ashland.news
July 24, 2024

Sage on Stage: Why ‘break a leg’?

Georges Clairin, "Portrait de Sarah Bernhardt" (1876).
January 5, 2024

And how do actors remember all those lines, anyway?

By Jessica Sage

Dear Jessica,

I found your comments about actors’ superstitions interesting, particularly the origin of merde” as a way of wishing good luck. I was surprised you didnt add what I thought was the common rationale for break a leg” as a best wishes”: Curtains used to have wooden wands of poles, called legs,” that were used to open and close them. If an enthusiastic audience called you back for multiple curtain calls, you might break a leg from heavy use.

Jack S.

Jessica Sage

You’re quite right, Jack. That is a common rationale. However there are countless theories that I didn’t list. Here are some others:

  • In the early days of theater, ensemble actors queued to perform. If actors were not performing, they had to stay behind the “leg line,” which also meant that they wouldn’t get paid. If you were to tell the actor to “break a leg,” you were wishing them the opportunity to perform and get paid.
  • When an actor impressed the audience, he or she needed to bend down to pick up the coins they threw onto the stage. With one leg forward and one back, the actor was said to be “breaking a leg.”
  • When an actress curtsies, she bends her back leg, or, in other words, she “breaks” that leg.
  • There was the idea that breaking a leg on a stage was associated with taking a deep bow. Wishing someone to “break a leg,” therefore, could be seen as encouraging them to take multiple bows, indicating a successful performance.
  • Some people attribute the origin of the expression to John Wilkes Booth, the actor-turned-assassin, who claimed in his diary that he broke his leg leaping onto the stage of Ford’s Theatre after fatally shooting President Abraham Lincoln. The fact that actors did not start telling each other to “break a leg” until the 1920s (more than 50 years later) makes this an unlikely source.
  • Sarah Bernhardt was an exquisite actor, even after she lost one of her legs. Some people suggest Bernhardt’s loss inspired the “break a leg” expression.

It’s worth repeating: theater people are a superstitious lot!

The Horn & Hardart Automat at Columbus Circle, 977 Eighth Avenue between West 57th and 58th streets on Feb. 10, 1936. Berenice Abbott photo for the Federal Art Project

Dear Jessica,

Having grown up in Westchester, I, too, have fond memories of New York City at Christmas. Yours match mine exactly — except for having lunch at a Horn & Hardart!

Heres a question for you. Dan and I are both fascinated with the ways actors learn their lines.” How many ways are you aware of? What is your method, and has it changed over the years?

Jan (and Dan)

Hi Jan and Dan,

Haha! Your lunch was at a Horn & Hardart. Our dinner was at Mama Leone’s! By the way, the Rockettes column drew more comments from readers than any other column so far.

Now on to answering your question. Have you heard the joke, “How do you get to Carnegie Hall? Practice, practice, practice.” That for me is the tried and true method for memorizing lines. It’s boring and repetitious, but I would venture to say it’s the number-one way actors do it.

I like to have all my lines memorized before the first rehearsal. I memorize by rote, without giving too much emphasis on inflection or pacing. This way I can make the necessary adjustments once I’m being directed in the rehearsal hall. I used to record everyone else’s lines into a machine and leave space to recite mine live. Now I ask my husband to hold book (the script) for me.

Many actors wait for the blocking and movement associated with their lines before they memorize. Physical actions can trigger memory and create a more immersive experience. That may include a particular gesture, or prop, or a cue from another actor. Sometimes actors break their scripts down into smaller sections and gradually build up their memorization. This can make the process more manageable and less overwhelming.

Some actors find it helpful to visualize the scenes or create mental images associated with specific lines. This technique can make the lines more memorable and easier to recall during performance. Practicing lines with scene partners can make the learning process more dynamic. Interacting with others helps solidify the dialogue and fosters a deeper understanding of the script. Finally, there are actors who create mnemonic devices, such as acronyms or rhymes, which help them remember lines by associating them with easily memorable patterns or cues.

Different actors may prefer different methods, and the most effective technique will vary from person to person. It’s common for actors to use a combination of these approaches to learn their lines thoroughly. I hope that answers your question.

Happy New Year, one and all!

Theater lovers, what would you like to know about theater, acting, stagecraft, etc.? Send your questions to contact@roguetheatercompany.com. Bring up the houselights, and let’s have some fun!

Jessica Sage is artistic director of Rogue Theater Company. Check out their 2024 season on Jan. 7: roguetheatercompany.com.

Picture of Bert Etling

Bert Etling

Bert Etling is the executive editor of Ashland.news. Email him at betling@ashland.news.

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