Theater Around The Bay: Keep The Ghost Light On

Stuart Bousel, fading in and out of view. In your mirror. At night. When you say his name.

So, I was gonna do this whole collection of personal ghost stories related to the theater for today’s blog… but only two people got back to me and only one got back with a personal experience, so that idea kind of died. I will, however, publish Claire Rice’s contribution, partly because it’s cool, and partly because it really thematically ties in since Claire recently left the San Francisco Theater Pub, so this is kind of like the ghost of Claire speaking to us from another world.

The rehearsal room/dance room at Eastern New Mexico University is haunted. Students used to send each other in there alone in the dark to freak each other out. A full instructional skeleton hung on a pole that could be moved around the room and was often a source of fun and silly frightening games. One night some of us told each other “La Llorona” tales in front of the big mirrors in the dark and then dared each other to really look into their mirrored darkness. The skeleton caught whatever light was left in the room and glowed eerily in the corner back at us. We all focused on it and merrily screamed and ran out of the room. But there were stories of the stereo or the television turning themselves off and on. Of the doors closing suddenly and forcefully by themselves. Of odd drafts whispering in from nowhere in particular. One night, late after rehearsal, I went in to close up the room. I was alone in the building. I turned off the light and, just as I was about to close the door, I saw a prop left in a far corner under the skeleton. I turned the light back on and crossed the room. I picked up the prop and turned back around and saw a reflection of someone else in the mirror near the door where I had just been. I looked at the door and there was no one. I looked back in the mirror and there was no one. I never went into that room alone again.

One of the things that I have always found fascinating is just how superstitious theater people are. We don’t all have the same superstitions, but I’ve never met a theater person who hasn’t, over time, acquired a bunch of rituals and charms, even if they walked in claiming (usually pretty loudly) that such things were nonsense. I can’t say for sure if it’s the live/anything can happen element of theater combined with the unusually high number of Type-A/control freak personalities that tend to do theater, or the part where we generally experience more rejection than acceptance in our line of work, but either would naturally predispose us to a tacit reverence for the weird and a desire for the mystical. Show me an actor or producer or director or writer who doesn’t have a lucky warm up song or opening night underwear or a thing they say to the mirror in their dressing room (or never say) or closing night tradition or whatever and I will show you the phone number of the agency you called to hire that fake actor/producer/writer/director, who will then reveal, because they are an actor/producer/writer/director, all of their superstitions. For better or worse, we have always been a people uniquely sensitive to Luck and the role Luck plays in the world and it’s because we know how quickly awesome can turn to crap- or crap to awesome. And we also know how much we really can and can’t control that.

The complication is that belief in Luck (or really, an awareness of Chance) tends to also indicate both a creative mind and an active imagination. Combine that with the part where we spend our lives convincing ourselves the Audience is Listening and after a while that can absolutely lead to a vague but constant feeling of always being watched. Additionally, we masquerade as other people and thus are acutely aware of how everyone else, theater person or not, is a masquerade to one extent or another, thus leading to a general perspective of “nothing is as it seems” and “everything is a sign/clue”. Lying, embellishment, fantasy weaving, and just being flat out delusional run rampant in the theater community and thank God because it generally makes for much better storytelling but sometimes it can even be hard for US to know where the illusion ends and the truth begins. Assuming there is such a thing as “the Truth”. The older I get, the more I understand why artists tend to be more interested in being “true” than “truthful.” Being true is about fully buying into the world around you both as it is but also as it could be or should be; being truthful is generally boring or disappointing, really only matters in life and death situations, and frequently requires one to be self-righteous in a way that doesn’t allow for much compassion or understanding- which is sort of the antithesis of good storytelling. Sure, we’d probably cut down on the drama if we were more truthful, but it would probably be at the cost of the Drama.

None of which should have anything to do with the long-standing tradition of theaters and rehearsal spaces being haunted, but then again, if this is the general psychology of the people spending their lives there- how could they not be? Particularly if you subscribe to the idea that ghosts are not so much the spirits of the dead, as residual energy left from profound, violent, or devastating occurrences. Aside from hospitals and prisons, it’s hard to think of a building that could match a theater when it comes to the number of arguments, passions, revelations, disappointments, and ecstasies having occurred within its walls, not to mention all the secrets, gossip, thwarted schemes, scandals and triumphs- practically a gothic novel behind each curtain. And while the death and violence of theater is rarely for real, the constant re-enactment of terrible things, and the frequent invocation of terrible people, is bound to be feeding the atmosphere if not the energy of whatever beings or memories become trapped behind the backdrops. As someone who subscribes to the belief that joy can be just as disturbing (and therefore residual) as pain, all the comedies and romances only contribute to the haunting of a theater, something I find comforting as I’d like to believe that love and laughter leave just as much of an impression as violence and fear. Either way, if you’ve never walked around a theater late at night, locking up, checking the bathrooms, I suggest it if only for the creepy/comforting sensation that you are not alone, no matter how much your footsteps echo. In fact, the more they echo the more you become aware of how they shouldn’t, because normally there is so much going on you would never have heard them and it is that sudden and obscene absence of furor that triggers sensations by turn nostalgic, bittersweet, melancholy, and unsettling. The quiet of a theater is not a comforting quiet because it is not natural, and for that matter neither is the darkness of a theater: both are the result of extensive steps to sound and light proof spaces, expressly to focus your attention on what’s happening in the theater. And it’s when nothing is happening that the sensation we call “haunting” tends to hit us most powerfully. Which is why nobody likes to linger in the theater once The Ghost Light is on and everything else is shut off.

