The Theatre and the Ghost

By Justin Shaw

The act of going out to the theatre used to feel like a holiday. There’s a festive spirit in the air, people are generally happy to be with one another, and sometimes you drink too much either because you’re having a good time or because you wishyou were having a good time.

Now, theatre actually has it’s own holiday. March 27th is recognized as World Theatre Day: a day where theatre artists share a photo from their favourite theatrical moment. In past years, the date tends to get scrolled past with little fanfare (let’s face it, actors don’t need a holiday to share photos of themselves.) But this year, World Theatre Day carried with it a heavier weight of reflection and contemplation. Myself, like many others, wondered when we may get to experience theatre ever again.

While it is not a holiday in it’s most “technical” sense, World Theatre Day made me realize how much about theatre I have taken for granted. I moved forward everyday with the assumption that the stage would be there, that audiences would be there, and theatre would always be there.

My first ever audition for a play wasn’t even a choice I made on my own. I was seventeen, and my partner at the time had Broadway dreams, but until they got their driver’s licence, they’d have to settle for Kings Playhouse in Georgetown.

My partner was excited to audition, and wanted me to come with them for moral support. When we got to the Playhouse, my partner gave a great audition, and the director even said “I’m sure we’ve got something for you!” The director noticed me in the distance. “We sure are short on guys to fill the male roles, though.”

I was sitting on a bench, pretending to not overhear the conversation. Maybe if I just stay perfectly still, no one will notice me. While that tactic may work on dinosaurs, it generally does not work in romantic relationships.

My partner looked at me with pleading look in their eyes. It was the sort of look where I knew if I obliged they would be very happy, yet alternatively, if I declined it would be my funeral.

I took the audition script in my hands, and marched onto the stage.

As I made my solemn death march, my fears of public speaking haunted my mind, most of which took place at church. I had vivid memories of St. Andrew’s Presbyterian in Cardigan and dreading the day I would be asked to read the Psalms. My squeaky pre-pubescent voice would read one verse, and a trudging chorus of 9am seniors would read the following. Even standing in front of a crowd made me nervous. Another Sunday I was asked to light the Advent candle and was so nervous in front everyone I dropped the match on the church carpet. Luckily, a swift stomp from the minister prevented any damage, but it didn’t stop a member of the congregation from calling out “holy smoke!”

I pushed the memories of church out of my mind. The director made the instructions clear: stand there, and say the words out loud. That’s acting. “Okay,” I thought. “Pretty simple.” As soon as I opened my mouth, I immediately began stuttering over words and trembling with the script clenched in my hands. In that moment, I discovered a new facet about acting: simple to do, hard to do well.

I don’t know if it was something about the way my trembling voice carried in the theatre, or perhaps it was lack of any other viable options, but the director offered me a role in the play. I was thrown by the whole experience that I didn’t even ask what play we were doing.

“Joseph and the Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat.”

My endeavour to block out painful memories of church-born stage fright were now more difficult than ever, thanks to Andrew Lloyd Weber deciding to give a Broadway makeover to the Biblical story of a boy and his fancy coat.

As we were leaving, the director shared with us an interesting piece of history about Kings Playhouse. “Oh yeah! We have a ghost who likes to come out at night. We call him Captain George. Anyways. See you at rehearsal!”

As we got in the car and watched the theatre fade out of view from the rearview mirror, I kept thinking “… did she say this theatre had a ghost?” She mentioned it as casually as she might have said “by the way, we have a new light-fixture in the lobby, new taps in the bathroom, and also the spiritual energy of life from beyond the grave.”

I wouldn’t call myself a deeply religious person, but I’m not unreligious. The technical term may be “recovering Christian.” However, I have not let go of faith in spirituality or the possibility of a divine essence.

But there’s no such thing as ghosts.

But I really wanted to see one.

I agree to take part in the show, only so I can spot this ghost. I didn’t think they existed but I wanted to be proven wrong.

The play required weeks of rehearsal. I was worried I’d look foolish, and that worry was quickly confirmed on day one when they had us singing and dancing. But I wasn’t alone.

I learned over the next few weeks to not take myself quite so seriously. I had help from the rest of the cast as we became great friends during the whole process. In theatre, I find that you develop a common bond with your cast mates. It’s like we’re all in the trenches together, except our military training consisted of choreography, vocal warmups, and meticulous blocking notes (and, if you’re me, ghost-hunting on breaks.)

Time passes at a different rate on stage. In the slow of time before the curtain rises, all that can be heard is a murmur of excitement from the audience, as well quiet prayer to whoever will listen from within the wings. Time slows down only so it can double in pace the moment the show begins. The story is told in a lightning-fast technicolour blur consisting of a choir of youths who were glad to have done it once but may never do it again, and inspired teens who dream of doing it for the rest of their lives. To my joyful, humble, and grateful surprise, I was among the later.

I didn’t find any ghosts, but I learned to believe in theatre.

Time after that show seemed to go by quickly as well. It’s been over a decade since that show has closed, and I still find myself chasing the floorboards. From travelling, to education, to maintaining career stability, I found that over time I lost sight of why do I bother doing it. For years, I felt like I was constantly chasing a feeling, when truly that moment on stage, just like that first moment, was about harassing something within myself I didn’t know existed. Something that in the constant hustle and grind I have taken for granted.

Again, none of this was part of the plan. When I think back to that first audition at Kings Playhouse, I remember learning that while the show is brief, what lasts beyond the curtain call is the feeling of knowing you were part of something bigger than yourself. I am reminded that sometimes when things don’t go as planned, you open yourself up to an opportunity of learning, which can allow you to grow into someone you never thought you could become. I am reminded of the importance of being present and not taking anything for granted.

I still have yet to see the ghost.

Theatre PEI

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