Some 2.2 million guests have watched a human interact with ghosts more than 30,000 times since the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Museum opened in April 2005.
The precisely orchestrated Ghosts of the Library performance combines art, science and smoke and mirrors in synchronized magic.
The presentation uses Holavision, a proprietary BRC Imagination Arts-owned technology, which allows the storyteller to appear to control history around him and relay the activities, work and discoveries waiting to be made in a presidential archive. The live actor relates to transparent, drifting images. Curiously, the onstage actor also fades away.
Even after performing the routine thousands of times, there isn't a dull moment for the actors or guests.
One of the museum's unique features, says director of theaters Phil Funkenbush, is the theatrical component. "Every area has different music. It flows seamlessly throughout. It's that 'something' with a little more emotion that hits people. That's why people enjoy having actors here as well ... that extra sense of 'live.' "
Actors also perform in the Cabinet Room and Ford's Theater along with such semi-regular productions as "From My Front Porch." Occasional theater productions such as "One Destiny," "The Civil War" or "Flight" complement exhibits.
With the long-running Ghosts show, "it's exciting to still have people trying to figure out if the actor is real or not," Funkenbush says.
A certain mindset
Randy Erwin, one of seven actors who take turns playing the role of the historian/curator, performs four days a week and has logged well over 8,000 performances. His tally is second to Patrick Russell, who has performed nearly 11,000 times. Each day, two actors alternate for the eight-minute show, performing two shows an hour and up to three an hour during peak times.
Erwin's role at the museum is a contrast to his activities the other three days of the week - singing cowboy songs, yodeling and performing rope tricks at fairs and festivals, resorts, schools and libraries.
Nearly all of the Ghosts actors have been on board since the beginning and went through intense training. About 58 auditioned for the role.
"Some of them just couldn't do it. Those with music experience helped them. It takes a different part of the brain," Funkenbush says. "They have to be at the right place, right time because of lighting and holograms," which the actors can't see.
Funkenbush reviews performances weekly. "I am proud and happy to report no problems," he says. "Anything I talk to the actors about is so minor. Each is such a competent individual. I can direct it, but could never do it."
"I never get tired of the script," Erwin says. "... You have to keep your head in it, so it's challenging ... The track is to the fraction of a second. It takes a lot of concentration. It takes a lot of stamina ... a certain personality.
"You do the best you can. You can't do it like a machine. I break it down into time bits, like I do a song into the smallest segments, and try to hone them best as I can."
"You'll waver," Erwin admits. "Once in a great while, you forget where you are. But they trained us so well that, so long as you keep your mind on what you're doing, you can make your way through it 99 times out of 100 right in the groove."
The audience doesn't distract the actors, nor is there room for monotony.
"When the house lights go down, it's a black box. And it's always the same thing. It's 'Groundhog Day' (referring to the movie). Same temperature, same light, same sound, same everything. That helps to keep focused," he says.
"If you didn't stay in character, you'd be this mechanical thing. You've got to maintain some sort of character ... I'm a musician ... It's like playing a song over and over again. You find different things in it every time or every few times."
Ed MacMurdo, attractions coordinator, says, "It's embedded so well in their minds it's second nature."
MacMurdo, like Funkenbush, is an experienced local actor and director. He finds the public keeps him refreshed.
"Not a week goes by I don't talk to someone from out of the country," he says. "They're in awe. With any sort of crowd in here, they always want to engage you."
And engage they do, sometimes with 20 busloads a day.
Curt Fritzeen engages visitors as one of three actors portraying Francis Carpenter, an artist commissioned to paint Lincoln and his Cabinet. He talks to visitors about events leading up to the Emancipation Proclamation and also performs in the Ghosts show.
Unlike the Ghosts show, in which the actor cannot see the audience, he says, "in the Cabinet Room there's face-to-face time. When there's a good-size crowd, deep in the museum experience and subject matter, and they're right with you with the story - it's rewarding.
"The best thing for me is interacting with the public," he says. "It reminds me I'm here because of them."
Story published Friday, May 6, 2011 ( Volume 6, Number 3 )