Downtown is deserted. You could imagine tumbleweeds blowing down Main Street past the theater’s façade. I pull into the truck dock, where another vehicle is already parked. It’s Derek. We’ve worked together a couple times before, and we exchange a happy long-distance high five through our car windows. We are about to begin a dance which will continue all night. Like kids at a middle school social being cautioned to “leave room for Jesus” for the next three hours we will maintain a distance of six feet from each other at all times. To this end, I enter the building first and turn off the alarm. He follows shortly afterwards, carrying two guitar cases. And together, apart, we make our way to the stage.
This is a new venture for our theater. Two nights ago, Derek was supposed to be opening the show for several big-name country stars. But with that gig postponed, he has offered to come play anyway, in an empty room. And to stream that concert live on the internet.
The air in the theater is cool and dry. There is a faint smell of Lysol everywhere in the building. On stage that scent mingles oddly with the more familiar smells of paint and wood and dust being warmed up on light fixtures that haven’t been turned on for too long. The air is so still. Before we left the building in March, we turned off all the electronic equipment. There are no fans whirring in the attic. I can’t remember hearing the room this silent.
The live stream starts at eight o’clock. This gives us two hours to get ready. I roll out an area rug in the middle of the apron of the stage and set a stool on it. Facing the stool, we put our video camera, looking out into the empty house. Derek will be singing with his back to where the audience normally would be. We leave the stage dark apart from a pool of light on the stool and rug. In the background, the empty seats keep watch in the shadows. I had expected this to look spooky, but it’s actually strangely reassuring.
With the camera rolling, Derek puts on a pair of headphones connected to his laptop. On the other end of the connection is Patrick, his manager, several states away. Patrick listens in to the sound from our end, and sizes up the picture feed. He tells us what is needed. More volume from the guitar please. The vocals need reverb. What’s that strange light – it looks like a laser beam is stuck in Derek’s head. Can you move those water bottles out of the shot? And so forth. Finally, Patrick is happy. We hook up a big-screen TV behind the camera and connect it to Facebook so Derek can see what is going out on the web.
And from there, we have fifteen minutes left until we go live. Derek goes to change clothes – he gets a fresh hoodie – this is a country show, not the opera after all. And then Patrick gives us the countdown. At eight pm we are live. And for the next sixty five minutes, Derek plays and sings his heart out. He tells stories, interacts with fan comments he can see on the big TV, and above all lets his voice soar in the empty room. It’s amazing. I’m the only audience member in the room, and yet I know I’m part of a huge socially-distanced crowd. Live, the number of viewers is already impressive, but over the days to come that figure stretches to many thousands. All of us drawn together by beauty.
At just after nine o’clock, Derek starts his final song. Hallelujah, by Leonard Cohen. It’s a haunting performance. He pauses before the final notes, then lets out one last feral “hallelujah” like it’s been ripped from his heart. God bless you, he says to the camera, and the show is over.
As carefully as we set up, we tear down. Still keeping our distance. Derek calls his family while I disconnect all the wires. Patrick texts to say it looked good on the internet. As we are leaving the stage, I set out the ghost light and plug it in. A dim glow touches the gold paint on the far walls. The room is quiet again. I miss this place.
Music: "Hallelujah" (Leonard Cohen) performed by Derek Jones