Ghostlights are electric lights with exposed bulbs that are kept lit onstage when theatres are unoccupied. Of course, the practical reason for a ghostlight is to guide the first person in and the last person out of the theatre. Though some theatrical superstitions hold that the real purpose of a ghostlight is to ward off mischievous spirits, others believe that a ghostlight illuminates the theatre for those who inhabit and protect the space.
On Jan. 19, the eve of the presidential inauguration, more than 500 theatres across the nation will unite with Ghostlight Project (initially announced in December as the Sanctuary Project). The idea is simple: Artists and community members associated with Broadway theatres, resident theatres, university theatre programs, high school theatre troupes, and community theatres will gather outside their spaces at 5:30 p.m. and shine a light—via candle, mobile device, or flashlight—to demonstrate that there can be light in dark times.
Through this symbolic act, theatres will make and renew pledges to promote and protect values of inclusion, participation, and compassion for everyone regardless of race, class, religion, country of origin, immigration status, (dis)ability, age, gender identity, or sexual orientation. The Ghostlight Project will show that theatre is not only a safe space but a brave one.
“The idea was born out of a deep despair after the election and a real feeling that we had to show solidarity, love, and community in the face of this onslaught of hate that has bubbled up around the ideas of race, gender, sexuality, and ‘difference’ of any kind,” says scenic designer David Zinn, who conceived the event. “I felt like the theatre community is a model of—or at least has been working toward being a model of—the kind of world we want to live in: a world that has a multiplicity of voices and points of views, and gives voice to the voiceless.”
The idea for the project came when Zinn sent an email to a group of friends about his desire for the theatre community to band together after the election. Lisa Peterson, associate director at Berkeley Repertory Theatre, joined the steering committee and suggested that the collective action go nationwide.
Zinn will participate in the event at the red stairs in Times Square with the Broadway community. Director Jenny Koons, another member of the steering committee, will also be in New York City for the event.
“January 19 is just the kick-off event for our growing national network,” says Koons. “My hope is that we inspire and push each other to fight for social justice and advocacy in the years to come, through sharing resources, knowledge, and people power.”
Further upstate, Kitchen Theatre Company in Ithaca, N.Y., will host theatre artists, local theatre students, and 13 Ithaca-based theatre companies on Thursday. The expected guest list, which has already surpassed 200 people, has warranted a city permit for the event.
“I thought this would be 20 of us standing outside the Kitchen Theatre Company and that would be it!” says artistic director Rachel Lampert. “I’m very glad to live in this community and that everyone is motivated to participate.”
Tim Ostrande, props coordinator at Cornell University, is constructing a battery-operated ghostlight for the Ithaca event, which will lead a procession of participants from Kitchen Theatre Company to the Ithaca Commons downtown. Circus Culture, a participating group, also plans to bring giant puppets decked with lights for the march.
“Like every other community in the country, we feel like we have to do something about what we see coming,” says Lampert. “This is a way for everyone in the theatre community to come together.”
Hartford Stage of Connecticut will be one of 12 theatres in the state observing the Ghostlight Project.
“Since the ancient Greeks, theatres have existed as safe gathering spaces for people to share stories, to support each other, and to learn from each other,” said managing director Michael Stotts in a statement. “Hartford Stage joins our colleagues across the country in making a pledge to uphold and protect the values of inclusion, participation, and compassion for everyone in our community.”
The event will include music and a presentation of inspirational quotes from dramatic works by select cast members of The Comedy of Errors, running Jan. 12-Feb. 12 at the theatre.
On the other side of the country in Portland, Ore., the Oregon Children’s Theatre will also participate, with hopes of sharing the company’s values with the community.
“We intend to gather outside on our sidewalk—we are on a corner which is very busy during commute times,” says managing director Ross McKeen.
After the lighting ceremony, artistic director Stan Foote will present a statement outlining the company’s values of equity, diversity, and inclusion.
The theatre expects many young people at the event, including the cast members of the upcoming production of Flora & Ulysses (Feb. 25-Mar. 26) and the teenagers in the company’s Young Professionals Company.
“The core of what we do is helping them to find their voice and the courage to express themselves,” says McKeen of the young folks. “So that is our hope.”
After the event, the company plans to install a permanent lobby display featuring a ghostlight and an exhibit of the company’s values.
Down south, a group of Dallas theatre companies will join together for a large event at the city’s Latino Cultural Center.
“For me, this is a powerful moment of solidarity nationwide to stay committed to positive outcomes over the next four years,” says David Lozano, executive artistic director of Cara Mía Theatre Company. The programming for the night will include singing of Civil Rights spirituals and live music.
On the West Coast, attendees at Berkeley Repertory Theatre‘s Ghostlight Project event will listen to a recitation of Brecht’s poem “To Those Born After” and a statement written by artistic director Tony Taccone. The evening will feature a special ghostlight built by the props department that will live in the lobby after the event.
“We’re a community and it’s a community I really love and believe in,” says Zinn. “I’m confident that we can come together to do something necessary and good.”