For years, rumours about the ghost, or ghosts, of Malaspina Theatre have been passed down like a tattered copy of Hamlet; but for the most part, the presence of Neil Rutherford (and others) has been a well-kept department secret. Stories about ghost encounters tend to leave with students as they graduate, surprising new actors as they come in.
I first heard of a Malaspina ghost in passing a few years ago and, having been in the theatre only once, brushed it off. Theatres, after all, inspire ghost stories.
The narratives of plays almost always revolve around ghosts: in Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, recurring through most of Shakespeare’s plays (Macbeth, Julius Caesar), Conor McPherson’s The Weir. Supernatural doings are par for the course on stage. More often than not, however, it is the theatres themselves that carry the tradition of hauntings. It’s what happens when the curtain falls and the house lights go up that holds the most salt.
Some theatres go so far as to have seats bolted open, reserved for ghosts and off-limits to otherwise living attendees. The superstitions, generally well-meaning, only add to the delight and terror.
Eager to do some sleuthing myself, I set out to persuade the theatre department at VIU to let me spend the night ghost hunting. Having spent the morning frantically reading through fearsome figures of theatrical ghouls, it was a bit disappointing to enter the lobby in bright daylight. Apart from the disorienting and unfamiliar setting, it was mostly welcoming.
After hashing the details of my inquisition I couldn’t help but ask Eliza Gardiner, Chair of the Theatre Program, if she believed in a ghost.
Neil, she explained, was one of the co-founders of the program in 1977. He studied Design in the UK, received his BA from Simon Fraser University, worked at various theatre companies in Vancouver and later became a producer. His passion, she said, for the program and for production was persistent.
Mike Taugher, another recognizable presence in the building, was a stagecraft designer and vice-chair for the Nanaimo Fringe Festival until his passing in 2015.
“Of course their presence is felt here,” Gardiner says. “They were passionate about their work. They built this place, taught the students. They are felt and remembered in a lot of ways.”
Gardiner and I come to a conclusion: I am allowed to stay the night and investigate the ghosts that haunt the halls of the theatre, as long as I’m not alone. For the building’s safety, and mine, we agree on a small group of investigators. Jade Vandergrift, The Nav’s multi-media journalist, is my understudy. Castor Angus, a theatre and creative writing student, and Ariel Pretty, the president of the theatre club, sign up to guide me through the maze behind the scenes. Our final member of the group is my sister, Savanah, who is a self-taught supernatural expert in all things ghostly.
Savanah and I arrive a little before 8 pm, our ghost hunting gear in tow. The sun has long since set and the campus is nearly abandoned save for the security and our invaluable technician, Ariel. While we wait, filled with nervous energy, Ariel casually mentions the bizarre things that have happened when everyone goes home for the night and she is left to lock up. Lights that don’t listen to commands, brushes against shoulders when no one is around, doors that slam when they shouldn’t.
Anyone else would be terrified, but in the face of the supernatural Ariel doesn’t bat an eye. “The doors that slam are to offices that I, and the other techs, don’t have the keys to. Only the professors have the keys, so I know that it’s not someone sneaking around.”
I want to argue with her and bring up the fact that if the doors are locked and there is no one to unlock them, then how and why are they slamming? But with the long night ahead of us, I decided that ignorance might be bliss. For a time, anyways.
Once Jade arrives, we leave our provisions in the lobby and Ariel leads us through the hallways on a tour. The first stop was the slamming doors; both had been Neil’s and Mike’s. They stay quiet the whole night through. We continue down the hall to the green room which is decorated in theatrical style with masks, stickers, and odds and ends that have been collected from late-night rehearsals. We head through to the “big bathroom,” which gives me pause. Mannequins find storage in the largest stall and a faucet drips. The stories I have heard of women being uncomfortable when left alone in this particular bathroom makes complete sense to me. I make a mental note of the other facilities, hopeful that I won’t have to use this one.
We head to the stage, which is near twice the size I thought it to be. It houses an array of thick cables, chairs, and props for upcoming performances. A sheet hangs between the back and the front,
worn and yellow with 40 years of plays embedded in the fabric. To stage left, a tool room and a large costume closet.
“Sometimes when we’re here late at night putting away costumes, the hats fall off,” Ariel says in passing. The hats in question hang on individual hooks on the wall. “All at once.”
From there she leads us back to the lobby and into the tech room where she will spend the first part of the night working on sound pieces. The room looks down on the theatre so that when the actors are on stage, the booth is just on their horizon and they can see, sometimes, a shadowy figure.
But that’s not why she’s brought us here. She leads us to a steep stairway and begins climbing up to the gantry. I have read stories about this area too. VIU alumni have felt hands on their shoulders while working the lights. Comforting, encouraging pats on the back. I wonder, not for the first time, about the nerves of steel theatre students have.
