The Origins of ‘Break a Leg’

If you’ve come to one of our shows, or any theater performance in general, odds are you’ve heard the term “break a leg,” and maybe even used it to wish performers good luck. It may seem odd, but in the theater world, saying “good luck” is actually considered bad luck.

There are numerous ideas about the origin of the phrase. One story says spirits wreak havoc on your wishes and make the opposite happen. Another comes from ancient Greece, where the audience didn’t clap but instead stomped their feet to show appreciation. If the audience stomped long enough, they would break a leg. Some say the term originated during Elizabethan times when, instead of applause, the audience would bang their chairs on the ground — and if they liked it enough, the leg of the chair would break.

The most common theory refers to an actor breaking the “leg line” of the stage. In the early days of theater, this is where ensemble actors were queued to perform. If actors were not performing, they had to stay behind the “leg line,” which also meant 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. The sentiment remains the same today; the term means “good luck, give a good performance.”

No matter which version you choose to believe, well-wishes are always appreciated. If you happen to see one of our performers around town or at Jack London State Historic Park, be sure to tell them, “Break a leg!”