Hey Now Baby, Get Into My Big Black Car
[The Industry: Hopscotch]
November 08, 2015
Do children still play hopscotch? When I was a child in the suburbs of Detroit the game was still a common one, but I never learned the rules, either formally or by observation, and its workings remain a mystery to me to this day.
The workings of Hopscotch: A Mobile Opera for 24 Cars are only slightly less enigmatic. Hopscotch is the newest offering from Los Angeles' exploratory opera company The Industry, now in performance in daylight on weekends only through November 22. The run is essentially sold out, though viewing via the Central Hub (see the explanation of the mechanics of things below) is available to all for free at all remaining performances. I experienced one portion of Hopscotch—the Red Route—at the first performance of the day on Saturday, November 7, as a paying customer.
The first rule of Hopscotch is that I must attempt to explain how Hopscotch works:
Hopscotch is an opera, devised by The Industry's Artistic Director Yuval Sharon with six composers (Veronika Krausas, Marc Lowenstein, Andrew McIntosh, Andrew Norman, Ellen Reid, and David Rosenboom) combinatorially collaborating with as many librettists (Tom Jacobson, Mandy Kahn, Sarah LaBrie, Jane Stephens Rosenthal, Janine Salinas Schoenberg, and Erin Young). The story is constructed in 34 Chapters. Of the 34 Chapters, 10 exist as animations online, with scores improvised by the ensemble gnarwhallaby. The remaining 24 Chapters have been shuffled and dealt out for performance across three Routes: Red, Yellow and Green, eight Chapters per route. Each Route includes one or more Chapters from each of the six composers, and each Route includes Chapters from all parts of the longer narrative. Routes may cross one another, but they do not share any Chapters. At each of the three daily performances, all three Routes are running simultaneously. On each Route, eight vehicles (limousines for the most part) transport four audience members apiece from Chapter to Chapter, with some Chapters taking place wholly or partially inside the car, some witnessed through the windows, and others involving getting out, entering, following, exploring whatever action may be playing out. On each Route, there are four starting points; from each starting point, two vehicles depart simultaneously, each headed to a different initial Chapter, one traveling the Route clockwise, the other otherwise. In the course of each Chapter, the audience exits the vehicle in which it came, and eventually enters another for the next Chapter.
Simplicity itself, really.
The story of Hopscotch, no more ridiculous than that of most any other opera, centers on the life of Lucha, and the two men most central to it, Jameson and Orlando. Lucha and Jameson "meet cute" when her auto meets with his motorcycle in a collision. At the time, Lucha is working with Orlando and his wife Sarita on an avant-garde, puppet-based theatre piece. Lucha and Jameson fall in love. When Sarita dies, Orlando professes his own love for Lucha and, upon being rejected, leaves for Paris. Jameson pursues mysterious research into the mind and/or parallel realities and, midway through the opera, vanishes inexplicably, never to return. Lucha receives phone calls that prove, eventually, to have been from her future self. There is a descent into Hades. Orlando eventually returns from Paris, and is this time accepted by Lucha. From a rooftop, Lucha looks back and marvels at it all.
The characters are recognizable by their color schemes: Jameson is always in black; Lucha's bright yellow dresses are a constant; Sarita, in life and death, is in red; Orlando sports a brown jacket with a distinctive hat. In any given Chapter there may be multiple versions of a character, from any point in their lives. Some are singers, some actors, some instrumentalists. the audience gets none of it in order, and each vehicle-group gets what it gets in a different sequence from the other vehicles rolling the route at that moment. To see it all requires taking all three separately ticketed Routes, which can be done but cannot be done in a day.
There is also The Central Hub. The Hub is a construction in the downtown Arts District, open for free to all comers. During the performances, live video and sound feeds are received in the Central Hub from all three of the ongoing Routes. (Some of the Chapters and their vehicles have fixed smartphone cameras inside or outside the vehicle; in others, an audience member is handed a phone in order to shoot whatever they wish of the proceedings.) At the conclusion of the final performance of each day, all 24 Hopscotch vehicles converge on the Central Hub for a once-daily finale composed by Andrew Norman.
Simplicity itself, really.
Through its gestation and rollout, I was something of a Hopscotch skeptic. While I knew firsthand that The Industry has a genuine flair for site-specific and immersive productions—demonstrated by the nigh-miraculous 2013 premiere of Christopher Cerrone's Invisible Cities in and around Union Station—Hopscotch in its hyperambitious proliferation of moving parts had about it the aura of a stunt, a novelty for novelty's sake. I thought that I might be obliged to echo Dr. Johnson (albeit without his leaven of misogyny) in response to being told of a woman preaching: that it would be "like a dog's walking on his hind legs. It is not done well; but you are surprised to find it done at all." In the end, I gave in, purchasing what may have been the last available November 7 ticket.
The Red Route, which I traveled, for the most part keeps to the east of downtown, in and around Boyle Heights, apart from one dramatic venture to Lucha's parting rooftop above the Arts District. (The Yellow Route centers on Downtown proper, while the Green Route fares more to the north toward Elysian Park.)
