Acting is a profession that the average person has been obsessed with for many years. There was always a level of mystique and magic surrounding the theater world, and no one can deny that actors are a unique breed of human being. What they do requires skills and confidence that not everyone is born with, which is part of the reason they are so celebrated around the world. But it didn't always use to be that way. Before the time of silent pictures, most actors were relatively unknown outside of the theater world, and they definitely weren't high earners. These days, when we think about acting, we think about prestige, fame and lots of money.
But is that really what the average Broadway actor experiences? Have you ever wondered what it's really like to live your whole life pursuing an acting career on stage? Well, it's not as easy as you think, and most actors struggle immensely just to make a decent living. In addition, there are a number of rules all actors follow, and most people would be very surprised to learn what these rules are. Some of them involve age-old superstitions that have been in the theater world for thousands of years. Others involve things that actors are forced to do these days that you wouldn't believe. All in all, acting definitely isn't as glamorous as you think it is - and it's a lot more crazy.
15 You Can Never Say The Word "Macbeth"
Above all else, there is one rule which all theater actors know not to break. And that is uttering the name "Macbeth." Veteran theater actors refer to this as simply "The Scottish Play," and it's all due to a long-held superstition regarding the famous tragedy by William Shakespeare. Many of his plays are quite morbid, but there is something undeniably spooky about this one in particular. It deals with witches, curses, and other unsavory topics, and most actors fear that the "energy" of the play will spill from the fictional world into the reality that they live in. As such, it is considered a huge taboo to utter the name "Macbeth" while on stage, or even in general as an actor.
According to the Telegraph, this superstition all dates back to 1605, when the play was first performed in England. Back then, the supernatural was considered a reality.
King James I actually banned the play for five years because of its involvement with the supernatural. But there have been numerous examples of very real tragedies surrounding this play. A riot over the play in New York ended with the loss of 22 lives, as reported by the Telegraph. The article also claims that actors feared the mention of Macbeth because the play was typically used to replace struggling productions - meaning they would be out of a job.
14 You Never Wish An Actor "Good Luck"
Along with the word "Macbeth," another thing that you're really not supposed to say to an actor is "good luck." This is actually considered terribly bad luck, and most actors will actually get annoyed if you say it to them. By now you're probably realizing that actors are quite a superstitious bunch, and the theater world is a strange one to say the least. But you have to realize how much pressure these actors are under. The director can't yell "Cut!" during a theater performance. If one thing goes wrong, there's no fixing it. Maybe that explains why actors make sure every little detail is perfect before a show.
So why can't you wish an actor "good luck" before a show? Well, The Irish Times has some interesting ideas. Most people will know that what you're supposed to say to an actor instead of "good luck" is "break a leg." So what's with that odd term? The Irish Times points to a few possibilities. In Shakespearean times, "to break a leg," meant the same thing as "bend the knee," which was the same thing as "taking a bow." If you "broke" your leg at the knee at the end of a show, that meant you were bowing at the end of a performance, and you earned the praise of the audience. The article also points to the First World War, where it was better to come home injured than not go home at all.
13 The Show Must Go On, No Matter What
So what happens if someone really does break a leg while on stage? Well, in that case, the show must go on! Real, professional actors know that whatever happens on that stage, you must continue with the play. No exceptions.
There is no "calling a timeout" or telling the audience to come back another day. You have to give the people what they paid for, even if you just broke your leg on stage, or you're suffering from serious illness.
Most actors know that whatever happens, they are expected to go out there and perform. There is no other alternative - it's pretty much impossible to find a replacement at such short notice.
Examples of this happening in real life are numerous, and the Telegraph gives one account of a young actor performing in Shakespeare's Taming Of The Shrew. In 2012, actress Aicha Kossoko caught her foot in a prop and fractured her ankle. Even though she was in immense, debilitating pain, she continued on with the performance like a professional should. Things like this happen all the time, and actors are just expected to deal with it and continue to deliver their lines. Playbill also posted an entire guide on how to perform even when you're sick, and this is a common occurrence for actors performing in New York's chilly winters.
