Theater Etiquette and Flowers

By Benna Crawford
Members of the audience often shower the stage with rose petals after a ballet performance.

Adoring fans and grateful theater patrons have long inundated their favorite performers with flowers. The opening night flower-storm is now customary for professional and amateur productions -- so cue Mom with the bouquet.

Before and After

Opera, drama, musical comedy and especially dance have protocols and legends about how and when to give flowers and what kinds of flowers to give. Flowers signify a great show -- giving them before the show, rather than after the final curtain, tempts fate and invites unlucky or lackluster energy into the theater. An exception to this is sending a live flowering plant or flower arrangement to the theater before opening night for the performer's dressing room. At the Metropolitan Opera in New York, it is common to see a line-up of dressing room flowers at the stage door on opening night, awaiting delivery to the diva -- or divo -- starring in the opera.

This Mortal Coil

Theatrical flower traditions are laced with superstition. One is no live flowers onstage -- live flowers will wilt under the lights, taking the level of the performance with them. A macabre tradition, now thankfully outdated, involved flowers stolen from graveyards. The graveyard bouquet was given to the leading lady and the director on closing night of a show. The rationale was two-fold: mortuary flowers symbolized the death of the production, and actors and others associated with the theater were not always well or regularly compensated. A cemetery provided a convenient source of free flowers.

A Carpet of Petals

Ballet, that most precise and traditional of theater arts, has the most elaborate traditions of flower-giving. Bouquets of roses and other showy flowers are given to the female principal dancers at curtain call. To prevent embarrassment or slights, management typically ensures there are bouquets for all the leading female dancers at curtain call, and there will often be one for the conductor or the choreographer as well. But fans deliver their own accolades, raining down showers of rose petals or tossing entire bouquets at the stage. A basic courtesy for any fan hoping to throw a bouquet to -- or at -- the star of the show is to ensure all thorns have been removed from roses and sharply cut flower stalks are not exposed.

A Flower Worth a Thousand Words

Margot Fonteyn is credited with plucking a single rose from a bouquet and handing it to partner Rudolf Nureyev during a curtain call at the Royal Ballet. But Nureyev refused a single proffered flower from a different ballerina one night when he perceived the audience applauded her more loudly than they did him. To avoid an awkward moment, a stagehand usually loosens a single blossom in the first diva bouquet so she may remove it gracefully and hand it to her partner. Typically, flowers are reserved for female dancers but, at retirement performances, all bets are off. The retirement of a popular dancer will probably clean out every florist in town. When Nina Ananviashvili, Wendy Whelan, Ethan Steifel and Angel Corella danced their final performances on New York stages for the American Ballet Theater or the New York City Ballet, bouquets and hurricanes of petals and flowers piled up onstage nearly as high as the dancers.

About the Author

Benna Crawford has been a journalist and New York-based writer since 1997. Her work has appeared in USA Today, the San Francisco Chronicle, The New York Times, and in professional journals and trade publications. Crawford has a degree in theater, is a certified Prana Yoga instructor, and writes about fitness, performing and decorative arts, culture, sports, business and education .