With my ear to the wall, I tilt into the small sound of Porøset 6 Act 1 (all works 2016) playing from a round speaker set into the ground-floor gallery at Union Pacific. The composition is part of Elephant Man (2013), by the Danish composer Louise Alenius, which also forms the soundtrack to The Invisible Voice, Julie Born Schwartz’s 14-minute video work, projected in the basement. The soundtrack’s thumping cello and pizzicato violin come crashing up the stairs, making it difficult to listen to Porøset 6 Act 1 without my attention being divided between the two levels of sound and space.
Not listed as a work is the vinyl that covers the entirety of the large, street-level window, saturating the room with a rich blue light. Blue has, traditionally, been the colour of backstage theatre lighting. Two bronze chandeliers from Schwartz’s personal archives interrupt the technician’s realm with their dusty front-of-house glamour. On the balustrade, a small library of antiquarian books on loan from The Court Theatre in Copenhagen, alternatively marks the space as a rehearsal room or prop store.
At the bottom of the stairs, a thick curtain gives way to the darkness of the basement. Despite the brightness of the video, which flashes details of the theatre after hours against one long wall – dressing rooms, trap rooms, a dried rose dangling from the light flex – visibility is almost zero. ‘No one must notice you,’ says a voice. ‘Then you are invisible,’ says another.
The voices in the video are those of theatrical prompters – professional readers positioned between the actors and the audience and suspended above the stage, or hidden among scenery or in boxes built into the stage floor. ‘If you were in the audience you would see a rock,’ explains one prompter in voice-over. Interestingly, another describes the trust shared by actor and prompter as ‘rock solid’ as, onscreen, the camera rests on a set painting in which a volcano erupts. Another compares the decline of the prompting profession with the environmental damage caused by diverting a river. Voice after voice describes a landscape of emotional dependency, the tricky terrain between memory and action, internal and external performances, human and non-human worlds.
Coincidences of language and image are complicated by the film’s interest in language as music. One prompter lists the languages he has worked in – German, English, Czech, Russian – adding that he can only ‘parrot’ the latter, marking the script with phonetic approximations. The prompters’ spoken Danish is relayed in English subtitles. For viewers not fluent in Danish, the subtitles are to be taken on trust, their transparency tested when a typo intrudes: ‘Becasuse then you are invisible.’ This is all the more fascinating for appearing in a work that examines human error as an anticipated part of the performance, an affirmation of a humane interdependency. In the film’s final scene, we see the prompter’s hand – the only moment in which a body is visible – marking her script. ‘I write with small letters,’ she explains; a pause and she laughs: ‘I have misspelled.’ The whirr of the prompter’s mechanical eraser resonates beyond the cut to black.
The only time the interviewer’s voice is heard, it is prompting a prompter who searches helplessly for a word. ‘Magic?’ the interviewer suggests, the word appearing in the centre of the screen, replacing an image of a caterpillar suspended by an invisible thread, which recalls the prompters hanging in harnesses from the rafters. This moment of brief departure from the theatre’s interior also gestures towards structures of support hidden within communities and personal relationships, the lifelines that bind us together in responsibility, but also in love. ‘Magic!’ the prompter immediately replies.
Holly Corfield Carr is a poet and writer based in Bristol and Cambridge, UK. She received an Eric Gregory Award from the Society of Authors in 2012 and was the winner of the Frieze Writer’s Prize in 2015.
First published in Issue 179