Stage Fright- superstition, dramaturgy, and theatre ghosts
Theatre people are a superstitious bunch.
Every person I’ve worked with while making a play has upheld the grand traditions. We don’t whistle while under the hot theatre lights. We speak not the name of the Scottish Play. I am not superstitious in other ways, or religious, or afraid of hauntings, but I will always say “break a leg” or “chookas”. I’ve never said one of those phrases to someone who then demanded I say “good luck” instead. In an industry that deals with the big life questions, typically in a secular fashion, it is strange that superstition is a discernible aspect of the theatre-making experience. But, then again, little rituals are integral to traditional expectations of a western theatre audience. Theatre has a kind of magic that swirls around its incorporeal form- maybe superstitions are a way of keeping that unspeakable power alive behind the scenes as well as in front of them.
However, they are many instances where that feeling of theatre magic veers directly into the realm of the genuinely supernatural.
At Adelaide Fringe earlier this year, I met a playwright and director for coffee. We were both new to the professional theatre scene, and it was nice to chat about the struggles of being a new artist and having to DIY together a production for a big festival audience. During our meeting, our discussion turned to the topic of ghosts. My new friend excitedly showed me a video sent to her from one of her friends who had encountered someone (or something) while setting up for a rehearsal in the theatre space at their university.
The video showed a big empty stage, with worker’s lights on. A distinct banging sound echoed from somewhere in the rafters.
I don’t believe in ghosts in any scientific capacity, but the footage was certainly troubling. There are probably plenty of rational explanations for this strange phenomena- changes in temperature, old pipes, construction, etc. But I don't know if, having seen that video and considering my own tolerance for spooky situations, I would be able to accept that a rational but unknown force was causing such a loud and scary noise to fill an empty room.
One of those old theatre superstitions states that every theatre has a ghost. This seems to sit right initially- theatre people are careful not to break any supernatural rules, and so the respecting of ghosts is just another facet of that practise, right? I've written before about the tradition of using a ghost light when a theatre is out of use, and some versions of this superstition include the idea that the light also appeases the spirits who inhabit a theatre. This is especially useful if your theatre's ghosts cause mischief when all the lights are turned off because they think that the the building has been permanently abandoned. Ghost lights can prevent accidents of all kinds from occurring in an empty theatre.
But ghosts and superstitions are different. It's one thing to bless someone when they sneeze, and another to genuinely believe that there is any legitimate reason for doing so. And from what we collectively understand to be the rules of engagement for ghosts, it seems strange that every theatre plays home to a lost soul. I had always assumed that ghosts are supposed to turn up in places where people have died- that means that every theatre has been the location of at least one tragic and unnatural death. That might be true, but surely a ghost isn't created every time someone dies in any place. There are studies that confirmed my anecdotal reckoning that people mostly die in hospitals, their homes, or aged-care facilities. Nursing homes aren't typically considered bastions of the supernatural- a haunted house ride or horror movie set in an aged-care facility probably won't get the same response as a Victorian mansion or abandoned hospital. So why do theatres get all the interesting hauntings?
It seems that the location a ghost chooses isn't necessarily determined solely by the location of their own death. The Encyclopedia of American Folklore, for instance, states that ghosts are motivated by unfinished business or an inability to accept one's demise, and tend to haunt their former residences or other locations of particular importance. This idea is more in line with the more ethereal residents of some of the world's most famous theatres. But for someone whose academic work asserts that there is not enough horror on theatre stages, I find it baffling that a theatre is more likely to be the home of a genuine ghost than to produce a play that is about ghosts.
Then I started digging in to some of these stories.
What I learned from reading about these spirits is that, unlike our treatment of ghosts in other locations or in horror movies, the ghosts who haunt theatres are often treated with fondness and respect. Theatre Royal Haymarket's ghost, former manager and director John Baldwin Buckstone, is said to enjoy watching comedies from the auditorium. The proprietors of the New Amsterdam Theatre on Broadway have placed photographs of long-dead chorus girl Olive Thomas at the entrances of the building, allowing artists and crews to greet the ghost when they arrive for work so as to keep her poltergeist ways in check. As well as politely enjoying the show from the balcony, the ghost of New York impresario David Belasco is said to interact with the performers who work at the Belasco Theatre. Actors have claimed that he congratulates them on their performances, shakes their hands, and on occasion will goose actresses- this behaviour is seen as a sign of good luck. And at the Palace Theatre on the West End, two seats were left bolted open to leave space for the resident spirits; Ivor Novello, a composer who died of a heart attack in 1951, and an unnamed ballerina who has been known to perform ghostly pirouettes across the stage.
