1 March 2021…
In this excerpt, Stella is the lighting designer and technician for a performance art show by her friend Benjamin Tracey, called A Beautiful Kind of Annihilation. Walter has come to see the show at an arts festival in a small London theatre…
“Walter notices a ripple of movement go through the crowd outside, and then he looks at his watch and sees it is time for Stella’s show. He files into the building with people from the outside crowd, then up the stairs and into the small, black box theatre. He takes a seat on the third tier of risers, one in from the aisle, with a vague hope that maybe Stella will see him and come to sit next to him. Then he starts to look around for her. He finds her behind him, in the audience seating, two tiers further up, on the other side of the aisle, at the control desk. She is busy glancing between a notebook in her lap and a laptop on the desk, and simultaneously speaking into her microphone headset.
In the few minutes before the start of the show, Walter keeps looking back at her, trying to catch her eye, but then he realises that it’s probably not a good moment to let her know he’s here.
Then the house lights go down, the rumbling crowd quiets, and the theatre is in complete darkness, except for the glowing white ‘Exit’ sign over the door to the left of the audience. The back of the stage is a large screen, projected to be black, and then white text appears on it, in total silence, once sentence at a time:
I love this moment.
All these possibilities.
Everything could happen next.
(Nothing could also happen next. It’s performance art.)
The audience chuckles, the first real sound.
Is it possible that everything is nothing, and nothing is everything?
Close your eyes.
No, really, close your eyes.
I mean it – it’s necessary for the show – close your eyes.
Okay, you can open them again – hey, caught you!
This gets another laugh from the audience. The few people in the theatre who had closed their eyes open them at the laughter. Then Stella’s light effect of deconstruction deconstructs the blackness, and the stage is bathed in chaotic particles of light that outline Benjamin’s form like a man-shaped light sculpture at first, and then it is as if he is bathed in a sunrise, and finally a warm, bright light.
He is crouching on stage, and slowly straightens up, then shakes himself, says, ‘Ah, welcome, welcome — if you’re really here, that is.’ He is dressed in a black velvet suit over a black t-shirt, his wild-gelled dark hair hovering six inches up from his face, as usual. He closes his eyes dramatically, screwing up his face around his closed eyes, to show what he is doing. ‘Nope, see, now you’re not here. This time, everybody, close your eyes.’ Most of the audience do.
‘See, now everything is gone.’ He opens one eye exaggeratedly, looking pointedly around at the audience.
‘Oh, some of you are cheating. We’ll need the lighting designer at this point.’ Then Stella cues the deconstruction effect, which fades the theatre back to pitch black, and Benjamin speaks. His rich-toned, performer’s voice booms out, velvety, in the darkness.
‘Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to the show. I have a little question for you. Does this theatre exist outside your head, or inside your head?’
Walter feels his mind bend pleasantly at this, the same way it has been bending as he has contemplated atomic space over the past few weeks.
Then Stella brings the stage lights up again, warm and bright, and Benjamin walks over to a small table with a laptop on it, and a swivel stool. He sits at the table and turns toward the large screen hanging against the long black curtain at the back of the stage. He Skype-calls his ‘parents’, who appear as an elderly couple sitting on a sofa. They appear to be interacting with him live. He explains to them that he has always been a figment of their imagination. He argues gently with their confusion. Then he uses an old-fashioned rotary dial phone on the other side of the stage to break up with his ‘girlfriend’ in a telephone call, amusingly conveying her fictional rage through his half of the conversation, ‘If I have time to fuck myself before I cease to exist, I certainly will, darling. I’m ever so sorry.’ He puts on a safety mask, brings out a construction machine trailing its electricity cord, and drops his keys into it, to be destroyed with a piercing sound of metal being cut apart. He projects his Facebook, Instagram and Twitter accounts onto the screen, and deletes them all. He opens the laptop, projects his photos onto the screen, and deletes them. He sends an e-mail to his entire address book requesting that they wipe their memories of his existence. Then he deletes his e-mail account. Then he takes a sledgehammer to the laptop. He does everything accompanied by a light-hearted monologue in fictional conversation with the audience. He repeats one refrain several times, ‘You see, I met a wise man, or was he a wise woman? Anyway, he/she said, “You came from brilliancy. Destroy yourself and return to brilliancy. It made me curious”.’ At each destruction, Stella’s light effect, in various colours, deconstructs the audience’s perception of Benjamin while he transitions to the next stunt.
