While Arts Centre Melbourne's lighting manager Bernie Manchee remains unconvinced by whispers that the building is haunted by the ghosts of six monkeys who perished in a fire at Wirth's Circus – the previous tenant of their prime spot on St Kilda Road – he is a fan of the theatrical tradition of ghost lights.
For decades, an incandescent light held aloft on a pole would be left on the edge of every stage when the lights went out for the night. They had a practical application, ensuring that whoever came in first in the morning wouldn't plunge headlong into the orchestra pit. But with theatre folks being something of a superstitious bunch, the legend goes that every stage plays host to at least one ghost. The lights are left on so the phantoms don't bump into the scenery or knock over props.
"The old superstitions of years gone past hold that the ghosts come out at night and rehearse their dance moves or read their lines by the glow of the lights left on our stages," Manchee says. "So we leave them out for them as a mark of respect."
He may not believe in the monkeys, but Machee says he's definitely not alone when he closes up at night. "Like many of the people in our industry, I've worked around the traps for a long time. And whenever you're on stage by yourself, there is always a calming feeling that the people that have been on those boards before you will look after you while you're in that space."
With ACM a near-24/7 operation these days, the ghost lights, a common sight for decades, had fallen out of use. But Manchee and his team, alongside many theatres across the country, have re-embraced them in this hopeful spirit. Folding in an added layer of meaning, they're now a beacon of hope. "It's a signal that we will be back," Manchee says. "We may be closed at the moment, but we'll be back soon enough. The theatre community is one big one across the country, and this tradition is definitely right out there across all of the major venues. We're supporting each other through these troubling times."
That's why they've lit the iconic spire bright yellow, essentially transforming it into an enormous ghost light. "We made that decision for the entire community, and we switched it to yellow as a sign of hope and health through these troubling times," he adds.
They've had a 21st-century glow up too, using super-low wattage LED lighting, so they're as sustainable as they are safety conscious and handy for supernatural crowd control. "They're very energy-efficient, and we know they'll burn regardless of how long our stages are dark."
While you wait for the lights to go up again at ACM, Check out some streaming highlights here.
This article is supported by the Judith Neilson Institute for Journalism and Ideas.