Leaving the Ghostlight On: Considering Labor, Leisure and Art in a Global Pandemic

By Rachael Nuckles

It is no secret that I come from a background in the performing arts. Theater has surrounded my life since I was young, and I carry its lessons with me daily as I navigate the world. I have worked in a variety of roles, from an onstage silent mute to a behind-the-scenes commanding voice. I have designed sets and props, programmed a light board, and been responsible for calling “go” and making a production sail smoothly. 

In the folklore of live theater, there is a relatively well-known practice (perhaps even superstition) involving something called a “ghost light.” It is a standing lamp with a single bulb, placed in the middle of the stage when a theater is vacant. Ghost lights are mostly for safety purposes. Theaters can get extremely dark, and it is helpful to have some sort of light source to guide you if you are the first (or last) person in the theater. However, many people also believe in a more spiritual aspect to the ghostlight; they leave the light on to appease not just the spirits specific to their building, but the theatrical ghosts that dwell beyond their walls. [1]

As most anyone in the live event world can tell you, artists of this background have been hit particularly hard during the pandemic. Theaters and performance venues have been left empty for months, gathering dust where once vibrant displays of culture occurred. Ghostlights, whether for safety or spiritual purposes, have been left on much longer than intended. The majority of artists and performers who have devoted their lives to this work are not only out of a job, but an entire lifestyle. Many have been forced to pick up the pieces and explain how the skills on their resume could be converted to a “real” job. 

The “real” job quip is something I’ve heard tossed around both in the arts communities I am a part of as well as from family members, friends, and acquaintances who don’t seem to  understand the work that goes into creating a good concert, play, film, or television series. Despite their consumption of hundreds of hours of content during quarantine, many people still fail to see the arts as something of value. This is only bolstered in schools across the country when arts programs, from music to drama and studio arts, are the first to be cut when budgets are tight. [2] 

When cuts like this are made, favoring sports and standardized test scores, school age kids are being taught to believe that art does not matter. Worse, if a child has a passion for art, these cuts show children that their interests are both unimportant to the school system and unattainable as a career goal. Instead of being viewed as a positive and vital way of joining the workforce, the arts are reduced to a frivolous hobby. 

To say that a career in the arts is not a “real” job is simply degrading to the thousands of creators who work to bring stories to the wider public. A 2017 study published by the National Endowment for the Arts and the Bureau of Economic Analysis reported that the value added by arts and culture to the U.S. economy is five times greater than the value from the agricultural sector. [3] The arts and culture sector even surpassed construction and transportation/warehousing in value to the U.S. economy, earning $87 billion and $265 billion more respectively. [4] 

Even though the value that arts and culture brings to the United States is clearly documented, it seems individuals are hesitant to acknowledge the same value for artists’ labor. If art itself isn’t viewed as valuable, then the laborers responsible for bringing that art to stages and screens also cannot be viewed as valuable. The research published by the National Endowment for the Arts also mentions that the arts sectors that bring the most value to the United States Economy are often driven by individual artists and laborers. [5] 

I was reminded of the power of individuals within the arts when I learned the news of actor Chadwick Boseman’s passing. At the young age of 43, Boseman not only brought well-known roles like Black Panther to life, but also inspired thousands of viewers with something as simple as representation. His appearances on screen validated adults and children alike, both as a Black superhero and Black artist. I enjoyed watching this clip of him surprising fans as they described what the movie Black Panther meant to them. Losses of actors, musicians, and other public, cultural figures can feel especially tragic because they are simply more recognizable. These losses are rightfully mourned by those whose lives were affected by their storytelling. However, with every artistic loss, I like to think that a ghost light somewhere has helped to guide these spirits to safety.

Individuals are clearly valuable, but I can’t help but wonder what our world would look like if we valued the arts as much as we do more recognized types of labor. Would there be greater demands to help these laborers in the midst of a pandemic when their ability to work has been stripped away? Would we pay artists what they are worth instead of expecting them to devote their time, energy, and talents for free? Would we be willing to view them as productive laborers in other sectors despite not having the specific experience for a particular job? Would they stop having to explain how their skills in the performing arts world transfer to a variety of so-called “real” jobs? Might we make sure our children have opportunities to participate in arts programs in school so they, too, can join one of the largest sectors of our economy? And, if we begin to legitimize the arts in this way, might our leisure time look differently? Would more people attend plays, concerts, and films? Moreover, if more people are able to attend arts events, would they consume them actively? Would they understand the value of the process, and of each name printed in the playbill or scrolling offscreen in the credits?

The current pandemic (which is still not over, despite what propaganda and mask-refusers want you to believe) has devastated individuals involved in the arts and culture sector, and we cannot continue to consume art unless we are ready to place value on all the laborers who make such work possible. Ghost lights are not meant to be left on forever. They are meant to be turned off to make way for stage lights, illuminating stories that make us laugh, cry, and feel together. While feeling “together” in the pandemic has certainly looked different, I hope that we can start to value artists together and ensure that these individuals have their livelihoods protected. Let’s work together to turn the ghost lights off safely, and make sure that when live events return we can fully appreciate the labor on and offstage. 

Endnotes:

[1] Wilson, Lindsey. “Why Do Broadway Theatres Keep a ‘Ghost Light’ Burning on the Stage?” Playbill. PLAYBILL INC., September 19, 2008. https://www.playbill.com/article/ask-playbillcom-the-ghost-light-com-153440.

[2] Boyd, Stacy. “Extracurriculars Are Central to Learning.” U.S. News & World Report. U.S. News & World Report, April 28, 2014. https://www.usnews.com/opinion/articles/2014/04/28/music-art-and-language-programs-in-schools-have-long-lasting-benefits.

[3] “During Economic Highs and Lows, the Arts Are Key Segment of U.S. Economy.” NEA, March 17, 2020. https://www.arts.gov/news/2020/during-economic-highs-and-lows-arts-are-key-segment-us-economy.

[4] ibid.

[5] ibid.

Rachael is a Midwesterner at heart beginning her second year as a Women’s History MA candidate at Sarah Lawrence College. Her thesis work will complicate the notion of the feminist wave and the construction of feminist icons while exploring the influence of the Riot Grrrl network of the 1990s in more contemporary forms of feminist activism. Some of her side interests include women’s rage, performance studies, and “cancel culture.”

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