I'm not scared of ghosts.
Not in the slightest.
I don't think I really believe in them and when I lie alone in my bed in the darkest and stormiest nights, it is my tax bill and the Tories which make my heart quicken and my blood run cold, not restless spirits of the undead. In my wildest imaginations I don't see mutilated corpses or bloodied twin girls. Just a massacred NHS or wild and violent cuts to arts funding. For all I know there is a whole plethora of demonic ghouls and wandering souls lurking under my bed. I'm just too preoccupied with fretting about how my unborn child's innocence will be stolen by social media to notice.
As much as scary films and ghost stories thrill and fascinate me in equal measure, I just find it hard to really buy all that stuff and, if ever I have found myself in a situation where I have felt any type of fear it is mostly because of my own imagination more than any type of apparition. You only need to watch an episode of 'Most Haunted' to see that Yvette Fielding basically just whips her guests up into such a hysterical frenzy of hypertension that they start claiming to 'feel' all kinds of crap. But it isn't the undead which is freaking them out, just their own state of terror which they have simply created themselves.
I'm actually pretty sure that after spending twenty minutes with Yvette in the fruit and veg aisle of M & S I would still be shrieking 'OH MY GOD SOMETHING ACTUALLY JUST TOUCHED MY SHOULDER!'
People who have claimed to have witnessed apparitions and spirits always talk about the same kind of feeling. The hairs on the back of their neck stand on end, their blood goes cold, their heart rate quickens etc etc blah blah blah.
And I always thought that was bullshit.
Until I had to deal with my own ghost.
I have currently been working on a production of 'Hamlet', and last Tuesday was our Press Night. The director and creative team decided that the ghost would initially be represented by lights and sound as opposed to an actor. Dozens of filament lightbulbs hung above the stage and were programmed in such a way that they worked with the fizzing and crackling sound effects. When the ghost 'appeared' various bulbs would glow and shimmer and the main source of light would move amongst them, seamlessly synchronised with the ominous noises which drifted from speaker to speaker. The actors were choreographed in such a way that they would also follow the 'ghost' and it would 'react' to their words and movements.
When the actor who was playing the ghost finally entered and spoke, the canopy of bulbs would descend into the space, again moving with the sound and light before flying out at the end.
We did a lot of work on 'fear' during the rehearsal process and the result was incredible. During the first preview our theatrical 'ghost' made it's first 'entrance' and the actors did an unbelievable job of being completely and truly terrified as they stared up at the flickering and unearthly illuminations and they convincingly portrayed the very emotions of people experiencing a supernatural trauma.
However, had they looked up a bit further, they would probably have witnessed the far more petrifying vision of a pallid, colourless face sporting a pinched and haggard expression whilst murmuring frantically into a headset.
That apparition, obviously, was me.
This particular theatre is in the round and the DSM is always placed in the second gallery with audience on either side. Instead of watching the show from a grainy monitor in a prompt corner or the safety of a control box at the back of the stalls, you are very much there and feeling every single atmosphere change and the general energy of the audience. At the top of the first preview I sat in my swivelly chair, peering at the audience and also the creative team who were all dotted about the auditorium but completely in my eyeline. For the first time in all my years of doing this I felt physically quite ill and very vulnerable. The scene changes and many door entrances (14 actors, 8 doors, a million ways of me fucking it up) were one thing. But it was the ghost which was terrifying me most of all. There were so many elements of it which could go wrong and, if it swooshed in the wrong way or vaporised too quickly or too slowly, it would throw my cast. Too many words and too much blocking were based on the ghost and what it did. For a few brief and important moments, the lights and sound were another character on stage. An electrical puppet. With me pulling and yanking at it's strings.
Whilst trying not to be sick.
Most first previews are like a badly knitted jumper. You can see the shape of it but you are also aware of the gaping holes, fraying edges and loose ends which need tidying up or cutting altogether. The ghost happened and the knot in my stomach loosened slightly. But not entirely. Because despite every preview and every time we rehearsed it I just knew that, until Press Night had happened, I would be unable to make my peace with this 'perturbed spirit'.
The ghost didn't even just stay in the theatre and would noiselessly follow me home, a constant and nagging fuzziness in my thoughts. I had fretful and disjointed dreams about broken lightbulbs and screaming speakers. Once awake I would lie in my twisted sheets fretfully murmuring the sequences of cues, trying to commit the numbers to memory.
On Press Night itself I, once again, peered down at the 750 faces waiting expectantly, and concentrated on keeping my breath steady. My stopwatch was gripped in my hand as I waited for clearance, knowing that once I clicked on it and called the first cue, that would be it. The rollercoaster would start, swiftly turning into a Ghost Train, and there was nothing anyone would be able to do about it. We were all on this white-knuckle ride together and what ever happened would happen.
The first ten minutes of the show are definitely my busiest. A swift opening sequence, quickly going into the first ghost entrance before a busy scene change and then more dead father business. The auditorium was warm and I felt uncomfortably hot for the first few minutes, but once the ghost entered that all changed. I felt as if I had been swimming in a bath-water warm sea and then hit an ice cold pocket of water. Every single cliche happened. The hairs on the back of my neck stood on end, my throat went dry and my heart started to thump and thud in my chest. I muttered the cues in the places they should go and watched as the spirit swirled and chased the cast about the stage.
And then, just as quickly as it had appeared, it was gone.
I swallowed and continued to cue the rest of the performance, feeling my heart slow to it's usual rate. The cold chill which had gripped my entire body like an over familiar hug slunk away and I physically shrugged off the tension and rolled back my shoulders.
After the performance I hung about by the peanuts with my sister, watching everyone else chat with agents and family and friends. Press Nights are never about me and that's more than fine. I sipped my red wine and analysed the performance with my sister and gradually realised that I had practically been holding my breath for about a week. The anxiety and the fear was replaced with elation and the smile on my face was no longer just a mask I had plastered on. It was genuine.
My ghost had been exorcised.
Unfortunately, I am fully aware that there will be more ghosts which haunt me, but these ghosts will always be of my own creation. Our demons and fears are almost always born out of our own terror and imagination.
We haunt ourselves.
But just as we theatricals may find that we have been possessed by the metaphysical shape of our own design, we just also need to realise that we are the only thing that can cast it out. And if that means standing up to your ghost and confronting it head on, then so be it. It might take a rehearsal process, a tech week, a preview or the terrifyingly formidable Press Night. But you get there in the end.
We have had a few shows since that Press Night now and I positively relish the appearance of my formidable spectre. I realise how much of an advantage I have over it, you see. I know exactly when it is going to appear and what form it shall take. There is no element of surprise, no terrifying suspense or giant marshmallow man to battle with. Just these flashing innocuous lightbulbs with their fuzzy, crackly sounds.
Should an actor skip a line or a cue be called too early or too late, I know I can take a deep breath and get it back under my control, giving it an order which it shall indeed obey. The other night I dared to watch it for slightly longer than usual and kept my eyes off the script for a few moments more, allowing myself to feel slightly exhilarated at what was happening on the stage before me. The audience were watching the drama unfold before them, as they should. But had they looked up at the gallery, they would have seen my beaming face, glowing in the lightbulbs and grinning with the euphoria of not just being a spectator of this haunting.
So now I have finally realised why I can't be scared of this ghost.
The audience can be scared of it. And the characters on stage can be scared of it.
But not me.
Because I'm part of it.
And that's the least scary and most comforting feeling in the world.
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