Ph.D. Student’s Experimental Theater Project to Get Audiences Moving
Photo by Amber Key
You’re at the Titanic Memorial in Southwest Washington, D.C., standing in the shadow of a soaring granite figure with outstretched arms perched above the Potomac River. You’re carrying a box containing various odds and ends: a stick of Juicy Fruit Gum you’re told via written instructions to chew, and a phone number you’re supposed to call. You dial it, and you hear voice mail recordings of a man describing to his faraway partner the sights he’s seeing right where you’re standing, and how much he needs their help to solve a growing mystery.
While it sounds like a strange dream, you're actually participating in someone else's unconventional reimagining of theater—a new kind of performance co-created by Jonelle Walker, a University of Maryland doctoral candidate in theatre and performance studies. Last year, spurred by the widespread shuttering of physical stages due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Walker wrote the interactive, experimental piece “Distance Frequencies,” in which subscribers received monthly boxes full of instructions and components that pushed forward an unspooling plot.
Next week, Walker and D.C.’s Rorschach Theatre premiere a new iteration of what they call the “Psychogeographies Project,” “Chemical Exile.”
Unsure of how to salvage their 2020-21 season after having to cancel their slate of shows, associate producer Walker and the rest of the Rorschach team dreamed up the “idea of a box subscription service where we could take our brand of installation theater—an immersive, magical realism experience—and bring that outside to the landscape and built environment of the National Capital Region,” said Walker.
Each month, from October through June, subscribers will receive a box filled with “handcrafted artifacts, letters and a set of instructions” directing them to a specific location whenever they want. Over time, the experiences build a story, chapter by chapter, that will culminate in a live performance in July.
In the story, a scientist named Teddy arrives in Washington, D.C., from Amsterdam for her brother’s engagement party, but discovers that “the city has changed,” Walker said. (The title of the show is a reference to the main character’s profession and her status as an American living abroad.)
The process of creating “Distance Frequencies” last year was like “building the plane as we flew it,” Walker said. “From box to box, we were learning how this was going to work.” It seemed to beguile both audiences and reviewers: 500 people subscribed in 15 states, Mexico and the United Kingdom. (Video designer Kyle Brannon filmed first-person experiences of the sites for those who couldn’t make it in person.) A review in DC Metro Theater Arts described the piece as a “journey imbued with a bit of magic.”
The project resonates with audiences longing for both theater and connection, Walker said. Through video salons to discuss the project, she learned that “our subscribers really created a community not just with us but with each other,” she said. “They’d talk about seeing each other at the site, they’d notice the distinctive green paper we put in our boxes. The best feedback we got was people saying this was what got them through the pandemic.”
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