Superstition as Legend — The Smaller Picture pg244
Colorful companion to my memoir The Incompetent Psychic
A month after my dog Rosie left there came a wonderful phone call from a guy named Adam, who ran the scene shop for a smaller professional theater across the bridge in Concord. They needed a painter, and had heard about me from a set designer. “Could you come by this afternoon?” I could, and I wouldn’t even need to change out of my spattered clothes.
Adam had a quick mind that could figure out how to build anything so that it would come apart, reassemble, unfold, spin and be engineered sturdy enough for an entire chorus of dancers to stomp on.
I painted my heart out in that happy shop. — From Chapter 13
By this point in this memoir I’m in my late forties, and the most fit I had been since skiing every day in high school. I was painting huge stage sets at speed, racing on sailboats 2–3 times a week and doing yoga classes that often as well.
The first stage I painted for Adam was a play I forget the name of. It was set on an 18th century wooden sailing ship and dealt with issues of despotism and scurvy… kind of like the final year of the previous presidency (I’d like to forget that, even though it wouldn’t be wise to do so).
Between the theaters and sailboats it struck me how many nautical terms are used backstage… deck, crew, standing rigging/running rigging, lines, battens, etc. Of course this wasn’t an original concept, and I only now dove down the rabbit hole of internet searches to find out when fly systems were first used in theater, and if off-duty sailors were employed to rig them. Truth? A myth in need of debunking?
Initial googling took me to ‘Why is whistling in a theatre bad luck?’
This superstition started in the middle of the 1600s when theatrical scenery began to fly. Sailors had extensive knowledge of ropes, rigging and knots and were hired backstage as run crew. An actor who whistled backstage might accidentally cue a stagehand to lift or drop scenery, potentially putting an unaware performer at risk of being crushed by a wall or a sandbag.
Another hour of clicks and reads lead to… ’Modern theatre starts with Teatro Farnese in 1618. Farnese was the first theatre with a proscenium arch.’ This comes from a 2014 article ‘Myth of the Sailor Stagehand’ by Rick Boychuk. Rick goes on to dissemble the legend of the tradition of sailors backstage, taking it apart cleat by cleat in great detail. He doesn’t, however, mention whistling.
At some point (even during a long winter of pandemic isolation) it is time to stop random trivia searches on the interweb and come to some sort of conclusion. My romantic story was that I did an historical full circle by recruiting stage crew to come onboard as sailors. Young men who built and rigged scenery made for great racing crew, and we all got to work and play at both. True.
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