What’s a Ghost Light?

And whom is it for?

One of the most important tools that a play has at its disposal is a blackout. Because live theater can’t mark the passage of time in the way that a book or film can, theaters use blackouts to mark the end of a scene. In order for them to work effectively, the theater must go completely dark. 

Although the pitch black is perfect during a show, when the curtain lowers and the actors go home, an issue arises: How do you turn the lights back on the next day? Not every theater has a light switch located conveniently near the stage entrance, so that means that technicians crossing the stage to turn on the lights at the beginning of a work day must navigate numerous hazards: avoiding set pieces and platforms, and not falling into the orchestra pit. The solution? A ghost light is commonly used to show the way.

A ghost light is a very simple device: It’s just a lightbulb on a stick that stands in the middle of the stage. It’s usually the last thing to be placed on the stage every night and the first thing to be removed every morning. Although its practicality is apparent, its history and superstitions make it a theatrical icon. 

The ghost light’s widespread use as a safety device may have been mandated by the Actors’ Equity Association as a way to ensure that its members aren’t injured on a dark stage before and after a show, but Brian Kelsey, Peninsula Players’ managing director, said the use of a ghost light isn’t currently a part of the theater company’s contract with Actors’ Equity. 

And this safety-device explanation also doesn’t explain the bulb’s name. 

It’s a common belief that every theater is haunted. Different theaters have created different traditions to appease the spirits that are believed to inhabit them, and the most common is the ghost light. Whether its objective is to make the ghosts happy by allowing them to play on the stage after hours or to keep them at bay by casting light on the stage differs by theater. (The theaters I’ve worked with all look fondly upon their ghosts.) 

The ghost light had a resurgence in public awareness as the pandemic closed theaters in 2020, but many kept their ghost lights burning as a symbol of hope that live performances would soon return. That dream has since been realized, and the ghost light still stands on stages every night as both an instrument of safety and a longstanding theatrical tradition.