dear theatre cough

carte blanche is a monthly column by storyteller and artist bahia watson. this is a free space.

dear theatre cough,

the day is grey and moody and i am thinking about you. it has been too long since my ear has caught your spontaneous song, my lighthouse, my sound in the dark.

i know this letter may come as a surprise. i wanted to say: i’m sorry. i apologize for treating you like an inconvenience when all you wanted was to be heard. i hear you now and, i never thought i’d say it but, i miss you.

you were always there, somewhere, hiding in the space between the story and the village, shapeshifting. how many ways to love thee, let me count: acidic wine reflux coughburp, nervous emotional distraction throat clearing, commentary coughs that tell the world: we are bothered by your smoke effects, asthma, allergies, colds, the plague.

night after night, show after show, an actor calls and you respond, oh brave hack, penetrating the fourth wall, you are an instrument connecting the room. the way you never doubt yourself, refusing to be silenced, i admire that in you. the way you would weave through the dark, like passing notes, one cough inspiring a next, which set free a throat in the balcony, and from then until curtain every itch was allowed to be audibly scratched, you liberator, what i’d give to hear your revolutionary call!

and i’ve tried, oh how i have tried, to hold you back from your destiny. remember the way i’d fill my dressing room station with everything i could think of to stop you in your tracks: swedish lozenges, expensive honey, an entire box of throat coat tea, bee propolis spray, ginger candies, tums, pepto-bismol, two inhalers, a small steamer when i could find one – and still, you found me. all the q&as and talkbacks everyone asked about remembering lines – they should have been asking about working with you!

when i did the penelopiad at buddies in bad times theatre, i’ll never forget, there was this one scene, where all the maids had to stand still and silently waver on stage, evoking a ghostly tombstone forest while megan follows (thee original anne with an e) delivered a beautifully long monologue penned by margaret atwood. if anyone looked closely at me they might think, oh wow, that ghost is really feeling it, as my eyes welled and poured, but it wasn’t the tragic destiny of the maids nor penelope’s sorry fate that moved me to tears, it was you, sensitive frog of the throat. thank you for challenging me as you did.

i promise never to criminalize you, i know they will. they’re doing that to your whole kind. it’s just a few bad apples, can’t they see – you’re different. you are tradition. i can’t help but extend my concern to your sister, stage expectorate; i know they’ll demonize her too, as though they’ve never seen the beauty of a full voice transformed into a delicate cascade that sparkles in the light. i will defend both of your rights to exist. the powers that be don’t appreciate the arts.

i’m not just saying this, but i’ve always been drawn to you, in particular. coughed right through junior high, high school, and every date i’ve been on – it’s part of my identity – but once i took the stage, i finally understood: you are the performer here and i am the audience, you are the bull and i, your matador, and the text i speak is merely the red cloak i swipe and swirl to get you to advance and reveal your strength. all along the majesty was you.

we always talked about you, the righteous voice of the people, you know. in the wings, in the dressing rooms, after one of your especially impressive performances stage management might comment over program sound. “did you hear that one? sounded intestinal.” “he’s doing it on purpose.” “they always sit in the front row.” “was that a sheep dying?” a fearless surprise keeping us on our toes, you loved a pin-drop performance, didn’t you? it always seemed that was your preferred staging: the solo, the room’s full attention witnessing your dramatic arrival. other nights we’d have to raise our voices to join your symphonic choir of croaks, oh great equalizer, humbling the most exalted among us.

oh, that reminds me! i heard about this one legendary time that you apparently stopped a show, you naughty scene thief! i came to hear of it through a friend of a friend, down the grapevine you know, so pardon the details, this is how it was told to me:

it was the old tom paterson theatre at the stratford festival, maybe 2016? 2017? and theatre being the niche community it is, regular patrons, subscribers, and at the top: the holy donors, become well known, and there was this one woman, had to be over 65, who was known for, not only being very supportive, but also being very likely to… cause a disturbance. that season, i remember being warned about a patron renowned for eating complex meals and snacks during shows and i’m not sure if that was also her, but on this particular afternoon, this particular patron sought an expression of a sonic variety. in an attempt to smooth things out, an usher was paired with her, and together they sat. directly in the front row. naturally.

