Mary A. Castillo
They say that she was a heartbroken actress who jumped to her
death over a lost role. They also say that she slipped while working
50 feet up, above the stage on the grid system.
No one knows her name, when she died or even if she actually
existed. But some students, parents and teachers who have worked in
the Laguna Beach Artists Theatre are sure of one thing, they each
swear they’ve encountered a presence known as “Clarissa.”
Drama Director Mark Dressler remembers the early years of his
tenure when he would stay late into the night hanging lights. Seeing
someone out of the corner of his eye or hearing unexplained noises
inside the empty theater were common occurrences. But after years of
working with the Park Avenue Players, Dressler accepts her presence.
“She doesn’t have a reputation that makes people scared,” he said.
“We’re currently working on ‘The Crucible,’ and the kids make jokes
that with the hangings, she would like this play.”
Although stories about the spirit have been scarce in the past
couple of years, Clarissa is part of the history of the Artists
Theatre, originally built as the Laguna School auditorium in 1929.
Dressler has run into former alumni who know of -- or had encounters
with -- the infamous presence.
But not everyone -- most notably Tod Kubo, founder and director of
the Laguna Beach High School Dance Company -- finds Clarissa so
Dressler remembers discussing a project with Kubo when without
warning he looked over his shoulder in the middle of the
“He felt a hand on his shoulder,” Dressler recalled.
The only problem was that no one was standing behind or alongside
Kubo, who had been visibly upset by the incident.
Whether or not Clarissa is a ghost or the product of wild
imaginations, Dressler knows that something was with him when he
appeared at the theater on a stormy December morning in 1997.
He had driven past mudslides and gaping holes of water to retrieve
some paperwork he had left behind the night before.
“I reached for the door handle and it swung open as if someone
opened it,” he said.
He felt something pull him into the theater that echoed with
ringing alarms and the trickling of water.
Stumbling through the darkness, he found himself in the basement
where he discovered two feet of water. Not wasting another minute,
Dressler called students and parents for help. Volunteers yanked
costumes and props out of storage, sandbagged the premises and bailed
out the basement, saving the theater.
To this day, Dressler is convinced that it was Clarissa who guided
“It was a profound experience,” he said. “One that I’ll never
* MARY A. CASTILLO is a news assistant for the Coastline Pilot.
She covers education, public safety and City Hall. She can be reached