Call and Response
by Joe Howsin
The regal surroundings of the grand theatre never cease to fill me with wonderous dread. But this occasion is different, I’ve never on stage at night before, and I’ve never heard the place so devoid of sound. The rows of pews from floor to gallery are still and silent, the boxes and balconies loom above, reserved and judgemental.
Blackness wreathes the space, disturbed only by the sharp shaft of stage lighting I’d requested be left on while I practice tonight. I need to be able to reach the back rows and beyond if I’m to become something more than background. The stage stretches on either side of me in expectation. The sets and other performers will not come until opening night. The desert of polished wood taunts me with this hollow promise and warns me that I might not be among them next time. From the diaphragm. Annunciate. Tentatively, the first notes scramble into the abyss which promptly rejects their presumption. With more force, a lyric lurches forward to be lost in the deserted seats. A lead vocalist’s projection needs to reach the ears of god and beyond with concealed effort. Finally, a low note enters the void and travels throughout the theatre, only slightly flat. I correct it and again, louder still, a note rings out amongst the absent audience. A faint echo is given back to the stage. Let the acoustics work with you. Give the house everything, and it will give you something back in return.
I venture a few bars that the theatre greedily absorbs, the acoustics deliver them to each row and balcony up and up until the roof and walls and floor and doors halt their expansion. I gasp, I gulp; the last string of music pulls from my throat as if by its own will. Too much effort. Let the breath flow naturally. From the diaphragm. Annunciate. Forget the throat. Work with the acoustics. I pace the empty stage. I should be leading the troupe by now. I’ve sang for this theatre so many times but always from the shadows, I need to project my voice further. I must fill the space. With less thought and more instinct I run through the first song on the bill in full, I don’t care about the tone or the tempo, I simply need to exorcize the sounds. The notes rise and fall amongst the seating and caress the intricate murals which adorn the stage’s frame and the balconies beyond. The rhythm fills my mind until I cannot feel or control my body. The theatre gnaws my music away, yet I keep feeding it, keeping it always full but always wanting. I stop abruptly. Cutting off the crescendo. My nerves and flesh cannot support the weight of the space. I’m drowning in a vacuous maw of red plush seats, plasticine cherubs and brass railings. My throat feels a little sore. I need to relax, save my strength. Let the space take me. Push the sound out and into the jaws of the theatre.
Looking out into the abyssal seating I become hypnotised by the possessive symmetry of the empty palace. Like a place of worship, like the home of a god, the seats face me in reverence, each mural and stature poised on either side in my honour. I feel myself descending, lower, deeper, letting myself enter the temple of music. I am by a whisper, an invitation towards agonising perfection. Only my own minute failures act as my thread out of the labyrinthine trance. I feel dazed and confused but find comfort in it. My mortality ensures a comfortable grounding upon the stage. But the theatre doesn’t want comfortable, neither does my crowd. I gather my breath, and expel a beatific chorus of lyric and rhythm as everything else falls into oblivion below and above and around me. I can hear my echo clearer now, I feel like my own audience. I feel an urge to applaud myself knowing the theatre will reciprocate in kind. I feel the tug of my thread beckoning me back, but I ignore it and plunge further into the ecstasy of unnatural perfection. The theatre returns my voice to me like a recording and I adore it. I perform further into the labyrinth of sounds more determined than ever; it is effortless now, the sound simply tumbles out, like oxygen into a vacuum. The theatre caresses me with its song. I feel life being poured and pulled from my soul all at once. I cannot stop myself now. I’m revelling in my one-woman duet.
All at once it ceases, and I feel like a pit. Everything is lost to me; my seats and porcelain features echo a perpetual silence. I realise that I’m flat on my back and bleeding from the nose, my ears are ringing. A seizure? It’s been years. I blush as though caught prancing in the night time streets outside. I look to the theatre for reassurance and venture a, “hello?” The theatre reciprocates with my own voice. The harsh blast of the singular spotlight cradles me back onto my feet, and I regain my composure. I have it. I have it. I can’t stop now.
I call out to the cherubs painted on the ceiling and they join me, the echo of my soul creating a round, perfectly in tempo. The crescendo is coming. The rapping of my blood on the stage floor beats a rhythm for us as we all sing together: the cherubs, the statues, the murals, the seats, the walls and ceilings and doors. I call and they respond, they respond, and I call, I can hear it! I can hear it! I open my mouth to start the final chorus but before I can create it the theatre interrupts me with one of its own. I’m out of time. I compose myself, I can’t fail my audience. I improvise, the shadows can lead, I just want to be a part of something so perfect. I dutifully follow the chorus in its rise and fall with grace and humility, until I notice my throat no longer vibrates. My tongue no longer moves. My blood no longer drips. We’re singing together now. A true duet. And it’s perfect.
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