Since 2016, we’ve been reporting on hauntings at theatres all across North America, and the stories keep coming. Here’s a new crop of spine-tingling tales that will make you want to avoid theatres after hours.
The Springer Opera House, Columbia, Ga.
The theatre, which houses Georgia’s oldest professional company and opened in 1871, underwent substantial renovations in 1964 and in 1998-99, though those construction projects didn’t drive spirits away. Producing artistic director Paul R. Pierce reports that he heard stories of paranormal activity in the grand venue, beginning when he joined the theatre in 1988, and at first he didn’t believe them.
“Every theatre I’d ever worked for had claimed to have ghosts,” he says, “but most of the time people seemed to blame garden-variety incompetence, forgetfulness, or misunderstandings on a ghostly intervention. A missing costume piece, a prop that mysteriously appeared on the wrong side of the stage, etc. I heard a lot of Springer ghost stories in the years after my arrival but was never very impressed. I always feigned awe when I heard them but privately dismissed them.”
That all changed, he says, when he had an experience of his own. In 2000, after a lengthy strike for Sweeney Todd, Pierce stayed until about 3:30 in the morning before heading home. At around 7 a.m., he received a call from the general manager, who was attending to a load-in for a production renting the space. That staffer wasn’t able to get into the shop’s tool room and couldn’t reach the technical director, so he asked Pierce if he had keys to that room. “I admitted I did and begrudgingly agreed to come down,” he says. After helping the general manager get the tool she needed, Pierce says, he began walking toward the stage and “became aware that someone was walking next to me.” As he turned his head he found himself starting into the face of a man in his 20s “with a wiry beard, wearing a rather rumpled tweed suit. He grinned at me as we walked.” Pierce realized the figure “was mocking me, mocking the way I was walking. I recall thinking, ‘My God—this is a ghost.’ But my second thought was, ‘This doesn’t seem supernatural. It seems very natural. He belongs here as much as I do.’”
Then as Pierce turned the corner toward the stage, the figure “walked behind some masking flats that were leaned against a wall nearby. I peeked behind the flats, but he had disappeared.”
UrbanTheater Company, Chicago
The Windy City troupe, founded in 2005, has had its share of ghostly visits. According to artistic director Miranda Gonzalez, several individuals—staffers and others—have seen their resident phantom, and all describe it the same way. Gonzalez hasn’t physically seen that ghost, but she explains that sometimes she has visions, and that she had one of this figure while she was with a member of her company in the basement, where the building’s circuit breakers are located. “I had gone there a couple of times and felt a presence, where all the hairs stood up on my body,” she says. She felt something brush her and said, “We have to go right now, right now, right now.” It was then that she her vision of “a man who was a little stocky, who was Latinx, darker hair. I just wanted to go upstairs, because I thought he wanted to talk to me.”
Currently Teatro Vista is using the space for their production of American Jornalero (running there through Nov. 18), and Gonzalez says that before that show opened on Oct. 25, one of the Teatro Vista staff came in and told Gonzalez someone was sitting at her desk. She asked if it was someone the person recognized. “No, it’s the ghost in your place,” they replied. As soon as that Teatro Vita staffer approached, the person at the desk disappeared. Recalling her earlier vision, Gonzalez says she asked, “Does he look a little stocky, with dark hair?” He did. Today, for Halloween, UrbanTheater is presenting a screening of Coco. In the wake of these encounters, Gonzalez says, “We’ll see how that goes.”
The David Henry Hwang Theater, Los Angeles
The theatre where East West Players performs is located in the Union Center for the Arts, a building in Little Tokyo constructed in 1922 that initially served as the first Union Japanese American Church. EWP director of production Andy Lowe explains that a predominantly black congregation moved into the church during World War II, when Japanese Americans “were forced into concentration camps and the neighborhood became known as ‘Bronzeville’ to its predominantly African American new residents.” During his time at the theatre, Lowe says, he’s heard “many stories of an old man (the former groundskeeper of the building) who sits in the balcony (the old choir loft).” He adds, “Actors have complained about people watching auditions when no one was actually there. Some employees have encountered specific smells when he’s around, but he seems to be a pretty benign spirit.”
Former EWP arts education director Marilyn Tokuda says she had a number of unexplained experiences during her 14 years with the company, including a child’s voice whispering her name. On one occasion in late 2014 or early 2015, “One of our staffers smelled a strange musky odor near the printing machine,” she says. “Concerned and a bit nervous, she asked me to please ask whomever was standing by the Xerox machine to leave. I had a brief conversation with the spirit telling them to please leave, that they no longer belonged here, that it was time for them to move on. I thanked them for visiting, but it was time for them to move on. Within seconds—and I mean seconds—the smell disappeared.”
In addition, she says that one day in 2010 she was “typing on my computer when a metal traveling mug that was sitting on the corner of my desk went flying across the aisle, landing in front of the filing cabinet. Both my boss and I looked at each other simultaneously. I thought, ‘What just happened—did you see that?’ My boss, to this day a non-believer, accused me of hitting it.” But she says she couldn’t be responsible for the airborne mug, since she was at her computer. “Oh well, I know what happened,” she says. “If the mug had fallen over there’s no way it could have even rolled over as it had a handle.”