At the assigned starting point beside the Casa Del Mexicano, my fellow travelers and I entered our first vehicle to find an Orlando in place at the front; we were joined as the door closed by a violinist and violist and by Sarita in red, already dead, her face painted as a Dia de los Muertos skull. It was Chapter 17, Orlando's departure for Paris. The car pulled out, the music began, Orlando sang his thoughts and Sarita provided wordless counterpoint. In short order, we eased into the gates of the historic Evergreen Cemetery, driving past multilingual early 20th century headstones and groups of real people visiting with the real dead. The car stopped briefly, Sarita exited. We drove on, circling into another part of the cemetery where, through the window, Sarita reappeared, pacing and muttering, her voice broadcast to us inside.
Out of the cemetery then and, a few blocks further on, out of the first car and into the next. Here we found already in place Phillip King, a harpist with a concurrent talent for beatboxing. (Photography inside Hopscotch vehicles is discouraged so as not to interfere with the performers in the tight space; Mr. King has inspired a number of violations of this policy.) We had leapt back to the beginning of the story, with the immediate aftermath of Lucha's collision with Jamison playing out at the center of a large vacant lot. As the live score was harped and vocopercussed inside, the limousine circled and circled the two singers, a long tracking shot in our vehicular pelicula. The singers, wired and mic'd, performed the scene in the open air, their voices transmitted to us through the car's sound system.
And on: in the next car, to a recorded accompaniment, Lucha at mid-story received the first mysterious phone call (which will prove to be from herself, as witnessed by travelers on a Route other than ours). And out of the car. And into the sky: it's an ascent by elevator and stairs in the company of two Luchas (old Lucha sings, young Lucha violings) and two French horn-wielding Orlandos to the roof of an Arts District loft building where the Views Go On For Days and two distant brass players—can it be/of course it is Jameson, perhaps from beyond—carom fanfares off the cityscape in Chapter 33.
And down. And into the dark. Literally: Chapter 24, involving hellish visions derived from Lucha's encounter with a red notebook containing notes from the vanished Jameson, occurs in sound and motion only, the limousine equipped with blackout curtains depriving the traveler of any knowledge of where or how the route is continuing.
And into the light: We have come some miles, back to Boyle Heights and back into the past, to Hollenbeck Park, where accordion and some convenient players in a lakeside gazebo contribute to the magic moment of Lucha and Jameson's first kiss. When the next vehicle arrives, it contains the most vast and encompassing of all those yellow Lucha dresses, which in turn contains the youngest of Luchas: an emanation of the mid-life Lucha recalling her quinceanara. This Lucha is accompanied by three gentlemen with a menagerie of Mexican guitar variants. When this Chapter ends, we find ourselves glancing in and out the windows, between the musicians of the opera and the real-life itinerant music makers waiting to be hired at Mariachi Plaza.
And aay into the final stretch: a stroll across the Plaza—past the statue of Lucha Reyes, whose namesake the fictional Lucha is, and past a hopscotch layout chalked on the concrete—to witness a recalled encounter in a bookstore between Lucha and the young Orlando, devoted to art and poetry. The young man wanders out, and we follow to enter the final limousine. While his reads aloud, his opera-ending older self comments, through an in-vehicle cellist and a recorded voiceover, on how well it has all worked out for this young fellow.
And we are done. Deposited back to the original parking lot at Casa del Mexicano, beneath the sky of piercing and extravagant blue that is a particular Los Angeles speciality at this time of the year.
Was it a stunt? Surely. Does Hopscotch rise above mere stunthood? Yes, I would have to say it does. But how and in what sense? That's a harder question.
Hopscotch is a thing I am very pleased to have done. It was a marvelous time, in the most literal sense: I marveled again and again at what was attempted and what was achieved. As an experience, and as a series of striking and unexpected effects, it is without question a success. The performers are uniformly fine. It is a consuming force while it is happening. It makes me happy that it was made, and particularly that it was made under conditions that allowed me exposure to a piece of it.
What is less clear to me is what Hopscotch means, or where it leads, in the larger world.
The number of people who will be able to take even one Route during the run is relatively small: capacity is roughly 300 per day. The number who will run through two, or all three, is far smaller. Some unknown number, very possibly a larger one, will be able to access a version of Hopscotch via the Central Hub. The most generous total, though, still would not exhaust the nosebleed seats at Staples Center [capacity ca. 18000]. Once it is gone, it is reasonable to expect that Hopscotch is gone forever. Remounting it here, while hardly impossible, is simply not likely. Adapting it to some other city, or to a more conventional theatrical setting, fundamentally undermines its reason for being in the first place.
Will Hopscotch prove to be an inspiration or catalyst to other, perhaps stranger and more ambitious, new opera or theater ventures? Will it be an exotic sport of nature, viewed in retrospect with stark amaze, but not a path to anything else? I find that I am not prepared to venture even an uninformed prediction on those lines. Certainly, I suspect that The Industry will take its essential success as a sign that the company should fare further forward, toward whatever still-unimagined thing comes next. That should be fun.
Photos by the blogger.
Cross-posted to ♬ Genre, I'm Only Dancing ♬.