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“Who was I before?”
That’s the question People Watching, the latest production co-produced by Extreme Lengths Productions and CulturalDC, invites us to ask ourselves. Part of CulturalDC’s Mobile Arts Season, the show isn’t held in a theater or even on a stage: Audience members standing on a rooftop use binoculars to watch a string of dance and musical performances around Navy Yard and Anacostia. The producers of the show described People Watching as “genre-bending,” combining elements of theater, dance and music to address themes of transformation and disorientation.
Perched along the roof of the eNvy Condominiums and The Kelvin at 70 N St. SE and 1250 Half Street SE, showgoers are in the hands of a “tour guide.” Her soothing, cheerful voice and calculated hand signals are reminiscent of the safety demonstrations given by flight attendants. The guide, played by Carolyn Hoehner in a hot pink outfit with her hair pinned tightly into a low bun, begins by explaining how to use the binoculars (which, admittedly, was harder than anticipated). She encourages you to take a few minutes to freely “look at the wildlife and the endless construction on both sides of the river.”
The unconventional location was heavily tied to the show’s themes of change and being in between, says Ben Levine, producing director of Extreme Lengths Productions. “We were asking ourselves who or where or what was I before and really thinking about change as it pertains to gentrification and construction, the development of the city, as well as in a very abstract way, this emergence from the pandemic,” Levine says.
CulturalDC works with real estate partners to bring art development to the community, says Kristi Maiselman, the organization’s executive director. So when she was approached by Extreme Length Productions about People Watching, she immediately thought of the enVy and The Kelvin. “There are vantage points on [the Navy Yard] side of the river, there’s vantage points in Anacostia, on the bridge, that give it a really nice kind of panoramic view, and touches a lot of different communities,” Maiselman says.
Levine says the location is special not only because of the construction and rapid change taking place, but because Navy Yard was once home to queer nightlife spaces. The program also acknowledges that the show “takes place on the Native land of the Anacostan, Piscataway, Pamunkey, and Powhatan peoples.”
“I hope that as a society, we can re-imagine collaborative processes of where performances can take place, while being mindful and aware of whose space that is,” associate producer and performer Annie Peterson says.
Just as the audience begins to orient themselves in their zoomed-in surroundings, the guide directs everyone’s gaze to the rooftop of Capital South Capitol Apartments for the show’s first performance, where Emma Pauline Rothman begins to sing and play a song on the dulcimer. The audio is transmitted back to the eNvy.
As you listen and watch through the lenses of your binoculars, it feels as though you are the lone observer—as though you are the only one experiencing this. It feels intimate, although the audience is so far away from Rothman. That’s on purpose, choreographer Sadie Leigh says.
“There’s these levels of distance and then togetherness and then intimacy and then voyeurism,” Leigh explains. “I am curious about the play between those levels and I think we’ll sort of go up and down through them over the course of the show.”
Peterson says that distance highlights how “spatial and physical proximity doesn’t actually determine closeness, connections, and support for one another.”
And the desire to watch and observe other people is an inherently human thing to do, dramaturg Eric Swartz says. “Who doesn’t love people watching?” he says, adding that those themes were inherently woven into the show. “I think that the experience giving people the binoculars is also a little bit like, ‘We know you want to do this. So just do it.’ You know? ‘Look closer, lean in.’”
When Rothman concludes the first song, the tour guide directs the audience to look at the rooftop of HQO, the new D.C. Water building at 125 O St. SE. Dressed all in blue, Stephen Lyons II dances with the fluidity and power of water. The guide reminds the audience: before there was the new building, there was the old building, and before that, there was simply water.
Just as the audience gets the hang of pinpointing each artist across the city and settles into the rhythm of the performances, the tour guide grows increasingly unsettled. She starts to explain the sights around all of us, but realizes so much of what she used to know no longer exists. The neighborhood is different; what once was there is no more.
“This performance can exist at this moment and this moment only, due to the rapidly changing neighborhoods where it takes place,” the show program says. “One year from now, the view that you see will look drastically different and some of the performance sites may no longer exist.”
Both the guide and the audience are unsure where to look next, but eventually everyone finds Peterson and Rothman in a patch of grass juxtaposed against a sea of concrete and construction. Peterson dances as Rothman plays the dulcimer and sings again.
Everyone then swipes their binoculars across the Anacostia River and up to the Frederick Douglass Memorial Bridge, where you find Krystal Collins dancing along the edge. It’s, again, a small moment in time that would have gone unnoticed to the naked, inattentive eye.
During Collins’ dance on the bridge, the tour guide grows exasperated. She doesn’t want to stay here, on this side of things. She wants to join the others. As Leigh describes,“there’s this moment when she has this epiphany of like, ‘well, if everything around me is changing, why do I have to keep doing the same thing I’ve been doing and what if I did something else?’”
Abruptly, the tour guide ditches the audience in hopes of joining Collins. Before she leaves, she reminds the audience to look down—to the entrance of Nationals Park.
There, Lyons and Peterson are positioned at two separate entrances to the stadium, unable to see each other, but dancing in sync to a song the audience can hear.
Again, it feels as though you are secretly witnessing these personal, private dances. It seems as though they are performing only for themselves, as if they are each the main character in a movie only you are watching. The two dancers cannot even see each other, and the audience becomes an omniscient observer.
Suddenly, the tour guide’s voice comes over the loudspeaker. Look back over the river, she tells the audience; she thinks she found them. She has joined Collins and Rothman on the steps of a small brick building just on the edge of the river.
“I wondered what it would be like if we were together,” the tour guide says.
They perform together for a little while, when eventually the tour guide reflects: “It’s different than what I imagined.”
This question of “who was I before?” and the notion that our experiences, our life, are somehow so different than what we thought it would be, mirrors what so many people are facing in a post-pandemic world.
Levine says the idea for this type of performance was formed before the COVID-19 pandemic, and was put on hold due to the constraints of the last year. But now, the performance takes on a whole new meaning, as so many grapple with the physical effects of distance and the emotional toll of stepping into who we will become.
“I think a lot of what I’m going through as a person coming out of the pandemic is experiencing the familiar and the unfamiliar at the same time, whether it’s seeing somebody without a mask on or going out to to a restaurant that I used to go to all the time before and not having been there for a while. So, that feeling I think is for me, at least happening all the time as I walk around the city, as I return to places that I used to be and hang out,” Swartz says.
The tour guide hands Collins and Rothman her binoculars, and they all take a turn looking back at us, the audience.
Update, June 25: Due to location issues, all remaining performances of People Watching have been canceled. The production may be remounted in the future.