual Theater Traditions

Inside the Theater

Ghost light


At theaters around the world, performers and workers behind the scenes take their crafts seriously – and this often includes upholding longstanding theater traditions.

Some of these hold practical purposes, others offer a bit of fun… And some just give artists a little peace of mind.

To prepare for when theaters open their doors again, read The Smith Center’s explanations below of unusual traditions commonly practiced at performance venues.


Ghost Light

Anyone who walks into an empty theater that has closed for the night will likely see one thing: a single, bare lightbulb shining bright in the center of the stage.

Called a ghost light, this remains a common ritual whenever a theater empties and is otherwise dark.

It serves a practical purpose, lighting the way to prevent a dangerous fall if someone accidentally wanders on stage.

This also harkens back to superstitions that many theaters harbor ghosts, who feel appeased by the light.

One theory states that if the light goes out, ghosts consider the theater abandoned and cause mischief with the set.


Never Say Macbeth in a Theater

One word remains permanently taboo inside a theater: the title of an iconic Shakespeare tragedy. Actors never utter Macbeth in a venue, outside of actual performances of the play.

This stems from the alleged curse of the production, which includes a long history of performance issues such as audience riots and actors experiencing fatal injuries on stage.

Some even believe the bard brought on this curse himself by using authentic spells for the witches’ dialogue… Though this could be difficult to prove.

“The Scottish Play” or “The Bard’s Play” remain popular alternatives to the production’s real title.


Break a Leg

No actor wants to hear “good luck,” before a performance, but rather the ominous “break a leg.”

How did this practice start?

Many theories prevail. Legs play a surprisingly prominent role in theater history, and this phrase could have risen from any of them.

Ancient Greek audiences stomped their feet to celebrate performances, for instance, instead of clapping.

This carried the idea that if someone performed very well, audience members would break a leg from stomping so hard.

In the early years of vaudeville — a form of entertainment that consisted of many individual acts — producers would overbook performers for each show, to allow for pulling off disappointing acts early.

Only those who performed got paid, and artists vied to get on stage. They longed to cross (or break) the line between the performance area and the wings, called the leg line. Hence they wished, in a way, to break a leg.

And during the Elizabethan era, breaking a leg meant to bow by bending at the knee. Many actors likely aspired to perform well enough to bow after their performance.

While each of these traditions stands as a piece of performance history, audiences can decide how much they influence theater today.