Performing in the Shadows

The theatre has been a main form of entertainment since the sixth century BC.  Acting and conducting music on stage is an art where the audience is brought into an entirely different world – escaping reality.  In musicals, there are songs and dances that lift everyone’s spirits.  Much energy, emotion, and presence are brought into every performance that resonates on the stage.  Thousands of people flow in and out of theatres each week – especially in big cities such as New York City, Chicago, Los Angeles, and London.

That being said, rumors have always surfaced that many theatres are haunted.  I’ll be honest and say that I was always skeptical of that notion.  It wasn’t until I experienced my first “haunted theatre moment” at my college theatre, that I became a believer.

It was a snowy morning when I and two cast mates were heading to rehearsal in Waller Hall at Indiana University of PA (IUP).  We walked up the front stairs, laughing while going over our lines and opened the front doors that lead to the outer lobby.  Once inside, there is another set of double doors that lead into the inner lobby.

On the wall in the inner lobby were framed pictures of past productions hung by wire.  We entered the inner lobby and watched as one of the pictures completely lifted up, turned to the side and started swinging back and forth.  Needless to say, we screamed bloody murder.  Our director came running out of the theatre to see what was wrong.  With the picture still swinging, we told her what we just witnessed.

She looked and laughed saying, “Oh, that was just Sarah.  She makes her presence known every so often.”  After my experience, I never doubted that our little theatre had a resident spirit.

But why would the theatre be haunted?

In the late 1920s, a gymnasium was built to include a swimming pool on the IUP campus.  A little girl named Sarah drowned in the gym pool and it wasn’t until 1988 that the building was transformed into two functional theatres: Waller Hall and the Black Box.  What is now the Black Box, was the swimming pool, which is located in the basement of Waller Hall.  Since Sarah’s drowning, there have been sightings of a little girl sitting on the lights or playing in a corner of the theatre.  It has also been reported that an older man haunts the theatre by slamming doors and moving things around.

New York City is a mecca for commercial theatre in the English-speaking world.  Several old time celebrities made their debuts and established careers here.  It is reported that multiple theatres in the city have experienced paranormal activity as well as celebrity sightings…celebrity ghost sightings.

One of my favorite reports was about the Palace Theatre, located in the heart of the Theatre District.  It is documented to have more ghostly occurrences than any other Broadway venue.  Audience members, cast, crew and others have reported seeing a child playing peekaboo in the mezzanine.  There is also a mysterious musician who is seen wearing all white, that occasionally walks through the orchestra pit.  I also found this perplexing – there is the ghost of a tight-rope walker in the Palace.  The staff believes he has been around since the vaudeville days.  However, this tight-rope walker may be an unsettling omen.  It is said that he may forewarn the death of the observer.

Apparently news of the theatre’s hauntings have quieted down over the years.  The most recent report occurred in 2011, when actor Ryan Van Den Boom was alone in his dressing room and claimed to have heard a voice calling “Judy”.  Judy Garland had performed there many times.

Now, you may be thinking what I certainly did, “How could Judy Garland be haunting a theatre?”

Well, as I previously mentioned, when on the stage, the actor is literally pouring out their heart to the audience.  They become an open book, letting the audience into their passion, feeling their energy.  Judy must have loved it there and the Palace Theatre could have easily become her second home.  So why not go back in the afterlife to see how things are holding up?

Now, not all theatres have a celebrity spirit roaming through the building, but this particular story caught my attention based on what was captured on a security camera.  The 140-seat, volunteer-run Brookside Theatre, located in Romford, Essex, reported paranormal activity after psychic Roy Roberts finished his show.  In the video below, you will see a chair move and a few moments later, the table in the left corner will shift.  The owner of the theatre, Jai Sepple, claimed that this was one of many unexplained happenings in the space.


The theatre building is a former World War II memorial and social club for senior citizens.  Once it was converted into a theatre, the activity began.  They have experienced noises, creaks and a feeling of a playful presence – like that of a child.  Sepple had kept quiet until this footage was released.

Because of superstition, at night, when a theatre is quiet and empty, a ghost light is kept lit on the center of the stage.  It is said that this light is for the ghosts to have an opportunity to perform again and prevent them from causing mischievous activity.  So, the next time you go to the theatre, take in its vitality and reminisce on its history.  You never know who could still be performing in the shadows.

Contributed by Rachel Pierce

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