TORONTO – “Bring It On: The Musical” star Adrienne Warren had an eerie introduction to Toronto last month.
It happened just hours after she and her castmates arrived in the city for the show’s run at the Ed Mirvish Theatre (formerly the Canon Theatre) and visited the historic venue to meet with members of the media.
“I just had an experience, like, 10 minutes ago in this theatre. I’m not kidding you,” Warren, who plays Danielle in the show that hits Broadway next month, said breathlessly in an interview.
“I was in the bathroom and the little napkin (dispenser door) moved by itself when I was getting my makeup done. I saw it and I said to the makeup lady, ‘Did you see that?’ She was like, ‘Yeah, do you want to get out of here?’ And I was like, ‘Yeah!'”
Later that day Warren tweeted: “Ok I had two experiences today of things moving by themselves at the Ed Mirvish Theatre in Toronto… and we are spending 5 wks here… #ahh”
Supernatural and superstitious beliefs have fostered long-standing traditions in the theatre world, including: saying “break a leg” instead of “good luck”; referring to Shakespeare’s supposedly cursed “Macbeth” as “The Scottish Play” or “Mackers” (some actors won’t even work in a play if props from a production of “Macbeth” are used); avoiding whistling near the stage; and leaving a “ghost light” on in the middle of the stage.
And some of the stage’s biggest stars admit to buying into such views.
“There are superstitions galore in the theatre,” Theodore Bikel said in an interview to promote “Visiting Mr. Green” in Toronto earlier this year.
“In England, at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, there is a ghost that walks backstage, usually on the third tier of the dressing rooms, and legend has it that when you put on your costume the ghost helps you … get into your costume.
“In fact, this happens on Thursdays and the phrase ‘Today the ghost walks’ has come to denote the day that you get paid in the theatre, which also happens to be on Thursday.”
Oscar and Tony-winning acting treasure Christopher Plummer has also had some odd, possibly unearthly, experiences in the theatre.
“A couple of times in the Palace Theatre, when I was doing ‘Cyrano de Bergerac’ in the ’70s on Broadway, I think there was supposed to be a ghost at the Palace,” he said recently by telephone.
Plummer guessed the ghost might have been French actress Sarah Bernhardt, who played at the theatre several times. In her later career, she had a wooden prosthetic limb due to an amputated leg.
“She couldn’t walk very well in her later years so they built a special elevator for her that would take her from her dressing room up the one flight to the stage level, and so her presence was very much always in that theatre,” said Plummer, who brings his one-man show, “A Word or Two,” to the Stratford Shakespeare Festival this summer.
“A couple of times there was some sort of movement up in the balcony, a light kind of passed through, and I thought, ‘Oh, there’s old Sarah.'”
But though Plummer may believe in theatre ghosts (he also thinks the Lyceum Theatre in London has some apparitions), he has no superstitions or rituals.
“I don’t have any of those quirky things. I just boldly get out there, that’s all,” he said. “I always have those exciting moments of nerves of a good kind, not the bad kind, and then I go smashing off.
“I’m too old to worry about superstitions. I’ve been in the theatre too long. I’ve broken so many anyway, and nothing’s happened. I haven’t dropped dead yet, so I think I’ll just go on as I was.”
Liev Schreiber, a Tony-winning theatre veteran and film star, can’t say the same.
“I don’t go onstage without telling my grandfather that I love him. I say it to the mirror. It’s very queer that I’m admitting this,” he said sheepishly in an interview to promote the film “Goon” earlier this year.
“He died when I was 26, 25, and it just became a routine. I got over my grandfather’s death a long time ago but I never got over the habit of saying that before I went onstage.
“It’s like touching the mezuzah or the cross or something. I just did it, I had some good experiences and I thought, ‘Well, I’ve got to keep that up.'”
Annie Potts’ pre-stage tradition is more quiet.
