A Center Where There Is No Center (The Industry's "Hopscotch" and Other Musings on the "Theatrical" in Cinema City)
"We know that attention acts as a lightning rod. Merely by concentrating on something one causes endless analogies to collect around it, even penetrate the boundaries of the subject itself: an experience that we call coincidence, serendipity—the terminology is extensive. My experience has been that in these circular travels what is really significant surrounds a central absence, an absence that, paradoxically, is the text being written or to be written.”
- Julio Cortázar, “Around the Day in Eighty Worlds”
Growing up in the Los Angeles area with parents who have a keen sense of direction, history and scope is a rarity. Arriving at the final dress rehearsal for The Industry’s new “mobile opera,” Hopscotch, I was reminded many times over of how lucky I am to have had these awarenesses instilled in me. Almost all press attendees who arrived at our scheduled meeting place in Boyle Heights, the mostly Hispanic, historical-neighborhood just east of downtown LA, appeared to be totally confused by their surroundings. They also seemed fully unaware of how to drive, park or account for their own vehicles.
One couple asked if it was okay for them to leave their car parked at a red curb. Another man asked me in a bewildered tone where I had parked and then, after I’d pointed to my car, inquired if there were any more spots around. I wanted to explain to him that contrary to popular belief, I actually had no internal knowledge of available parking spaces in our general vicinity, but instead just told him that I wasn’t sure and that he’d have to look around.
Those who had already parked their cars struggled to get an app called LUX (a digital valet service recommended to us in our press kits) to work on their phones and panicked when the technology seemed to fail them. Since the performance we were scheduled to attend for the next hour and a half would take us for rides in various vehicles, stops at multiple locations, and wrap up some two miles from where we started, I understood my comrades’ concerns. Yet, when I suggested that we all just park our cars and split the five-dollar Uber fare back to them at the performance’s conclusion, everyone looked at me like I was insane.
Was I the only person out of the eight of us to have ever parked and returned to my car before? Was no one else adaptable enough to think up other options for returning to a simple location in a dense urban area? Had no one considered Uber, taxis, buses, trains or walking? I began to wonder . . .
Hopscotch somehow manages to make sense of and even play into the lack of awareness most Angelenos have of their physical surroundings, while also overcoming wild feats of technological implausibility. That these are just the admirable big picture components of the production should begin to give you a feeling for how audacious and revolutionary a theatrical event it is. I’m still trying to wrap my brain around all of it . . . which is only part of it . . . and was meant to be. That is to say, Hopscotch’s 36 different chapters can never be experienced in one sitting, or chronologically, or in full, but that’s ok. It’s conceived that way. Surrendering to the nature and temperament of the performance, like singing along to a favorite song while stuck in bumper-to-bumper traffic, is par for the course. In the words of John Steinbeck, “We do not take a trip; a trip takes us.”
Taking structural and spiritual inspiration from Julio Cortazar‘s novel of the same name but creating a narrative of its own, the opera is as much about its fragmented structure as it is about the actual story its telling. It can be experienced in as many ways as there are audience members and random passer-by. It is also, despite its shortcomings, one of the most comprehensive, expansive and poetic reflections of life in Los Angeles that I’ve ever seen. To experience it is to travel in both actual and fragmented time. To experience feelings of both bewilderment and belonging. To momentarily find a center in a place that will defiantly forever be more of a montage than a snapshot.
Immersive theater, though not a new idea by any stretch of the imagination, has gained popularity and audiences since the premier of Sleep No More in New York City in 2011. By taking performances out of a traditional, seated setting and mounting them in site-specific or re-configured playing spaces, this trend is slowly breaking us away from our preconceived notions of what theater is by returning it to its more ritualistic roots. This is often counterbalanced by the irony that “immersive” performances are typically staged in vacated or neglected spaces. These factors add to the meta-narrative of the performance by making their audiences reconsider their surroundings in relation to the material.
In a week when I also attended an inspired (if more conventional) staging of a musical in a long-decaying movie palace; an immersive horror-show in a small North Hollywood store-front; and the re-opening of a nearly hundred-year-old artificial forest and cafeteria; Los Angeles, with its various histories and secrets, seems to be at the dawn of realizing its inherent and accidental theatrical capacities.
We have the unique tendency in Los Angeles to create infrastructure based more on our whimsy and the already established histories of other places than on a reflection of ourselves and our surroundings. Except for the Googie architecture movement and a few other examples, Southern California and Los Angeles in general is responsible for many of the most fantastical interior secrets that I’ve ever come across. This is true of all sorts of establishments (Tiki Ti, The Last Bookstore, The Museum of Jurassic Technology, Sassafras Saloon and WAKO, etc.) that seem to be time portals to other dimensions in themselves, locales hidden in plain sight (Barnsdall Park) and kitsch that has been elevated to the point of institution (Clifton’s Cafeteria).
Clifton’s, the 80-year-old depression-era cafeteria designed to resemble the Santa Cruz mountains, has just reopened after an intensive restoration. Once again, this mythologized eatery is reinstating our city’s history of theatrical hokum to the good people of Los Angeles. In a landscape best known for the film industry and Disneyland, Clifton’s has re-claimed the throne as the great-grandfather of the fantastically artificial. Here we have an example of the inauthentic becoming authentic just by sticking around long enough to do so. The cafeteria is just as much permanent theater installation as it is dining destination, and in fact (once you’ve downed a few cocktails) feels more than ever like an imaginary landscape frozen in time. The tone of the restoration is overtly nostalgic (sometimes to a fault). Although there is far too much taxidermy (for not actually being a natural history museum) and at times can feel like a Wes Anderson film on twee-laced acid, it nonetheless speaks passionately to our identity as a city. We have always been a place for the overtly theatrical and have continued to be more influenced our imaginations than by our circumstances.
