by Onur Karaoğlu

NOTE: The text below was discovered in a theatre building in Taksim, Istanbul just before it was demolished, and it ended up going viral on social media. Some of the events and people mentioned in the text fully overlap with those in real life. However, it remains unknown by whom and for what purpose the text was written.

To Esma...

Every theatre is haunted. It is impossible to know when a ghost came to a theatre, and for how long it has inhabited it. Everyone is aware of ghosts in theatres. But no one wants to talk about this. Being a ghost in a theatre is solitude.

I didn’t choose to be a ghost but I was happy nevertheless. I had my own routine. I liked being here, being with those who came here. How to put it - I am a lucky ghost. Because I am the ghost of the most beautiful theatre in this city. Sometimes, during a rehearsal, one of the spotlights at the top of the stage will suddenly come on, and then it will slowly go out again. I am the one who turns on that spotlight. An audience member who leaves the hall to visit the restroom feels a strange breeze when they stumble into me in the corridor. When young ADs are leaving the building at the end of the day, after making a clean copy of their notes, the last thing they hear is me whispering “ssshhh!” to them. Don’t get me wrong, though, I’m not trying to frighten anyone. I’m just doing my job. This is a theatre, everyone knows that everything is possible here, and that fear, like any other emotion, is part of this place. All emotions, all thoughts are accepted here.

It is easy for a ghost to get the impression that existence will never change. It is our fate to remain locked in the same cycle. Countless lives and incidents take place here at this theatre, and then fade away.

I, too, lived for a long time, believing that this was truly my own life. I revealed myself in snatches, I played games; I always fulfilled my duty, my responsibility to time and place. I never intended to do more than that. I used to believe that the sole rule of existence was to accept your nature. But once I met her, everything changed...

When the month of December in the year 2019 began, the names of plays to be rehearsed, along with the crew lists, were pinned to the theatre’s notice board. Since I didn’t think anyone but me looked at these lists anymore, I thought that they continued doing this as a polite gesture, recognizing my presence. Hamlet, too, was on one of the lists, rehearsals were to begin the next month. You would laugh if I told you how many Hamlets I have seen staged at this theatre. This time, I thought to myself, perhaps I will meet a ghost friend...

You shouldn't ask for certain things too insistently. If you do, they’ll never leave you alone.

Weeks later as the staff gathered around a table on stage for the first run-through, I was thinking about the ways I could surprise them. Should this be a season of lost props, scenery falling over, or actors imagining they have been called onstage? As I was thinking this through, I saw her for the first time. From a distant corner of the hall, her eyes were fixed on me. I, too, watched her, mesmerized. Only later did I find out that she was called Esma. This beautiful actress in her sixties was playing Hamlet’s mother. I wondered if Esma could see me. Her soulful eyes made me feel things I’d never felt, as if she were inviting me in. When the run-throughs began, I realized Esma was aware of me.

Hamlet’s father is a ghost, like me. He was a good man, he died and became a ghost, and Shakespeare wrote him a part in his play. When that indifferent actor in his late seventies who was playing the ghost, and who for the last four seasons had reacted to none of my moves, read out his lines, Esma looked, not at him, but at me. Esma knew something that no one else in the room did, something that no one else in the room was aware of. I just didn’t know what to do. I went up to the lighting booth and started the disco ball and the colored lights that were left there from the last season. Laughter broke out on stage. Everyone was having a lot of fun. Even the technician lingered a while before coming up and switching them off. Only Esma had not reacted. She just kept staring long and deep at the seat I had been sitting in. I didn’t want the rehearsal to end that day. Esma, I thought to myself, has come here for me.

A ghost is self-taught. Just like self-taught actors, a ghost learns the rules of the trade by instinct. At a certain point it goes beyond learning, it becomes feeling, even prophesying. . I learned everything I know at this theatre. Now, perhaps, the time has come for me to predict the future and my fate, and to discover how to come up with my own prophecies. During the second week of rehearsals, when the actor who played the ghost did not turn up, I heard Esma say to the director: “Perhaps the ghost of the theatre can play Tuncel’s part.” The director just laughed and waved it away. But Esma kept looking at the seat I was sitting in. I smiled at her, but I don’t know if she noticed.

Esma treated the young actor playing Hamlet warmly, and whenever the director was hard on him, she’d talk with him for a long time after rehearsal. I imagined that the two of them would capture the mother-son relationship well, and that the scenes which featured them both would be very successful. That was when I thought that, like Esma, I should help the actor playing Hamlet. When one day, after the rehearsal, this actor was studying Hamlet’s scene with his ghost-father, I went behind the curtain and whispered the lines of the ghost. The young actor was very frightened. He ran out of the hall, screaming. So I decided not to do that again.

