Some performers want to break legs. Others hope to bump noses.
None of them seems to know why.
In various live art forms, performers think it's bad luck when you wish them good luck. It's partly a superstition and partly a tradition.
You're supposed to say "break a leg" to an actor, "bump a nose" to a circus performer, "merde" -- the vulgar French word for, let's just say, manure -- to a dancer, and either "toi toi toi" or "in bocca al lupo" to an opera singer.
Some performers take it very seriously.
"I'm probably the most superstitious person you could talk to about this," said Rick Kerby, the producing artistic director of Bradenton's Manatee Players. "Not in my life, but in my theater life."
Even when he's talking to friends outside of theater, Kerby hates it when someone wishes him good luck.
"I'm constantly correcting people," he said.
There are theories about where all these superstitions come from, but no one has definitive answers.
"I know why about the whistling, I know why about the Scottish play, but I don't know why about 'break a leg,'" Kerby said.
He's referencing a couple other long-held theater superstitions. You're not supposed to whistle back stage. That one goes back to a time, Kerby said, when whistling was used as a cue from the stage manager to stage hands. If you whistled backstage at the wrong time, you might get a sandbag dropped on your head.
"The Scottish play" is what theater people call "Macbeth." There have apparently been many ill-fated productions of that play over the centuries, so it's considered extremely bad luck to utter the title in a theater.
Kerby never utters that play's title, even outside of the theater, and always refers to its title character as "the king in the Scottish play."
The people who work with Manatee Players know not to cross Kerby by whistling, mentioning "Macbeth" or wishing him good luck before a show.
And there's at least one more theater superstition Kerby takes very seriously.
"The costumers know not to have peacock
feathers on stage," he said.
But back to the "break a leg" thing. There are popular theories, including that "breaking a leg" used to be slang for bowing (because you bend your knees and "break" the line of the leg), and that a very long time ago audiences would stomp their feet instead of applauding, so that an extremely positive response could theoretically break someone's leg. But there doesn't seem to be any definitive research.
One theory about saying "merde" to dancers is that it dates back to when streets were full of horses, not cars. If you wished someone "merde," you were wishing that a lot of people would come to the show, thereby tracking in a lot of stuff horses left on the ground.
If you have friends who are opera singers, you're supposed to say "toi, toi, toi" before they take the stage. Either that or "in bocca al lupo," which means "in the wolf's mouth." And if you say that, they're supposed to say "crepi il lupo" -- "may the wolf die." No one seems to even offer plausible guesses about where those traditions come from.
The circus equivalent of "break a leg" is "bump a nose." It no doubt has to do with clown noses, but beyond that its origins don't seem to be known.
"Maybe it has to do with the fact that we do a lot of slapstick, a lot of physical stuff," said Taylor Albin, a clown in "Circus Xtreme," the new Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey show. "I really don't know, so I shouldn't speculate. But if someone says 'good luck,' nine times out of 10 we'll correct them and say, 'No, no, no, we say 'bump a nose.' "
One other circus tradition, and maybe a bit of a superstition, involves what they say to each other when they're parting.
"You don't say 'I'll see you later,' " Albin sad '"You don't say 'goodbye.' You never, ever say 'goodbye.' You say 'I'll see you down the road.' Because you will, you'll see them whenever, in some other town."
Marty Clear, features writer/columnist, can be reached at 941-708-7919. Follow twitter.com/martinclear.