More Drama Than They’re Worth?
It’s hard to find an actor who hasn’t come across the ol’ curse of Macbeth. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, it’s the old superstition that saying Macbeth inside a theatre or backstage will curse the whole production. There are rumours abound about the origin of this popular superstition. Some say Shakespeare wrote real curses into the script; some say real witches cursed the play. Spooky.
According to megastar Sir Ian McKellen, back in the day when theatre companies performed rolling non-stop shows, Macbeth was the most popular play and the most surefire way of pulling an audience. The players knew that when Macbeth was being billed, it was a sign of economic trouble for the company.
Although I’ve heard of the curse and have cheekily invoked it in theatre, I was curious to see if any local Kiwi actors had first-hand experience of it. The actors I talked to for this article mentioned this curse as a source of contention in productions they’ve participated in. “Actors freak out,” says Margaret-Mary Hollins, about the impact of Macbeth. Once on tour in Australia, she said “Macbeth” in the dressing room, not the theatre. “My fellow actors made me go outside the dressing room and turn around three times, spit, and knock to be let back in.” This is the most popular method of undoing the curse, although other sources say quoting a line from Hamlet or The Merchant of Venice, purportedly lucky plays, also do the job.
“I realised [believers in the curse] tend to be older and have more experience than me, so they had more time to prove the superstition right,” says Hamish Boyle. Most of the time, rigid rules are fantastic for a production, as long as boundless play is encouraged within those strict constraints. Hamish noted that it’s a shame that adhering to superstitions more often comes from a place of anxiety rather than a place of fun. “It’s good for creativity to think of ways to say what you mean without saying what you mean! Or it could come from an angle of, “let’s deeply believe in this curse as a way to deeply believe in our characters and the story.”
All actors have odd rituals when it comes to preparing for a performance. Hamish sings the theme from Halo. Isla Frame sits in each seat in the audience one-by-one to see what the play looks like from every angle. Personally, I love all the classic acting and singing warm-ups. Everyone who is or who knows an actor knows what I’m talking about. I’ll go to bat for these rituals. They’re so valuable in warming up the body and voice for a performance, for getting ‘in the zone’.
Hamish gets his favourite rituals from an older actor he looked up to when he decided to become an actor himself. “He was immediately my cool uncle or big brother. I wanted to be him and this involved doing push-ups and singing at the top of my lungs. I thought, a guy, that good, doing those things? Sign me up.”
It’s hard to figure out what’s weird in terms of acting rituals. Actors seem wacky enough to outsiders without our odd, loud, joyous warm-ups being brought into the picture. Hamish relays that his autism sometimes makes him behave relatively carefully and tamely during warm-ups. “It’s an active attempt to mask neurodivergence.”
As a theatre director, Isla says she uses different rituals depending on the goals for that rehearsal. In late rehearsals and runs, her priority is warming up to prevent injury. Athletes stretch; so do actors. In early rehearsals her priority is fostering an environment of excitement and collaboration. “It’s so important for every actor to feel comfortable and to play.”
“As Macbeth said: what’s done cannot be undone,” says Margaret-Mary. Perhaps the best thing for us actors is not tiptoeing around curses but using them to our advantage, turning them into a game. We’re the masters of make-believe, superstitions can’t control us!
More about the artists!
Margaret-Mary Hollins is a highly respected professional most recently seen in Owls Don’t Cry with Red Leap Theatre.
Hamish Boyle is an experienced full-time performer and voiceover artist who has recently been working on voiceover projects.
Isla Frame is an emerging artist currently enjoying her time in The Director’s Lab programme with Massive Theatre Company.