It was during those days that a rumour began to make the rounds in the theatre. This beautiful building was going to be demolished. To be honest, this was a rumour that resurfaced from time to time. The theater represented old values, and rebuilding it would give it new meaning, so the demolition was of symbolic importance. No ghost gets out of a demolished building alive. But instead of worrying, I committed myself to thinking about the rehearsals for the new play, and to following Esma, night and day. It’s easy to demolish a theatre with a ghost, but no one can demolish a theatre with actors and plays in it, I thought.

Two different things happened at the theatre during this period. The first took place between Esma and myself. One day, Esma had arrived early, and while there was no one else around she was practicing her lines for that day’s scene. Of course the other characters couldn’t read in because there was no one but me there. During those silences Esma remained in her character as if listening to them. Even if a ghost of a theatre knows nothing, it still knows Hamlet inside out. So I, with strange courage, began to recite the lines of the other parts, loud enough for her to hear. Esma did not appear perturbed. She closed her eyes, and continued to act her part. When the scene ended, I fell silent, since I had no lines left to recite. But Esma continued talking, saying:

“We both know the text so far by heart. But you have other things you want to say. Let us not keep silent now...”

There was a short silence. Then, Tuncel, who played the role of the ghost, entered. “Are you talking to ghosts?” he asked.

“When you’re not around, yes,” replied Esma. For days I thought about what answer I would have given if Tuncel hadn’t entered. I will soon tell you what I decided.

Another rumor began to spread during this time. I had been hearing from staff when they were chatting in between rehearsals that an epidemic, which had begun in a far away land, was now spreading across the world. The rumour was that this epidemic had now arrived in our city. No one knew for sure what was going to happen, but one day, someone said, “All theatres will close.” Hearing this put me in a small panic. I began to do something I never would have done otherwise. Normally, when the theatre is empty, I sing and dance on stage. I don’t know why but I had the song “Şinanay” playing in my head: I was humming along to it, and dancing and wandering around in tense steps on the dark side of the curtain that divided the stage in two. If this news was true, it would mean that the rehearsals would stop, and I didn’t want that. Suddenly, someone from afar shouted, “Silence!” I hadn’t thought that meant me, but the voices from inside the theatre fell silent for a moment. Then, with swift steps, the two actors who play the roles of Horatio and Marcellus rushed into the area I was in. If it were any other time you might joke that these two characters were so absorbed in their roles that they were now hunting for ghosts in real life, but the situation quickly changed. They thought the sound of my song was a noise made by the aging stage winch, which made them anxious about workplace safety. They reported the situation to the stage manager, who then called that day’s rehearsal off for the winch to be checked. Since I had already heard some of the young actors talk secretly about wanting the theatre to be demolished and rebuilt, I wasn’t surprised. However, it seemed as if the real issue here was the anxiety caused by this epidemic, since everyone wanted to get back home as soon as possible, whatever the pretext.

When the theatre was empty, I lost all my sources of information. Perhaps I could find a newspaper forgotten on stage during a rehearsal and have a look at that. I looked around for a newspaper but to no avail. This story about the epidemic was worrying me, too. The more I thought about it, the more logical it seemed that theatres would close down because of the epidemic. I thought about Esma. Perhaps she, too, was afraid of coming to the theatre right now, afraid of never seeing me again. I had to reach her. I had to tell her that I would always be here even if theatres were closed. She would want to know that. She would...

I felt incredibly happy when that thought passed through my head. Encouraged by the wave of happiness, that night, I took the most difficult decision a ghost can ever take in its life. As a ghost, I was going to come out my identity to a human being. I knew how hard this was, but I was going to do it regardless. I was going to tell Esma what I was: after all that had happened between us I already knew she was aware of it.

All night I thought about how I would talk to Esma and what I would tell her. Before rehearsals, she liked drinking coffee, looking out the window in the foyer that faced the square. I would slowly go up to her, first softly talk to her, and when she was ready, I would reveal myself to her.

That night, it seemed like the morning would never come. I just kept hovering around in the old scenery room. I stood in front of my favourite piece of scenery and thought about the play. This play, which took place in a restaurant, was about a young woman who went on many travels because of her love. I stood there in front of a white store-window and stared at the name of the restaurant on the set: Silent Days. During all those years the play was staged, this title had never seemed weird to me. But the next morning I would discover a strange new meaning in this name. Because the next day, the theatre did not open. No one came to the theatre. It felt as if silent days were beginning.

For the week that followed, the theatre remained silent, the locks were never unlocked. I kept watching the street from the foyer window. A few cars and ambulances passed by and I saw people wearing masks. The epidemic had arrived in this city as well. So what would happen now? What was happening in these places I’d never seen, and what was Esma doing?

For days, I burned with curiosity. A few times, the building officer rushed in, checked the building and left. I thought of calling out to him and asking him what was going on. But the man looked so frightened already as he walked around the building, he would probably breathe his last the moment I appeared before him. And the sound of ambulances from the street kept increasing.

