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Sometimes the Actor's "Break a Leg!" Means Just That

Justis 1.jpg
Carla McDonald
The scene of the disaster. Actress Kim Justis gets comfortable on the couch that will later become her undoing.

There’s no consensus on why actors started telling each other to “break a leg” before a show. Some say it’s a reference to the black curtains on either side of the stage, called legs.

Breaking out from behind those legs means to step out into the spotlight.

"It's the whole Vaudevillian thing; 'cause you were lucky you got paid," says Playhouse on the Square producer Mike Detroit, who previously taught theater classes. He says the superstition evolved as a way to say "good luck" without saying "good luck."

"It's bad luck to actually break your bone on stage," he assures us. "So don't do that, right? So, we wish you the opposite."

But as performers will tell you, saying "break a leg" also tempts fate.

Enter award-winning local performer Kim Justis, playing the role of Gay Wellington, a drunk actress in the show “You Can’t Take It With You,” running through this weekend at Theatre Memphis.

At a recent performance, she was onstage doing a comedy bit. It involves rising off of a couch with a blanket over her head like a ghost. She noticed that the blanket may have been wedged a little between the couch and the wall. She suspected it could give her some resistance. Like any good performer, she improvised.

"I know!" she told herself. "I'll just stand up on the couch and that way I can kind of pull the blanket with me as I stand."

And It worked. For a second.

"I stood up, I said “OOOOO" [ala a ghost]", she says. "It was so funny! Got some good laughs. Hooray! And instead of being a smart actor. No, I got that laugh and became a real drunk person."

When she stepped down off the couch, the audible snap in her foot was followed by an audible gasp from the audience.

"I heard that and went: Well, I can't let people think I'm really hurt," Justis says. "That's terrible! That ruins the show. So I threw the blanket off of my head and said, 'I'm okay!'"

A funny thing happened on the way to the hospital.

Local actor Randall Hartzog got a phone call from a woman in hysterics. He thought it was strange the caller ID said "Kim Justis" when the actor would have been onstage.

"And she’s saying I think I broke my foot," Hartzog says. "Then she went on to say 'I know you did this same thing, and I don't know what to do and, you know, thought you could give me some advice.'"

Hartzog’s big break came in the middle of a musical number in the show “Ruthless.” He was wearing a dress and high heels and tripped on a chair. Fortunately there was a nurse in the house. It was starting to swell when she wrapped the ankle, shoe and all, and Hartzog finished the show.

"After the show was over I went to the emergency room," Hartzog remembers. "And it was broken."

The thing about these break-a-leg stories, Hartzog says, is they're more common than audiences ever even know.

Most actors agree the worst part isn’t the physical pain. It’s the guilt over what happens next for the production.

"When you don't have understudies, especially in the community theater situation, it could be the end of the show," Hartzog says.

For Kim Justis, it was her worst nightmare.

"I could not help but feel that I had let everyone down," she says. "I had left them in the lurch. That was the thing that hurt me more than anything."

There is another origin story for "Break a Leg." That maybe it was coined by a jealous understudy, an ironic joke.

And at Theatre Memphis, Susan Brindley promptly joined the ranks of actors jokingly blamed for the accident, though she wasn’t really the understudy, and learned the role in less than 24 hours.

"It never occurred to me that I would be the one doing it," she says. "And fortunately, you know, her dress — her costume — fit me... live theater, man!"

Brindley says the show is going on, but for the rest of the run, "Break a leg!" is embargoed backstage.

The cast is now using the good luck word from the ballet world: Merde!

It’s French. You can google it.

Justis 2.jpg
Carla McDonald
Kim Justis says the overabundance of stage make-up raised questions in the ER before her theatrical credentials were established.

Reporting from the gates of Graceland to the balcony of the Lorraine Motel, Christopher's favorite haunt is the intersection of history and cultural change. He is WKNO's News Director and Senior Producer at the University of Memphis' Institute for Public Service Reporting. Join his conversations about the Memphis arts scene on the WKNO Culture Desk Facebook page.