Going Backstage with a Theater’s Ghosts

“Ghost Light” by Third Rail Projects uses every dressing room and stairwell of Lincoln Center’s Claire Tow Theater to immerse audiences in the mechanics and magic of the theater.

Scene from Ghost Light by Third Rail Projects; pictured: Jessy Smith (photo by Julieta Cervantes)

My first encounter with the apparitions in Ghost Light, the new immersive production from Third Rail Projects, was with a Pierrot-like clown in a hallway, somewhere above the stage. “Are you from London?,” she asked our small group, which had been split from the larger audience entering the Claire Tow Theater at Lincoln Center. She mentioned a British ghost that’s seen every night walking through the single electric light left on the stage — the “ghost light” — performing a speech for the empty seats, which would only be filled at the conclusion of the show. For most of Ghost Light takes place behind-the-scenes of the theater, in dressing rooms and stairwells, as phantoms of the theater cycle through their loops, each marooned from some closed production. A 1940s starlet struts below the proscenium in a glittery gown, rehearsing her lines; a 1930s theater usher has a solo in a backstage light; a 1970s janitor reveals his cabinet of candles and crucifixes ready for exorcising these spirits, not realizing he died in a ladder fall decades ago.

Going back to 2010 when I visited the Steampunk Haunted House, which had a silly name but was a beautifully crafted experience, I’ve been impressed with Third Rail’s ability to take their audiences on unexpected, site-specific journeys. Their ongoing Then She Fell in Brooklyn is based on Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, its encounters with the White Rabbit and Red Queen set in a mental hospital, while last year’s Grand Paradise sprawled through a 1970s tropical resort, constructed in a Bushwick warehouse, complete with sand and seductive mermaids. Ghost Light, which is directed and choreographed by Jennine Willett and Zach Morris, who also wrote the script, was made in collaboration with the whole Third Rail company, using every inch of the Claire Tow’s backstage.

Scene from Ghost Light by Third Rail Projects; pictured: Donna Ahmadi (photo by Julieta Cervantes)

Ghost Light explores the writing, acting, stage management, even custodial work that builds the magic behind these performances. In one of the most engaging scenes, which small sections of the audience see in various orders, I watched a character dressed for a Beckett play, with perpetual holes in his socks, deliver a monologue that referenced the playwright, alone in a bar, thinking of what to say to us, when he really wanted to be with someone he was afraid to call. The past writing of these words, and the present moment, which was once an uncertain future, collided. In a busier scene, we watched the cast weave in and out of dressing rooms, gathering bits of costumes, as the countdown to places was announced in a loop. We later viewed the same chaos from one of those dressing rooms, where a faded star considered what it means to go out on the stage again, the audience knowing her lines before she says them. She toyed with a bottle of laudanum on her dressing table, which later made a fatal reappearance in her final dance at the bottom of the stairwell.

Scene from Ghost Light by Third Rail Projects; pictured: Roxanne Kidd (photo by Julieta Cervantes)

Some of the scenes lagged a bit, like an overly long lobby bar sequence with a musical number and a repetitive dance over the theater seats watched from overhead. Overall, the two hours of Ghost Light are nimble and woven with details that reward audience attention. For instance, both the tickets and programs are labeled for the Montgomery County Playhouse, which is where a ghost audience — which turns out to be us — is regularly seen filling the seats. A diorama glimpsed in a corridor, crowded with tiny pictures of characters cut from shows, manifests as a full room. Compared to Third Rail’s previous productions, the audience participation is minimal, although a few members are enlisted as actors in a Shakespeare-derivative play, and others activate pulleys for a wooden moon and waves, and sound devices for thunder and rain, to create a storm around a woman in a rowboat.

The Claire Tow Theater is compact, and rather new — opening in 2012 — so it doesn’t have much of the creaking floors and well-worn curtains of theaters more prone to conjure ghosts. Yet Third Rail’s production makes it feel huge and layered with history. When the audience finally takes their seats at the end, to watch the performers move in the consuming darkness of the stage, you don’t just see the action, but you consider all the rehearsals, costume changes, choreography, and cut lines that built up to that moment.

Scene from Ghost Light by Third Rail Projects; pictured: Rebekah Morin (photo by Julieta Cervantes)

Ghost Light continues through August 6 at Lincoln Center’s Claire Tow Theater (150 West 65th Street, Upper West Side, Manhattan). 

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