Literally across the street from Clifton’s, a much-lauded production of one of the biggest flops in Broadway history has taken over the long-defunct Los Angeles Theater. This new revival of Carrie The Musical which started on the outskirts of the county and now inhabits its core, re-configures the long shuttered movie palace as the high school gymnasium where its story takes place. Admittance to the theater itself, built just before Clifton’s in a far more self-serious, but no less grand style, is cause for excitement on its own; but this journey rewards with its content as much as it does with its context. This is the first time ever that the long-neglected icon has hosted a live theatrical performance on Los Angeles’ very own “Broadway,” a fact that speaks to the possibility of theater in this city and its need to inhabit physical spaces. The mega-plex may have stolen the thunder of the old-dame movie theaters, but live performance is always in need of a home.
The serendipity of this particular pairing is that Carrie itself proves to be a misinterpreted and long neglected relic of its own. Though the material remains uneven and some choices fall out of synch at times, the dedication of this new production ultimately outshines any blemishes. Rarely has such committed and inventive musical theater been seen in Los Angeles and Carrie goes to show that with ingenuity and commitment even B grade material can be made to feel transcendent. Strangely enough, it seems that both the musical and the theater itself needed each other to return from their long neglected roles on the sidelines.
On the sidelines of Los Angeles, other theatrical happenings draw our attention outwards. As our formerly vacant and now rapidly re-populating Downtown transitions further into its second coming, the communities that feel worlds away from our “city center”’ have each started to grow into themselves as well. Though each may seem at times to represent slight variations of hipster life-stylists (be it granola-y, grunge-y or young professional-y), seeing independent businesses and local artisans move into formerly corporate or under-utilized space at the very least seems to value personality over generality.
In the middle of North Hollywood, for example, filling a storefront of little-to-no-cause-for-note, lies one of the most feverishly independent theater companies anywhere in the country. Zombie Joe’s Underground walks the line between middle and low-brow in terms of the cult-y, alternative faire they are known for. What makes them noteworthy however, besides the inventive quality of much of the work they do, is that they succeed at one thing established theater companies often struggle with: specificity of vision. Though shows at Zombie Joe’s may range in quality as with any company, the consistency of style and subject matter has built the theater a loyal, open-minded following.
Their Halloween maze-and-a-show variation of their signature piece, Urban Death, continues to unnerve in ways few larger-budget, immersive-horror-shows can. Though not theater in a classic or narrative sense, the show proves to be a unique experience for its participants. Though haunted houses are the lesser cousins of immersive theater,Urban Deathsucceeds at offering a unique format that challenges psychologically as much as it does viscerally. North Hollywood is filled with studio types and young alternatives from out of town who seem to have created their personalities from the pages of Hot Topic catalogs. In this environment of rampart superficiality, it is perhaps even more assuring to find such organically freaky neighbors tucked away beneath an unassuming Lankershim sign that simply reads “Z.J.U.”
Hopscotch’s various routes don’t go nearly as far from Downtown Los Angeles as North Hollywood, but by playing into the most distinctive and opposing topographical elements of the downtown area, they might as well. In attending a performance, one gets the feeling that the entirety of this city, each rooftop, graveyard, trailer, river bed and automobile, not only has its own story to tell but that each also factors into the narrative of the whole. Los Angeles, like any landscape, can never be fully understood, not all at once anyways and not by any one person. Those seeking a clearer historical narrative will likely feel more comfortable in smaller towns or in cities with more tightly crammed, historical infrastructure. But for those who can make peace with the unknown, for the atheists, artists, radicals and most importantly, the dreamers, this does remain a place of possibility. Whether it be finding wilderness and frontier in the middle of the city, turning a state of mind into a physicalized location or bridging the gap between the neglected past and the newly-curious present, Los Angeles has started connecting its dots and assembling its new constellations.
Chapter 33 of Hopscotch depicts a scene in which the opera’s main protagonist spiritually says farewell to a lost loved one. The character is physically split into two different performers who wear the same costume—one who sings and one who plays the violin. The women lead their audience to the roof of a building in the Arts District that was a former toy factory and is now made up of luxury lofts. Upon reaching that rooftop, both singer and violinist call into the void that from that vantage point is the entire city of Los Angeles. Onto this staggering but familiar landscape they pour their sorrows and their wonderings, and as they do, joined in harmony by French horns, the void answers them back. From another rooftop a ways away, French horns return their call, and then from another rooftop, another confirmation, creating harmony and resonance.
At the end of the performance, I decided ultimately to walk back to my car. As I crossed the 4th street Bridge back to Boyle Heights, I began to wonder what lay behind the closed doors that lined the path from Sci-arc to my destination. I also thought a lot about if live performance in this city of cinema could be a key in shifting our focus back towards our histories and back towards ourselves. In this age of valuing simplicity and streamlining detail and complexity, the very act of live performance grows more and more defiant. But as I reached my car, parked right where I had left it, I wondered if all my fellow critics ever made it back to their own and if so, how they had managed it. I was reminded that just because some of us have found our way around this modern metropolis, many continually struggle to comprehend it or truly realize its potential and what to do with it.
As for me, I was in East LA and I was hungry. It was clearly time to get some tacos.