What would happen if the California drought caused such degradation that everyone was forced to abandon the West and migrate east? That’s the premise of Oakland-based theater troupe Agile Rascal Traveling Bicycle Theatre's inaugural play, Sunlight on the Brink.
But this isn’t your typical slice-of-life apocalyptic drama. The play both explores and enacts migration, as the artists themselves are taking the play across the county — by bicycle.
Over the course of three summer months, the troupe will ride 4,500-plus miles to perform in 16 cities (with more being added). The show premiered in San Francisco and the players are currently en route to Los Angeles, hauling their collapsible set down Pacific Coast Highway to perform at the Santa Monica Pier on June 1. After that, they roll down to San Diego and then strike out east, passing through the Southwest, Midwest and New England before closing the tour in New York City.
The play takes place at a gas station in the desert in the Southwest, where an attendant helps stragglers who have missed the boat on the migration. Though Dara Silverman is the principal writer, the hourlong show was devised through improvisation and collaborative workshops. The idea is that the actors will more deeply develop their characters as they undergo the physically demanding journey of traversing the country on bicycle.
“What we’re trying to figure out is, how does this way of moving through time and space change the artistic process?” says Silverman.
Back in 2013, Silverman knew she wanted to bike a play across the country, but all her friends were either theater people or bicycle people, not both. So she put up fliers around San Francisco and Oakland and brought together six other artists with backgrounds in dance or theater who also loved to bike.
One of the early joiners was Allison Fenner, who studied theater at UC Berkeley and works as a bicycle messenger. “I got a bike the first week I got to Berkeley, and that’s been my main mode of transport since,” says Fenner, who hasn’t yet attempted a long distance ride.
Other members, such as Jenny Hipscher, a dancer who moved from Albuquerque to join the troupe, have very little bike experience. In addition to weekly rehearsals and collaborative writing sessions, she’s been biking around Oakland to prepare for the tour. “I don’t think you join this project if you don’t want to bike across the country,” Silverman says.
When Silverman tells her theater friends she is biking a play across the country, they balk, asking, “Why are you making this even harder on yourselves?” “But when I tell people in the bike community about it,” Silverman says, “they’re like, 'That’s cool!'”
One of the biggest challenges has been constructing a set that they can haul across the country, along with all their other travel necessities. Fenner mentions it's ironic that, for a play exploring environmental issues, a lot of their set is constructed from plastic, simply because it is cheap, durable and lightweight. But Silverman says they have found ways to be both sustainable and efficient. “As much as possible, we’re using things we’d already have to carry, like a water pump, a bike pump, camping supplies,” she says. One of their bikes, for example, will act in the play as a car arriving at the gas station.
The entire premise seems like something out of an episode of Portlandia, and, indeed, the DIY, self-sufficient, politicized vibe of the project reflects the ethos of the Bay Area and the Pacific Northwest. Los Angeles has strong pockets of bicycle communities, but the city still has a long way to go to when it comes to sustainable transit.
Fenner says one of the reasons they chose to perform at the Santa Monica Pier, as opposed to a bike shop or indie venue on the Eastside, is that it’s near PCH, and they were worried about biking across the city. But they also chose a popular tourist spot because they want to attract diverse audiences.
Silverman hopes that audiences across the country will relate to the play because, though its premise is political, the play isn’t didactic. “We started with a question — what is the intersection of capitalism, spirituality and technology — and we’re not here to answer it. Good art asks questions and doesn’t necessarily answer them,” Silverman says.
But she adds that, if the play has any concrete mission, it’s a simple one: to get people on their bicycles.
West end of Santa Monica Pier, Monday, June 1, 8 p.m. Free. agilerascaltheatre.com
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