And yes, I know the pragmatic reason for the existence of The Ghost Light is to keep people from falling off the stage when wandering in the absolute pitch dark of a vacant theater trying to find the light switches, but come on: we called it “The Ghost Light.” I mean, we could have called it a “The Service Light” or “The Stagehand’s Guide” or “The Blue Light” or any number of unromantic things (apparently at some point there was an attempt to call it “The Equity Light”) but we called it (and continue to call it) a Ghost Light for one reason and one reason only: because we are fundamentally romantic creatures and it tickles us to think we have somewhere to go when we die and it’ll probably be a theater full of our friends putting on all our favorite shows, only this time nobody fucks up their lines, the person you’re secretly sleeping with doesn’t freak out mid-run, and nobody is worried about making rent at the end of the run. Also because secretly we all know that any theater that’s seen at least one generation of theater artists pass through it is saturated in ghosts and if you didn’t leave that light on they would probably burn the place down in your absence- or perhaps in the middle of your show. If they’re actors, it’s definitely going to be the later. Actors know all about the importance of timing.

Luckily, theater ghosts seem to be primarily benign, and are usually fans or artists who haven’t moved on because they love a life in the theater so much. As proof I offer this tidbit sent to me by Christian Simonsen, who emailed it when he heard I was looking for theater ghost stories:

One of the most talked about haunted theaters in the United States is the Bristol Opera House in Bristol, Indiana. Built in 1896, it is currently managed by the Elkhart Civic Theatre Company. Over its century-long history, this building has managed to collect three ghosts, which actors and stage crew have assigned names to. There is a little girl (“Beth”), who has been seen peeking out of the stage left curtain, as if counting the number of filled seats. A handyman (“Percival”) has frequently been spotted by the women’s dressingroom, and has been known to tug on actors’ costumes right when they make an entrance. The third ghost is a middle-aged woman (“Helen”), a “protective presence” that is often simply “felt”. Unlike the other two spirits, it is quite rare for Helen to actually be seen. Apparently, even in the afterlife, theaters are unwilling to give a woman over forty any decent amount of stage time.

At the end of my play PASTORELLA, which just closed on Saturday, there is a little moment when the lead male character, Warren, shares with the female lead, Gwen, his own bit of superstition, and this seems like a good place to end because last night, ducking into the EXIT Theatre, I experienced one of those sensations that is, for me, the quintessential haunting of the theater maker. My play is a slice of life tragicomedy that works best if viewed as a direct look into the backstage ups and downs of a small theater company (as opposed to a traditional backstage comedy, which is usually actually about the onstage ups and downs of a production). The play is unrepentantly nostalgic, bittersweet, melancholy, and unsettling, and that’s appropriate because it’s largely based on my life and experience in the small theater, perhaps the most personal thing I have ever put on stage, and as a result filled with memories and masks and terrible people and events, passions and schemes and delusional episodes, revelations, dopplegangers, missing people and… ghosts. Ghosts everywhere. Ghosts with monologues and ghosts in the props and ghosts in the costumes and ghosts in the transition music and ghosts in the words and ghosts in the blocking and ghosts in the rawness and artifice alike, right down to the part where the play in a play the company is doing is Tom Stoppard’s ARCADIA- a play about ghosts, code, and the inescapable past. Many of the people who loved the show the most were part of the small theater community and it was always wonderful and disturbing to talk to them afterwards and hear them share their own memories, their own versions of the play’s events and characters, all of which seemed familiar- too familiar in some cases. Encountering a ghost usually results in a mix of sorrow and fear: sorrow for what was lost, fear that the past isn’t done with us yet. Warren, actor and director, small theater champion to a fault, sums it up best when he looks at the empty dressing room and says, “This place always freaks me out when it’s this clean” and because it’s a spooky truism of theater that the show you’re working on always seems to permeate your life and turn everything symbolic it makes perfect sense that, while ducking into the theater last night to retrieve a mirror that was used in PASTORELLA, out of the corner of my eye I saw Justin Gillman, the actor who had played Warren, standing in the wings of the stage. Of course, that’s because he’s there rehearsing another show (Bigger Than A Breadbox’s BLOOD WEDDING), but for one whole second I had the terrifying thought that I had somehow forgotten we had a show that night. And then the sad sensation of knowing that the show was gone.

WARREN: Well, here the new life begineth.
GWEN: What?
WARREN: Forster quote. E. M. Forster. You might not know who he is because he never wrote any plays.
GWEN: I know who E.M. Forster is. I read real books too, not just scripts.
WARREN: Well we got that in common. (beat) It’s what I say whenever I stand in a room I need to expel demons from so that tomorrow I can walk into said room as if I hadn’t had my heart broken into a billion pieces there. This room, however, probably needs a full on exorcism. Typical.

Sleep well. Happy Halloween.

Stuart Bousel is a Founding Artistic Director of the San Francisco Theater Pub. You can find out more about him and his work at http://www.horrorunspeakable.com.

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