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Wednesday, October 31, 2018

Less-Than-Strange Window: A Hunt for the Supernatural at BAM

By Claire Greising

Strange Window: The Turn of the Screw, an inventive adaptation of Henry James’ gothic ghost story, is coming to BAM from Dec 12—15. It tells the story of a young governess who has become convinced that there are evil ghosts lurking in the remote estate where she cares for two children. In a spectacular marriage of past and present, The Builders Association’s new production combines the classic narrative with modern technology and experimental theater practices. Told from the perspective of the governess, the production points out the relativity of truth—leaving the audience to decide if the governess is insane or if the ghosts are real.

Strange Window: The Turn of the Screw premiere at Krannert Center earlier this year. Photo courtesy of Krannert Center for the Performing Arts/University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

The world of theater is rife with superstitions, from actors’ refusal to say “Good luck” before a show to the utilization of ghost lights (the lanterns that bring brightness to the stage after hours so that spirits can’t haunt the theater). And perhaps these practices aren’t unwarranted—hardly any theater is without its tales of ghostly sightings and happenstances.

BAM’s campus seems like prime breeding grounds for supernatural activity. Operational since the early 1900’s, the Opera House has staged many spooky productions, from 1990’s critically acclaimed Ninagawa Macbeth to the more light-hearted (yet still corpse-ridden) 2014 production of Robert Wilson’s The Old Woman, and everything in between. Furthermore, the BAM Harvey Theater was abandoned for nearly two decades and had fallen into serious disrepair before being rehabilitated by former BAM President and Executive Producer Harvey Lichtenstein in 1987.

Director Yukio Ninagawa’s interpretation of Shakespeare’s Macbeth in the Fall of 1990. Photo courtesy BAM Hamm Archives.

However, BAM is seemingly devoid of the ghostly tales and myths you might expect to find in an institution with its history. In fact, among the stagehands, BAM is known as the least haunted performing arts institution in the world. Louie Fleck, the BAM Hamm Archives Manger who is seen as the go-to source for theater lore and unusual facts, admits that he is approached for BAM ghost stories around Halloween every year. He admits, “I never seem to have a great answer.”

Even so, I made it my personal mission to find the ghosts haunting the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s stages and facilities.

Through my search, I found that BAM isn’t without its creepy stories and urban legends. For example, years ago, stagehands were cleaning the ducts in the Harvey Theater when they found a curious specimen. After some investigation, the object was revealed to be an embalmed monkey carcass. “I said, ‘There’s no way you found a monkey,’” remembers Head Electrician John Manderbach. “Then I looked, and it was like, ‘Yup. That’s a monkey.’” Manderbach notes that this isn’t really a ghost story, but spooky nonetheless.

The Harvey Theater, then known as the Majestic Theater, undergoing renovation in 1987. Photo courtesy BAM Hamm Archives.

My quest ultimately led me to the Theater Management Office, a small, low-ceilinged space connected to the Opera House stage. Inside, Head Usher Jackie David shared that she’d never personally seen a ghost during her 26 years at BAM, but she had been told a fair number of stories about them by ushers and patrons of the theater over the years. While working the coat check, she was approached by a man who had an unusual experience while attending a show at BAM the week before. She explains, “He saw a man in a tuxedo—one of the older, 1800’s tuxedos—and he was standing there dancing.” When the patron looked back after getting the attention of his friend, the man was gone. Another supernatural sighting occurred in the BAM cinemas, when a security guard approached a woman in a hat and requested that she leave, as the theater was closed. Jackie goes on, “when he turned around to get the chains to lock the doors, she’d just disappeared.”

In the end, I don’t think I was able to definitively prove or disprove the existence of ghosts. Perhaps Strange Window: The Turn of the Screw doesn’t really come to a straight answer, either. However, there is something to be said about the connection between the supernatural and the theatrical: ghost stories rely on the audience’s ability to believe in the unbelievable, just like theater often does. But also, in trying to find stories about the dead, I became even more connected to the living. My hunt sent me all over BAM, where I found myself listening to half-remembered anecdotes in hallways and having conversations about monkey skeletons in the wings of the Opera House. Whether by keeping the memory of previous generations’ great artists alive through reimagining their work (as in Strange Window: The Turn of the Screw) or literally housing the lost souls of audiences past, BAM is certainly a space to honor the words and lives of those who have come before us.

Claire Greising is a Production Intern at BAM.

© 2018 Brooklyn Academy of Music, Inc. All rights reserved.

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