Finally, he projects on the screen the forms he has registered to change his name from Benjamin Tracey to ‘ – .’ He says, ‘You can call me Dash Dot until the big moment comes…Oh, I think it is here now…’
Then Stella’s reality shimmers arrive, and now they are multi-coloured, and this time, instead of being focused on the stage, they flit gently over the entire theatre, starting at the back of the audience, causing many people to turn around to watch behind them. As the light expands slowly towards the stage to encompass him, Walter is startled, and he thinks that it’s like somehow like being in a cloud of butterflies. It’s curiously affecting, and he feels that somehow she has harnessed the naturalness of light, so that even inside a building, he feels like nature is gently touching him. It gently twists his mind again, via his senses.
As the multi-coloured cloud of deconstructing light particles approaches the stage, and just begins to engulf him, Benjamin’s confidence seems to fail him, his face changes, and he screams, ‘Wait, no!!!! I’m not ready yet! I don’t know what comes AFTERRRRR!!!!’ Then he falls to his knees, pleading and jabbering, as the light fades to black, ‘But all of my particles, my ventricles, my cuticles, and my defensiveness and feebleness and smarts and roars and tears and irises and memories and molecules and love and hate and sex…’
And then Benjamin sobs briefly in the total darkness for several moments. The theatre is tense, compassionate. Then he falls silent. The audience sits in complete darkness and silence for 30 seconds, then one minute, then two minutes, three.
Walter has never seen a show like this before. ‘Theatre’ to him has meant Shakespeare, Tennessee Williams, Neil Simon, Broadway. Actors playing fictional parts, acting out scripts and stories. He has never seen a performer adopt a persona that is essentially a version of themselves and play with the edge of reality, or use these kinds of effects.
Throughout the show, Walter’s mind has experienced each of Benjamin’s vignettes as an invitation to drop into the atomic space he has recently been exploring, going farther into the vast distances he knows exist between his particles.
When Benjamin’s confrontation with the final deconstruction happens, Walter’s heart feels like it cracks open and bleeds pain and fear for his own death, someday. He observes the movement of this emotion inside himself from the stillness imposed by the darkened theatre around him, until finally it drains away, and he feels empty.
Then he takes a deep breath. After three minutes, from somewhere mysterious a smile comes to him, and in the fourth minute, he receives the dark and silence as pure, abstract beauty, which feels as if it is both inside him and all around him.
After four minutes and thirty-three seconds, Stella unleashes a blast of floodlight directed blindingly into the audience’s faces, from what appear to be old-fashioned, round footlights, turned around to face them, instead of the stage. The moment is accompanied by a deafening D major chord on electric guitar, amplified violin and cello, in a grand crash of gorgeous, exhilarating harmony. Many of the audience have thrown their hands up to shield their eyes, and these can dimly see the outline of three musicians standing in front of the lights. Walter’s mouth drops open in amazement as the light washes over him and the amplified sound vibrates through him, while the musicians move through a stately progression of slow major chords. It is so loud that he feels as if he is inside the music, and not the other way around. Joy, pure, fierce joy, rises in him like he has never experienced before, and suddenly he feels like screaming in ecstasy.
When the spell of the fiction is broken, and the lights and music fade, and the audience realises it’s over, they rise to their feet in one motion and roar their approval, stamping, shouting, whistling. Walter stamps and hollers along, clapping his hands high overhead, then puts his fingers against his teeth to do a piercing whistle amidst the tumult.
Benjamin is taking bow after bow and gesturing to the musicians, Alec and Rosie, who are standing behind him, and pointing to Annie and Shaun in the front row, and Stella, at the lighting desk. Stella looks at the crowd around her now, and her eye finally alights on Walter in the moment when the whistle shrieks out of him. He looks back at her after that, his face transfigured with wonder, and sees that she has finally seen him.”