Recently, I found myself traveling by car on the same stretch of Arizona highway that my theater company, Agile Rascal, had traversed on bicycle a few years prior. As the car flew by cacti and freeway exits, I saw a familiar sight in the distance – a truck stop. I suddenly recalled what it had felt like to see this beautiful, run down relic loom on the horizon of that hot lunar landscape. I could picture the face of the man who worked behind the counter, the spider in the truck stop shower, the rack of vaguely erotic romance novels right beside the ice cream freezer, the vividly colored sunset against the neon station sign.
But as the car passed, with radio playing and air conditioning blowing and engine burning, this otherworldly oasis turned back into the mundane – just another outpost on the way to our destination.
I sometimes think of this moment when I reflect on the purpose of Agile Rascal – my theater company that tours original plays on bicycle. When I started the company almost five years ago, the purpose was simply to collide my love of theater with my love of biking. At the time, there was no thought to how the collision of these two things would inform one another, or how they would lead us to bigger questions of how we bear witness to our shifting landscape, or how we bring these observations to our audience. But years later, it’s clear to me that the act of bicycling creates an awareness that transforms the landscape into a place of potential, not because of any physical change, but rather, because of a shift in perspective.
I will admit, I suppose, that Agile Rascal was created as an exercise in doing things the hard way. Hard art creation made harder by hard travel, hard cooking, hard cleaning, sleeping and bathing. Sometimes even hard relationships and hard compromises. In a landscape made up of car-dictated space and a culture consumed by screen-mediated interactions, to bring free, live performance to people without the aid of fossil fuels is nothing if not a self-imposed obstacle course.
But when you travel the land by bicycle, instantly your understanding of distance in relation to time shifts. Sixty miles is no longer an hour car ride, but instead, an entire day’s epic journey. Keep pedaling and something expands in the body, a kind of pulsing awakeness peppered with ache. Suddenly you feel the hills, the heat, the hunger, the weight of your belongings and the trash you generate – feelings that entire economies and infrastructures try to soften and hide.
In a car, the liminal, in-between spaces of freeways, gas stations and big box stores that make up so much of the American landscape are easily sped through. But on bicycle, these areas are unavoidable – their place-ness no less palpable than a beautiful and pristine national park. In more rural areas, we witness forests blackened by wildfires, spindly creek beds now dry, and mountaintops hacked bare by mining.
To bike the land is to bear witness, to both mourn and revere it. It puts this act in the body, not that unlike what we do when we step out on stage, putting our bodies into a new landscape and putting the story inside of our bodies.
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Arriving in a new town to perform our plays, I often wonder whether the audience can sense the pulsating in our muscles, can see the feral glint in our eyes. I’d like to think so. But even if they can’t, the play is an opportunity to get people out of the house, away from their screens, to gather together, often times in unconventional theater spaces and always for free.
The same absurdity that characterizes the project is also what brings non-traditional theatergoers to our shows. While we expected cyclists and environmentalists to show up, we didn’t predict how often we would meet someone on the road – at a gas station or truck stop – only to have them show up again, sometimes hundreds of miles later, at our next show. Street performers once intersected with people where they shopped and convened, but as Main streets all over the United States become boarded up, we find we meet people where they are now – on the road, in their cars, stuck in traffic, at gas stations.
If performance (and art in general) is going to stay relevant in the face of our rapidly changing environmental landscape (and the cultural, social and economic landscapes it affects), we have to push against the fast-paced, highly individualized and wasteful modes of production that late stage capitalism dictates, and we must do so not only in the messaging of our work, but also in the mode in which we create and share it.
Agile Rascal is an invitation to imagine another way. The challenge becomes not simply the challenge of inconvenience, of effort, of difficulty, but of creating new priorities – slowness, focus, community and creativity to re-imagine the landscape both as what it is and what it could be.
(Top image: The plains of Montana, 2017 Montana tour.)
Dara Silverman is the Artistic Director of Agile Rascal Theatre, a company that tours innovative new plays with environmental themes on bicycles. A bit of a nomad, your best bet is to find Dara in Oakland, California, where she often lives, works, and rides her bicycle just about everywhere. Dara thinks of her creative projects as experiments, each born from a collision of questions, and resulting in a unique universe complete with rules of science and magic, patterns of behavior and specific aesthetics. She allows her current preoccupations to embed themselves inside these landscapes, revealing connections and complexity.