When Pete Danelski talks about staging Red Bike amid the reawakening of D.C.’s theater scene he says, “The worst thing would be to go back into a dark room with closed doors. This shouldn’t be done in a black box and not on a bike.” His new production company, Pan Underground, is putting on two community performances of the play by the prolific Caridad Svich on Oct. 24 and Nov. 6. “We’re going to go into communities [to] make connections with local vendors and local music.”
“Pan Underground is the culmination of a lot of ideas that coalesced over the pandemic,” he says of the upcoming hybrid block-party-meets-performance presentation of Red Bike. The intention, Danelski says, is not to create a theater company with a season or cohesive aesthetic. Instead, he wanted to create a production company devoted to supporting less conventional work and reaching new audiences by developing new ways to present theater.
Red Bike, one of seven plays in Svich’s American Psalm cycle, is a story of an unnamed child living in a small town on the boundary between suburban and rural America. After receiving a red bicycle from their parents, who both work multiple jobs, the child fantasizes about someday competing in the Tour de France, while gaining the freedom to roam. Doing so allows the child to witness the changing town. “I had never written a child protagonist,” says Svich. “There’s the conundrum of somebody with no political agency who cannot vote, but is becoming conscious.”
While writing Red Bike, Svich also considered the growing movement of adolescent activists seeking to halt climate change. Her play captures the fictional town’s transformation: Where once was a cornfield, now sits a giant warehouse where the child’s father works; an old man remembers how things used to be, and a developer who owns half the town is responsible for the new glass and steel condominium complex. The units have been sold to foreign investors whom the locals never meet.
“Writing about economic precariousness is central to my work,” says Svich. “My parents were working-class immigrants so ‘who has stuff?’ and ‘why do they have stuff?’ were questions I always asked.”
Though also a translator of works by modernist writers such as Federico García Lorca and Julio Cortázar, a role that demands fidelity to a play’s history, Svich’s own work is often more open-ended. Like Pan Underground, she champions the notion of plays that “don’t look like plays.”
Early into the pandemic lockdown, Danelski read Red Bike. “I tend not to like reading plays, but I couldn’t put it down,” he says. Danelski tweeted his thoughts on the play and received an unexpected thank you from Svich, who noted the work hadn’t been performed in the D.C. region. The two began talking, and, as Svich explains, “In the back and forth of our email discussions we came upon doing something with audio.” (It was before the COVID-19 vaccines were available, and the two worried about spreading the virus.)
In tandem with the audio concept emerged the idea of a block party, which Svich describes as a “coming out of isolation.” Pan Underground has partnered with local community organization Gearin’ Up Bicycles, which trains both youth and adults in bicycle repair, refurbishes abandoned bikes, and promotes group riding events to put on the upcoming productions.
In 2018, Red Bike had a rolling world premiere, a practice pioneered by the National New Play Network in which several theaters staged their own productions of a new play in a single season. “All previous productions were unique and beautiful, but missing from all of them was [the question of] what if the audience was physically in motion?” says Svich. She saw another opportunity for new staging. During the rolling premiere there were conference calls between the participating theaters to discuss intersecting with local biking communities, but, she adds “that logistically didn’t happen.”
Making the venue a roaming block party allows the audience to walk around and tune in while noting that “the world is out of our control as creatives,” says Danelski.
Given the decision to feature audio in this production, the traditional role of “sound designer” was replaced with that of “sound director.” The new title was to ensure every creative has agency. Meanwhile, Danelski assigned himself the role of the production’s installation director.
While most of the previous productions used only two actors, sound director Aria Velz decided on three for the audio portion: Alina Collins Maldonado, Ahmad Kamal, and Bianca Lipford. Actor Miranda Pepin rides the titular red bike.
“Visually, it’s a one-person show,” says Velz, but the three represent the multiple voices inside the child’s head, because, “Sometimes those voices conflict.” In recording the actors, Velz leaned into their natural rhythms. “It incorporates sound design elements, but it’s more like directing voices for an animated show or a video game,” she says.
It’s the reverse of what a theatrical sound designer typically does. Instead of the audio component supplementing the performance, the audio is more akin to a score that a choreographer will later use to develop a dance. “A lot of what I do editing-wise is focused on the pace to make the [performance] most visually interesting,” says Velz.
“I think 11 is when people become self aware of the passing of time without understanding the implications,” says Velz, and even if Washington is a much larger city, “Red Bike enables anyone to activate the 11-year-old in ourselves and look at our own towns with those eyes.”
The Red Bike block parties run 2 p.m. to 5 p.m. on Oct. 24 at the PNC parking lot, 2020 Martin Luther King Jr. Ave. SE; and Nov. 6 at the Parks at Walter Reed, 1010 Butternut St., NW. panunderground.com. $12-$63.