For These Shows, Take a Hike

7 min read


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For These Shows, Take a Hike

There’s a moment late in “Cairns,” a lovely, peaceable sound walk created by the singer and scholar Gelsey Bell and presented by Here, in which Bell will ask you to do something drastic: Take out your earbuds. Maybe that doesn’t seem so extreme, but when was the last time you put away your phone, shut your eyes, stilled the mental whirl of worries, statistics and undone errands, and just listened?

People who have tired of Zoom plays (don’t raise your hands all at once, please!), will welcome the opportunity to listen — outdoors and screen-free. After all, if a sound walk doesn’t get you into the theater, at least it gets you out of the house.

Promenade plays, in which audience members walk from physically distanced scene to physically distanced scene, have become a mainstay of pandemic theater. In “Cairns” and “Intralia, the Weird Park,” another recent audio play, you still walk — for miles — but the scenes are staged in your mind’s eye and mind’s ear only. These are participatory shows, but in a solitary and covert way that seems like some kind of theatrical koan. If you participate and no one is there to applaud, does it even count? I’d argue that it does. Or at least that it can.

I shouldn’t have worried. Bell couches her work in deeply humane terms, even as she looks beyond the human and toward the natural world. Even the grimmer observations are somehow delightful. Passing beneath some purple-leafed beeches, she wonders what these trees might think, “watching us short-lived meat bags the way we watch humming birds.”

During the walk, which lasts a little over an hour, Bell stays virtually by your side. An informed, supportive friend, she casts you as her companion, lending an aural hand to pull you onto each new gravel path. She gives precise and particular directions — take a soft left, make a sharp right — and even someone like me, with the directional acumen of a demagnetized compass, never felt lost.

Generously, Bell wants you to notice what she has noticed, and in that spirit, she takes you past a few graves like that of Do-Hum-Me, an Indigenous woman exhibited by the showman P.T. Barnum; or Eunice Newton Foote, a 19th-century climate scientist; or Susan McKinney Smith Steward, the first Black woman to become a doctor in New York state. Bell also directs your eyes toward Lady Liberty, far away in the harbor, and to the bottom of a headstone that reads, “Have an egg cream.”

The piece begins with an instrumental — ominous strings — then offers some language apparently borrowed from E.P.A. Superfund site reports regarding the nearby Gowanus Canal, describing dangerous contaminants. What this has to do with Prospect Park, fed by the city’s aqueducts and not the canal, is anyone’s guess. (Though the cyanobacteria that has turned some of the park’s lakes and ponds a retina-jolting green seems a likely source of inspiration.)

I had hiked to the top of Lookout Hill — for a final track that never mentioned it — and when “Intralia” ended, I hiked down then walked the mile or so back home, alone again with my own internal soundtrack. (My Samsung battery held out until I reached the road that rings the park, then died.) I thought about how generous traditional theater is and how the actors, designers and directors conspire to deliver a total work of art. Sound walks don’t do that, but even within these constraints, a good one, like “Cairns,” can conjure a world and a worldview, too.

Maybe this form seems stingy — no costumes, no lights, no tap numbers, just a few words murmured in your ear — but advance the track and think of it as generous instead, a reminder not only of how much theater can give us, but how much it trusts us to imagine, too.

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