Hugging strangers at the Southbank Centre

HUG at the Southbank Centre

The audience mid-HUG

My fellow performer handed me her phone. She had just received a text from a friend, and it turned out I had been hugging that same friend in our last performance. I read the text and my breath caught a little:

“He sang just like my uncle, who’s passed away. And it felt like I was hugging him one last time”

There was more to the message, all of it very nice. But I couldn’t get over that one line. I still can’t get over it really.

One of the joys of singing, and performing in general, is branching out of our comfort zones and testing ourselves. A lot of the time I’ve done this with Pop-Up, whether it was Argentine circle singing or providing vocal back up to some extremely weird organ music. However it’s also good to branch out of the choir itself sometimes and try something truly outside the group’s repertoire and experience.

When the Southbank Centre’s singing initiative Voicelab contacted Pop-Up with some singing opportunities, one caught my eye. HUG. I wish I had better reasons for why it caught my eye and I chose to audition for it, but the real reason is pretty simple.

This thing sounded weird.

HUG at the Southbank Centre

So what is HUG? Composed by Verity Standen, HUG is an extremely intimate performance in which audience members are seated in a dark room, blindfolded and then sung to. During this roughly 25-minute performance each audience member is held by one of the singers in a variety of positions, allowing them to experience the performance not just through sound but by touch and feel also. Singing while a stranger was resting their head on your shoulder? It doesn’t get much further out of the comfort zone for either the performers or the audience.

Verity and a group of singers have taken HUG all over the country, including Bristol, Southampton and Edinburgh. Performance sizes have varied, in some instances Verity and her small band simply perform on their own. In other instances, the group trains a larger number of performers to provide a larger sound (as well as significantly more hugs for the public). The performances I was auditioning for were to be HUG’s London debut, as well as the show’s largest collection of singers (almost 30) to date.

I made it through the auditions and gathered with a motley crew of singers, from all sorts of backgrounds, two days before we were set to perform. We learnt and rehearsed the show over two sessions, learning the largely wordless sounds we would be performing and the various holds we would place our audience in. The music itself went through all sorts of changes, quiet and tender, loud and triumphant, ethereal and clashing, and seemed to capture the full range of emotions one might sing about. Before we knew it, we were ready to perform, and we proceeded to pack in the shows, four a day. It was intense, but we were getting the opportunity to hug and experience the performance with lots of different people.

This was fascinating, as every hug was different in some way. There were bear hugs, gentle squeezes, leaning over to hug short people, leaning back to hug tall people. Some audience members clench, completely ill at ease with the process (these were thankfully rare). Some unfurl over the performance, gradually becoming more receptive to the music and your hug. Others are extremely receptive to the hug, holding you tight, swaying with the music. One enthusiastic individual even began nuzzling their head into my neck, although that was maybe being a little too receptive… Regardless, it was fascinating to experience the ways a simple action we perform every day can have so many iterations, and produce so many reactions.

HUG at the Southbank Centre

Verity Standen

The performers were not the only ones discovering unique experiences. During rehearsals, we had each had a chance to experience the performance as audience members ourselves, and it was eye opening. Divorced from words, actions or even eye contact, every part of the performance is conveyed through the voice and the embrace that the “hug-ee” is placed in. This is strangely liberating for the audience. There’s no smile to tell them they should be happy, no lyrics to shape the narrative they are experiencing, no Mariah-esque finger wave to punctuate just. how. technically. on. point. this. is. Its just the touch, the music and the audiences reaction and feelings, whatever that may be.

And hoo-boy do some of them feel. Just like the hugs they give, every “hug-ees” reaction is unique. Some came out of the process relaxed and serene, some seemed stunned, many just started hugging their friends. And then there were tears. In some instances a whole lot of tears, from at least one or two audience members every time. We had to perform emergency drying operations on blindfolds between performances. Something about the intimacy and the music just seemed to unlock the flood gates in some people, and it was strange to react to as a performer. On one hand you feel terrible, and maybe a little uncomfortable, for making them cry, but on the other hand, it’s a very obvious sign that you have moved someone, that the individual in question reacted to your performance.

Which brings us back full circle to our man with the message. Because as I read his message I remembered the man in question, and he had not cried. He didn’t bounce out of the performance hugging people. In fact, he had not done much of anything. While I would later find out I had made an impression on him, to me, he had been wholly unremarkable. He had seemed to enjoy being hugged, or at least wasn’t repulsed by it. On reflection, perhaps he smiled a little at the end. But that was all that he showed. There was no clinging embrace, no tears, just a quiet acceptance. While some around him seemed deeply moved by the experience he just got up and left, another performance, another audience member. And yet, to him the hug had mattered, more than I ever could have known whilst giving it. It had given him something neither of us could have expected.

So I guess it’s worth a reminder, because what’s the point of going outside your comfort zones if you don’t ultimately learn something? Next time you have the chance to sing to someone, or hug someone, or frankly, next time you have the chance to do anything nice for anyone, you should really do it. You never know how much it might mean.

P.S. The man with the message also said I smelt really good. That’s not really relevant to the story. I just want that info out there.

This post was written by Michael Hardy, who you can see performing the solo in our take on Common People.

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