How to Devise a Theater Work in the Middle of Yards Park
Making theater in unconventional locations poses unconventional challenges. Like algae growing in your performance space, for example, or unseasonably cold rainstorms and the ambient noise of waterfalls and frolicking toddlers. For force/collision, the new interdisciplinary ensemble behind The Nautical Yards, devising a site-specific dance and theater piece inspired by the Washington Navy Yard has meant allowing such challenges to shape the performance. "I wanted it sort of to wash over the audience as an event rather than something that has a set narrative structure," says director and company founder John Moletress, as he shows me the Yards Park fountain in which the cast of 30 musicians, actors, and dancers will perform. "If people were to stumble upon [the performance] midway just walking through the park, there'd be something engaging about it."
Moletress, whom D.C. audiences will know from Factory 449, lives close to Navy Yard, and The Nautical Yards is his brainchild. (The work is a commission by Yards Park and the Capitol Riverfront Business Improvement District, with funding from the D.C. Commission on the Arts & Humanities.) The creative team, also led by choreographer Erica Rebollar, composer Daniel Paul Lawson, and costume designer Collin Ranney, has drawn inspiration from the architecture of the Yard itself, the element of water, and letters and historical documents from naval archives. The theme is separation, of men and women, by war and the sea. The cast, says Moletress, is "mostly women" who will speak in chorus, along with recorded text, to portray women responding to wartime separation by joining the workforce and supporting one another.
With both Nationals Park and the decommissioned destroyer USS Barry visible from the bridge that overlooks the fountain, it's understandable that the expansive location would dictate the course of the creative process. "We had originally planned to have a larger ensemble of live musicians performing for the piece," Lawson says, "but once we started rehearsing in...the canal area we discovered that 10 musicians wouldn't be enough to fill the space with sound. And at that point the waterfall wasn't even going." The show will now feature a live violinist and vocalists, playing in tandem with Lawson's minimalist, electronic composition.
"Fortunately for me I like having more electronic sounds," says Rebollar, whose challenges have have involved the visual aspects of the show—not too mention the performers' safety. "Obviously, in a stage you have more control of what the audience sees, what angle they see. With site-specific it's in the round, so there's no front. Or everywhere is front, that's kind of the way I see it." And what about choreographing in a fountain? "Yeah, dancing in water," says Rebollar, "before they turned the waterfall on, it's was really kind of mossy and slippery." (Following my meeting with Moletress, I took the opportunity to wade with the toddlers. I can attest, aside from a few dead leaves and worms, to the mostly decent traction on the fountain floor.)
"It was the best and worst scenario doing [force/ collision's] first thing together," Moletress says. "Best in that we...didn't need to fill a certain amount of seats, we don't really have tech other than speakers and a sound technician, and we have a wonderful already planned audience of people that are just here. Worst because it's a very big, ambitious project and there are a lot of variables."
force/collision performs The Nautical Yards at 7 p.m. April 26 to 29 at Yards Park, 10 Water St. SE. Premium seating is $30. General admission (lawn/standing) is free. Photo courtesy force/collision.