Ghost light (theatre)

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Ghost light on the stage of the David H. Koch Theater
A ghost light.
A ghost light illuminating an empty stage in a darkened theater.

A ghost light is an electric light that is left energized on the stage of a theater when the theater is unoccupied and would otherwise be completely dark. It typically consists of an exposed incandescent bulb, CFL lamp, or LED lamp mounted in a wire cage on a portable light stand.[1] It is usually placed near center stage. Ghost lights are also sometimes known as equity lights or equity lamps, possibly indicating their use was originally mandated by the Actors' Equity Association.[2][3]

Origin and superstitions[edit]

The practical use of a ghost light is for safety. A ghost light enables one to navigate the theater to find the lighting control console and to avoid accidents such as falling into the orchestra pit and stepping on or tripping over set pieces. There is an unsubstantiated story of a burglar who tripped on a dark stage, broke his leg and sued the theater for damages.[4]

Some claim that the tradition began in the days of gas-lit theaters when dim gas lights were left burning to relieve pressure on the gas valves.[5]

Aside from its obvious practical purpose, there are a number of superstitions associated with the origin and purpose of ghost lights.

The superstitious have various justifications for the ghost light in relation to the supernatural. A popular theatrical superstition holds that every theater has a ghost, and some theaters have traditions to appease ghosts that reach far back into their history. For example, the Palace Theatre, London keeps two seats in their balcony permanently bolted open to provide seating for the theater ghosts.[6] Similar superstitions hold that ghost lights provide opportunities for ghosts to perform onstage, thus appeasing them and preventing them from cursing the theater or sabotaging the set or production. This is also used to explain the traditional one day a week that theaters are closed.[6] Some superstitions claim that the ghost light is in place to scare away ghosts, not to appease them.[7]

Ghost Lights during COVID-19[edit]

Many theaters forced to close during the COVID-19 pandemic have renewed the tradition of ghost lights as a way of indicating the theaters will re-open. The Sydney Opera House left ghost lights on the stages of the Joan Sutherland Theatre, the Drama Theatre, the Playhouse and the Studio.[8] Other theaters have followed suit including Sydney Theatre Company’s Roslyn Packer Theatre in Walsh Bay, to the Seymour Centre in Chippendale, to the Merrigong Theatre at the Illawarra Performing Arts Centre in Wollongong.[8] Ghost lights were kept burning in theaters in Florida including Artis—Naples and Barbara B. Mann Performing Arts Hall, Florida Repertory Theatre, Sugden Theater and at the Broadway Palm, Cultural Park Theater.[9] The Royal Alexandra Theatre in Toronto, Canada has burned a ghost light through both the 1918 and 2020 pandemics.[10] There is also a claim that during the 2020 pandemic closures "every stage on Broadway has a lamp".[11]

During the pandemic the closure of theaters worldwide prompted digital and virtual performances inspired by the ghost light concept. The West Australian Opera live streamed solo aria performances and called the series the Ghostlight Opera.[12] The National Institute of Dramatic Art (NIDA) in Australia held a digital theatre festival which included a show called Ghost Lights where famous theater characters perform on the empty stages of the world.[13]

On 22 May 2020, while the theater was closed for the COVID-19 pandemic, the Finnish National Theater presented an installation called “Ghost Light" in which observations of interconnectedness of species are shared through the undulating light on an empty theatre stage".[14]


  1. ^ Theater Backstage from A to Z 3rd ed. by Warren C. Lounsbury and Norman Boulanger, 1989 University of Washington Press
  2. ^ "Top 10 Theater Superstitions - Listverse". 20 August 2010.
  3. ^ "More about the Ghost Light".
  4. ^ Fisher, James (2008). The A to Z of American Theater: Modernism. Lanham, Maryland, USA: Scarecrow Press Inc. pp. 192–193. ISBN 978-0810868847.
  5. ^ Fisher, James (2015). Historical Dictionary of American Theater: Beginnings. Lanham, Boulder, New York, London: Rowman and Littlefield. p. 191. ISBN 978-0810878327.
  6. ^ a b Superstition is the way by Louise Finn from The Stage 2007
  7. ^ Wilson, Lindsey (19 September 2008). "ASK PLAYBILL.COM: The Ghost Light". Playbill. Retrieved 2019-10-30.
  8. ^ a b "Leave a "Ghost Light" On for Me: The Age-Old Theatre Tradition Illuminating Sydney's Stages During the Coronavirus Era". Broadsheet. Retrieved 2020-08-13.
  9. ^ Runnells, Charles. "Ghost lights burn in SWFL theaters during pandemic, a sign of hope. Plus the ghosts like 'em". The News-Press. Retrieved 2020-08-13.
  10. ^ "A 'ghost light' has brightened the stage for more than a month at the Royal Alex, as theatre faces its second pandemic". 2020-04-26. Retrieved 2020-08-13.
  11. ^ "Keeping Broadway's lights on". June 7, 2020. Retrieved 2020-08-14.
  12. ^ "West Australian Opera - Ghost Light Opera". West Australian Opera. Retrieved 2020-08-13.
  13. ^ "Ghost Lights". NIDA. 2020-06-29. Retrieved 2020-08-13.
  14. ^ "Ghost Light (2020) - Mark Niskanen & Jani-Matti Salo in collaboration with Inkeri Aula". Niskanen & Salo. Retrieved 2020-08-13.