Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Break a Leg!

I've been acting for just about as long as I can remember, and for as long as I can remember I have been using the phrase, "Break a Leg," to encourage other actors or having it told to me just before heading on-stage. But it wasn't until recently while reading a folktale book that I learned where the phrase came from, and I have to say that after reading what it means, I think I'll be even more inclined to use it.

The legend says that there was once a man named Genesius who was a mime and performer for the Emperor of Rome. He often used his craft to ridicule and make fun of Christians because it amused the Emperor. He would satirize Christian ceremonies all to the delight of the Emperor. One day Genesius was doing a satirical baptism ceremony. Apparently this was one of the Emperor's favorites, and he was dying of laughter.

"Do it again! Do it again!" he shouted at Genesius. However, in the midst of mocking this ceremony, Genesius saw angels and asked them to baptize him, immediately converting to Christianity. When the Emperor asked him to do the ceremony again for his enjoyment, Genesius refused. He told the Emperor, "I cannot do it again."

This made the Emperor extremely angry and he said, "If you will not do it, I will break your legs."

But Genesius replied, " I cannot do it again because it is no longer true of me. I cannot perform anything which is not true of me."

Hence the expression "Break a Leg" originally meant to perform only that which was true of oneself. I find this absolutely wonderful. As a student of acting and later as a professional, I often had to make tough calls about what I would and would not perform. In the acting field, it's tempting to perform anything because you just want to work so badly; however, there are plays that I cannot in good conscience perform because I feel I would have to go against who I am in order to do them. And I know that my integrity is more important to me than my career.

Sadly, today there are many performers who believe that onstage they can be one person and offstage they can be another. (And I'm not talking about getting into character, but rather, a person's true character.) But this just isn't the case. As one quote so famously puts it, "Wherever I go, there I am."

I wish more young performers were told the story of Genesius. Maybe it would serve to challenge them to think about their own values and whether or not playing a role is worth comprising their beliefs. In the end, Genesius stayed faithful to his beliefs. He was beheaded and died a martyr. He is now considered the patron saint of actors, performers, dancers, comedians and musicians.

So, break a leg, my friends. Or as Shakespeare put it: "To thine ownself be true."

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