I close the door, and remind myself to breathe.
The audience have just been greeted by Verity [Standen] and led into the performance space. With what – I hope – is a reassuring smile, I shut the door behind them. I hear Verity ask the audience to take a seat of their choice from the chairs spread around the room, and to blindfold themselves. Then silence.
Jump back 72 hours. Verity and her team of professional performers are gathered in a circle, surrounded by eager faces. A wonderful group of community singers have met together for the first time and they are introducing themselves. The group share facts about their singing experience and their lives. A few minutes later, Verity is leading the group through vocal warm-ups, trilling up and down accelerating scales. In just three days, this ensemble will perform Verity’s critically acclaimed "a cappella sound bath" HUG.
So, in the silence after the audience has entered the performance space, I feel nervous. I have little reason to feel nervous personally – my role at this stage is essentially a security guard for the coats and bags we’ve asked the audience to leave outside the room. But I feel intensely aware of the work that’s been put in over the last 72 hours. There’s the team of experienced "huggers" who have talked and sung through each part of the polyphonic music, and offered their personal advice on the best ways to go about embracing a blindfolded stranger; there’s the community singers who have absorbed complex vocal parts in just a handful of sessions and who are now responsible for the total experience of an individual audience member; and there’s Verity, who has composed this breathtaking music and sculpted this experience.
The first notes creep through the crack in the door. The sound builds as each singer enters the performance space and joins the song, unseen by the audience. A shuffle of feet lets me know that the singers have reached their allocated chair and are gently raising each audience member to a standing position. It is at this point that I begin to relax, because I remember my own first experience of HUG, as an audience member. I remember feeling intimidated as I waited for physical contact, voices soaring and moving around me. But then I remember the sensation of an unseen singer gently holding my shoulders and positioning her diaphragm so I could feel it moving against me. I remember my worry melting into curiosity. And, as the song built around me once more – now feeling my singer amongst the rich weave of voices – I remember my curiosity melting into wonder. Nerves were gone. I was inside the music.
Around 25 minutes later, I open the door. The audience begins to filter out. Some rush out of the space, exhilarated; many sit for a while, contemplative; some share laughter with their friends and quite a few shed tears – whether this is because the sound and touch they have just felt has induced a powerful thought or memory, or whether this is simply an instinctive reaction to the beauty of the music, it’s hard to tell. No two reactions are the same, just as no two human voices – or hugs – are the same.
I am thrilled and daunted in equal measure by the possibility of sharing this remarkable piece with international audiences. Thrilled because it feels like a near-perfect opportunity to forge strong links with worldwide partners; HUG is non-verbal – Verity could, I suspect, even teach the entire show to new performers without using any words – relying entirely on the international language of music. And I am daunted because there is no way to control or prescribe how any individual audience member will react. Touring the piece abroad will be a journey further into the unknown. I look forward to meeting people at the British Council Edinburgh Showcase who can help us steer this remarkable piece along that journey.
Tom Spencer is Producer for HUG by Verity Standen, which is playing at South Leith Parish Church Hall 24 - 28 August and is part of the British Council Edinburgh Showcase.