Thursday, February 21, 2013

Whistling in the Theater

I just ran into this one but it is all over the Internet:

Unlike "the Scottish Play" and other superstitions which involve many theories, the whistling superstition seems to be quite straight forward. Back in the day (waaaaaay back) the stage crews were made up of primarily sailors. Why, you ask? Well, the rigging we use backstage at most theatres is based on that which is used on a ship. It made perfect sense, the fly lines needed to go up and down the same way that the sails did on a boat.

What does this have to do with whistling? Well, you can't have everyone on a boat yelling to one another. What if it's very loud and your voice doesn't carry to the other side of the boat? They used whistles! They had different whistles to signal which lines should go up or down or wherever! This system carried over to the sailors who worked back stage at the theatres.

It is said, because of this, it was considered bad luck to whistle backstage as you might signal the crew to change a scene or move a fly line when they aren't supposed to. Furthermore! The superstition says, the crew also used whistles to signal when people should get out of the way so that a set piece did not hit them. This has, over the years, turned into the thought that if you whistle on or backstage, your punishment will be that a set piece falls on you!

It is almost impossible to track down the origins of something like this on the Internet but here is a likely early source.


The Superstition:
Whistling is expressly prohibited in the theatre, pertaining to all parts of the building, particularly the dressing rooms, where it is said that if heard, someone (not necessarily the whistler) will soon be out of work.

The Origin:
The reason for this superstition is as follows: before the advent of walkie-talkies or clear-coms, cues for theatre technicians were called with a sailors whistle. Therefore, one who whistles in a theatre may, inadvertantly, call a cue before it's time, setting all types of catastrophy into motion. Should this happen, someone (not necessarily the whistler) will likely get fired, making the superstition come true.

There are four parts to this:
  1. Sails and curtains are essentially the same thing
  2. Both are so complex that only sailors can hope to operate them
  3. Sailors (and stagehands) communicate by whistling
  4. An actor who whistles might be mistaken for a stagehand and cue the wrong thing at the wrong time
Let's look at these in detail

Sails and curtains are essentially the same thing. No one who has worked sails and worked backstage would suggest such a thing. They are both large and made from cloth but otherwise they do completely different things. Sails are made to be shaped to catch the wind efficiently. Curtains hang and are either drawn apart or raised.

Both are so complex that only sailors can hope to operate them. This sells a lot of people short. Anyone involved in building, especially large stone buildings, would be familiar with complex block and tackle setups. Even farmers with a loft in their barn used a block and tackle regularly. At the same time, stage curtains are not all that complex to operate. If you have drawn curtains apart at home and raised some blinds then you have done the same thing as a stage hand, just on a smaller scale.

Sailors (and stagehands) communicate by whistling. At sea, commands are issued using something called a bosun's pipe or bosun's whistle. This is a loud whistle. If you cup your hand around it properly then you can produce a second tone. Only the bosun would use this. I can't imagine stagehands using a bosun's pipe or even puckering and blowing. When I was in high school productions the people backstage were under strict orders to be as unobtrusive as possible. Whistling would distract the audience from the play.

An actor who whistles might be mistaken for a stagehand and cue the wrong thing at the wrong time. If no one is whistling backstage then there is no chance of mistaken cues.

This fails on every level.

I heard an alternate version that sailors don't whistle for fear of whistling up a storm and that this carried over to the stage. This still assumes that sailors were hired as stagehands because no one else can pull on a rope.

There is just no way that this myth can be true.