The co-founder of The Ghostlight Project explains how the theater community plans to shine a light during a dark administration.
The theater has always been a sanctuary for those who need it most. Which makes Donald Trump's tweet on the heels of Mike Pence's booing at the musical Hamilton last November especially ironic: For once, he got it exactly right. The theater is a safe and special place—for anyone but someone whose political aims portend havoc for our society's most marginalized.
On January 19th—the night before Trump's inauguration, and two months after Pence's booing—the theater community will band together for a show of solidarity in the form of The Ghostlight Project. Named after the light left on on a theater's stage when the auditorium is unoccupied, the protest will gather hundreds of groups outside theaters across the country, from Broadway to community stages, in free-form events designed to express support for vulnerable communities targeted by the Trump administration.
Costume and set designer David Zinn (whose recent shows include the Tony-award winners The Humans and Fun Home) is a co-founder of the protest. It stands as a marriage between his theater work and his long history as an activist, stretching back to his days as a member of ACT UP, where he brought his theatrical bent to the work of direct action politics. He spoke with VICE to reveal the origins and future of his burgeoning movement.
VICE: How did The Ghostlight Project start?
David Zinn: The day after the election was reserved for horror and mourning, but shortly thereafter, I had a little vision. I was so horrified by what had happened, and I knew that once he's elected, I was going to spend the next four years screaming my brains out—which is my usual political response to things. But I had this weird sense that we needed to really come together in some way.
I wrote an email to nine friends of mine, who I thought might be a place to step off from, people with a history of activist work. As I'm sure you've discovered in the world of emailing friends, there was like, zero response. And I was like "Alright, well, dumb idea. I'm happy at least I said it."
Then they started to respond, all at once. We decided we wanted to do something on the 19th, and we wanted to show that we stand together. We wanted to offer ourselves and our spaces as harbors, and reach out to other communities, to break down borders.
I always get worried when people start talking about "sanctuaries" or "safe spaces," because I think we all define what safety is relative to our own needs and experiences. But I like that this project is focusing on concrete actions. How do you plan to help folks keep this energy going and make change?
After the 19th, we're making the website a place where people can go if they have questions. For example, if you want to write a check to someone, here's a bunch of organizations we love. If you want to get more involved with a group of theater people that are doing very specific local actions, here's so-and-so's action network. Do you want to learn how to try to get your management to be a little more open to the idea of different hiring practices? Here's this theater's story. We want to make the bar for failure almost zero, know what I mean? If what you're doing is just picking an organization that seems great and sending $100 to them, Mazel. That is so much better than nothing.
My ultimate goal is to make social action just be a part of what we do in the theater. It's not mandatory—we're all busy, we all have a million things to do—but to make that opportunity exist for people seems really important.
My hope is this. There's always a first rehearsal where everybody gets together, it's like the first day of school, and a lot of information is distributed. My dream is that in the future, at theaters taking part in the Ghostlight Project, they'll be like "Oh hey, you just heard from the company manager, now this is Cynthia, who's in charge of our Ghostlight project, and this is the group we work with, and on Mondays, from 4-6, we're going to go volunteer at this thing. If you want to volunteer, or find other ways they can help, come see me."
So this will continue past the 19th?
Yes. People who have signed up to do it are also committing to some sort of social action, whether that's within the walls of the theater, opening your theater up to voices that haven't been well-represented, or literally opening your theater to a community group to let them use your space for a meeting. It could be a cast coming together and collectively supporting Planned Parenthood or the Leadership Council or WhiteHelmets.org. We want people to define the terms of the thing on their own, but we want them to do something.
With the dawn of this new administration, there are a lot of traditionally vulnerable communities that will become more vulnerable. We want to protect them. We don't have political power, but we have some power. Theater people are connectors. We spend our lives hopping around and meeting all these other communities and that's great. We are this community of people who in some ways model the world that we want to create. Not in every way, and not perfectly, certainly, but we're an interesting, smart, diverse group of people who value those things. And we come together to make communities everywhere, and that seemed like worth invoking and standing together.
What will you be doing yourself?
I just gave a chunk of money to the Sylvia Rivera Law Project [a legal organization that fights for the rights of transgender people]. I've been a queer activist for a long time and trans issues are important to me, and important to the world.
I think as long as their financial portfolios are OK and Trump doesn't touch marriage, there are a lot of gay people who feel we're fine. So I have become less excited about fighting for "traditional" gay rights issues and really excited for trying to amplify the voices on the margins—there's probably a nicer way to say that —of the community, the people who just haven't had as much of a voice.