Ghost Light by Patricia Noonan

Patricia Noonan in the Gulfshore Playhouse production of “My Fair Lady” (2016)

The image of the ghost light has always felt a little lonely to me.

It’s a beautiful image – full of magic, promise, and expectation. A light in the darkness that whispers insistently, “We’ll be back.”

But expectation, if it carries on too long, can suffocate. It becomes a breath held without end…not unlike a light that shines in a perpetually empty theater meant to keep us safe from falling and protect us from lurking ghosts.

These days, ghost lights are shining in theaters across the globe as the world holds our collective breath – waiting with no known end in sight or clue as to what is on the other side. Those lights are still a promise – “we’ll be back” – but I wonder if they are also something more.

As a kid, I always wondered why anyone would want to keep the ghosts out of a theater. Why prevent the delicious spirits of all who have written for and played these houses from putting on fantastic creations while we are away? For anyone who has felt a sense of connection to our shared past as you stepped out on a stage, you’ll know what I mean. We tread the boards hand in hand with those who have tread them before us. We sing “You’ll Never Walk Alone” and Rodgers and Hammerstein are right there, standing in the wings next to Agnes De Mille and Christine Johnson. We are but a small part of a larger story.

So I can’t help but thinking that, while we miss them desperately, our theaters are not sitting empty. The ghosts of all the writers and players and crew members and designers and ushers who have come before are keeping them warm. And the great thing about theater ghosts is they aren’t limited by death. We don’t have to leave the earth to have left a piece of our spirit behind on a stage. Just imagine what Will Rogers, Fanny Brice, Harry
Belafonte, Judy Garland, Diana Ross, and Josephine Baker are cooking up with the original cast of Beauty and the Beast right now at the Palace. What a show that must be.

Maybe I like to picture all those theaters humming with ghosts ready to welcome us back because it feels more reassuring. But, honestly, it also feels more true. Because, though we miss our theatrical homes desperately, the theater community isn’t just sitting around waiting. In the past few weeks, we’ve mobilized to take care of each other and of others – from the Actors’ Fund raising money to help artists pay bills, to the Dramatists’ Guild filling emergency grants in mere days, to the unions campaigning to protect gig workers, to BC/EFA continuing with their red buckets virtually, to costumers creating protective masks, to singers performing virtually for seniors in nursing homes and all of us who crave the collective joy of music. The ghosts currently filling our theaters feel like an extension of that same community – doing their part to keep alive a fabric of connections that goes back to the first time we sat down to share a story. Keeping the theaters filled with their spirit until we can all gather together safely once more.

A lot of people, myself included, are asking what theater will look like in the future. After all, how long it is going to take for us to feel safe to gather in our theatrical churches and share that special kind of communion? I listen to these questions from students just about to graduate and friends whose life’s work has seemingly evaporated overnight and…I don’t have any answers. The artistic and financial losses – not to mention the human ones – we face each day right now are devastating. There’s no way around it. We are going to be scared, hurt, and mourning for a long time.

Today, though, I can’t stop thinking about the community – living and dead – of storytellers who always seem to find our way to a campfire. When we are struggling to make sense of things, when we are having a hard time imagining a way forward, when we need to connect, mourn, celebrate, inspire – that is always where the storytellers come in. We crave meaning so we breathe narrative – even at a distance.

We might innovate the ways in which tell our stories and the ways in which we connect…and we may need to do so for some time…but we will always find a way back to the campfire…even if for now it is virtual and we have to leave our theaters in the trusty hands of the glorious ghosts who have come before us.

Imagine the celebration when we get to join them on stage once again.