12 You Often Have To Kiss Co-Stars
Kissing scenes and intimate scenes are a big part of theater, and they are often very important to the story and the plot of the play itself. Some actors find these scenes pretty uncomfortable, and understandably so. The scenes require a lot of mental fortitude, especially when you're not physically attracted to that person, or you're already dating someone else. It's one of those challenges that actors face that not many people understand or even think about when actually watching the scenes. Some actors have no problem with performing these scenes, but others definitely have a hard time going through with it.
It can be even more of a challenge when you know for a fact that your partner is watching you perform these kissing and intimate scenes. But again, that's just part of being an actor, and it's expected of you.
Refusing to do these sort of scenes or causing a fuss over them is considered unprofessional and you could lose your job by refusing.
Many relationships have ended because of this, and understandably so. How would you feel if your significant other was performing in a play which required them to kiss someone else? America's Spotlight posted a quote from 50 Shades of Grey actor Jamie Dornan, who revealed that his wife refuses to watch his intimate scenes. He admitted: “She doesn’t want to watch this. She wants to support me and my work. I won’t be able to sit there myself. I am not going to put any pressure on her either way. It’s her decision. She’s well aware that it’s pretend, but it’s probably not that comfortable to watch.”
11 Most Actors Actually Go Broke
When most people think about professional actors, they think of the glamour, the prestige, the fame, and above all - the money. But most people would be surprised to know that on average, an acting career really doesn't pay too well. In fact, the vast majority of actors out there are just struggling to get by, as revealed by an article from the Guardian. To call acting a fiercely competitive business would be a massive understatement, and the sad truth is that most actors go their entire lives without ever getting their "big chance." The ones that don't quit early on are the ones who deserve the real praise, and they often condemn themselves to a life of poverty in order to pursue this crazy dream of theirs.
The article by the Guardian reveals that a whopping 92% of theater actors are unemployed at any given time.
And that top 8% of actors who get work are employed continuously, meaning that those 92% are constantly on the outside looking in. While it is possible to "break in" to the industry, the huge majority are just chasing a wild dream for their entire lives. The same article reveals that even the top Broadway actors only make about $60,000 a year. This may seem decent, but it's a low number considering the complete lack of job security and the amount of work that goes into a Broadway show.
10 Actors Often Can't Have Families
We've already mentioned how hard it is for actors to have relationships off the stage, but what about families? If you think about it, acting is one of the most turbulent careers you could possibly choose to have, and definitely not one that you would associate with the word "stability." While many Broadway actors have successfully balanced family life and a full-time career on stage, it's definitely not an easy thing to do. It can be a very hard choice to make between career and family - because actors are notoriously passionate about their work. This passion sometimes threatens to overshadow every other value that "normal people" would hold dear.
An illuminating article by Playbill explores the sad fact that so many actors are forced to choose between family and their career - they can't have both.
While there are some examples mentioned of people who have successfully had children and then continued on with their career, the article also touches on the fact that it's extremely likely that actors will never return to the industry after they've had kids. Broadway actors are well aware of how having children changes their perspective on their careers, and it's a huge reason why so many are fearful of starting a family, avoiding it altogether in many cases.
9 No Mirrors On Stage
Another strange rule that Broadway actors must follow concerns mirrors. If you've ever been to a play or a Broadway show, you might have noticed that there are rarely ever mirrors on stage. But it's something that most people don't even realize. Mirrors are considered a major no-no on stage, and the reasons are pretty interesting. It's been this way for hundreds if not thousands of years, which makes it somewhat difficult to track down the exact origin of this superstition, but one thing's clear - all Broadway actors know that you should never, under any circumstances, bring a mirror onto the stage. If you do, it's considered extremely bad luck. And if you break it? Well, that's a whole different level of bad luck...
The official website of Castaways Theater posted an interesting article which talked about a wide variety of different acting superstitions, and mirrors was one thing on the list. They claimed that it all has to do with ancient superstitions regarding mirrors and the devil. But they also mention a much more practical reason for leaving mirrors off stage - that being the way that mirrors interfere with the all-important lighting of a theater production. Mirrors have a tendency to cause glare and reflections that can distract the actors and the audience. Furthermore, it is said that while breaking a mirror is considered 7 years of bad luck, breaking a mirror on stage means seven years of bad luck for the theater itself.
