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Riding Uphill on a Red Bike

Stages of Resistance
Two actors on stage sit in chairs and are turned towards each other speaking and gesturing. We see them through the space between two silhouettes audience members with their backs to the camera.
Maddy Hill and Aaron Anthony in RED BIKE. Photo by Rebecca Stone.

This piece is a reflection on the making of Stages of Resistance, written by the blog salon's curator, Caridad Svich. The series has welcomed reflections on themes related to making work for live performance in political and aesthetic resistance to forms and systems that oppress human rights and censor or severely limit freedom of expression. We are in increasingly hostile, volatile times around the world, and this salon hopes to serve as a space for considered, thoughtful, polemical articulations of practice and theory on the subject of resistance, the multiple meanings of political art, and the ways in which progressive, wholistic cultural change may be instigated through artworks. Thank you to all who have tuned in!

It is a baking summer day in London. “Unusually warm and humid for June,” a friend says. I am taking the tube down to Southwark for a staged reading on 21 June 2017 of my new play Red Bike produced by Chaskis Theatre at the Cervantes Theatre as a benefit for the children arts charity Anno’s Africa.  The reading stars Maddy Hill and Aaron Anthony and is directed by Simon Evans with associate direction by Raymi Quiroga and Huw Parmenter (co-artistic directors of Chaskis Theatre). The air is thick and the tube lines are running a tad slow. I wander out of the Borough tube stop to face a small mob of tourists headed to the Tate Modern and others headed in the direction opposite. The headlines of the broadsheets at the news vendor’s kiosk across from the tube show images from the Grenfell Tower fire just seven days ago on 14 June, where at least 80 people died and over 70 were injured: a clear and outrageous case of corporate manslaughter. On the margins of another broadsheet, news of the re-opening of Borough Market, blocks from where I am standing, after the London Bridge terror attack on 3 June. The city is reeling from these human-made tragedies whilst simultaneously embracing the strong possibility, given poll results released on 11 June, that Jeremy Corbyn could become the next Prime Minister if a second general election were held this year.

I wander down side streets towards the Cervantes Theatre in the blistering sun shielded only by an old sun hat, which I stashed into my travel bag at the last minute. It’s been both a long and short journey to get to this point with Red Bike. The play sustained two readings in the spring of this year - a roundtable reading at The Lark and a public reading at New Dramatists, both under Emily Mendelsohn’s direction (with actors Jocelyn Kuritsky and Sofia Jean Gomez, respectively). My collaboration with Chaskis Theatre in London, though, began nearly five years ago when they did a reading of my play focused on human and environmental rights Upon the Fragile Shore as part of a NoPassport theatre alliance global reading series. Chaskis Theatre is devoted to the staging of transcultural work and collaborating with international artists. Last year they were part of NoPassport and Missing Bolts Productions’ AFTER ORLANDO theater action to honor the memories of the 49 fallen at Pulse Nightclub in Orlando with events at Theatre Royal Stratford East and The Vaults. Over the last five years emails have come and gone, plays have been shared, posts about theater have occupied our mutual twitter-sphere, but we have never met. In person. So, this day is not just any reading day. It feels oddly momentous. The end of one journey and the beginning of another. All because of a play called Red Bike.

“You’re going to be in London?” Raymi Quiroga asks, when I email him late on a May 2017 evening. “Yes,” I replied, dutiful in my daily night owl procrastination of emailing and reading several news items at once. "I am a visiting research fellow at Royal Central School of Speech and Drama, and we’re sorting out my schedule now. Maybe we could make something happen while I am in town? Finally meet? Make a little work?” Raymi replies with a resounding “yes” and then asks me if I have any new plays he could read. I mention Red Bike as a possibility. It focuses on an eleven-year-old child living in a small working class town in a semi-rural section of the United States and a sharp and eye-opening journey they take one day that changes indelibly how they feel about their life, about the town in which they live and how they understand their precarious position in these “divided” states, and in the world at large. It is a play focused squarely on how a child growing up in this socio-political time finds the strength somehow, to resist forces of oppression. I tell Raymi that although I started working on the play before curating the Stages of Resistance series for the Lark blog, it is perhaps no small coincidence that the more intensive work I have done on the piece has occurred while doing so. I email Raymi the play and await his reply.

A week goes by. I am in the middle of a workshop for another project-in-progress when I get an enthusiastic message from Raymi, who says he is smitten with Red Bike for many reasons, not the least of which because of his own relationship to a bike he had when he was a child living in impoverished circumstances in Bolivia. We start chatting online about objects of desire, vehicles of possibility, and how the bike as political symbol has had a vital and sometimes controversial life historically. In Britain, for example, ever since Norman Tebbitt told the poor and working class in the 1980s to ‘get on your bikes’ to find work, the vehicle’s association with images of freedom and unfettered playfulness has been tainted with a measure of contempt. Today we can look no further than to statements made by candidates along the 2016 local, state and Presidential campaign election trail that aimed vitriolic rhetoric at the “freeloading” poor in our country to get off their welfare couches and get on with their lives. While Tebbitt’s phrase was not used, the same point was being made.  

