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Blood brothers? Virtually

On being a one-man audience.

Dawson Hann has seen plenty of one-man and one-woman shows in his time, but watching this year’s St Kilda Road Senior School play, Blood Brothers, was his first experience as a one-man audience.

I’m sitting in Adamson Hall late on a Sunday morning, on the last day of May with winter officially about to get underway. I’ve sat here countless times before, usually waiting for a final dress rehearsal of a play or musical to labour into life. This time I'm in no way linked to the Adamson Theatre Company production I'm about to see – Willy Russell's Blood Brothers. Directors Marcus Pinnell and Clare Cooper are in the middle of their last words to the cast when I arrive. I attract several cheery Wesley waves from some in the cast I still know, but appropriate social distancing is observed. No theatrical pre-show hugs. The technicians are in their places waiting quietly.

The difference this time is that I’m not in the audience, I am the audience – an audience of one. Another difference is that five cameras are positioned around the stage, which resembles a film set. And in many ways, it is. For this is not a final rehearsal – that happened back in early March. Today’s two performances, for the double casts, are the only live performances this production will ever have. The filmed version will eventually become embedded in the memory, since all artistic memory for the time being is digital.

What’s a play with an audience of one?

I sit with different kinds of anxieties about what’s soon to happen on the stage, and how the actors might, or might not, deal with terrifying notions of emptiness. It’s a different kind of empty space than for a final rehearsal. This will be it– the entire season – and there will be none of the human warmth to draw from, which characterises live theatre and impels performers to reach the grand heights they long for. Like a football game without a crowd.

For nothing like this has ever taken place before. Only a day or so before opening night back in March, the world we know changed its shape, its suddenly new contours unfamiliar and, for many, full of anxiety. You’ve rehearsed a play for two months, mastered your lines over the summer break, sweated on the finest details of character and plot, fallen behind in your homework, maybeand suddenly it’s all gone, just moments before it was all to be actualised beneath the memorable beauty of stage lighting, and energised by the human rhythms of a full house. The play, a fragile thing anyway, was gone in an instant. It’s not hard to imagine the devastation for all those in the cast when what has been their life for a short but crucial period is no longer to happen. Even the blackout that brings a live performance to an end is heart-rending – ‘It’s over!’ – but this was just not comparable. The first is sad and regrettable, but entirely necessary; the other is beyond normal understanding.

I felt for them, but what can you do? Stand on a darkened stage in an empty theatre and you will feel something like what must have been a true emotional emptiness. And as I sit here on this Sunday two months later with the life of Blood Brothers about to be momentarily restored, I think that this wonderful set before my eyes, depicting the social divisions which are at the heart of this play, has been sitting untouched in the dark of Adamson Hall, for all that time just an exemplar of art and design. Beautiful, but useless. For what is ‘a set’ without the human traffic that passes through it? This is the unity at the heart of drama. I’m moved close to tears as ‘the play that once was’ starts and breathes again.

A film crew filming a stage without audience
The cameras are ready to roll in a context never before encountered in Adamson Hall, the spiritual home of the Adamson Theatre Company

As the house lights dim and the stage lights usher in their temporary magical reality, the cameras start to roll in a context never before encountered here in this famous Wesley place. I still feel apprehension for the cast, can’t help wondering whether their feelings of betrayal by the cruel oddities of life itself may overwhelm them, rob them of the incentive and energy to breathe life again into something they had previously made real, only to see it taken away in a moment.

But why these anxieties? I take comfort immediately in the knowledge that these are our kids, alive to the marvels of theatre over many years, and I have known them and their kind for four decades and have felt, too often to count, their passions and self-belief.

The performances achieve the impossible, filling a nearly empty darkness, a virtual human vacuum, with all the pathos, poignancy, humour and wretchedness of Willy Russell’s deeply human world of struggle, triumph and tragedy. Nothing is left at the end, and they have done what actors do – made you believe in somewhere else. The spirit – and spiritedness – of these young performers, their ‘daring to do,’ is simply inspiring. It’s a sublime moment in these troubling times.

Even the curtain calls have not been over-looked. And at the final blackout at the end of both performances, there is the spontaneous exultant shout as usual, affirming a job well done. Nothing is different.

It is, true, an historic event, but that description in itself doesn’t tell the real story – of how the dark alone-ness of a single-person audience is suddenly relieved by the light of hope, and belief, and a comprehensive refusal to be intimidated.

I have felt Adamson Hall filled to this depth many, many times in the past, but never quite in this way.

Dawson Hann is a former teacher of English and was the previous editor of Lion and a long-time director with the Adamson Theatre Company at the St Kilda Road Campus.