Phoenix Theatre, Arizona
A number of staffers at the theatre have reported ghostly encounters, and the individual with perhaps the most stories is master carpenter and former props master Tyler Welden. In 2015, for instance, Welden was called upstairs to prop storage above the company’s prop shop when a young intern said a snow globe music box began playing on its own, and requested a different assignment.
“I assumed that he was just being a high schooler and didn’t want to clean anymore so he made up some story,” says Welden. “But I let him get away with it and gave him a different job and forgot about the snow globe entirely.” Two months went by and Welden didn’t think twice about the incident, but then, one day when he’d been alone in the storage space for a full 15 minutes, “From the back corner I heard the tiny tune of a music box start to strum. Instantly the hair on the back of my neck shot up as I remembered what our intern had said.” Welden explains that there’s just one way to get into storage, “and as far as I knew I was the only one upstairs.”
To investigate, he “very cautiously walked past the aisles of shelves, peering down to see if anyone was playing a joke on me. Seeing no one, I creeped to the shelf where we store snow globes and other bookcase dressing. The snow globe in question, surprisingly enough, is a Santa snow globe with a ‘2013’ plaque on the front”—he would have expected something possessed to be much older—“and a side crank that activates the music.” He says, “I reached up for the globe to try and put my fears to rest by finding some kind of reasonable explanation, but before I could pick up the globe the music suddenly stopped and my arm hair joined my neck hair by standing a full salute. I didn’t touch the globe and I didn’t finish pulling props—I left immediately.”
He’s since heard that snow globe twice. In February of this year, he recalls, “I was near the snow globe, when out of the corner of my eye I saw something fall off a neighboring shelf. I walked over and picked up a pencil that had fallen from the very top shelf where we store champagne buckets, a shelf that had been reorganized two weeks earlier; any stray pencils would certainly have been removed. I stood baffled holding the pencil when the snow globe started to play behind me. I dropped the pencil and ran out.”
Bangor Opera House, Maine
Ben Layman, a teaching artist and actor with Penobscot Theatre Company, has had so many ghost encounters at the theatre that we can’t possibly include them all. The 1920 venue, located in the city that inspired Stephen King’s fictional town of Derry, has been the organization’s home since 1997. The opera house is Bangor’s oldest performance space and stands on the site of another theatre with the same name, which opened in 1882 and was consumed by fire in 1914. The story goes that a firefighter died in that blaze and haunts the new theatre to this day. Actors often see a dark figure in the former balcony that now serves as a storage space, and Layman explains that some believe that figure is the firefighter.
The latest sighting took place during the theatre’s current staging of Wait Until Dark (running through Nov. 4), whose six-person cast includes Layman. He describes the apparition as a “big, tall man in the balcony,” and dark “like a shadow.” He noticed this figure while onstage during a recent performance. “Sometimes it’s hard to tell,” he says, “because spot-ops can be up there. But no one is up there for this show.”
That wasn’t the only strange occurrence during the show. Layman recalls getting ready in his dressing room on the top floor of dressing spaces. He says he heard a fellow actor come up the stairs go into his room. Layman “called out to him, but he didn’t respond.” Finding this odd, Layman threw open the door, only to discover his castmate wasn’t there—no one was. Then, when offstage waiting for a cue, with others nearby, Layman says he “felt someone tug on my costume jacket.” Again, there was no one there.
When actor Christie Robinson first started performing at Penobscot in 2007, she didn’t believe in ghosts. That all changed after one rehearsal for Forever Plaid in 2009. During one break, she says, she went downstairs to the restroom but couldn’t find the light switch, “so I relied on the hallway light for a glow. I went to use the sink, and when I turned it on, the sink to the right turned on, and a few seconds later, the third sink turned on.” Could this have been a minor plumbing malfunction? “This was not a trickle of water,” she says, “this was full force running. I watched the water go down the line of sinks and I immediately turned my faucet off. When I did that, all of the sinks turned off at the same time.” She got scared and ran upstairs to tell the company what had happened. “‘Those are ghosts!’ the producing artistic director said to me, totally normal. From then on, I was a believer.”
In addition to the apparent firefighter spirit, staffers and performers have seen what they call the ghost of a young girl. Production stage manager Meredith R. Perry says she saw that figure, which looked like a “little girl in a light dress with long, flowing hair. Transparent and kind of fuzzy, not in focus.” Robinson had one of these experiences as well. The following season, during performances of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, she says she’d get to the theatre before the rest of the cast and play music. One day, while in her dressing room, “I noticed my iPod lighting up. The volume dial was moving up and down (showing on the screen); however, the sound never changed. Then, songs started changing, and I wasn’t touching it at all.” Without hesitating, she says, she called to a friend who was working in the box office—none other than Ben Layman—who explained it was likely the child ghost, and he suggested she speak to it. “I did, and asked her if she could make my iPod light up,” she says. “It did. I asked her to turn it off. It turned off. I asked her to make the screen blink. It did. At this point, I was intrigued, but not scared. She was a happy ghost, just playing.”
Support American Theatre: a just and thriving theatre ecology begins with information for all. This Giving Season, please join us in this mission by making a donation to our publisher, Theatre Communications Group. When you support American Theatre magazine and TCG, you support a long legacy of quality nonprofit arts journalism. Click here to make your fully tax-deductible donation today!