These ghosts are not only a part of the lore of the theatre's they call home, but are also treated as respected colleagues. There is no talk of removing these spirits, or even fearing them- unless you're an actress looking to not be sexually harassed by a man who died in 1931. Again, we can probably put this down to the general willingness of theatre types to accepts the superstitions that come with the trade. I'm not sure how genuine the belief in these spirits actually is- after all, the two ghost seats at the Palace Theatre were unbolted and sold to audience members in 2016 with the mounting of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child. And while there has been no reported backlash from the previously well-accommodated spirits, I doubt this was a real concern for management.
I think the respect for ghosts comes from something deeper than superstition, or lore, or supernatural tour revenue. I think it comes from something more... ethereal.
Alex Matsuo is an actor and academic with a passion for ghost hunting. In a blog post for Llewellyn, Matsuo states that because ghosts require energy to communicate, they see theatres as "...an all-you-can-eat buffet of energy," that "...likely attracts a plethora of different spirits both good and bad." While I obviously don't subscribe to her belief that ghosts actually exist, this idea of energy transfer may be rooted in something closer to reality- or, at the very least, dramaturgy.
Theatres have that unique atmosphere that is only really possible in entertainment or performance venues. They tend to be dark and quiet, and usually only frequented at night. They might have secret rooms, winding corridors, or exist in old buildings with strange histories. They are sites of great emotional exertion and catharsis, displaying the dizzying highs and devastating lows of the human condition through art. But I think the most appealing thing about a theatre, if you are a pirouetting spirit doomed to wander this earth looking for a place to call home, is the stage.
Space is everything in a theatre. It is arguably more important that anything a playwright or director can ask actors to perform, more important than gesture or design or plot. Space is what defines theatre against all other forms of drama or narrative. A good understanding of space can be the difference between a creative decision working or ruining a play. And the stage itself is usually the most important area in a building comprised of important, sacred spaces. Anything on a stage commands a level of respect and attention. When actors leave or arrive on the stage we notice it. When they move through an audience we often feel uncomfortable, because they are not where they are supposed to be. I've had plenty of experiences of walking onto a stage- sometimes as an actor, but more often as a dramaturg, director, or stagehand- where the lights hit you and the feeling in your body changes. It's not about being the centre of attention. It feels as if the stage has a power that you have briefly been given permission to harness.
The stage is magical. Maybe this does come from intangible, ghost-nourishing energy, but at the very least the rules and rituals we give it create the awe and receptive mindset needed to believe in that magic.
So maybe, this culminates in a community that is happy to make room for spirits to exist in these powerful spaces. Dramaturgy, superstition, community and tradition collide in one building in a way that lets ordinary people believe in extraordinary things. Theatre ghosts don't want revenge, or to scare people. They just want a space to exist in. They just want to be seen and recognised, to be allowed a moment to walk across that stage and feel alive.
They are just like everyone else who calls the theatre their home.
Elflein, J 2017, 'Distribution of places where the loved ones of U.S. adults died within the last five years as of 2016', Statista, 28 Aug, <https://www.statista.com/statistics/741886/common-locations-of-death-in-the-us/>.
Matsuo, A 2015, 'Why are theaters haunted?', Llewellyn, 19 Oct, <https://www.llewellyn.com/journal/article/2536#>.
Paskett, Z 2018, 'The most haunted theatres in London's West End', The Evening Standard, 25 October, <https://www.standard.co.uk/go/london/theatre/haunted-ghosts-west-end-theatre-a3970831.html>.
Theatrecrafts.com 2012, 'More about the ghost light', Theatrecrafts.com, <http://www.theatrecrafts.com/pages/home/glossary-of-technical-theatre-terms/more-about-the-ghost-light/>.
Theatrecrafts.com 2012, 'Theatre ghosts and superstitions', Theatrecrafts.com, <http://www.theatrecrafts.com/pages/home/topics/stage-management/theatre-ghosts-superstitions/>.
Theatrecrafts.com 2016, 'UK - London - Palace Theatre', Theatrecrafts.com, <http://www.theatrecrafts.com/pages/home/venues/london-palace-theatre/>.
Viagas, R 2020, 'The real-life ghost stories behind Broadway's 9 haunted theatres, Playbill, <https://www.playbill.com/article/the-real-life-ghost-stories-behind-broadways-9-haunted-theatres>.
Watts, LS 2006, Encyclopedia of American Folklore, Infobase Publishing, New York.
Red chairs stock image © Wix
Ghost on stage artwork © Rachel Adams
Olive Thomas photograph © Library of Congress