Live from the cemetery
Voices of the Past
It’s sunset, the time of day when visitors to the Virginia City Cemetery typically start clearing out for the night. But one evening last week, the fading sunlight fell on about a dozen people dressed in a mixture of turn-of-the-century and modern clothes. It was the dress rehearsal for Voices of the Past, a ghostly walking tour performed by Funtime Theater to raise funds for the cemetery’s restoration.
Candace Wheeler, who works for the Comstock Cemetery Foundation, wrote the script, and the Funtime Theater actors make it a reality. Playing the “spirits” of prominent Virginia City residents buried in the cemetery, they talk about various aspects of everyday life in a mining town, from firefighting to medical care to the challenges women faced.
“You meet the caretaker and the widow at the gate, and they tell you about the cemetery and a little bit about life in Virginia City,” explains Kathy Easly, who plays the Widow of the Silver Terrace. “Then you go through the cemetery and encounter the other actors.” The widow and Thomas Wilson (played by Paul Dancer) are the tour guides. They lead guests to graves where actors wait, frozen, for their cues to come back to life to tell their stories.
Voices of the Past is a walking tour—emphasis on walking. The cemetery’s uneven, sandy slopes could be difficult for some to navigate, and the tour moves along at a brisk pace. Fortunately, the actual tour takes place during the day; it might be a little less spooky than a nighttime visit. Still, it’s a good idea to bring comfortable walking shoes—and a camera to capture the scenic views of Virginia City and the cemetery’s old gravestones.
Dancer, breaking character for a moment, says the best part of being in the production is “playing the person I’m standing on top of.” The actors have permission to stand, sit and walk around their characters’ graves, and the effect can be convincing.
“It feels like I’m representing them and helping preserve their memories,” says Dancer, who has been involved with the tour since its beginning. He recalls several occasions where a cemetery gate seemed to open itself. Dancer believes that this was a sign from the real Wilson, giving his seal of approval to the performance.
The production, now in its third year, keeps things fresh by rotating the characters.
“We might take one person out and put one person in each season,” Easly estimates. But she’s not telling who the mystery guest is this year. The curious, she says, will have to come see for themselves.
The Comstock Cemetery Foundation, established in 2000 as a non-profit organization, collects donations to help protect and restore cemetery sites and old photographs of the cemeteries. It also aids in the return of items that have been removed from cemeteries. Judging from the yellow caution tape and run-down condition of some of the graves, the foundation has its work cut out; there’s still plenty of restoration that needs to be done.
By the time the tour ends, twilight has fallen on the cemetery, and the actors head back to change into their 21st-century clothes. They’ll be back this weekend to revive the past. A fresh and unconventional approach to local history, Voices From the Past is educational entertainment for a good cause.