I then remembered a play I had seen a long time ago. It was the story of a man who lived in an abandoned theatre. His situation was so sad that he constantly invented new games to play to pass the time. It was revealed that the man was once a famous actor, but had been left homeless and forlorn. In the end, the theatregoers took care of him. He returned to the stage to great applause. I thought that I should also do something so as not to lose my faith. I came up with the idea of climbing on the roof of the theatre and singing a song. It was windy that day, so hoping that my voice would perhaps reach the distant houses, I began to sing a song. Then, something amazing happened. People, who I think lived in those far away houses, stuck their heads out of their windows and stepped out onto their balconies to join my song. Then, like a great choir in the city, we sang a few songs, all of us together. After so many days, this gave me great hope. People, somewhere, could still come out and sing songs. I wondered whether Esma, too, had sat at her window and joined my song. Had she understood that I had sung this song for her?

The next day I heard a clattering at the door and rushed to the entrance of the theater. When the door opened, I couldn’t believe my eyes. People wearing white costumes – it was impossible to tell who they were - carrying machines in their hands, went all around the theatre spraying smoke. I didn’t understand why they did this, but let me tell you something that will surprise you. This white smoke, frequently used on stage as well, is the only thing that makes a ghost visible to others. For instance, if there is white smoke on stage, and if I go and stand on stage, everyone will see me. I’ve done it before in the past. So when I saw this white smoke, I said to myself, should I reveal myself a bit? Just when I was about to do this, the director of the theatre appeared behind the smoke-sprayers. So I decided to wait and find out what was going on. Yet amidst a whole load of garbled talk, the only thing I understood was that everyone was afraid; that they could not leave their homes; and that even if they wanted to leave their homes it was banned; and that no one would want to come to the theatre anymore. I took all this in my stride, however the thing I heard last made me wish all the walls would come tumbling down on me: The epidemic was having the worst impact on the elderly. The dramaturg of the theatre put it in a terribly disrespectful way: “At this rate, we’ll only be staging plays featuring young actors.”

Plays that only feature young actors are more fun, that’s for sure. But there had to be something that could be done. Everyone had to do everything possible to protect the elderly. It’s not easy to become an actor, it doesn’t happen overnight. In fact, for someone to say, “I have become an actor”, she or he has to come and work at this theatre for years. Only after acting in tens of plays does an actor manage to fill a single word with the necessary depth of emotion. So, if you ask me, the minimum age limit for an actor to be considered an actor should be sixty-five. Anyone younger must be treated as an apprentice. Trust me, no one knows that better than a ghost...

But I didn’t know anything anymore. As I tried to piece together the bits of information I overheard from the few people who came to the theatre, the summer months arrived. I was losing hope of hearing from Esma, and a new problem had emerged. It was clear that theatres would not be opening for a long time, and so they took this opportunity to hang a sign on the front of the theatre, announcing the decision to demolish and rebuild our building. Was it really going to be rebuilt? Police dispersed any groups that gathered in front of the building to protest this decision, on the pretext that they were violating epidemic measures, and some were detained.

Weeks passed. A short time was left before the demolition. During those days, actors who had left their belongings at the theatre when the epidemic began, turned up wearing masks, packed their bags and suitcases quickly, and rushed out again. This was when I most hoped to see and speak to Esma one last time. That was why every single day until mid-summer, starting early in the morning, I greeted everyone who came to the theatre door. And one day, towards the evening, the actor who played Hamlet came to the theatre. He looked very sad. There is Hamlet, I said to myself. He is the person who will mourn this the most, and then take revenge on behalf of us all. Even if our theatre is demolished, we have our Hamlets! But then I saw a piece of paper pinned to Hamlet’s collar. At first, I didn’t really understand what it was. But when I took a closer look, I saw that Hamlet was carrying on his collar a black-and-white photograph of Esma taken in her youth, with two dates written beneath it. Esma hadn’t made it through this epidemic.

I don’t want to talk about the days that passed until demolition. Everything was very difficult. But this morning, I decided to do something that I thought would have made Esma happy. Although people and ghosts often understand each other quite well, there are minor differences in certain matters. For instance, ghosts aren’t afraid of people but people are afraid of ghosts. If everything you knew in life will suddenly becomes useless, you can take one thing and turn it into something crazy: that way it might have an impact. That way when you look back, maybe you can tell yourself you led a meaningful life. You can see this as becoming an apprentice activist late in life. There is nothing I can do anymore, so I will use this one thing I know for the last time, and in the craziest way: Ghosts aren’t afraid of people but people are afraid of ghosts.

I will stand in front of the digger and bulldozer that will soon be here to demolish the theatre, and do to the workers what I planned to do with Esma. “Hello everyone! I am a ghost!” I will say, and suddenly appear before them. I have no doubt that when they see me, a ghost, they will be afraid and run away. Today, by coming out as a ghost to people for the first time, I believe that I can save this theatre. Perhaps, tomorrow, everything will be better.