Q&A with director John Stimpson

What is Ghost Light about?

Ghost Light is a haunted comedy about the absurd, but very seriously regarded, superstitions of the theatre, specifically those surrounding Shakespeare’s play Macbeth. When a disgruntled and arrogant understudy tempts fate by uttering the forbidden name of the “Scottish King” on stage, the sorcery of the Bard’s witches overwhelms the production leading to chaos.

Where did the idea come from?

I grew up in the theater and ended up doing four Hasty Pudding shows at Harvard and becoming president my senior year. I’ve always been fascinated with the superstitions of the theater. The ghost light is probably the most famous theatrical superstition, followed closely by the curse of Macbeth... err, The Scottish Play. I love how seriously actors take the superstition and the extents to which they go to avoid or fix the curse if they mistakenly say the name of the Bard’s Scottish tragedy.

So, these superstitions are real?

Absolutely! I think next to baseball, the theater has more superstitions than any other organized group.

What is the ghost light superstition?

A ghost light is an electric light that is left burning on a dark stage when a theater is unoccupied. It’s typically an exposed incandescent bulb in a wire cage on a portable light stand. It's practical use is for safety purposes so people don't fall off the edge of the stage into the orchestra pit. But, its superstitious purpose is to ward off ghosts or evil spirits who might be inclined to inhabit the space. If it goes out, the spirits can freely enter and have a field day!

And what exactly is the curse of Macbeth?

Theatrical superstition dictates that one must never utter the name of The Scottish Play in the theater unless it is part of a performance or rehearsal. Breaking this rule will doom the production to bad luck, injury or death.

How do you undo the curse?

The standard remedy for a slip is to run around the theater three times, spit, swear and beg for forgiveness before being allowed back in. I’ve actually seen actors do it in real life.

Where does the curse come from?

Supposedly Shakespeare used actual black magic incantations for the witches evil conjurings in the dialogue of the play. In the very first performance of Macbeth in 1606, the young actor who played Lady Macbeth (yes, men played all the parts) came down with a terrible fever and the Bard himself had to step in and play the villainous role.

What are some examples of accidents or tragedies that have resulted from triggering the curse?

Lillian Baylis, the director of the Old Vic in London, died of a heart attack during rehearsal for a 1937 production. In that same show Laurence Olivier, who played Macbeth, was nearly killed by a weight falling from the curtain loft.

John Gielgud played King Duncan in a 1942 production and two of his witches died - one right on stage.

A Bermuda performance in the 1950s nearly burned down the theater when the stage flames around Macbeth's castle spread and roared out of control.

In the 1960s a touring company in Cape Town South Africa was unloading scenery from a crane when a passerby asked what the show was. As soon as a stagehand replied "Macbeth," a spear fell from the packing and ran the stranger through.

And there are many other frightening tales of things going very, very wrong.

Were there concerns on set that you might unleash the curse yourselves?

Yes, very much so! Carol Kane, who plays Madeline our troupe’s grand dame, was extremely concerned. I assured her that our set, which was a converted barn in Groton, MA, was not actually a theater and therefore we were exempt from the curse.

In the film, your characters seem to echo the characters in the play. Was that intentional?

Oh, absolutely. The themes of blind, ruthless ambition and sexual power that Lady Macbeth holds over her husband in their power-mad quest for the crown of Scotland are wonderful. We absolutely wanted to mirror that with our lead characters, Thomas (played by Tom Riley) and Liz Beth (played by Shannyn Sossamon).

You have a wonderful ensemble cast, how did you get your actors?

They all just responded to the script! Geoff Taylor and I worked really hard on it and it paid off. Roger Bart, who plays our director Henry, came on board first. He and I sang together in a bar on Martha’s Vineyard when we were both in college. We did a cabaret style show with a group of eager young performers. I could tell immediately that of our wacky bunch, Roger was the one who would make it. I reached out to him having not seen him in years and sent him the script. He loved it and said yes right away.

Cary Elwes was next. He too just fell in love with the character of Alex, an ex-soap opera star who is the troupe’s underwriter. He really nails the part.

It was obviously a treat to have Carol Kane in the film. She is something of a national treasure and comedy genius. She was our first choice for Madeline and she brought a lifetime of real experiences to the role. By the way, Ghost Light is the first movie she and Cary have done together since The Princess Bride.

Our casting director suggested Shannyn Sossamon, who plays our Lady Macbeth, and we quickly realized she had the talent and perfect sultry sexuality for the part. She’s gorgeous and plays the tortured, multi-layered character of Liz Beth with real grace, vulnerability and power.

Tom Riley we saw in his BBC show, Da Vinci’s Demons. He played Leonardo and was riveting. We loved the idea of having a British actor play the lead role of Thomas Ingram, the disgruntled understudy who thinks he should play the Scottish King, and who wantonly tempts fate by screaming “Macbeth” on the stage. He too loved the script and said yes right away.

And Danielle Campbell just seemed so perfect for Juliet. Beautiful, innocent but beguiling.

Where did you shoot?

We are Massachusetts filmmakers and we love to keep our productions in state to help the growing film industry. The film takes place in the Berkshires of Western Mass but we shot in Concord and Groton, two rural towns closer to Boston, to keep our costs as modest as possible.