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Sarah Bernhardt and stage fright
A young actress once confided to Sarah Bernhardt that she never had stage fright before going on stage. Sarah Bernhardt promptly answered: “Don’t worry, it comes with talent.”
An actor playing Napoleon was enjoying tremendous success which made one of his colleagues, who played the part of a marshal, very jealous. During one scene, Napoleon had to read a long letter brought to him by the marshal. The actor had never learned the letter by heart; he would simply read the text off the pages brought to him by his colleague by the glow of the footlights. One night, the jealous actor brought the letter, sealed in red, and handed it to his king with a malicious smile saying: “Read, sire.” The pages were as blank as Napoleon’s memory. In a moment of panic, he cursed both the instigator of this nasty trick and himself for being too lazy to learn the text in the first place. As he watched his partner savour the moment, he had a stroke of genius and began to smile himself. Handing the letter back to the joker, he said: “We have no secrets from you marshal, you read it.”
Theatre superstitions vary from one country to the next. For example, Anglo-Saxons think that the title of Shakespeare ’s Macbeth must never be uttered anywhere near or in the theatre. The play is referred to as “the Scottish play” or “the Scottish tragedy,” and Lady Macbeth is called “Lady M.”
Another example: green is considered bad luck in France, while purple in Italy and yellow in Spain are banned on stage. There are many anecdotes about green’s evil powers. Actors who wore green costumes next to their skin met with an untimely death, due to the toxic effects of the copper oxides used in green dye during a certain era. In the passion plays of the Middle-Ages, the character of Judas wore a green costume. It is also said that Molière – who lived with his young wife Armande Béjart in an apartment largely decorated in green – died wearing this colour. The founders of one of Montreal’s oldest theatre wanted to ward off the spell by naming their stage Théâtre du Rideau Vert.
Carnations should never be given to actors – this superstition goes back to a custom dating to the 19th century, when actors were employed by theatres all year long. When the theatre director wanted to tell an actress that her contract was being renewed, he would send her roses. If he sent carnations, that meant her contract was being terminated.
Another banned practice: you must never cross the stage whistling. In France, you must not utter the word “rope” on stage or in the wings. The person who breaks this unwritten law must pay a fine consisting of a round of white wine for his or her colleagues. The origin of this superstition dates back to a time when the first stagehands were sailors. On their ships, there were many ropes used for maneuvers and each one had a name (braid line, multiplait, etc.). The one referred to as the “rope” was used to ring a bell to salute the dead.
If you want to bring bad luck to actors before a show, just wish them “good luck.” The proper way to encourage them before they step on stage is to say “break a leg!”
In June and July, 1982, the Nouveau Théâtre Expérimental (NTE) gave a few outdoor performances of its epic show Vie et mort du Roi Boiteux, six plays with prologues and epilogues, written and directed by Jean-Pierre Ronfard . It all began at 9:30 a.m. and ended in the middle of the night, at around 12:45 a.m.… Each play was performed in a different space; there were even meal breaks. The whole thing was festive and unforgettable. On June 24, 1982, at the Cité du Havre, during the second cycle of the play L’Enfance du Roi Boiteux, the extraordinary Robert Gravel (1945-1996), who played King Richard, delivered a long monologue while standing on a pile of sand.
Shortly after the beginning of the scene, a cloud covered the sun as young King Richard recalled the circumstances of his birth and predicted his future destiny. And, just as the actor was launching into his final line with an impassioned voice - “Come, sun, do not stop shining upon the crippled body of Richard for, one day, Richard will shine as brilliantly as you!” - the clouds parted and the June sun shone its brilliant rays down upon Robert Gravel. The public gave a unanimous standing ovation to the sun.
On June 6, 1987, Robert Lepage presented the premiere of the full-length version of his Trilogie des dragons(The Dragon’s Trilogy) at the Festival de Théâtre des Amériques (FTA). The three-parts of the show, The Green Dragon, The Red Dragon, and The White Dragon tell the storyof a dozen characters set against a backdrop of Chinese immigration to Canada. The six-hour play took place in a hangar in the port of Montreal, beginning early in the afternoon and ending at nightfall.
Towards the end of the third part, British character William S. Crawford, now an old man, falls asleep and dreams of returning to the port of Hong Kong, where he spent his childhood. For this scene, actor Richard Fréchette, who played the older Crawford, walked towards the back of the stage which was actually the iron curtain that closed off the hangar. The curtain was then raised, letting the audience see the quay (where there were barrels with inscriptions in Chinese letters) and the St. Lawrence River. At that exact moment, and to spectacular effect, a Chinese junk with its green, red, and white sails fully unfurled, was gliding majestically along the river, right in front of the hangar. Totally surprised by the beauty and technical precision of this exploit, the audience – already euphoric after over five hours of sublime entertainment – jumped to their feet as one and began to cheer.
After the play, everyone was talking about the “junk moment.” However, it was not a well-orchestrated effect, but a total coincidence. It was soon discovered that a tourist organization was offering excursions in the Port of Montreal that summer…in a junk.