Riverside Theatre’s “Ghost Light” debut delivered frights and delights on Halloween night

On Oct. 31, Riverside Theatre debuted “Ghost Light,” a Halloween-themed event filled with incredible costumes and frightening ghost stories written by local artists.

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Matthew Kennedy

The stage is surrounded by seats and an eerie backdrop for writers to perform on, on Monday, Oct. 31, 2022, at Riverside Theatre.

Stella Shipman, Arts Reporter


Riverside Theatre in Iowa City could not have been spookier on Halloween night as shadows danced across the walls in the eerie glare of a single light poised at center stage. The otherwise pitch-black space was filled with nervous and curious onlookers who leaned in to hear spine-tingling ghost stories.

Riverside’s “Ghost Light” made its debut on Monday night. People trickled into the third-level theatre of Riverside’s red brick building on the Pedestrian Mall before the show started. Some had dressed casually, while others had dressed in elaborate costumes.

“Ghost Light” was prepared as a tie-in to Riverside’s “The Weir,” a play revolving around ghost stories. It was organized as a way of leaning into the spooky holiday and raising awareness for local artists, continuing Riverside’s tradition of debuting new works.

“With this being a city of literature with the writers’ program and everything, there’s a really robust community of writers,” Aaron Stonerook, Riverside development director and “Ghost Light” organizer, said.

“For some of them having an opportunity like this is a good way to scratch that itch of getting publicly recognized or to just practice writing a short piece that can be performed,” Stonerook said.

The Riverside staff greeted attendees at the elevator with its own group costume — ghosts of the staff members who worked at the Montgomery Ward Department store, which occupied Riverside’s current space in the late 1800s.

A red carpet unfurled across the floor with a red background for anyone to take photos in front of. The snack bar was lined with tasty treats and apple cider. Small goody bags packed with candy and popcorn were displayed on the tables that sat around with the room.

Audience members mingled and enjoyed refreshments for about an hour before the performance pieces began, and some of the costumes became conversation starters between strangers. Spirits were high as everyone finally filed into the theater and took their seats.

Stonerook introduced the event and explained the meaning behind “Ghost Light.” A ghost light is a single light that is left on in a theatre when everyone goes home at the end of the night.

Five writers took to the stage to perform their pieces for “Ghost Light.” The first was Madonna Smith, who read a passage from the book “Haunted Iowa City” by Vernon Trollinger with a little humor and a lively voice, describing ghostly encounters in the Ped Mall.

Luke Brooks followed with an original piece called “The Corners” about the ghostly figures in the shadows that society chooses to ignore. Brooks put on a dramatic performance, falling to his knees and crying out to the audience to heed his warnings about the figures. He cleverly engaged the audience by making them passive characters in his story.

The third performer was Kevin Michael Moore, an actor and choreographer who has worked with Riverside on past projects. His piece, “The Speaker,” was about a young boy terrorized by a demon. Physically moving the ghost light on the stage to manipulate his own silhouette, Moore left the audience entertained and particularly frightened.

Moore described the experience as “freeing,” and it allowed him to understand how his writing landed with an audience by observing them during the performance. He said intimate events like “Ghost Light” will inspire other theaters to think outside the box.

“This is sort of an interactive and locally-sourced set of artists and artistry,” Moore said. “I mean, Riverside’s doing it and it’s bold and it’s wonderful, and it could also be done by some other small group of people because Riverside has shown how we can do it.”

RELATED: ‘The Weir’ to bring ghost stories and comradery to Riverside Theatre

The fourth performer was Kyle Coleman, who read a piece written by his wife, Abigail Mansfield Coleman. Her story was a recount of chilling real-life ghost encounters in a haunted house in North Carolina that she rented over the summer.

Victoria Shellady was the final performer with a piece called “The Devil is in the Details.” This story was told from the perspective of a woman who learned when she was 16 years old that her father was a serial killer. With expressive writing and subtle hints spread throughout the piece, Shellady earned horrified gasps from the audience with her final line.

Her story happened to be the favorite of University of Iowa sophomores Mason Danaher and Kayla Whitworth, but they both enjoyed every performance.

“I think that it [“Ghost Light”] will really encourage leaning into the more horror and more dramatic aspects of theatre that sometimes get left out,” Whitworth said. “It will also probably give a lot more space for creative nonfiction, which I think is a genre that can sometimes be overlooked but is really important to the history of horror especially.”

Besides being an opportunity to share scary stories, “Ghost Light” also featured a costume contest judged by three Riverside costume designers. Anyone could participate, and the first-place winner was awarded a Mission Creek Festival pass. The second-place winner won a FilmScene date-night package, and the third-place winner won Riverside swag.

The costume contest brought Riverside’s first “Ghost Light” to a close. Abigail Mansfield Coleman judged the contest, and said she looks forward to participating again next year.

“It plays up the spooky but also the magical factor of what is stage magic and what can happen on the stage and how an audience can be transported for a story,” Coleman said. “And I think this was very successful and I think Riverside will probably do something similar in the future.”

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