the lights go down, the lights snap up – the show is on. two actors are suddenly on the stage and one of them begins to speak: “sire!” (i’m making this part up) “sire! i COUGH… sire, i COUGH… didn’t expect you to COUGH be here COUGH after you COUGH slept with my COUGH wife COUGH COUGH COUGH and COUGH killed COUGH… her.” end scene.

from backstage the incoming actors could hear the prophesied disturbance manifesting itself. enter male lead. he’s about to launch into a soliloquy, an already challenging piece of text to deliver, and decides to take a long pause, gathering and grounding the energy of the room, which, at that moment, was completely silent. finally, he inhales, “it was- COOOOUGH.” the audience is starting to murmur.

enter female lead. she was one of those young, powerhouse actors, you know, a real stage commander. hundreds of people sitting restlessly in the round, staring at her, the murmur now growing into full conversations. nevertheless – she persisted. “i do declar-COUGH that your wife COUGH was the COUGH COUGH best COUGH sex COUGH that i ever COUGH did COUGH have COUGH… besidestheking COUGHCOUGHCOUGH.”

from centerstage she looks out on her beloved audience, people are talking – people are leaving! this is a nightmare. this, is chaos.

the rule is that an actor continues until the stage manager saves them and stops the show, but what do you do when no one comes to save you? this wasn’t some TV show that could be replayed or funnelled into private headphones, it was live, and so was the competitive bleating emanating from the front row. and so, this brave actor raised her hand in the air, and like some joan of arc, declared: enough, is enough. and at that moment, the show ceased to go on. epiiiiic.

the audience roared with relieved applause, as there is nothing more agonizing than actors struggling in front of you while being forced to watch. all the while, there’s this woman’s appointed usher beside her with an opened bottle of water, sweating buckets, begging her to drink, begging her to leave, but the woman simply would not take a sip, she just kept coughing, “i paid money!”

well, the audience started to get ornery and, i heard, they all started chanting and yelling at her to leave, real mob mentality style, and still she would not! the front of house called 911 – this was an emergency! police, fire fighters, paramedics rushed into that old barnhouse theatre and eventually had to carry her out!  banging could be heard from the lobby – she was fighting to get back in!

everyone cheered at her successful banishment and then, finally, the show did go on, and what i’ve always wondered is: after that, the next person who coughed, because i know someone did – did everyone burst out in laughter?

oh, the tragicomedy, you tricky upstager. what was that, a turn in bouffon? pushing buttons to reveal our true societal nature? i can’t believe you, you brilliant disrupter of systems! but is it true? the police? you sly robber of the show, do playwrights try to orchestrate your death? do directors attend their openings with pillows tucked in their sleeves, ready to smother your every ahem and ahahaaagghh? they would never win, you are an ancient storytelling ritual, an everlasting bark.

what will become of us both, i wonder. has anyone ever told a single story without you? we are family; theatre is a life i live and wheeze, we are a coughing culture, are we not? maybe that’s why people keep mistaking us for dying, but what they fail to understand is, these are sounds of the living! these are people participating in the present by interrupting actors in the middle of their big important speech to declare: i am right here and this thing is alive!

oh, how time apart doth mature the heart, my ticklish love. i long to hear from you again.

from my sweet memories of the stage, to you,

bahia


3 Responses to “dear theatre cough”

  1. Yeah, we were pretty intolerant of human noises back then weren’t we: “This is live theatre, not a movie! Who do they think they are?!” Who did we think *we* were, I wonder. Little did we know. I miss them now. Good one Bahia. V

  2. My wife and I were in attendance for that Stratford performance you mentioned. Can’t remember what the play was but certainly remember the woman. She had also been at the theatre the previous evening, and was mildly disruptive. But the following afternoon she was making it impossible for the actors to carry on. It wasn’t exactly coughing but was some sort of exclamation, sounded like “Baa”. One of the male leads finally said something like: “And, I think we’re going have to stop right there.”
    The female lead, as I recall, twirled her umbrella and said, while shrugging, “Live theatre.”‘
    The woman eventually was escorted out by paramedics and the play, which was 40 minutes in, started over. Not everybody cheered her departure, although all were I’m sure relieved. Some compassion was shown.

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Written By

Bahia Watson is a storyteller born and raised under the prairie skies of Manitoba. She is a tender black woman with a mountain of feelings most often expressed through acting, writing, and the occasional song.