The lights turn on. The stage is set.
Actors take their place, and the story unfolds. The crowd stands and applause echoes off the theatre’s old walls. The curtains close and I watch as lines of people form, one by one stepping out the doors.
I stay behind and wait.
No one comes to tell me that the show is over. I wonder if I have become a ghost.
The theatre is empty except for the actors and director. They laugh and cheer, celebrating the show’s success as they too walk through the doors. I think that I’m alone.
I look up and see a man leaning against the metal railing of the catwalk, a joint in hand. He nods at me, just as the lights shut off.
I just met Neil Rutherford, the Malaspina Theatre’s friendly ghost.
Haven’t heard of him?
Rutherford was the theatre’s Designer and Technical Prof in the ’70s. He taught stagecraft and designed all the sets when the Malaspina Theatre was still a brand-new building.
He was passionate about the art of theatre, having co-founded VIU’s Theatre Program in 1977. After working at VIU for ten years, he left to work for CBC on T.V. shows.
Rutherford’s presence has lingered in the theatre after his death in 1994, felt by countless theatre students. He’s even inspired investigations by curious students, including Nav alum Caileigh Broatch
I spoke with Ross Desprez, a VIU Theatre professor who has worked at the university for almost 30 years. He also knew Rutherford while he was still alive.
“We made theatre very differently back in the day,” Desprez said.
“In the ’70s, it was like a hippy commune doing shows. People would come in when we built the set and had a set-building party. There was food, beer, and drugs. We would stay in the building for the whole weekend and just work and party,” he said.
Desprez told me stories of how they would be working on a set and then take a break outside the theatre and smoke a joint (that’s marajuana, for you kids out there). They would come back in and Rutherford would be full of new ideas.
“There was a lot of on-the-spot creativity. The essence of how we do things has changed now, but I think that’s why Neil liked the place,” he said.
Rutherford seemed like such a chill dude and a friendly presence in the theatre. It made me wonder if they ever leave a ghost light on for him.
In the world of theatre, it’s tradition to leave a light on for the ghosts when the theatre is empty.
According to Cristina D’Almeida, who wrote “The History of the Ghost Light” for OnStage Blog, “It is said that every theatre has a ghost. The ghost light provides light at night for any spirits to be able to see and even ‘perform’ or dance on the stage.”
And Rebecca M Barrie, who wrote, “Leave A (Ghost) Light On” for Maghull Amateur Operatic Society, “One superstition is that most theatre ghosts are former actors themselves. The ghost light gives them enough light to perform on the stage. It is also considered bad luck not to allow the ghosts to do this at least once a week, hence theatres usually only being open 6 days a week.”
As it turns out, the theatre department doesn’t leave a light on for Rutherford.
“Because it is so dark in the theatre,” Desprez said, “it is a part of our security system. If people look in there to break in, it’s pitch black.”
Well, that’s a pretty lame excuse.
Desprez believes that Rutherford’s presence is no longer around, anyway.
“Our chairman, Mike Taugher, who also taught stagecraft and design, never believed in ghost stories. [Then] he passed away, and since then, the ghost was gone,” Desprez said. “I think he went to Neil and told him that they don’t need to be there anymore.”
Former student Henry Falls believes otherwise.
Falls worked at the Malaspina Theatre last year as a house technician. His job was to set up all the technical elements for the theatre’s internal and external events.
Falls told me about the encounter he had with Rutherford last year.
“One night, I was moving around some furniture in the building, and there was only one other person with me,” he said.
Falls’ story took place down the end of a long hallway that leads into the Green Room, a place where performers can hang out during the show.
“I had taken the legs off this couch in the theatre to fit it through the door,” he said, “and the person I was with was in my line of sight the entire time, so this wasn’t some prank. After we returned to grab the legs, they were nowhere to be found.”
Falls and his companion spent 10 minutes looking for them.
“We could not find them for the life of us. I went back one more time to look, and suddenly, the missing legs were directly outside the door to the Green Room. I believe this was about two in the morning, so there was not another living soul in the building.”
All these ghost stories seem to have one thing in common: they happen late at night. Coincidence? I think not.
“There would be times at night when I would have all the stage lights powered off for a significant portion of time,” Falls said. “All of a sudden, the moving lights in the theatre would—out of nowhere—turn on and start slowly shining a light up to the catwalk. While all the other lights stayed off.”
I asked Falls for his take on the ghost light.
“The premise of a ghost light in a theatre is to allow those who have passed on to grace the stage again,” he said. “Theatre people are surprisingly superstitious, so it makes perfect sense that we’re all too afraid to turn off the ghost light because a ghost will hold a grudge and ruin your next show. Just keep it on. You can afford the electricity.”
But even though the theatre has never had a ghost light, Desprez will say goodnight to Rutherford if he is the last one leaving the building.
“From everyone I have spoken with who has had what they believe to be a ghost encounter, the presence has always felt like a calming one. Maybe it’s just former teachers checking in to ensure Robin isn’t ruining the place,” Falls said.
Robin Boxwell took over Rutherford’s job as Technical Director. Falls got to work alongside him last year.
Falls told me he would want to return as a ghost and haunt the theatre one day.
“I would like to haunt the Malaspina Theatre to make Boxwell’s life even more stressful by breaking something in the building now and then,” Falls said.
Hopefully, for Falls’ and Boxwell’s sake, that doesn’t happen for a very long time.
I say that the theatre department should incorporate a ghost light for Rutherford after everything he has done for VIU while he was alive and after he passed away.
For decades he has been watching over the theatre. The least we could do is leave a light on.