With stages dark throughout the country, Andrew Erskine Wheeler figures it is a good time to share his "love letter to the theater."
Now "Booth's Ghost," that love letter, will put its money where its kisser is. A one-person, hourlong show in which Wheeler plays three members of the infamous Booth family of actors — Junius, Edwin and John Wilkes — and tells their stories, "Booth's Ghost" was a hit at the Ritz Theater as part of the 2019 Minnesota Fringe Festival. One performance was filmed and it will be streamed online six times over the next two weekends, to benefit six arts organizations.
Wheeler, who also wrote "Booth's Ghost," opens the show as the title character, a spirit who lost the New York venue he haunted when the old Booth's Theatre, built by Edwin, was torn down in 1965. As a result, he travels the country, haunting other theaters, including the Ritz, which, as the play begins, is lit only by the solitary "ghost light" that theaters leave on whenever the stage is empty.
"I thought it was particularly resonant to this time because theaters everywhere are dim, lit only by ghost lights, empty and abandoned. So this notion of ghosts telling theater stories while audiences and actors are not there would be appropriate," said Wheeler. "It's the nature of theater history anyway, this notion of ghosts of all of the actors who've played the roles we still play, stretching back hundreds of years. Theaters are filled with ghosts."
At the Ritz Theater, those ghosts include John Wilkes Booth himself, who assassinated President Abraham Lincoln. John is a central character in "Assassins," which Theater Latté Da memorably staged at the Ritz in 2018. Although John was a popular actor, it's his rival and brother Edwin who still is considered the definitive American Hamlet. (Like all local theaters, the Ritz is now closed as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.)
"I fell in love with the incredible story [of the Booths]. It has tragedy but also has playful elements," said Wheeler.
A graduate of Woodbury High School, he spent two decades working in Los Angeles, where he joined the Actors' Gang, a company co-founded by Tim Robbins. "I was the ['Aladdin'] genie at Disneyland for a time. I did these shows for kids where I would play all the parts as the genie shifts in and out of different roles. I love that nature of storytelling and I also love the heavy drama and tragedy. So I created a vehicle where I could do all of that."
A benefit for theater
Wheeler had planned to be doing that with "Booth's Ghost" in May at the now-canceled Orlando Fringe Festival. Like many actors, though, Wheeler saw gigs vanish virtually overnight due to the pandemic, including not just the Orlando Fringe, but also his server job, the History Theatre drama "Not for Sale" and a teaching position.
That's what got him wondering what he could do to help arts organizations that are hurting because they, too, are in limbo.
"We're entertainers, really, and I have this vehicle and I thought it would be a good thing to get out there, that it would be fitting as a benefit performance," said Wheeler, best known locally as a tormented preacher in Walking Shadow Theatre's "The Christians" and as Hubert H. Humphrey in two plays about Lyndon B. Johnson at History Theatre.
Both of those venues will benefit from "Booth's Ghost." Each performance, streamed on the Facebook page Wheeler in the Sky and at wheelerinthesky.com, will have a designated beneficiary. Although performances are free, Wheeler will introduce each screening by encouraging donations.
The actor, like everyone else, has no idea when live theater will come back, although he wonders if outdoor productions might become more popular, as in days when bands of players traveled from village to village to share stories. He likes that "Booth's Ghost" connects to that chapter of theater history, and that it's a tribute to artists who have figured out how to keep their art form going for centuries, through plagues not unlike the present one.
Audiences, of course, are a big part of that. Wheeler initially considered doing livestreams of "Booth's Ghost" from home, but opted for a taped performance from last August for a specific reason: the audience. Screenings of a show that played to full houses are a reminder that when theater returns, a crucial element is that it's done in a front of a live audience.
"I think there's value in saying, 'Here's what we are losing now. Here's something that can't work without an audience,' " said Matt Sciple, who directed "Booth's Ghost" and thinks viewers will love seeing Wheeler interact with the Ritz audience. "It's about being in a place where you have made a pact that you're going to be together for an hour. You're not going to get up and get a drink of water. You're not going to be able to hit pause."
Sign from beyond
Both Sciple and Wheeler chuckle about the first performance of "Booth's Ghost," when there were signs that Edwin Booth's actual ghost approved. Early on, as Wheeler described a thunderstorm and piped-in sound effects created the illusion of one, actual thunderclaps sounded outside. Theatergoers were unsure if they were hearing a downpour or really good sound design.
In a way, that storm was a metaphor for how the best theater works: as an exchange between the folks on stage and those in the audience.
"There was a little frisson of, 'Something's happening here,' " said Sciple. He was in that audience, and although he's not a superstitious person, he said, "It was, 'This is us responding to the real world. And the real world is talking back to us.' "