PICTURED: Donna Nelson, “Josie’s Tale.” Image courtesy of Mitch Stone/GhostWalk
by Nancy D. Lackey Shaffer
A little history, a little haunting and a whole lot of fun — GhostWalk is one of Ventura County’s most anticipated events of October. Put on by Santa Paula Theater Center staff, actors and other local volunteers, the weeks-long immersive theater experience helps welcome Halloween to the county with a roving production hosted by characters that take attendees on a ghostly tour of Santa Paula, telling their tales and shedding an eerie yet entertaining light on the city’s storied past.
A traditional GhostWalk usually entails a short jaunt around beloved Santa Paula landmarks, with actors in period costume and otherwordly makeup acting as guides and narrators from beyond the grave. Many are based on figures from Ventura County history. Every stop of the tour features a new character sharing a bit of county lore inspired by real eras and events. Some elements are lifted straight from the history books while others are purely fiction; most share DNA with both. It’s a fun and memorable way of resurrecting (pardon the pun) local history.
Since it began more than 25 years ago, GhostWalk has been a popular event. Even with several tours offered every weekend evening through most of October, tickets usually sell out. Which is why, despite the fact that GhostWalk often takes place outside, organizers decided on a strictly online offering for 2020.
“Under normal circumstances, the large crowds we attract with our GhostWalk productions reflect our level of success,” explained Elixeo Flores, an actor and director who has been an integral part of GhostWalk for many years. “However, we felt that it would be difficult to control social distancing, event outdoors. Our group sizes average around 30 to 40. People have a tendency to push together and lean in so they can hear the ghost speak. The more we talked about it the more we realized what a difficult undertaking it would be.”
Flores said that work for the 2020 GhostWalk began in December 2019. As that production got shelved entirely due to COVID-19, it is now scheduled for October 2021. “The good news is, most of the work for next year is already done!”
But organizers still needed to put the 2020 event together. With little time and an uncertain landscape to navigate, the team decided to create a virtual show, relying on favorite pieces from previous productions.
“Knowing that we had 25 years of stories to draw on, we decided to pick a few audience favorites and build a video show,” said Mitch Stone, who was responsible for most of the filming and editing. “It also gave us the opportunity to bring back some favorite actors who our audiences hadn’t seen in many years.”
“This eliminated the need to write new scripts,” Flores added. “We also contacted the original actors and asked if they were interested in reprising their roles, and to our great delight they all agreed. This meant our director (Leticia Mattson) wouldn’t be starting from scratch, relative to familiarity with the piece and talent.”
With many years and stories to pull from, choosing what to include for 2020 was some work.
“The discussion of which of the many stories in our library we wanted to stage for the video was lively,” admitted Stone. “We basically nominated ones we thought were memorable and could be staged in fun and exciting settings, some we’ll never get to use in a conventional GhostWalk. We were especially attracted to stories that could be reprised by the actors who performed them originally.”
With cast (nine actors in all) and scripts in place, the next big hurdle was shooting. The film crew included Stone, Bill Pennock, Louie Hengehold and Carlos Juarez. Cathy Metelak provided the costumes. Actors had a few weeks to rehearse via Zoom. Stone did most of the filming and editing; Flores did the makeup and offered support help. The marketing team — Flores, Fred Helsel, Leslie Nichols and Cynthia Killion — advertised the event, with instructions for how to view GhostWalk — now called GhostWatch — online.
Among the eight stories included in the 2020 production are a doomed dancer (“The Red Shoes”), a woman dealing with the 1926 flood (“Josie’s Tale”), a standup comic (“Take My Life Please”) and a woman who broke Amelia Earhart’s air speed record.
According to Stone, recreating the “street theater” experience of GhostWalk was one of the biggest challenges.
“GhostWalk audiences are used to a certain amount of outdoor noise,” he explained. “We also wanted to shoot as much as possible in GhostWalk light, at dusk.”
Flores added that, “One of the key attractions to GhostWalk is that we stage our performances at unique locations around the city of Santa Paula. In addition to the great stories and performances, the locations provide a look into buildings and locations not normally visited by the community. We felt that we wanted to maintain this tradition . . . What we ultimately decided was that we would film the actors in costume and makeup at the various locations. Some are at the actual location and others were filmed in the Santa Paula Theater Center. That brought the other challenge of ensuring actors and tech people were safe during the filming.”
Masks, social distancing and lots of hand washing were the norm during filming. Otherwise, however, the actors took to the experience as they would any other production: with research, preparation and verve, committed to giving their characters all the nuance and complexity required.
“Virtual rehearsing isn’t as much of an impediment as we might have expected, but we do have to work out most of the staging once we get on site,” said Stone. “That’s been a special challenge for me as the videographer.”
When GhostWatch premieres Oct. 9, audiences can expect the same high-quality production values they’ve enjoyed for over a decade. While tickets have traditionally run around $18, this year the cost is pay what you can. Any contributions made will benefit Santa Paula Theater Center, which has been closed since March.
“Our director, Leticia Mattson, prevailed, and we have an excellent show,” Flores said. “We would just like to extend our thanks for all [the] support over the years and wish [audience members] health and safety during these difficult times. We look forward to that time when we can once again gather and laugh, cry and get a little spooked by the stories of GhostWalk.”
Santa Paula Theater Center presents GhostWatch Oct. 9-31 on YouTube. Streaming takes place at 7 p.m. For reservations and more information, call SPTC’s Haunt Line at 805-525-3073 or visit www.santapaulatheatercenter.org or www.ghostwalk.com.