Macbeth. Happy Friday the 13th. Macbeth Macbeth Macbeth.

Is there a ghost in the Buell Theatre? DCPA Video Producer David Lenk set up his camera to make a time-lapse video that would Superstition Ghost Lightcapture the load-in of the ‘If/Then’ national touring production’s set in Denver’s Buell Theatre back in October 2015. His camera took a photo every 30 seconds for three days and nights. The evident light at the bottom of the screen is a so-called “ghost light” – a theatre tradition in which one standing light is left on throughout the night to ward off ghosts. It may or may not have worked in this case. Upon reviewing the footage, Lenk discovered an unmistakable – and unexplainable blip in the upper-left region of the screen. It was captured in the dead of night, when the building was otherwise empty. “It is either reflecting light from something, or it is generating its own light,” said Lenk, “because there is no other light source. It’s completely dark.” Lenk believes the blip could not be an anomaly or camera glitch, or the mistake would have repeated itself. The video above was slowed down by 180 percent to make the aberration easier to see. 

By John Moore
DCPA Senior Arts Journalist

Theatre superstitions are real. Whether there are real consequences for flaunting those unfounded fears is in the belief of the beholder.

In honor of today being the only Friday the 13th of 2016, we decided to focus not on merely repeating all those well-worn superstitions. Instead, we asked theatre artists to tell us specific stories of what happened when those superstitions were violated. And there were many.

Theatre SuperstitionsWhen Austin Terrell was playing Macbeth in high school, the actor made a pact with his castmates not to say the name of the play in the theatre.

This is a superstition dating back to the 17th century that warns against saying “Macbeth” in a theatre. And while no one knows for sure how it began, there are countless legends of mishaps and even deaths during performances of the play. Maybe it’s all that “Double, double toil and trouble…” sorcery in the play. Regardless, if someone slips up and says the name of the play inside a theatre (outside of the actual performance), that person must exit the theater, spin three times, spit and then utter some vulgarity to neutralize the curse.

“I was one of the chief enforcers of that rule – and for good reason, being the titular character,” Terrell said. “On the final night of rehearsal before our first performance, I called out the cursed name in a moment of anger, which was answered by gasps and giggles alike. Move ahead 20 minutes to our big fight scenes. One missed step of fight choreography meant a rusty, chipped sword blade across the knuckles of my left hand. Fourteen stitches and a tetanus shot later, I still refuse to say that name in house.”

Taunting always seems to be a guaranteed way of getting a ghost’s dander up. When actor Erica Lee was in high school, some of her Our Town castmates decided to poke fun at their teacher’s deep respect for theatre superstitions. So they, of course, repeatedly yelled “Macbeth” inside the theatre. “It was minutes before the start of the closing performance of the show,” she said. “During the opening monologue, the trellis fell, seemingly unprovoked, causing a loud boom and an audience gasp. Later, one of the ladders followed suit, nearly injuring the actor playing Emily Webb during the adorable puppy-love scene.

“After we closed the show, we thought the bad luck was over – until one cast member found a bee in her hair as we walked to the cast party. Then another. Then another. Suddenly, the whole cast and crew were shrieking as we were being chased by an angry swarm of bees inside the house.”

The Our Towners later received a stern lecture from their director about the dangers of disrespecting theatrical superstitions … as they passed around the calamine lotion.

Theatre Superstitions

Fanci Berndt said “the word” in a theatre her junior year in college, when she was playing a maid in Scapino. And she she stubbornly refused to submit to the cleansing tradition.

“That afternoon, I got knocked in the head by a flying broom,” she said. “Later, as I was ducking under the stairs backstage, I hit my head and was temporarily knocked out.” Later in life, working as a substitute teacher, Berndt’s class decided to write a play about Shakespeare’s ghost. “My daughter and son both contracted chicken pox,” she said.

Of course, not everyone buys into theatre superstitions. DCPA Fight Director Geoff Kent, also the director of the Galleria Theatre’s upcoming An Act of God, calls them utter (bleep). “I was in a production of Twelfth Night where a light instrument shattered above the audience, dropping hot glass and injuring the audience. An actor later in the run became sick to the point of vomiting blood. Another actor suddenly left the production in the middle of the night to be replaced with no prep. And no one calls it “The Illyrian play” with hushed overtones.

But Kent was quick to add: “I respect those who hold those rules sacred, if only not to mess with their focus. I find most of the superstitions silly. But there is no need to poke those fears with a stick.”

Too late.

Your stories:

Technician Mike Haas: As a talisman to protect the set and keep the technology of a production working, I’ve hidden a Yoda action figure into the set of every production I’ve been tech director on. That’s more than 100 shows here in Denver protected by Yoda everywhere from the Aurora Fox to Town Hall Arts Center to The Avenue.

Actor Emma Messenger: On the way to the theater, I have to spot a dog on a leash. The more dogs, the better the show will be. The safer the show will be. It’s protection against something going wrong. If I don’t see any dogs, I make my husband drive around the neighborhood until we find one. It also works for shows I’m going to see, even if I’m not in them. It’s terrible if it’s a snowy or rainy day because no one is out walking their dog. In that case, I have to spot a billboard with a dog or some sign of a dog, such as a veterinary clinic. It started several years ago when I was in a production of Sylvia. It’s such a well-written, heartfelt play. Making the connection was irresistible. It became a crutch. When I see that dog, it’s such a relief.

Actor Charles Redding: I had just finished building a full-sized deer-carcass prop. It was not for a show. It was the final project for my props-making class (at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs). I was also currently involved in a production of The Spanish Tragedy, where I would be playing The Hangman. I was chatting about the deer carcass with another actor just inside the doors of the Osborne Studio Theatre when the actor said of my prop, “That’s fantastic. You could add that into so many different shows. You could use it in Macbeth!” Suddenly the director shouts from behind the set: “Hey! I’m working with NOOSES OVER HERE!” So then came the whole turning ritual, which I was not aware of. I was kind of blown away. For the record, no one died, the hanging effect was fantastic, and the deer recently performed in a Christmas sketch show as Rondo, everyone’s favorite expanded-universe reindeer.

Technician Mitch Chew: Before every rehearsal of Black Elk Speaks at the Denver Center, the cast did a smudge ceremony to ward off any unwanted evil spirits, and to keep actors and technicians safe. It was taken very seriously. I still have the talisman they gave to each of the technicians.

Costumer Sharon McClaury: During my last year of college, Mary Jo Catlett was a guest artist playing Momma Rose in Gypsy for the Little Theater of the Rockies in Greeley. I was her dresser and personal assistant. Well, she had a pretty good fit when they wanted to use peacock feathers as set dressing in one scene. She insisted she would not share the stage with the “Evil Eye.” Onstage, peacock feathers are apparently the “Evil Eye.” She could not believe none of us had ever heard of this “theater no-no.” I had designed Bus Stop that same season – and used peacock feathers on one of those costumes. So you can bet I kept my mouth shut!

John Moore was named one of the 12 most influential theater critics in the U.S by American Theatre Magazine in 2011. He has since taken a groundbreaking position as the Denver Center’s Senior Arts Journalist.

0 replies

Leave a Reply

Want to join the discussion?
Feel free to contribute!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *