Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Ghost Lights and Haunted Theatres

Working on some surrounding material for The Woman In Black got me to thinking about how it's kind of funny that a theatre is performing a ghost story, as theatre folk are notoriously superstitious. Like most things, a lot of the superstition is rooted in practical sense. For example, many theaters have what's called a "ghost light." It's basically a bare light bulb on a pole that's left out on stage. The story is that it's supposed to keep ghosts away - I guess ghosts don't like light? The truth is, it's more likely that it started as a safety measure - when you enter a dark theatre, it's pretty darn dark, and in a traditional theatre there's often an orchestra pit so you do run the risk of falling off the edge and breaking your neck.

The Dragon Theatre ghost light in action

All good theaters have a resident ghost or spooky story. There's an old theater in London that has two seats in the balcony bolted down in the open position so that the resident ghosts have permanent seating. Which brings me to my personal theatre ghost story. Years ago when I was in college I worked at a theatre in St. Louis. This was my first summer as a "professional" theatre worker. The theatre was an old church that was built in the late 1800s and had been converted into a theatre.

The Grandel Theatre in St. Louis

I was helping out on the St. Louis Shakespeare production of The Kentucky Cycle, a Pulitzer Prize award winning play by Robert Shenkkan that is actually a play in two parts and spans about 200 years of American history. I was helping the Technical Director (TD) after rehearsal hours to get the set painted and complete so we'd start work at around 10p and would paint till about 2am. One night as we were painting, I mentioned that the wedding dress was really pretty. The TD said "what wedding dress? There's no wedding in the show." And I replied that I'd seen a woman in the upper balcony walking around in a wedding dress while I was up in the balcony working on a prop. The TD laughed and said "oh, you met one of the ghosts then." I rolled my eyes and kept painting and said I didn't believe in ghosts - I figured they were having a bit of fun with the new girl.

I hadn't met the whole cast yet and the next night they were doing a full run so I decided to scope them out to find the prankster in the dress. None of the women in the cast or on the crew remotely resembled the woman in the wedding dress. That evening as they ran the show we noticed a problem with the lights - several of the lights that were supposed to be hitting the front of the stage were aimed too low and were hitting the audience instead of the stage. As I looked up to figure out what row of lights it was, I saw a man up in the front of the balcony, on or near the light pipe where the mis-aligned lights were, so I figured it was a lighting guy working on the lights to re-aim them. At the end of the run during the post-show notes, the lighting came up and I mentioned that I'd seen a guy up there. The Master Electrician and the TD looked at me and said "what guy?" I said "I dunno, some guy in work boots and pants and a plaid kind of shirt was sitting up there on the pipe." And the TD replied "ah, well, you've just seen the other ghost then. He likes to sit up on that front pipe and when he's done, every single light on the pipe has dropped like there was a weight up there that knocked them down." They all proceeded to tell me that the woman in the wedding dress was allegedly killed on her wedding day while heading to the church, and the gentleman was supposedly an old handyman that used to live at the church. They said the ghosts were never malicious, they'd just pop up from time to time walking around and hanging out and doing their thing.

I'm still not sure I believe in ghosts but I know that I walked by a woman in a wedding dress one night at rehearsal.

The Dragon Theatre was a travel agency before we moved in, and then it was abandoned for several years, so I don't think that it's got any tragic stories or ghosts. Now excuse me while I go knock on some wood, go outside, spin in a circle three times, spit, curse, and knock on the theatre door to be let back in just in case I just angered our resident Woman In Black.

Anyone else have a theatrical ghost story to share?


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