8 Some Actors Sleep With Their Scripts Under Their Pillows
Speaking of strange superstitions, there are plenty of actors who do some pretty strange things when it comes to learning their lines. Memorizing a script is one of the most important processes of acting, and each actor has their own unique method of learning it. Some memorize their entire script by the first day of rehearsal, while others wait until the last possible moment, letting it all "sink in" before finally going back and learning their lines. Professional Broadway actors are so experienced that something like memorizing a script is a complete walk in the park. Still though, the worst fear of pretty much every actor out there is "drawing a blank" on stage, forgetting their lines in front of hundreds of people.
You probably know by now that actors are notoriously superstitious. Well, that extends to learning their lines. An age-old "trick" when it comes to learning lines is placing the script underneath their pillow and literally sleeping on it. Some Broadway actors actually do this, but as Scientific American reports, this is obviously not based in science, and has been thrown out as a credible study technique quite easily. But that's not to say that it's impossible to learn while you sleep. The same article by Scientific American claims that certain smells and sensations while you sleep can aid in neurological processes...
7 You Need A Side Job That Is Flexible
We've already mentioned how 92% of actors are out of work at any given time. So how do they survive? Well, simply sitting around and waiting for an opportunity to come around is not an option. Broadway actors have bills to pay just like the rest of us, and the vast majority must hold down side jobs in addition to their acting opportunities. But they can't just pick any old job. The jobs they pick have to be flexible enough to allow them to skip work to attend auditions, rehearsals, and performances. And that really narrows down their options when it comes to finding work. So what kinds of jobs can they take?
As 'Backstage' points out, there are a number of viable options for Broadway actors and actors in general, although none of them are nearly as spectacular as performing on stage for a living.
Their top ten "survival jobs" for actors including working for a temp agency, being a dog walker, modeling and babysitting. But by far the most typical job for aspiring actors out there is waiting tables. Countless celebrities who have made it big today have waited tables in the past. These types of jobs are a must for actors everywhere, as any other job demands way too much time and effort to leave time for acting.
6 Auditions Are Often "Cold Reads"
Anyone who has any experience with acting knows what cold reads are, and how difficult they are. It's one of the most common ways to audition for theater productions, and this includes Broadway. What this basically means is that they give you a few pages of the script when you arrive at the audition, and you're given about 5 minutes (if you're lucky) to prepare as best you can. And that's it. You're expected to deliver a great scene with just the script and no memorization whatsoever. It can be a very difficult trick to master, but the actors who manage to ace cold reads have a huge advantage when it comes to auditions.
Backstage has some interesting tips when it comes to cold reads. Even though it might seem like the only option is to just read the script, casting directors actually expect much more from actors. Even thought it might seem impossible, what actors are supposed to do is keep their eyes on their scene partner. Keeping your eyes glued to the page will not get you a callback. Backstage points out that you're supposed to put your attention on your scene partner 80% of the time (at the very least). But casting directors know that it's a cold read, and most will understand if you go off script and improvise a little.
5 Never Use Peacock Feathers, Real Money, Or Real Jewelry
If you thought an aversion to mirrors and certain words are the only superstitions when it comes to theater productions, think again. The truth is that this industry is over-inundated with all kinds of crazy superstitions and traditions, and this article is just barely scratching the surface. However, there is something a little magical about acting, so it shouldn't be surprising that people like actors believe in all these supernatural superstitions. Another example is the fact that peacock feathers are strictly forbidden on stage, in any form whatsoever. It is considered bad luck, and some even say that having the word "peacock" in the name of the play or theater is also considered bad luck. But what's with this strange rule?
As the official website for Stage Door Productions reveals, there is in fact a pretty important reason for why Peacock feathers are so frowned upon in the theater world. According to the article, which compiles a list of many theatrical superstitions, the reason for this is because Peacock feathers are supposed to represent the evil eye. The article even claims that there are rumors that the use of peacock feathers has caused sets to collapse and entire theaters to catch fire in the past.
4 Never Use Three Lit Candles On Stage
Speaking of fire, it's something that strikes fear into pretty much all actors and theater directors. There have been numerous fires in the history of theater, most famously the Globe Theater in London - the place where Shakespeare's plays were originally performed. The theater was obviously rebuilt and still stands to this day. But in terms of Broadway, probably the most famous theater that caught fire was the Brooklyn Theater, as reported by the Telegraph. The fire happened way back in the 1800's, and ended with the passing of 300 people. The actors reportedly told the audience members that the fires were part of the play, and that there was nothing to worry about, which obviously added to the confusion and danger.
