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March 10, 2021

SHINE ON – Thoughts from Executive Director Emma Stenning, One Year On

Theatres have ghost lights for a reason.

There was once a practical reality, of course, in keeping a dim glow in a place as trip-hazard-riden as a stage, but modern lighting has long since provided automatic systems to serve this purpose.  And yet, as theatre people, we still often place a solitary incandescent bulb, amid a wire cage on a shoulder height stand, centre stage each evening as we close our buildings.

It’s a ritual I’ve always loved, because it speaks to continued presence.  The ghost light has an almost human form, standing proudly in the darkness, calling out across the years to the spirits of the stage.  Theatres are meant to be haunted – how can they not be?  They are places that have seen such comedy and tragedy, such innovation and reflection, so many people, so many stories of the human experience.  Superstition has it that the light stays on for these spirits, to spotlight their ghostly overnight performances, to let them know that they are still welcome, that their show goes on.

Except now, we are the ghosts.  Our absence is felt.  The light is holding the space not just for the past, but for the present as well.  And I’m glad that it is.

It’s now a year since we have had a chance to be in a theatre.  A long, difficult, challenging year.  For me, as someone who has been to see a show on average three times a week for goodness knows how long, it has been a sudden abortion of a lifeblood that I had perhaps never truly appreciated.  What I would give now for that 5pm moment when, sat at my desk, I question whether I truly have the energy to schlep across town to another opening night.  What I would give now for that moment when the lights fade, the audience hushes, and my heart opens to the promise of a new adventure.  Yes, YES, of course I have the energy! It is energy. It’s all I want to do. 

It’s not that we’ve been without culture.  This past year has seen artists and institutions the world over discover new forms for their creativity, and new outlets for their storytelling.  Much of it has been thrilling, much of it has been free and, month by month, it has slowly begun to dismantle some of the barriers to access that our industry has struggled with for decades.  There are new skills, new audiences, and a new resolve that our artform is essential, and that it must be for everyone.  This is the impetus that will carry us forwards into a brave new world as our theatres re open and, as a bi-product of an otherwise catastrophic event, it’s actually meaningful, and good.

But, beneath this reinvention there is somewhere a profound realisation, that no virtual experience, no digital performance, no ‘direct to your i phone’ can ever compensate for the sight of the human figure and the sound of the human voice.  That nothing compares to the collective experience of live theatre.  Nothing.

As you pass through our city today, you might spot one of our glorious theatres, closed up for the foreseeable given the realities of COVID-19.

When you do, imagine for a moment the ghost light inside, casting a glimmer of hope across the empty auditorium.

It reminds us that theatre is a continuum.

It promises us that we will be back.