The gantry is a small room, with bean bag chairs if we’d like to hang out (I quickly ruled it out), which leads to the catwalk. It’s overhung by a forest of lights, and home to Bertha—the hand-guided spotlight. The metal grates of the catwalk are above the audience so that light technicians could look down on rows of people.
Ariel is the bringer of light and controls every single one of them from the booth. She mentions, however, that if you ask kindly, sometimes a ghost will turn them on or off for you. We depart from the gantry (not quickly enough) and begin our ghost hunt in the green room.
As Jade, Savanah, and I linger in the plush couches of the green room, I have time to reconsider my cowardliness. Having come for the authentic ghost experience—and having slurped down a large caffeinated drink prior in an attempt to stave off the call of my warm, comfy, safe bed at home—I decide to use the “big bathroom.” It truly is as uncomfortable as the stories say. My eyes are called from the mirrors above the sinks to the dark, mannequined corner. I leave as quickly as I can.
From there we move backstage, setting up our camp for the night with blankets and snacks. It’s in the bowel of the stage that I come to understand why eerie things might happen, be it images or otherwise. I jump when the air turns on, my head whips towards the illuminated doorway that leads to the hallway with every faint creak and groan. The building is warm when I expected it to be cool.
We sit and speak of nothing important until the fire escape door bangs. The metal rattles, creaks, and groans, and then, just after, the hallway’s light turns off.
Jade throws her shoe into the hall, optimistic that the light is motion censored and has just gone to sleep. Nothing happens. The light stays off.
I peer, terrified, around the curtain and up towards the booth where Ariel is puttering away. Just as I am about to call over—despite the fact that the security has already locked down the campus—to ask for a confirmation that nothing is out of the ordinary, Savanah yells. She has been creeping toward the hallway, phone at the ready, eager to catch sight of the ghost. It’s not the ghost that she finds in the hall but Castor, who has come to join us after a long day at rehearsals.
As our spiking heart rates settle back down to normal levels, we decide to partake in a few theatre superstitions. Most are well heard of—not saying “Macbeth” while in the building (referring to it as “the Scottish play” instead), never saying “good luck,” and never whistling—though there are some lesser-known ones, like not bringing the “evil eye” of a peacock feather to the stage.
Never accomplished at whistling, I had practised throughout the day. The wet, sharp noise was a way of communicating between the rigging crew, in the early days, and a misplaced whistle could send a sandbag plummeting onto your head. We whistle, but nothing happens. Perhaps it is our off-pitch and uncoordinated chirping that results in the lack of presence.
Castor, with the help of Ariel, produces two copies of Macbeth and hands it to us. Jade and I audition, and are found lacking, but take our places centre stage. Castor and Ariel are stage right, and Savanah stage left. They have decided to watch the gantry and the tech room for shadows. It is a strange reverse of roles, to be the performer rather than the attendee, and the seats below us seem smaller in the shadows than I remember.
I’m so focused on reading my lines that I don’t notice the two row-lights turn on. They cast blue spotlights on the rows before us that I only notice when Savanah shifts uncomfortably behind me. Being suddenly aware of my surroundings, I scurry back when the catwalk creaks, jump when the heating pipes knock. But the show must go on.
But a few minutes go by, and our empty audience must be engaged in our words because the blinding stage spotlight clinks on.
If this is the ghost lighting our performance, it doesn’t feel the way I expected it to. The light is blinding, hot. How do actors do it? My hands are encompassed in a cold sweat, the pages of the play curled to my chest. I want to be anywhere but here.
Nearing midnight, there was one last thing to do: sit in the dark of the theatre and wait for something to happen. With every light turned off in the building, it was hard to contain my thoughts. Without the perimeters of reality to tether it, my imagination ran wild.
Tiny pricks of breakers that burnt steady began to tremble. The catwalk hissed as lights cooled off. The team of investigators held quiet breath, eyes orbiting from the dark corner to dark corner. One spot, in particular, caught my gaze. Darker, it seemed, then the rest. But then again, my glasses had been glinting in my peripheral all night, making my confidence timid.
When a sufficient amount of time had passed and the lights were turned back on, my eyes remained glued to the spot. Compelled to see what lay beyond the dark and the light.
Did I expect to encounter in one night what has taken others countless productions to witness? Filled with exciting vulnerability, I had wanted to experience it all. The lights, the smells and shadows, the slamming doors. I had wanted to meet the benevolent ghost of passed technicians, had wanted to be inducted through the rite of passage that all actors must bear witness to.
As we depart, the early morning October fog hangs over street lights, I have no conclusions on the ghost of Malaspina Theatre. There is only the cross-examination of what I believe, and the things I told myself to find bravery; that the light that wouldn’t turn off, despite Ariel’s command in the booth and had to be unplugged, could very well be a circuit problem.
I’m left with the certainty that when I return, this time in the cushioned seats of the audience, my mind will be divided between the performance and what may be concealed in the catwalk above my head.