All through the pandemic solitary incandescent bulbs have been glowing brightly in otherwise darkened auditoriums across the globe – in Sydney, London, New York, Toronto, Mumbai. Lighting up vacant theatres, big and small. Beacons of hope. Of defiance. Of comfort. Lights that have been burning determinedly 24 hours a day, every day, sending a message from their stages to millions of theatre inhabitants pining to return – Don’t worry. We may be empty now, but we will be back. Soon. And we are leaving a light on to prove that to you.
Traditionally this single light, called a Ghost Light, is left on through the night. It is lit by the last person who leaves the venue and extinguished by the first to arrive. It signifies that the theatre is empty. Pragmatists say it’s to ensure that no one has an accident in the dark. Another theory says that in the 19th century, when theatres were powered by gas, keeping a light on prevented pressure from building up in the gas line and causing an explosion. Why call it a ghost light then? Well, folklore says that keeping this light on after the theatre goes dark keeps the theatre ghosts happy and contented. Legend has it that every theatre has at least one ghost. And just like glow tapes help actors navigate the set, ghost lights stop resident ghosts from bumping into furniture or disturbing the props. More importantly, the burning light is a cue that they have permission to play, so they don’t curse the theatre or God forbid, sabotage the set.
Do theatre ghosts really exist? Of course they do. Louise Finn in his article in The Stage magazine, “Superstition is the way”, talks of the Palace Theatre in London that keeps two seats in their balcony permanently bolted open to provide seating for their theatre’s ghosts. Broadway’s New Ambassador theatre has a resident ghost named Olive Thomas. A onetime Ziegfeld Follies chorus girl, she committed suicide in 1920 and is reputed to be the most active ghost on Broadway. According to an article in the Playbill magazine she manifests so frequently that her photographs have been placed at every entrance to the theatre. The employees have a ritual of blowing her a kiss or touching her picture frame as they enter and leave. I wonder if she has also been missing her daily dose of theatre these past five months. No props to play with, no wigs to try on, no crowds, no mischief. Olive must be lonely.
Through the month of August the Edinburgh International Festival, one of the most reputed arts festivals in the world, hosted a series of artistic interventions to let the world know that the spark of the Festival still burns bright. Called The Ghost Lights, 250 beacons with 800 lighting effects filled venues across Edinburgh for the first time in nearly five months. The festival’s website states: “It is a symbol that, though the stage is empty for now, the building will be filled with laughter, tears and applause once again. In 2020, we honour this tradition on a grand scale, with a hopeful reminder of what is still to come.”
Closer to home the ghost lights in our Mumbai theatres burn bright too. A reminder of the enduring spirit of theatre. We will be back. Soon.
– Shernaz Patel