It’s no secret that Karie Richards believes in ghosts.
So much so, that it inspired her to write THE GHOST PROJECT–on stage at BMO Incubator for Live Arts (1115 Queen Street West) from Jan. 21-26. This solo documentary theatre production is inspired by Charles Spearin’s Juno award winning album, The Happiness Project, and features a series of monologues based on interviews with people who have had otherworldly encounters. At turns frightening, funny, touching and strange, THE GHOST PROJECT reflects on the boundaries that exist between the known and the unknown.
We asked her about the play this week.
SDTC: When did you first become interested in ghost stories? Have you always believed in ghosts?
KR: Maybe it is a natural part of getting older, but more and more I find myself thinking about how I will eventually, inevitably have to say goodbye to every single person I love, and thinking about those I have already had to say goodbye to – spirits who, in a way, haunt me – and so my interest in ghost stories isn’t so much related to a desire to explore the paranormal as it is to explore the nature of grief.
A few years ago, I was fortunate to be staying with friends in Tepoztlán, Mexico during the celebrations for the Day of the Dead. Speaking with people there about their beliefs, seeing so many family members, young and old, gathered around the colourfully decorated graves of their loved ones, playing music and sharing food, welcoming the spirits of their loved ones home, visiting with them once more… this kind of fluidity between the living and the dead, that is what interests me, and informs the kinds of ghost stories that I want to share. Have I always believed in ghosts? As a child I was terrified of seeing one, and there certainly have been times when I’ve been at home alone, working on this piece, where I have experienced a prickling feeling traveling up the back of my neck and would find myself pleading, out loud, to the empty space, “Please don’t visit me. Please don’t!” But I don’t know – it’s all pretty mysterious. And I think maybe that is what I’m exploring with The Ghost Project – living with mystery, living with the heartbreak of loss, and accepting it, even though it scares me.
What did you learn in your research for this project that surprised you?
How easy it was to find people who would share their stories with me, and I learned how generous people are when we sit quietly and listen. What I found particularly interesting was how many of the people I interviewed hadn’t told anyone their story before, or certainly hadn’t told the details of what they experienced. I was continually surprised, and humbled, by the way the people I interviewed expressed themselves, and how open they were when sharing their deeply personal experiences. I was speaking with a friend of mine, who is a documentary filmmaker, about this, about how open people were in sharing their stories, and she told me she wasn’t surprised at all because most people aren’t used to having someone listen to them. Isn’t that amazing to consider? We all want to be seen, we all want to be heard, and appreciated, and I think particularly in this context, believed, and maybe we don’t often get the chance to express what we hold in our hearts. I would start my recording and ask each person, simply, “What happened to you?” and these beautiful stories would come out. The other surprising thing is that almost everyone I interviewed would tell me part of their story, and then pause and say “I wasn’t going to tell you this part, but…” and then share these beautiful gems that in every case became the heart of the material I used in the show.
What are some themes that came out from the ghost stories that are featured in this project?
There is a strong theme of bravery, of people being curious about these mysterious “others” rather than being so afraid they shut themselves off from the experience, which I love, because I think the endorsement of having the courage to embrace curiosity over fear is especially huge for the time we are living in right now. There is a strong theme of the wisdom and openness of children to see and feel things we often close ourselves off to, as adults. A strong sense of longing to connect with others is also a central theme. And of missed opportunities to connect, and the grief experienced in that. I find these stories a profound reminder that all the people we encounter in our lifetime are leading lives just as rich with emotion and imagination as we are, and we can learn something from each of them. None of the people I interviewed were seeking out paranormal experiences, and there is, I think, a healthy theme of skepticism, of puzzling things out, and also of humour. There is a surprising, or maybe not so surprising, amount of humour that comes to light when we talk about our mortality.
What is your favourite monologue from the project, and why?
In addition to the mysterious experience itself, what draws me in with each monologue is the person telling it. The ghostly encounter functions as a way to reveal what is in each person’s heart. It is difficult for me to choose one favourite because each monologue presents a unique amount of pleasure for me due to many factors: the surprising encounter each person describes, the eccentricity of a person’s thought process about the experience, and the pleasure of the language they have given me to play with, and how their journey challenges me, as a performer, and my responsibility to do right by them, to portray them in a respectful way. These various aspects have endeared each monologue to me, but there is one that I have come to particularly love because of the crazy ride it takes the audience on, and how it continues to surprise me when I perform it. It is the monologue of a close friend of mine who had a strange experience in a local theatre that is thought to be haunted. My friend is whip smart and funny, and combine those qualities with her intense scepticism about whether or not ghosts exist, despite her firsthand experience, her monologue elicits some reliably delicious laughs. So that part is fun for both me and the audience, and then a crack appears in her witty exterior, and her monologue takes a sharp turn, and ends up in a completely different and unexpected place. I think it is as touching and tender as anything you will hear, and a great reminder that we can have these strong, extremely capable exterior selves that we present to the world, and underneath we find soft and fragile hearts.
Why do you think ghost stories are having a moment right now? Why do we yearn for the paranormal?
Despite everything we know about the natural world and everything we know about the universe through scientific discoveries there is still so much we don’t know, and may never know. We live with complexity. We live with uncertainty. I think we lose something of our humanity when we think we have all the answers and ignore the mystery that exists around us. Ghost stories delight in that mystery. They reveal the shape of our collective fears, as well as our desires. We yearn for ways to talk about the aspects of being alive that scare us the most, the things that confound us. And ghost stories are fun. The best ones draw us in, and scare us just enough, and fill us with wonder. We all want to be moved, to be excited, and to experience a bit of magic, and to be reminded that there is something pretty remarkable about being alive.