Is any mode of transportation more loved than the bicycle? It’s a potent symbol of childhood independence, movement, and freedom, while also carrying associations of class, competition, environmentalism and urbanism. Playwright Caridad Svich spins many of these ideas into “Red Bike,” which will get its DMV premiere with Pan Underground this week. Conceived and billed as part-block party, part-performance, “Red Bike” will be shown in two locations: Anacostia on Sunday, October 24, and The Parks at Walter Reed on Saturday, November 6. Music, food, and local vendors will surround the theatrical event at both, synthesizing the art and the community.
Pan Underground’s Executive Producer Pete Danelski, who also serves as the production’s installation director, found the script last summer. “Red Bike” is the story of an 11 year old, known only as the “Child,” who rides to the edge of their hometown and witnesses the pasts and possible futures of a fluctuating America.
“I loved it immediately, which was a new sensation for me,” Danelski says. “I don’t really like reading plays because they’re meant to be experienced, not read, but I had trouble putting “Red Bike” down. It has a poetic movement. I was constantly thinking about it.”
Danelski did what many obsessives do: tweet. “Damn. RED BIKE by @Csvich is a good damn play. That is all.” When Svich responded that the play was still un-produced in the D.C. region, Danelski replied, “Fixing that is something I’d very much like to talk to you about.”
A prolific, award-winning playwright, songwriter, editor, and translator based in New York, Svich is no stranger to the District. GALA Hispanic Theatre regularly produces her work, including her upcoming adaptation, “La casa de la laguna (The House on the Lagoon).” Her local credits also include Theater Alliance, Factory 449, Dance Place, and Georgetown’s Department of Performing Arts, as well as a finalist spot in 2015’s Source Festival. In 2016, her theatrical poem “Sanctuary (American Psalm)” was featured in Arena Stage’s Kogod Cradle Series.
After their brief Twitter exchange, the two began imagining what a D.C. production could be, guided by their shared affinity for experimentation.
“It should not be done in a black box somewhere, or pretending to be on a bike,” Danelski explains, using theatrical shorthand for a smaller, more flexible performance space. “The play is about community. It should be in the spaces we call home. It should be on a bike, frankly. I said that to Caridad the first time we spoke. She laughed and agreed.”
The production began to take shape: a silent rider accompanied by pre-recorded text and immersed in a neighborhood block party.
Svich’s plays require this kind of creativity. She often does not prescribe the number of actors or characters, nor describe sets and costumes, and writes few to no stage directions. Her egalitarian approach as a writer resonates with her foundational themes: migrations, journeys, emotional and metaphorical landscapes, justice, community and the construction of identity. Accordingly, she does make one demand in her scripts: “Casting must be inclusive and reflective of the world.”
For Pan Underground’s production, the neighborhoods of Anacostia and the budding Parks at Walter Reed are more than venues; they are essential collaborators.
“We’re not creating a singular space that we are asking people to conform to,” Danelski says. “We are conforming to other people’s spaces. This play is about change, problematic as well as positive. It’s about potential. It’s about the past, present, and future of a community and the people that make a community a home. When I think about these things, I don’t think of downtown D.C. I think of Anacostia. I think of Walter Reed.”
The two neighborhoods are experiencing significant change and investment, signified in part by the new Frederick Douglass Memorial Bridge connecting west and east of the river and the multi-billion, multi-use redevelopment of the former Walter Reed Army Medical Center.
Pan Underground is partnering with artists and businesses in each neighborhood. The bike will be provided by Gearin’ Up Bikes on Rhode Island Ave. A non-profit bike shop, the company runs programs promoting the economic and personal opportunities bike riding can open for young people, as well as learn bicycle repair and job skills. Brinden Banks, who participates in Gearin’ Up programs, will serve as a bike coordinator on the event. Further, no vendor will pay a fee to participate.
Miranda Pepin will perform the Child. The Nashville-based artist, who has toured with Olney Theatre Center’s National Players, is excited to make their D.C. debut with the unconventional production.
“I am a highly movement-based performer,” Pepin shares. “And I’m into new, out of the ordinary work.”
Because so much about the event had to be decided, early rehearsals were full of play. The company had to develop their choreography.
“After a couple of rehearsals exploring what it was like to move on the bike, to move off the bike and move with the bike, we started mapping out specifics,” Pepin explains.
Alina Collins Maldonado, Ahmad Kamal, and Bianca Lipford will voice a chorus of Bikers for the audio portion of the theatrical installation. Aria Velz provides audio direction, and Jordan Clark Halsey associate produces.
Everyone involved in “Red Bike” hopes the event engages people in new and unexpected ways, regardless of their any past experience with theater.
“At the core of theater is witnessing something human,” Danelski offers. “If you’re in the right space for it, whether you’ve ever stepped foot inside a theater or not, that ‘something human’ can resonate with you. We want people to feel welcome and want to take part.”
And Pepin agrees that people coming away with an opinion and feeling something measures up to success. They also are prepared for the unexpected emotions and feelings that may or may not flood them once they are in this shared space.
Cyclist John Howard says, “The bicycle is a curious vehicle whose passenger is also its engine.” For Pan Underground’s production of the “Red Bike,” the same can be said of its audience.
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