We start talking about casting. I suggest Maddy Hill, who is an associate artist with Chaskis. Raymi says he will send her the script to see if she is keen. A former cast member of the popular British TV series “East Enders,” Hill had come to my attention through her stage work, especially in write-ups about her portrayal of Imogen in Matthew Dunster’s reconfiguration of Shakespeare’s Cymbeline retitled Imogen at the Globe in 2016. Hill gets back to us fairly quickly saying how she too is taken by this play and asks me if she can read a section of it at an event for children at which she has been asked to perform at her local hospital. Conversation turns to issues of precarity when it comes to children and how their lack of political agency makes them especially vulnerable to referendums, statutes and laws that may be detrimental to their lives over which they cannot effectively protest without incurring harm to themselves and their families. But we also talk about the power of the imagination and the ability humans have to feel with and be with others, especially through the shared experience of theatre. “Empathy rules in theatre,” one of my creative writing students once said.  Inviting an audience to locate empathy in radical ways is one of the things theatre does best and often through the humblest and poorest of means: a bare stage, some light, an actor or two, and maybe a piece of text – a story of a kind about what it is like to be here, on this earth, being and thinking and dreaming of a better life.

The script of Red Bike is scored for one actor, but I offer the invitation to potential collaborators to stage the piece with two or even three performers, destabilizing and sharing the “I” of the narrative and active voice of the piece so that it may be shared across race, gender identities, age, and ethnicities. Although the “I” of the piece is already plurally defined in its first to second person relationship to the audience, the notion of two actors, for example, sharing the life/mind/body of role of the child at the play’s center allows for a more visibly intersectional approach to the manner in which the play is experienced. Raymi suggests we cast another Chaskis associate artist Aaron Anthony as the second voice of the text. The fact that Maddy is white and Aaron is black only adds to the complexity of the embodiment of the now-shared role, especially at a time in British theater culture when BAME artists are fighting mightily for opportunities to be seen and heard on its nation’s stages, which are still predominantly white.

I stand in the center of Borough Market, which is now back open for business. There is the presence of police in the area, but otherwise the savagery of the attack on 3 June is barely felt in the air. I head to the theater to meet my virtual collaborators for the first time. I think about how being here, miles away from home, quickens the desire for connection. I also think about how it will be to let a little joy into the world tonight.

You see, over the last few months, as the Stages of Resistance series has been unfolding on The Lark’s blog – post after post written by passionate, ingenious, fiery, thoughtful practitioners and scholars – the one thing I keep coming back to is: how can we as artists and thinkers enliven and re-imagine possibilities for harmonious, joyful interaction on our stages and in our societies? Past the mess and trauma and violence and hurt and justified and unjustified rage provoked by the rather turbulent, strange, and volatile times in which we all live. I use the word “we” because even though I believe in dissensus as central to the act of being in an audience, and thus, being in life, I think somehow in theater-making the “I” becomes an “us,” even if only for a little while. And that “us” or “we” is not one that ignores differences of class, injustice, histories, and collective memories, but rather, one that encourages us to consider and reflect upon what may be shared in our common and uncommon humanity.

Peaceful co-existence through conflict resolution and reconciliation is enacted every day in a rehearsal hall adjusting lights, sound, calibrating the intention behind a line reading, and leaving a whole lot of anxiety and fear and trouble just outside the rehearsal room door. Or the door, say, of the Cervantes Theatre on a hot June night in a city shaken by terror and tragedy and rising inequality. Somehow when we are in a theater, whether practicing or sharing the night with a group of strangers and friends, we co-exist and we remind ourselves that things are possible. Just that. Some good things about being with others in relative harmony are possible. Even with all of our fears. And yes, there are situations where the act of doing theater, of making this thing, is a threat to regimes that cannot comprehend how such harmony, however fleeting, may be possible.

Throughout the Stages of Resistance series, which started with a conversation between director Katie Pearl and I about the “us’ of Town Hall, this sense of impossible possibility is what radiates the most for me. From Andy Smith talking about the process of making his new piece Summit to Dipika Guha’s impassioned, resistant “I” in all of its inexorable multiplicity and complexity to Daniel Brunet’s plea to resist complacency, to name only four of the more than eighty outstanding pieces in this series, it is this - the defiant cry of “I am/we are” with all of its attendant aspects of simultaneous joy/melancholy/rage/joy again that rings true.

So that even when we are on our red bike and hit the wrong turn or spike or monster on the road, we can fight together to resist – to live – to think about how we all fall and fail and are broken sometimes but if we regard each other and feel with (each other) we may just rise.