The “ghost light,” an enduring theatrical tradition, is about to be reclaimed, now as a powerful political statement. This Thursday, thousands of theater companies around the country—including a handful in the North Bay evening—plan to gather together in solidarity, just after sunset, all across the United States.
“It’s important that we make it known to everyone everywhere,” explains Steven David Martin, Artistic Director of the Raven Players in Healdsburg, “that our theaters will always be places of light and safety, always open and welcoming to absolutely everyone, no exceptions, who enter our doors.”
The Ghost Light Project – formed by a collective of theater artists on both coasts – was created as form of positive, peaceful protest, planned for Jan. 19 at 5:30 p.m., on the eve of the inauguration of Donald Trump. The project is fueled by fears that a Trump administration could bring artistic and journalistic censorship, rising discrimination and increases in race-and-religion-focused violence. In other words, the next four years could be dark and dangerous for everyone.
Those participating in the Ghost Light Project, primarily members of the theater community including actors, directors, playwrights, technical artists and the audience members who value theatrical expression – will assemble in front of local theaters, bearing flashlights, lamps, lighters, and other illuminating devices. The Ghost Light website, with suggestions on how to participate, has a downloadable poster on which people can identify themselves and what they plan to be fighting for over the next months and years.
In addition to the Raven Players, other theater companies planning to hold gatherings this Thursday include Marin Theatre Company in Mill Valley, Main Stage West in Sebastopol, 6th Street Playhouse in Santa Rosa, and Sonoma Arts Live, in Sonoma. The public is invited to join in, and theater artists from all theater companies are welcome to join in as well.
“To be fair and transparent,” says Craig Miller, Artistic Director of 6th Street Playhouse, “I don’t think that we have always done the best we possibly can here, in creating a space that has been as inclusive, or as reflective of the immense diversity of our community as it could, or should be. Art imitates life. We are supposed to be holding a mirror up to nature.” 6th Street will be participating with a presentation of readings by local theater artists, along with a statement of commitment to being a beacon of light in the future, plus a group singing of “Seasons of Love” from the musical Rent, and the ceremonial lighting of a lamp to remain in the front window of the theater at all times.
Adds Miller, “The Ghost Light Project gives us, and all theaters and their communities, an opportunity to renew that vital commitment to stand for and protect the values of inclusion, participation, and compassion for everyone regardless of race, class, religion, country of origin, immigration status, disability, age, gender identity, or sexual orientation. We strive to be that theatre company, and hope to be a beacon of that message in our community in perpetuity.”
Observed for over two hundred years, the “ghost light” is traditionally a literal light – usually a single lamp, though before electricity small lanterns were often used – left on overnight once a theater has closed its doors. For many, it’s a mere safety precaution, though the tradition first sprang from the belief that every theater has at least one resident ghost. The lamp allows the spirits of the place to take the stage overnight, telling its own stories till daylight returns. As metaphor – a light in the darkness, calling the lost and forgotten – the image of the “ghost light” has become a symbol of the theatrical arts at their best.
“Many of us are legitimately frightened at what this administration could bring,” says Beth Craven, Artistic Director of Main Stage West, which recently staged Si Kahn’s immigrant musical “Hope.” “The timing couldn’t have been more perfect, because a lot of us all over the country are struggling right now to find a way to keep our own hope alive. Given what this man says he plans to do, the rights and freedoms he plans to take away, keeping a light burning is more than just a metaphor. It’s a necessity.”
On Thursday, artists from Main Stage West, and local theater supporters, will be lighting candles and singing at least one song from “Hope” on the sidewalk in front of the theater.
Martin, with the Raven Players, says he wanted his theater family to be part of this project because of the many ways the theater has always worked to provide a safe place for the marginalized and under-heard.
“We need to stand strong with our brothers and sisters across the country to ensure there is always a light for everyone,” he says. “And this is our chance in face of potential dark times to stand together and stand up for human rights and human decency. We are storytellers and we need to include every aspect of our eclectic society to participate in sharing our stories. I hope we see a lot of our fellow theatre artists at the Raven this Thursday night, or that they join the Ghost Light Project at their respective theatrical homes.”
This story first appeared in the North Bay Bohemian, Jan. 18, 2017