Marquee of Leeds at night

The the­ater was dark, save for a small light on the stage. Known as a “ghost light,” it’s a tra­di­tion that goes back per­haps a hun­dred years or more. Theaters used to leave one light on when the house lights were dark and the build­ing was empty.

In the ear­ly days of the COVID pan­dem­ic, the term took on a poignant mean­ing at Winchester’s beloved old Leeds Theater, today known as the Leeds Center for the Arts.

It was March of 2020, the month that life changed dra­mat­i­cal­ly for us all. At the Leeds Center for the Arts, Winchester’s thriv­ing per­form­ing arts venue, every­thing had changed.

Tracey Miller sat alone in the eeri­ly qui­et the­ater, bathed in the ghost­ly light. She thought about the whirl­wind of events that led to the dark venue on the week­end when it had been sched­uled to pre­mière the pop­u­lar Thornton Wilder play Our Town.

Just days before, the cen­ter had had to make the dif­fi­cult deci­sion to close down. The cast was set, the cos­tumes ready, and every­one had been eager­ly antic­i­pat­ing open­ing night. 

COVID had oth­er ideas.

Tracey is the President of the 11-mem­ber board that gov­erns the cen­ter. She describes her job as “wear­ing a ton of hats.”  She does every­thing from pro­duc­ing shows, mak­ing sure that facil­i­ties are run­ning well, and ensur­ing that all oper­a­tional details are tak­en care of. Like the oth­er board mem­bers, Tracey vol­un­teers her time at the cen­ter. She calls it a labor of love.

Tracey and the board over­see two full-time employ­ees. Since July, the cen­ter has had an exec­u­tive direc­tor, Selena Arnett, and an Assistant Executive Director, Mary Kate Knight. The cen­ter was able to hire Selena as the result of a “gen­er­ous gift” to the organization.

Selina Arnett, Executive Director and Tracy Johnson Miller, president of the board of Leeds Center for the Arts.
Selina Arnett, Executive Director and Tracy Johnson Miller, pres­i­dent of the board of Leeds Center for the Arts. 

She was think­ing about how the cast of Our Town had decid­ed to do a final “read through” via Zoom. Listening to the actors recite their lines with­out any audi­ence reac­tion just added to the pro­found sad­ness of the occasion.

Now, she sat down in front of the stage. The chairs were still set in the for­ma­tion as if a live rehearsal were tak­ing place. As Tracey pon­dered in the dim glow of the ghost light, she won­dered if things would ever return to nor­mal again. Would they ever be able to return to this hal­lowed space and cre­ate art, to fos­ter com­mu­ni­ty, to do what they most love?

The ghost light remained on for about 6 months.

New light

By June of this year, things were look­ing up. People were get­ting vac­ci­nat­ed. Masks became a rar­i­ty. Main Street and all of Winchester were com­ing back to life.

And plans were laid to exchange the ghost light for the house lights and the daz­zle of the icon­ic mar­quee in front of Leeds. The board of the Leeds Center made the deci­sion that “the show must go on” and so Our Town was resched­uled for the fall. There was a renewed opti­mism and excite­ment in the air among the board, the staff, sup­port­ers, and of course the cast and crew of Our Town.

The jew­el was back!

“We strug­gled a bit with this being our first show back,” Tracey said. “because the con­tents are heavy. It’s about life and liv­ing and death — but it’s also about com­mu­ni­ty and about tak­ing care of one anoth­er and about our oblig­a­tions as a soci­ety in a small town to take care of one anoth­er. It was a beau­ti­ful and pro­found show.”

Tracey Johnson Miller

Spoiler alert: COVID once again con­spired to inter­vene, and near­ly derail the show yet again.

But this time, things would be dif­fer­ent. Utilizing every tool at their dis­pos­al – manda­to­ry vac­ci­na­tions for the cast, either a vac­ci­na­tion or a neg­a­tive test for patrons, and oth­er safe­ty mea­sures – they were able to pull it off.

Tracey explained that they had no choice. Shows are expen­sive to pro­duce. If one cast mem­ber falls ill to COVID, the show has to be closed. A small arts com­pa­ny can­not afford to have that hap­pen after so much has been invest­ed in a show.

But thanks to their tenac­i­ty and adher­ence to safe­ty mea­sures by every­one involved, no one got sick and by October, open­ing night final­ly arrived.

“We strug­gled a bit with this being our first show back,” Tracey said. “because the con­tents are heavy. It’s about life and liv­ing and death — but it’s also about com­mu­ni­ty and about tak­ing care of one anoth­er and about our oblig­a­tions as a soci­ety in a small town to take care of one anoth­er. It was a beau­ti­ful and pro­found show.”

She added that the show “spoke to peo­ple on many dif­fer­ent lev­els. People would come out and many cried, but they would be hap­py as they could be. It’s just the pro­fun­di­ty of this play that was writ­ten in 1937 that still res­onates in our town — or any town.”

Tracey said the show was very well received, and well attended.

Was it a success?

“We gauge suc­cess based on engage­ment. What are we giv­ing? What are we putting out there and how is it received? How many peo­ple see the show?”

By those stan­dards, it was a resound­ing success.

Next week: A very spe­cial hol­i­day show in December and a fundrais­ing cam­paign high­light upcom­ing events at the Leeds. And we talk about the center’s Youth Board and about excit­ing future plans. Don’t miss it! 

  • Pete Koutoulas

    Pete is an IT pro­fes­sion­al work­ing in Lexington. Formerly of Campton, he and his wife have lived in Winchester since 2015. Pete is a for­mer week­ly news­pa­per pub­lish­er and for­mer colum­nist for the Winchester Sun. These days, when not work­ing he can often be found on his back porch read­ing or writ­ing, in the back­yard tend­ing to his toma­to plants, or put­ter­ing around in his garage or work­shop. Reach Pete at pete@wincitynews.org.