Life in the theatre is known for its superstitions.
Actors, directors, and other theatre workers conform to certain superstitions that might seem silly to anyone outside of theatre. However, I am not ashamed to say that I buy into them. I can now never say the name of the Scottish play, put my shoes on tabletops, or wish someone luck before a show. I welcome a dress rehearsal that goes horrifically wrong, and keep from learning the curtain call until opening night.
One of my favorite superstitions is that of the ghost light. It’s very eerie walking into a dark theatre and seeing the empty stage illuminated in a five-foot ring of ethereal light from a single bulb. It’s even spookier to learn that this light is called a ghost light.
The purpose of the ghost light is probably different than what you think.
It is commonly thought that every theatre has at least one ghost. These ghosts are generally the spirits of deceased performers who had special connections with the theatre. The ghost light is turned on at night in respect to these spirits who haunt their former dwellings. This way, they are able to see on stage in order to perform and dance in the empty theatre. The beautiful image of these spiritual silhouettes continuing to do what their souls are tied to, even in death, is stamped into my imagination.
I have performed in many theatres in my life. Theatres that are hundreds of years old, new theatres, abandoned school auditoriums now used as theatres, converted warehouses. All of them are haunted, and all of them with stories of ghosts who reside there.
I’ll never forget when I performed at the Genessee Theatre in Waukegan, Illinois.
It was after the performance and I was talking to one of the night watchmen of the theatre. He was a big, burly man, the stereotypical body and demeanor you imagine when picturing a guard of sorts. He was proudly telling me about all of the famous people with whom he’d had the pleasure to work, all of the extravagant demands he’d met. The neuroses and the kindness, the drama and the generosity. But the story that stuck in my mind above all of the glamorous celebrity stories was when he looked around to see if anyone was near, and then leaned in close.
“I’ve heard the voice of a little girl,” he told me. “I heard someone calling for her mom in the area above the stage, so I climbed up onto the catwalk to help her. I saw a little blond girl in an old-fashioned dress standing in the rafters, and when she saw me she disappeared.”
When I was a teenager, I used to perform with a theatre company. The owner of the company tragically died from cancer at a relatively young age. From the day he died, one of the lights never went on again. We had the bulb changed, the electrical sockets checked, the wiring looked at…. But it never went on again, and we had to conclude that it was him, watching over us.
There are, of course, famous hauntings of theatres.
The Palace Theatre on Broadway in New York is famous as one of the most haunted theatres in the world. It is known to have over 100 ghosts from the days of Vaudeville. This was the era when performers like Ethel Barrymore, Will Rogers, Bob Hope, Mae West, Bing Crosby, and Fred Astaire would grace the stage. Many of these people have been reported as sighted since their deaths. A man in a brown suit, a cellist who wears a white gown and performs in the pit at night, a sad little girl in the balcony, and a boy who rolls his toy truck around in the mezzanine section have also all been spotted. The ghost of acrobat Louis Bossalina, who died while performing, has been seen and heard swinging from the rafters. The most famous spectre at this theatre is Judy Garland.
The Palace Theatre in London actually keeps two of its seats in the audience bolted open so that its two ghosts can watch the shows. One of the ghosts is a ballerina who has been seen pirouetting across the stage. The other is the well-known actor Ivor Novello.
Theatre history fascinates me.
I love learning about former productions and performers who have called the stages that I now perform on home. When I’ve been in rehearsal or performing a show, I’ve looked over, only to see an unknown figure watching me from the wings. They’d disappearing once I spotted them. I have felt comfort in knowing that I am surrounded by the souls of other artists.
And when I walk into a darkened theatre, I see the ghost light and hope that the spirits put on a good show while we were away.
My name is Andrea and I live in Los Angeles, California. By day, I am an actor and by night I am working towards a degree in nutritional science.