Here’s a question for the Halloween season: How do you properly act like a ghost?
Apparently, you just keep it real.
Matt Huff figured that out a few years ago. He teaches theater at Oglethorpe University in Brookhaven, where he’s an associate professor, so for most of the time, he works with students to stage and study plays.
But in recent Octobers, he’s filled another role: he directs ghosts. Actually, actors portraying ghosts. He works with the volunteers who portray the ghosts on the Capturing the Spirit of Oakland Tours at Atlanta’s historic Oakland Cemetery. His role is to help bring those ghosts, well, to life.
Like many freelance jobs, this one started with an email. Huff said that seven or eight years ago, when the cemetery’s annual Halloween tour was growing rapidly in popularity, he was among a group of local theater people who were invited to direct the actors who appear during the tour in order to sharpen up the show. “I was the only one who said ‘yes,’” Huff said during an interview via Zoom. “I’m really glad I did.”
During past tours, guides have led small groups through the cemetery, where they encounter actors portraying people buried nearby. This year’s tour is expected to be different because of the pandemic. The guides and ghosts will remain, but the tour is moving online, and the in-person tour may be cancelled, although that decision had not been announced by mid-September. The online tour will be opened to the public on Oct. 29. It will cost $15. For details see oaklandcemetery.com or facebook.com/OCATL.
“I’m actually really excited about it,” Huff said. “This is a cool thing.”
The annual tour is the biggest single fundraiser for the Historic Oakland Foundation, the nonprofit that takes care of the cemetery. But Mary Margaret Fernandez, special events & volunteer manager for the foundation, argues the October event offers something more than a fun way to support the cemetery financially. The tour provides, she said, an unusual way of looking at Atlanta history.
The ghosts include both famous and relatively anonymous Atlantans, and the actors and their speeches “show what lies between those two dates you find on their headstones,” she said. One tour, for instance, featured a notorious 19th century madam. Another introduced a bi-racial couple who were married at a time their relationship was itself illegal, Huff said.
“It’s amazing to see how the telling of these stories has breathed new life into the history of the city.” Fernandez said. “We’re preventing certain areas of Atlanta’s history from being forgotten.”
Which ghosts will appear on the tour, Fernandez said during a phone interview, is a carefully guarded secret. “It’s different every year,” Huff said. “They change it up. There are a million stories at that cemetery, so they’re never going to run out. I’m always amazed at the stories they find.”
Huff’s job, Fernandez said, is to coach the actors to make their performances “feel genuine. … It makes the performances feel like they’re being told to you by someone you know rather than someone very polished. He makes it very personal.”
So, just what do you tell an aspiring ghost about how to address a tour group? Talk like you mean what you say. “You’re not speaking about the cemetery in the third person,” Huff said. “You have to speak the lines as if you’ve lived it.”
Huff said one of the first things he suggested was that the foundation hire a professional playwright to script the tour so that the stories were presented consistently. Now the foundation uses two writers, who work with material from a variety of sources, including the families of the departed, to construct the stories the ghosts tell, Fernandez said.
“I’ve always looked for a creative challenge,” Huff said. “When I go there [to the cemetery] and I follow a group for a performance, when I see the whole thing in context, it really is a magical experience. … It is like history is coming to life right before you.”
But, despite the fact these are ghosts and it’s the Halloween season, not necessarily a scary experience, he said.
“It’s enlightening,” he said, “not frightening.”