A ghost light is the bulb left illuminated on any dark stage when a performance is not in progress. Placed on stage to light a dark area in an empty theater so that no one will fall and hurt him or herself, there are lots of superstitions about these practical objects, hence their name. Acting tends to be a superstitious profession, and an actor might tell you that bare bulb light keeps a theater’s ghosts off the stage while living actors are not around and prevents them from cursing the theater. Perhaps a ghost cursed The Hancher.
When we lived in St Louis, Ruth & I often traveled north to spend time in Iowa City. We usually took in a performance at The Hancher. We were always amazed that a city of less than 70,000 could support such a huge performance venue. But Iowa City is different. It’s home to Iowa’s first capitol building and the main campus of the University of Iowa. This campus has a nickname. UI is known all over the world as “the Writing University” because the Iowa Writers’ Workshop has encouraged the talents of future authors for more than 75 years. One of the great writers this writing university produced is Flannery O’Connor. More than 40 of its faculty and students have won Pulitzer Prizes. This workshop is the reason why Iowa City is one of 28 UNESCO Cities of Literature. This town is also known for excellence in theater, football, visual arts, marching bands, etc. Since Ruth & I now live in Washington State, we have lacked opportunities to visit The Hancher. That’s why our stop there in the summer of 2019 took on added meaning. We had not seen it since the flood.
In 2008 a flood of historic proportions completely destroyed The Hancher. It could not be brought back, so a new Hancher was the only recourse. It seats 1,800 and is as elegant as the old venue. Maybe more. We were lucky to get a guided tour of this new theater, which has striking views of the campus. What most surprised me, however, was that the new Hancher is almost as close to the Iowa River which flooded it to ruination as the old Hancher. Is this a case of lesson-not-learned or have engineers found ways to prevent a catastrophic reflooding?
From the outside, the new Hancher looks like a 21st century cruise ship. I was so surprised by its placement near the river that I failed to take photos of its excellent exterior, so I’m hoping to have a return engagement in 2020. Maybe we’ll get a tour that takes us backstage this time, and I’ll get to take a picture of its ghost light.