This might give you some background on why fire is seen as such a dangerous thing on stage, and why Broadway actors have many superstitions surrounding fire.
One example is that they are never allowed to have three lit candles on stage at any time. As an article on the website for Stage Door Productions reveals, there is a "rule of three" when it comes to three lit candles on stage. First of all, it's considered bad luck, and secondly, there is a strange rule when it comes to the shortest candle on stage. The shortest candle allegedly points to the person who is next to die - or the next to marry.
3 You're Not Allowed To Whistle Backstage
Another rule that Broadway actors simply must follow is never to whistle backstage. This is something that doesn't really make sense in the modern era, but it's another tradition that has been carried on for hundreds of years by actors of all kinds. Although there is something very traditional about this rule, it definitely has roots in logic and reason when compared to some of the more wacky and superstitious rules that we've mentioned so far. It's easy to understand why this rule is in place when you consider the surprising link between theater and the nautical world.
As Playbill reveals, it all has to do with stagehands. Even to this day, there is much more behind the scenes than the actors strutting their stuff on stage. Behind what the audience sees, there is a well-oiled crew of stagehands who are pulling ropes, curtains, and making all the magic happen, so to speak. And these stagehands often had a background in sailing and seamanship, especially in the early days of theater. With their knowledge of ropes, knots, and other mechanisms commonly used in theater, sailors were an obvious choice for a career in theater. And crucially, the way they used to communicate with each other for various cues was by whistling. So if an actor accidentally started whistling backstage, he could inadvertently cause a sandbag to come hurtling down on a rope in the middle of a scene, ruining the play.
2 They Only Get About Half Of Their Paycheck
We've already revealed that actors might not get paid as much as you might think. The mere fact that only 8% of actors consistently work should tell you all you need to know about how wealthy most actors are. But there's much more to this picture than meets the eye, and it's definitely not pretty. As Hollywood Reporter describes, most actors in the SAG (American Actor's Union) make only $1,000 a year, while the middle range makes about $52,000 a year. Of course, there are those who make good money, and we all hear the stories about big movie stars making millions for just one movie.
As Hollywood Reporter reveals, all of this means that actors will typically give 25% of the paycheck to managers and agents, and then they will pay about 25% in taxes - meaning what they actually take home at the end of the day is less than half of their actual paycheck.
Well, all actors obey the same basic rules, and these rules can really eat away at your paycheck. Like all actors, Broadway performers have agents, and these typically take 10% of the actor's paycheck. This is the fee for setting up auditions, making connections with casting directors, and generally handling all paperwork and negotiations on behalf of the actor. On top of this, most professional actors in the USA have managers, which can take up to 15% of their paycheck. Managers are much more personal with the actors, working with them to develop tactics and helping them market themselves to the world. Managers often have very good connections in the business.
1 It's Actually Bad Luck To Give An Actor Flowers
Yet another strange superstition when it comes to acting is the fact that flowers should never be delivered to an actor's dressing room prior to the show. But what gives? Surely you've all seen the scenes of actors bowing to audiences while flowers are thrown on stage after a particularly good performance. So why is it that flowers are seen as a good thing after a show, but not before a show. To answer this question, let's look at the aforementioned article by Stage Door Productions, which explores in depth a number of theater-related superstitions and their origins.
According to the article, the origin of this superstition dates back once again to thousands of years ago, when flowers were seen as a rare and expensive luxury. According to the article, the only way to get expensive, nice flowers for cheap was to take them from graveyards. When people used to give flowers to actors, there was a subconscious fear that they were associated with graves, and so they would be associated with bad luck and the after life. By giving an actor flowers before a performance, you are bringing about the "end" of the performance or show before it starts. But it's okay to give flowers after the show, because the show really has or ended.
References: theaternerds.com, irishtimes.com, triblive.com, telegraph.co.uk, theguardian.com, castawaystheatre.org, scientificamerican.com, backstage.com, stagedoormemphis.org, playbill.com, hollywoodreporter.com