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A popular theatre superstition holds that every theatre has a ghost; that’s why every theatre also has a ghost light.
"The last person to leave the theatre at night leaves a lamp on in the middle of the stage," says Shawn Wright, playwright and star of Ghost Light, the one-man show that opens at Prairie Theatre Exchange Wednesday and runs until Feb. 9.
● Written and performed by Shawn Wright
● Directed by Thomas Morgan Jones
● Prairie Theatre Exchange
● To Feb. 9
● Tickets: $27-$54 at pte.mb.ca or 204-942-5483
"For practical reasons it’s so the first person who comes in the next day doesn’t bump into anything or fall into the orchestra pit," explains Wright. "But the other reason is that after midnight the ghosts of performers who live in the theatre replay the parts they played during their careers."
Wright is a first-time playwright but no stranger to the stage. A veteran of both the Stratford and Shaw festivals, he was last seen on stage in Winnipeg in the Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre’s production of Next to Normal, where he played the character of Dan.
Wright developed his passion for acting as a child, when he would watch his mother Regina, an amateur actress, perform. But his passion for playwriting is more recent, developing when his mother moved into a nursing home.
"I have six siblings and we would each have an hour when we were alone with her," Wright says. "For some reason, maybe because I’m the youngest, I got the short end of the stick and my time was from 8 p.m. to 9 p.m., when Murder, She Wrote was on."
The crime drama classic that starred Angela Lansbury was his mother’s favourite TV show and she wouldn’t let him talk while it was on, so their conversation was limited to commercial breaks.
"She was so funny," Wright says. "I would write down the conversations we had and put them on Facebook where they would get a thousand likes."
“A difficult thing about the show is that I have to go through the hardships of my mother’s life and my own again. The upswing is that I get to spend 80 minutes with my mother again, and she was hilarious.” – Shawn Wright
PTE artistic director Thomas Morgan Jones, who also directs Ghost Light, saw something in the popularity of these anecdotes and quips and told Wright that there might be a story in them.
From that moment, what began as the documentation of his mother’s funny stories evolved into a more serious reflection about the highs and lows of dealing with an aging parent.
Wright began writing Ghost Light in 2014 after his mother died, and the play premièred two years later at Theatre New Brunswick in Fredericton, where Jones was the artistic director. Since then, performing in the show has taken him to six different theatres, with more on the way (he’ll be taking the show to Halifax’s Neptune Theatre in March).
But Wright — who performs the dual roles of himself and his mother in the show — wasn’t always the first choice for the role. In fact, he didn’t plan on performing in the show at all.
"When we were casting the play, Thom said, ‘You’re going to think I’m nuts, but I think you should play yourself. You’ll be glad you did.’ And then when we were casting my mother, he said, ‘You’re gonna think I’m nuts but… you should play your mother too. You’re not going to be satisfied otherwise. You know her. You know how funny she was.’ "
Wright emphasizes that the play is a comedy inspired by the humour of his mother, even though the death of a parent is a sad subject.
"A difficult thing about the show is that I have to go through the hardships of my mother’s life and my own again," says Wright. "The upswing is that I get to spend 80 minutes with my mother again, and she was hilarious."
Wright describes the bittersweet comedy as a love letter to the theatre and to mothers.
"She was the first person to tell me about the ghost light superstition. Now that she’s gone, she’s one of those ghosts… and she’s also a great light in my life."
"My mother always wanted to be a professional actress, but she had seven kids instead. I didn’t want her life to end in a graveyard in New Brunswick," Wright says. "I wanted her to continue on. I wanted her to make her professional theatre debut."
"Now she has."