Theatre Ghosts: Part 3—The Ghosts We Leave Behind

C. Austin Hill

In this, the last in my 3-part series on ghosts in the theatre, I want to pick up on one of the themes of part 2—the idea of the theatre as a vehicle for memory.  Here, though, I want to consider the “ghosts” that are left after an act of theatre ends.

We are likely all familiar with the tradition of placing a ghost-light on the stage before the last person leaves the building.  A ghost-light has makes good practical sense—it provides a light to find one’s way to the door, and to find the switch for the work-lights upon our return; it prevents unsuspecting stage-walkers from falling into the pit, or down a trap, or tripping on scenery; and (of course) it gives illumination for the actual theatre ghosts to play all night long.  But to me, a ghost-light becomes a perfect metaphor for what I’m talking about here…that lingering glow that theatre leaves in the world.

When I came to my college in 2013, I immediately created two traditions designed to address theatrical legacy.  The first is rooted in Vaudeville, and the longstanding tradition of artists signing the stage-door when they pass through.  This, I think, is such a beautiful and elegant way to leave a physical mark that reminds those who come later of the performer’s ephemeral moment in the building.  Seeing stage-doors in research archives (such as the outstanding Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee Theatre Research Institute at The Ohio State University) is an incredible treat…seeing them in the actual buildings is a bigger one.  The physicalizing of one’s mark upon the very surfaces of the theatre was a beautiful tribute to Vaudevillians, because their time in the space was usually very short.  This is also true of students in a college theatre program.

My students, like most college theatre students, are the life of the space.  They pour their hearts and souls into productions, they work hundreds of hours (usually unrecognized) to put a show on stage, and they leave their mark in the memories of those who are fortunate enough to see their work.  And, though it may seem like a long time to the students themselves, they will spend a very short 4 (sometimes 5) years in the program...and then move on to other stages, and to other spaces.  Those who come behind them may never know how much these students accomplished—but they have left their mark.  And in my space, like in those Vaudeville houses of old, my students leave their physical marks upon the stage door…after every production.  This is a ghost that they leave behind.

The other tradition that I started centers on leaving our space better than we found it…after every production.  Like many small colleges, our theatre is an auditorium that we share with Student Life, with the Music Program, with Admissions and Orientations, with graduations, with homecoming, and with outside renters.  Though we are able to do large and complex productions, and we are able to leave our sets on the stage, we must always be aware of others using the space.  We have limited budgets which, coupled with a desire to be sustainable, means that we try to save and store as much of our scenery as possible for future use.  That effort is complicated by space limitations and a crowded backstage area that doubles as our scene shop.  If not for a concerted effort to leave things tidy, our stage could get out of control VERY quickly. I am proud of the fact that we are frequently praised for the organization backstage following our productions. A short time ago, a rental in our theatre left a pretty big mess.  It took nearly an hour to sweep up the glitter and confetti, scrape gum off of the scenery for our production (which we had moved backstage to accommodate the rental), to throw away trash, and to find places to temporarily store items that they left behind.  While my students understood that this was not uncommon after a rental, several of them said that they wished that the other group had had a policy similar to ours.  Unfortunately, this mess was the ghost that the other group left behind.

If you have ever been the last to leave a theatre, and had the amazing chance to look back at the space lit by the ghost-light, then you know how unforgettable that image is.  The tiny lamp illuminating an enormous space.  Last week, on ONSTAGE, Anthony J. Piccione wrote an excellent piece on theatre’s growing cultural obscurity (  Like him, I’m not ready to simply lay back and accept this as the natural state of affairs.  For me, the theatre itself is a little like a ghost-light.  Here, we have this little beacon struggling against the impending darkness (if you will forgive the ham-fistedness of that image).  As long as we have audiences, and as long as the work is good, and important, and relevant, then we have the chance to light that lamp.  Yes, the theatre is having problems in terms of accessibility—tickets are perhaps too expensive, there is not enough diversity on our stages or in our audiences (and some demographics are entirely excluded from both), and frequently programming is done with little concern about these types of problems—but I want (I NEED) to hope that we still have a chance to make change—one person at a time.  If we allow theatre to do what it does best, we can make our audiences think, and feel, and laugh, and cry, and sing, and clap…and then we can send them out into the world—a little better than we found them. 

These are the ghosts we leave behind.