Managing the Ephemeral

by Michael Eddy
An etheral stage tableau with Jessy Smith in Ghost Light  Credit: Julietta Cervantes
An etheral stage tableau with Jessy Smith in Ghost Light Credit: Julietta Cervantes

The Immersive Challenges of Third Rail Projects’ Ghost Light

"I talk about it as being a performance about performance. It’s an opportunity to see what’s on the other side; what’s beyond the footlights and what’s on the other side the facade of this crazy thing that is theater, which is both full of truth and full of lies. And it’s also a love song; a love song to theater and theater makers.” That’s how Zach Morris, Co-Artistic Director of Third Rail Projects, describes the company’s latest production, Ghost Light. A site-specific, immersive piece that merges dance and theater with the ephemeral nature of creating a production and which brings the audience behind the curtain.

Morris, along with fellow artistic directors, Tom Pearson, and Jennine Willett, and the ensemble of performers have built Third Rail Projects into an award-winning company. They were especially excited by the idea of being invited to create a piece at Lincoln Center. “The company has been around for 17 years now,” explains Morris. “So, we have spent a lot of time thinking about what a performance’s relationship to the space is, that’s one of the things that’s most inspiring to us. When the opportunity to work at the Claire Tow Theater arose we were very excited about the notion of what it meant to inhabit all the parts of a theater itself. It was a delightful challenge to think outside of the proscenium for everyone involved. To discover what were the ways that they could literally animate every nook and cranny of the Tow.”

As to the challenges of the space, Morris notes, “Some of the challenges were certainly logistical. Looking at how all the spaces work and moving between each because you know the entire performance is meticulously timed and designed so there needs to be a lot of very careful coordination done with all the performers, the crew, and stage management. Everyone had to quite literally be thinking outside of the black box to figure out the ways in which you can have simultaneous performances happening in many areas of the theater; many areas which were never designed to have performances or audience in them.”

Development of Ghost Light took place over the course of a year. Moving from a series of workshop iterations that developed content in various pieces not necessarily knowing how it all would intersect. “As we moved towards production we started putting those puzzle pieces together,” describes Morris. “Figuring out what the audience’s experience through the space was going to be. Once we understood what would go where and how the audience was going to move through the space then we needed to really start thinking about what those logistics actually were. That was where Kristina [Vnook, Stage Manager] and her team very much came into play in terms of figuring out how to move the audience, how to coordinate the structure and the timing.”

Blurring Roles
Vnook, has worked with Third Rail on previous productions so she understands their creative process and the need to merge all the different roles of a production into a single performance unit. “The stage management team is me and three assistant stage managers,” she describes, “but actually I also consider our whole crew part of my team because everyone is so integral in the show. So, it’s actually the four stage managers plus the three run-crew, two board operators and the three Lincoln Center ushers, who are actually extremely important, all working as a team. I have strategically placed stage managers throughout the show to oversee a specific areas and locations.”

She continues, “We do runs with test audiences, people who are close to the company come in and we run through the audience routes. One day we had a big group of people come in where we didn’t do any content, we moved them back and forth from this room into that room, until we honed in on the right flow. It’s a lot of careful coordination between performers being extremely specific, and our stage management team until it’s like clockwork.”

Morris adds, “I think the craftsmanship that goes into this from everyone is extraordinary and there’s actually a lot of bleed between performers, stage managers, and crew. Our stage managers are also saying lines and they’re performing actions in front of the audience. They’re every bit as onstage as the performers are so there’s a beautiful blurring of the lines that happens while everybody is holding a different part of the production; everyone is seamlessly working together. For instance, in a particular scene there are two people who are in black shirts in the dressing room hallway. One of them is an actual stage manager, the other is a performer. They’re doing almost identical actions, yet one has a fake headset and one has a real headset.”

With so many scenes playing at once and performers crossing in and out of various scenes and space, it was important to have that clockwork timing rehearsed and to identify the challenging points as early as possible. Vnook notes, “We do much of our rehearsal process in the actual space because every scene is so custom-made to each room. Right from the get go we would have a midday production meeting with the production manager and then slowly folded in as many designers that were available to come for that meeting as possible. Once we got into tech there was as much scheduling ahead of time as possible to make sure that we got to all the rooms and all the scenes. We went room by room, having our designers watch those scenes and doing really the finetuning that put it all together. That’s when you see all the scenes running in tandem. Then the designers can see, ‘oh this light is out in here but there is actually still a transition happening with the audience.’”

Ghost Light is by Third Rail Projects presented by LCT3 so the company worked very closely with the Lincoln Center production management team as well. “They were extraordinary,” states Morris. “The whole Lincoln Center crew were incredible and so helpful; they were integral to the success of the show.”