Don’t Ever Say “The Scottish Play” – Theatre, History and Superstition
This is a legit blast from the past – published April 2000 in UNSW’s Tharunka Magazine. I wrote this as a verbose and pompous undergrad Features Editor (of course, now I’m impeccably succinct and affable). I share this piece about my community theatre days because the story itself is entirely true and utterly ridiculous.
Superstitious beliefs tend to be prevalent among those whose work is unpredictable or dangerous. Sailors and miners – people who face very real danger – are notoriously superstitious. So too are actors, though the danger they face is of quite a different variety – doing something poorly in front of an audience can have disastrous consequences for one’s self-esteem. Throughout time, the arts have been a breeding ground for the most advanced forms of superstition.
For starters, according to Greek mythology, wishing an actor good luck is bound to attract the attention of mischievous gods who will derive amusement from denying the players any such thing. Instead, the very opposite could ensue.
Never say, “good luck” – say instead, “break a leg”.
Why stop there? Why not tell someone to “disintegrate”? Yes, I was sceptical once. And so, in my second-ever play, I didn’t mind a multitude of people wishing me luck. After all, the way it was going, I figured we could use all the luck we could get, and certainly do without broken legs a-plenty.
Murder on the Nile was the name of the play. It was described, on yellow posters plastered all over the streets of the community in which it was held, as “a typically audacious Christie conspiracy”. Given the dubious circumstances surrounding the production, one could be forgiven for thinking that Agatha Christie – or someone, anyone – was indeed conspiring against us.
ACT ONE, SCENE ONE
Enter: One Darned Thing After Another.
At the first audition for the play, despite there being five male roles, only one guy showed up. It was up to the director and the society to actively seek people to play the roles. Fine. It’s small-time community theatre and that’s a common problem. That’s how I thought of it, until I recalled my friends had wished me “good luck” for the audition. I ended up with one of those male roles. Coincidence? Well, yes. Right?
Either way, I was overjoyed to be cast. We were all excited about the production until suddenly it was bump-in, and we still hadn’t had a full run. And we all had colds! Panic. Since it was a murder-mystery, one of our props was a gun. We all eyed that prop gun as a suitably theatrical way out should we find ourselves on stage with a mind that’s gone tabula rasa.
ACT ONE, SCENE TWO
Dress rehearsal arrived wretchedly soon and one of the preciously-acquired males fell sick and ended up in hospital. He was playing Smith – one of the more prominent characters. But have no fear – we found a very able actor, “Smith#2”, to come along and read the part. Opening night was to be our first full-and-uninterrupted run. It was heart-stopping, but we got through it relatively smoothly. It was set to only get better. The second night was testament to this. Alas, Smith#2 was only available for those first two shows. But never fear, again – our director found yet another person to do the job.
On a classic autumn day with flawless blue skies and a slightly chilly breeze that danced around the place gracefully, our dutiful stage manager took a long drive out to Smith#3’s house to give him the script. There she told him she would pick him up at 6:20 at the train station that night.
ACT TWO, SCENE ONE
7:30 THAT Night. Enter: Smith#3.
The cast sits backstage busily putting on makeup and 1930s attire when the stage manager storms in.
She tells us he didn’t show up. She asks us if he is at the theatre. We look at each other in sheer terror. We eye the gun again.
Enter: SMITH#3, damn it!
Panic, nervous laughter, expletives – Smith#3 has missed his cue.
What are we going to do? Can we cancel? No, the show, as they say, must go on. So what now? Has somebody been saying the name of “The Scottish Play” backstage?
Uh-oh. My gelatinous mind recalls mentioning a play called Living with Lady Macbe– uh-oh.
Shakespeare’s Macbeth is widely believed to be cursed. The mere utterance of its title near a theatre is enough wreak havoc, while actually performing it results in extreme adversities – even death.
Enter: Audience Participation.
Here’s the plan that ‘came together’ – we’d drag a theatre society member out of the audience to play the peripheral character of the Steward, and the person who’s usually the Steward would play Smith.
Our poor audience member came to the theatre for an evening of passive and benign entertainment, and instead received quite a bit more immersion than he could’ve expected. Meanwhile, our original Steward looked very ill indeed. He had done little acting before this play. He needed a cigarette, he remarked, and he needed it badly. He stood by the back door of that church hall and smoked with deep intensity.
The audience responded to the story with suitable amusement. This was version two of our production of Murder on the Nile.
ACT TWO, SCENE TWO
One week later.
Illness was rife – coughing, nose-blowing, swelling, exhaustion, and swift trips to the bathroom formed a significant part of proceedings. Yet another actor could not make it to performances. For three nights we had three people on stage with scripts in their hands – version three of the show.
For all the superstitious rules we’d known and broken, there were scores more unbeknownst to us at the time – any of which could’ve caused this mess. You’re not supposed to whistle backstage. Never say the final line of the play until opening night. Peeking at the audience from the wings is also a no-no. We broke all these rules. Were we paying for it?
What we really needed was to be greeted with “chookas”. This stems from medieval times where chickens were considered lucky for actors. Like actors, chickens are seemingly able to change personalities within seconds. It’s little wonder they became theatrical mascots.
We were back to only two people holding scripts on stage by this point, thankfully. However, this didn’t stop more things going awry. People were still sick. The second last night brought wonders of its own – the lighting gear short-circuited, leaving us with regular fluorescent overhead lights and a clear view of the sea of faces watching us. But by this stage, we could do nothing but laugh – backstage, and even on stage. Giggles accompanied ad-libbing all too often.
Despite all the calamity, we survived – albeit with scars (and fresh superstitions) in tow. The show, as they say, must go on. And go on it did. Chookas darling!