“I’m a pacer,” Potts said while recently in Toronto to promote the series “GCB.” “If I have worked in your theatre, there is a trench somewhere that I have paced into the ground. I have to pace for about 15 minutes before I go on.”
Kathleen Turner, who recently starred in “High” in Toronto, abides by the old theatre superstition of never leaving your shoes on a counter or table.
“If you were to get makeup on that shoe, you would slip and you would break a leg,” she said matter-of-factly.
“Smash” star Megan Hilty, in Toronto recently to discuss the musical TV show, said she’s “absolutely” been in theatres she felt were haunted.
“Especially some of the old ones. And I have my superstitions like everybody else, you know, you never mention the Scottish play in the theatre, and I have a little ritual before every time I go onstage that I do. It’s really little, it’s just a little kind of mantra thing that I say to myself. We all kind of have our weird little things.”
Toronto theatre producer David Mirvish recalls the late actress Barbara Hamilton having “great traditions,” once posting a note on her dressing room door “about ‘Anyone whistling backstage will be shot.'” He says she also demanded that anyone who mentioned “Macbeth” in the theatre had to go outside to the stage-door entrance, “spit around three times and spit over your shoulder and throw some salt so that would allow you back into the theatre.”
With so many superstitions around him, Mirvish feels he doesn’t have to have them personally.
“The Royal Alexandra Theatre has had a long tradition of people who have thought perhaps they saw a ghost,” the founder of Mirvish Productions said in a telephone interview.
“I remember taking Betty Buckley on a tour of the Royal Alexandra Theatre and we were in the theatre in the empty house and she looked across … and thought she had seen an apparition of a white figure. I said, ‘Where, Betty?’ and she pointed and there was nothing there. But then this cleaning lady stood up and she was wearing white, so maybe that was a false report.
“Theatre people are very sensitive and I think it’s their aura that moves objects.”
Some theatre superstitions have obscure origins, like “break a leg,” while others have practical beginnings. For instance, legend has it that whistling backstage will conjure up spirits, but the ban against it actually stems from the days when unemployed sailors manned theatre fly systems and used a whistle code to communicate.
“If an actor happened to wander backstage and whistle something, lord only knew what was going to fly, so that is very bad luck,” said Turner.
Actors continue to believe in such superstitions in part because their careers often depend upon chance, posits Tom Ogden, author of the 2009 book “Haunted Theaters: Playhouse Phantoms, Opera House Horrors, and Backstage Banshees.”
“The luck of, were they in the right place at the right time that someone saw them to offer them the role?” he said in a recent telephone interview from Los Angeles.
“So it’s very easy to jump that to a superstitious belief, that there must be a greater something which is overseeing this … like there’s an unknown power at work.”
As for belief in supernatural phenomena in the theatre, “there have just been too many strange instances in theatres for (actors). Even if they don’t believe in ghosts, they know that something weird is going on, backstage or in the auditorium,” said Ogden, who’s also a professional magician and author of “The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Magic Tricks.”
“So I think if a person has been in the theatre long enough, if they don’t personally experience something, they’ll know someone who has.”
According to Ogden, other Canadian theatres that supposedly have ghosts include Toronto’s Winter Garden Theatre, where legend has it seats and an elevator sometimes move up and down on their own; the Grand Theatre in London, Ont., where some say an unseen hand will tug at people’s hair and clothing and a figure will appear in the dressing rooms; and Toronto’s Elgin Theatre, where seven or eight ghosts supposedly roam.
“A ghost of a young woman floats in the air outside the coat check in the mezzanine level of the Elgin,” said Ogden. “She’s thought to have been a former actress, because at one time the check room was a quick changeroom for actresses.”
But just why are theatres often the subject of hauntings?
Ogden said some psychic societies have theorized that ghosts â€” or their spiritual essence â€” haunt places of comfort, where they felt happy, safe and secure while they were alive.
“And that … is in most cases the belief of why some theatres are haunted, that the actors were very happy there, they had a community of actors, it was home for them.”