The Perfect Filling
For the lone theatre-goer, foyers are menacing halls of hubbub. You stand there, drink in hand, rooted to the spot, surrounded by conversing clumps. You are out of place, an isolated asocialite in the midst of a nightmarish drinks party. You flick through the programme and feign interest in the jazz; you make for corners and stare mindlessly at production stills. And then, mercy of mercies: the house opens.
I love little more than finding myself alone in a large auditorium before a show. It allows for a strange, gradual immersion, much like sitting in a bath while you run it. It allows the senses to adjust and the real world to fade to a distant, forgotten shadow. Just as a deep-sea diver must pause at regular intervals to avoid decompression sickness, so too must the audience member occasionally ease himself into a performance. Where walking into a bustling auditorium involves an immediate sensory shift – like the marked temperature change on entering a sauna – to sit through that warming process is to appreciate the magic of a space transformed. It is a remarkably relaxing experience.
An empty theatre is a void that exists in contented stability – all around you is an impervious stillness. For the majority of the day, the space has sat in idle equilibrium, mulling time, reminiscing. It need not wheeze into life but for the expectations of those gathered outside in the foyer. It hears them approaching and attempts to look lively. You enter into a sea of monochrome grey or red velvet; an insignificant blot on a constant colour scheme. The air feels heavy and deadened, any ripples through it absorbed into padding and disappearing entirely inconsequentially. Like walking through a church, your eyes drift upwards, but there is no click-clack of heel on stone. All is muted by carpet.
In the auditorium’s doorways the slightest of leaks appear, as droplets of humanity squeeze through. A handful of bodies speckle the seating, breaking its silence with whispered conversational nonentities. Gradually, the leak worsens and an irregular trickle appears in the aisles. The first suggestions of ritual emerge, as coats are shed and bags are tucked. There is a hesitancy about people. They stand at the end of rows, clutching ticket stubs to which they refer meticulously. “G19. This is us.” It’s said with a nervy confidence – almost a staking of territory.
A strange half-dance begins, as shambolic, broken conga-lines side-shuffle along rows. Now all around you is noise, soft and comforting. Through it pop phrases, snagging in your ears: “yesterday afternoon,” “Oxford Circus,” “Alan Bennett.” Then, to your immediate left, one rings louder. A simple “‘scuse me” interrupts the haze of sound. Looking to your left, you see a middle-aged couple – sideways on, of course – peering down with sycophantic smiles. You swivel to let them pass – a generous act repeated courteously, customarily deemed an inconvenience, but somehow empowering.
The trickle has become a stream, which will soon develop into patient clots around doorways. Rows of previously empty seats are now reduced to patches of bare material. Air kisses take place over their backs. Waves are thrown from one side of the room to another. The gentle babble has grown into a constant rhubarb, vibrant and warming. Then, you are joined to your right and joined a second time. Suddenly, you are in the middle of something. The words, “So this is dance is it?” tumble over your shoulder, quickly followed by the reply, “Well, dance-theatre.”
Suddenly, the room is a patchwork quilt of hair and balding crowns. Bodies lean around each other, mouths talk over one another. Rhubarb is clamour. You can no longer tell where one cluster ends and another begins. In front of you are chains of shoulders and behind, an amorphous plane of expressions. Clamour peaks at restless expectancy as doors are unhooked and the room is sealed. Waistcoated ushers melt unnoticed into corners. The lights dim and with them the noise descends to silence, broken only by the strains of another world.