A new production is set to open at the Woodland Opera House, inspired by the opera house’s history and paranormal scenes that guests have reported for years.
Written by local playwrights Matthew Abergel and his husband Bob Conner, “The Phantom of the Woodland Opera” tells the story of Woodland resident firefighter and volunteer William W. Porter, who was the only victim during the 1892 fire that destroyed the original opera house and many downtown buildings and residences.
After his death, numerous reports of ghost sightings, strange smells, supernatural ghosts, and incredible sounds were reported by volunteers, visitors, actors, and audience members with these unexplained events often attributed to Porter, whose spirit is said to still inhabit the theatre.
Abergel and Cooner were inspired by a portrait of Porter hanging in the theatre’s dressing room area. While Abergel said he has never encountered the ghost, he has been fascinated by all the stories they have told him over the years. A little more than five years ago, Abergel and Cooner began doing research and consulting historical papers, documents and Woodland Opera veterans, notably James Jelica Hernandez, who died in January 2021 of complications from COVID-19.
“Bob and I started doing some research and the more research we did, the more we fell into the rabbit hole of our fascination with what happened to the opera house and this guy who showed so much heroism to try to save the stage,” Abergel said.
According to Conner, the play has seen many adaptations and rewrites as they did more research and found more information. While initially designed as a comedy, research revealed a more serious side to Porter’s story causing playwrights to introduce moments of serious drama into the story.
“As we learned more about William Porter and his life, we had to respect that and tell his story as honestly as possible,” Abergel emphasized. “He is credited, in part, with saving the town of Woodland. The fire was threatening to move from the opera house to another part of Woodland.”
In the play, a troupe of actors visited the Opera House in 1909 to present their new melodrama “Daughter of the West,” a play invented by Abergel and Conner. This idea was based on the fact that hundreds of traveling troupes often came to the opera house from 1885-1913 to perform when melodramas were popular.
When strange incidents begin to interrupt the rehearsal, rumors of a ghost in the building begin to spread throughout the band. The rumors are quickly dismissed before the audience is finally introduced to the ghost of Porter.
“In the play, theater-goers learn a lot about the life of William Porter,” Conner explained. “For the most part, the things learned are quite realistic. We took the liberty of imagining some facts that would enhance his story theatrically.”
According to a press release from Woodland Opera, the play also uses a woman in the role of “actor-manager” or, in this case, “actress-manager.” Traditionally, the role of actor and director was played by a man who not only performed the leading roles in the plays presented by their teams, but also handled all commercial and financial interests of the companies. However, at the turn of the 20th century, women were asserting themselves as independent thinkers and leaders, inspiring Abergel and Cooner to use a woman for the part.
“This is an original play, which hasn’t been done anywhere else,” Conner said. “It was designed and built specifically for the Woodland Opera House, so I think that makes it really unique. It was really designed with this theater and its history in mind.”
“The Ghost of the Woodland Opera House” is scheduled to open October 7 and run through October 30 at the Woodland Opera House, located at 340 Second St. , with shows on Friday and Saturday at 7:30 pm and on Sunday at 2 pm there will be no show on Friday October 14.
Tickets are available for purchase by visiting or calling the box office at (530) 666-9617 or online at https://www.etix.com/ticket/e/1028735/the-ghost-of-woodland-opera-house-woodland-woodland-opera-house.
Reserved seats are $30 for adults, $28 for seniors 62 and older and $15 for children 17 or younger. Balcony tickets are $18 for adults and $9 for children. Flex Pass offers and group rates are available.
“I think people will like the fact that it has this creepy and supernatural content,” Conner said. “But, more than that, it really talks about the strength of a community and how a community comes together to create something, in this case, an opera house. It’s just about the importance of theater and the arts in any community.”
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