BATON ROUGE, LA — The Hopkins Black Box theatre at LSU presents “Pepper’s Ghost,” a performance that reaches back into history to re-create a “phantasmagoria.”
“The term ‘phantasmagoria’ has grown to refer generally to a series of strange images, usually in the mind, in the imagination,” said co-director Trish Suchy. “But back in the 18th and into the 19th centuries, the phantasmagoria was a specific performance form, a heightened kind of magic lantern show.”
One of the most famous of these was staged in Paris by Étienne-Gaspard Robert, who used the name Robertson. Staged in an abandoned crypt, Robertson’s “fantasmagorie” used mobile magic lanterns mounted on rolling platforms, almost like camera dollies, and slide animations to project ghosts and scary images onto both static and dynamic projection surfaces, such as walls, smoke, mirrors, semi-transparent fabric screens, etc. The illusions were successful and thrilling in part because the images could move around the space, changing in scale and enabling the ghosts in effect to mingle with the spectators.
“Robertson also succeeded because he knew his audience,” said Suchy. “He made the ghosts of the recent French Revolution come back, and that terror was pretty fresh in the imaginations of the spectators.”
The title effect, “Pepper’s Ghost,” was invented for a London phantasmagoria staged by Henry Dircks and John Henry Pepper in the 1860s. The technology for this effect is still used today in, for instance, Disneyland’s Haunted Mansion – and quite recently, to stage a “resurrection” of rapper Tupac Shakur.
“We have our own version of the effect,” said co-director John LeBret. “But Tupac just might make an appearance.”
Inspired by the phantasmagoria and related historical forms of performance that dabbled in the uncanny or supernatural, LeBret and Suchy began conceiving Pepper’s Ghost last spring.
“I taught a course in which we studied ‘entangled’ technological performances, that is, kinds of performances in which technology is fundamental and inseparable from the live performance – not just performing in front of a projection,” said Suchy.
Suchy and LeBret, both of whom teach film and performance courses in LSU’s Department of Communication Studies and Film and Media Arts program, were inspired by students’ work in the course as well as by 18th and 19th century performance forms that lead up to the invention of cinema.
“Moving image technology played a big part in many performance genres before the cinema, and in some senses these forms are its most direct ancestors,” said Suchy. “We also quote the earliest cinema with scenes that pay tribute to French magician/filmmaker Georges Méliès, the special effects pioneer, and the ‘serpentine dances’ invented by Loie Fuller. Almost every early film company of note had a version of the serpentine dance in their catalogue.”
“Pepper’s Ghost” ventures back into history, but it is decidedly staged for its entertainment value today.
“We think it’s a great way to celebrate the Halloween season,” said LeBret. “We’re adapting and quoting a variety of supernatural performance forms, including parlor tricks with séances, skeleton dances and magic shows. While there are no zombies with chainsaws, we do treat our audiences to some scary thrills too.”
The performance also includes a special scene created and staged by doctoral student Lyndsay Michalik.
“Lyndsay has developed a unique performance form that entangles live performers and video via the use of a dynamic projection surface,” said Suchy. “It’s a stunning effect, but I can’t tell you more about it without spoiling the surprise.”
“Pepper’s Ghost” plays Wednesday, October 24, through Saturday, October 27, at 7:30 p.m., and Sunday, October 28, at 2:30 p.m. in the HopKins Black Box theatre, 137 Coates Hall at LSU.