Being Together: A Response to PASSAGE THRU
When I think of my life one year ago, I remember feeling busy and fatigued. I moved to New York to see shows and so I saw shows. I slogged out of opening shifts at work to kill time in coffee shops before plays. I closed at work and rushed to make it to late-night performances and rehearsals for staged-readings or unpaid passion projects in cluttered apartment living rooms. I met friends for drinks where we spoke frantically about being tired from work and disappointed in our love lives and anxious about our ambitions and embarrassed about our self-involvedness. I often left the house half-wanting to stay home.
I try to recall this anticipatory social fatigue as I put on my coat, walk down the stairs of my building, shuffle through the doors of the G on my way to passage thru, Estefanía Fadul’s outdoor, site-specific production, running through March 7th as part of Clubbed Thumb’s annual Winterworks Festival. passage thru takes place entirely in person, making it a unique offering in the current landscape of COVID-era theatre.
I am thinking of how pedestrian going out into the world used to feel, so unremarkable that I could have even been tired of it. That feeling is far away now. My pace is quick and my heartbeat fast as I go to the show. I feel joyful and nervous. I move briskly off the train to the performance’s meeting point in Williamsburg. As I approach a small, quiet semicircle of people on the sidewalk, I recognize the figure of an old friend I haven’t seen in a year or two. I sidle up to them and, beaming beneath my mask, say a bright hello.
They turn to face me and respond with a subdued “hi?”
It is not my friend. Just some other person who now, head-on looks unfamiliar. Out of nerves, I say hello louder and then turn my head away from their eyes, wanting to avoid further embarrassment.
The producer, Joanna Pisano, begins her introductory remarks, reminding us that the piece will begin as a solo experience and evolve into a communal one. She tells us the production team will buy us all drinks after the show and encourages us to hang out and mingle before we go.
There are six audience members, including myself. It will be intimate post-show mingling and one person’s reticence or absence will be strongly felt. I turn back to my mistaken friend. “I thought you were someone I knew,” I say quickly. “That’s why I was so eager.” I feel sharply aware of the pitch my voice reaches when I am meeting someone new.
They are kind and laugh with me. They turn the awkwardness into a charming experience we can share. I compliment their coat, a full-body-dark-brown-fur-thing, and they squeal delightfully, telling me they would encourage me to feel its softness if “times were different.”
Joanna asks for a volunteer to go inside the performance space first. The piece will begin as staggered individual promenades through the secret location, guided by a prerecorded audio file we each will listen to on our phones. We know we will eventually all come together as an audience, though we do not know when or how exactly. I offer to go first. The five other strangers cheer me on as Joanna walks me to the performance entryway. She spritzes my hands with sanitizer, tells me the minimal information I need to know, and leads me in.
There are things I cannot share because it would dampen the experience. passage thru is meant to be a surprise and certain in-person reveals are necessary. When I speak to Estefanía on the phone before the show, she is careful in her language, making sure not to say the name of the performance location, which remains a secret for audience members up until the last minute.
What I can say is that I begin the piece listening to an assured, patient voice through my earbuds. The voice tells me which direction to walk. When I am nervous about doing something wrong, the voice is like gentle, warm hands on my back. The voice tells me to keep going—I am safe, I am doing the right thing, I am on my own but not alone.
As I move from an indoor pathway, the walls lined with a mosaic of physical signifiers of isolation, the voice asks me to stop and observe, then, to keep going, to open a door ahead. Stepping outside, I stare ahead at a figure in the distance, turn my head upward to notice a massive, cascading string structure. I am in the cold. It is night and hanging lights allow me to see.
What I can say is that for some time I am on my own in a new, magical place. Since I go in first, I wait several minutes for others to join. I feel our numbers increase. The outdoor space feels fuller with each new person.
After all six of us arrive, there is music. Performers (Laura Galindo, Teri Madonna, and Cristina Pitter) sing from a slight distance. They sing a witchy incantation, then a lyrical story, then a lullaby. The atmosphere shifts into something more concert-like. I can feel the invitation to sway, clap, join in the music, but I am shy about starting. I look to my mistaken connection in their long coat. They are seated across from me and have shifted their body, opened up their legs, perched forward with their forearms on their knees. They pulse their upper body with the song’s rhythm, unselfconscious. The person next to them does the same. I begin to bob my head as well.
passage thru feels like stepping through a portal, even like a fable we get to participate in, alongside the performers. When Fadul speaks about her origins as an artist, she describes herself as a child with a deep love of storytelling and an ambition to create. “Even in elementary school, I remember writing adaptations of fairy tales and doing them with my friends,” she says.
Fadul has a fundamentally non-hierarchical point of view to making work, and the performance was made collaboratively with the three performers, the costume designer, Sarah Thea, and the production and installation designer, Shelly Rodriguez. The entire twenty-minute piece feels like a communion. Fadul is quick to share credit with her collaborators, especially the performers who also contributed to the piece’s text and lyrics, which work in tandem with composer Teri Madonna’s music.
The piece itself came together after Fadul filled many notebooks with possible ideas, all the while knowing she wanted to make something outdoors and live. She asked herself the questions: “Are there ways to do more work in your neighborhood? In these times when you are tied to one location, what can that provide to the community?”
Fadul has lived in the same apartment in Williamsburg for six years, which is part of what inspired her to explore her area and consider the communities within it. As a very visual person, transitioning from virtual to live rehearsal was most important for her ideas and what the piece evolved into, which is a communal experience highly tethered to a physical place. Just as some theatre now has been made for the online sphere, I can feel how much passage thru needs to be live. It is a gathering in the traditional sense. We all need to be there, really there.
When I ask Fadul what kind of perspective she hopes audience members bring to the performance, she answers with “openness.” She pauses a moment and then goes on. “Our hope with the piece is that there can also be some form of—even if it’s momentary—release.”
I walked away from passage thru giddy. I got onto the G again and sat down. I stared out the window and felt hopeful and connected to the rest of the world. felt like I could turn to my side and someone new and wonderful may be beside me, ready to create closeness between us. They were all around me, other people.
It was just a precipice. It’s not yet time to get close to strangers again, not in the way I wanted. When it is time, I hope I will feel as grateful then as I do now.
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