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Third Rail Projects' new immersive spectacle celebrates the way theatre haunts
While lots of shows can be classified as backstage tales, Ghost Light is the ultimate behind-the-scenes theatre experience. Created by Brooklyn-based Third Rail Projects, renowned for immersive, site-specific productions like Then She Fell and The Grand Paradise, Ghost Light was commissioned by Lincoln Center Theater for its five-year-old Claire Tow Theater. It might seem counterintuitive to craft an old-fashioned ghost story for such a shiny new venue, but the artists at Third Rail embraced the challenge, especially since they were allowed to use the entire space, including stairwells, closets, dressing rooms, and hidden nooks and crannies usually off-limited to audiences.
With the support of Lincoln Center Theater, Third Rail developed the piece through a series of workshops over a year and a half. "We had been excited about the notion of doing a piece of theatre about the theatre for some time," says Zach Morris, who co-conceived, co-directed, and co-choreographed Ghost Light with fellow Third Rail co-artistic director Jennine Willett. "But this isn't a work where you can deliver a finished script; it's about creating a 360-degree iteration. We did a lot of listening to the space to see what it was telling us. The Tow is a baby, and so many of us are used to thinking of theatres as these old buildings that have old ghosts, which it doesn't have yet. So when we were contemplating theatrical hauntings, that led us to thinking about how every theatre is different but, on the inside, they're actually all the same. In that way they're almost portals. We really wanted to highlight the modernity of the Tow and create juxtapositions through these old manifestations of ghosts. While the Tow is new, Lincoln Center is not. There is a rich and profound theatrical history right below the building, so being able to pull those stories literally up from under us informed the way we generated scenes."
On your expedition through the Tow you encounter phantoms everywhere you turn -- not just long-gone actors who trod the boards, but stagehands, musicians, porters, and other off-stage players. Sometimes they enlist your help. In a rehearsal room, a Shakespearean performer invites some viewers to join the action, and instructs others to dispense props often recognizable from past Lincoln Center Theater productions; later, in the wings, audience members conjure various stage effects by pulling ropes. At other points, you watch theatrical rituals play out, often in a loop. There is no linear narrative but there are recurring motifs, vignettes, and characters, though they seem to inhabit different eras, providing a sense of historical overlap. And while you're not allowed to roam freely, your evening can be radically different depending on your route, since the 100-or-so spectators are organized into multiple small groups which continually break up and reform.
Third Rail's fans are familiar with this format since it’s a company hallmark. However, Lincoln Center Theater subscribers used to more traditional shows may be surprised by the adventure. "Our shows don't work in the way that normal theatre does," Morris says. "There isn't really a protagonist; you as the audience are the protagonist because it's about your journey and your stitching together of meaning. We meticulously design the audience's experience and, at the same time, build a sturdy enough dramaturgy that there will be connections that you're able to forge and enough moments of touching base with the same characters to build a cohesive aesthetic arc."
While those long enamored of the smell of the greasepaint and the roar of the crowd will undoubtedly recognize much of the industry lingo and customs, those who've never been any closer to the stage than Row E, Center get to soak up the atmosphere and feel like insiders. "We thought about crafting the experience for both people who were theatre junkies and for those who have never been to the theatre," Morris says, though he adds that for folks who've done shows "there are Easter eggs and allusions hidden there just for you." Even the title Ghost Light is an in-joke.
Even if you lack that kind of knowledge, the association between theatre and ghosts comes through quite clearly. "They're both ephemeral," Morris says. "They are these quick, bright images and snatches of a life. Whether or not you're in the theatre, we're all performing for somebody, we all sometimes put on an act. Life and theatre are both fleeting."
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Top image: Rebekah Morin. Show photos by Julietta Cervantes.
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