To my new river to see a play
My friend Joe Linton hasn’t been coming to our weekly potlucks and meetings for the last few months because he has been in rehearsal for a play. Since he’s not an actor, this has been an interesting development and he always sounds a bit scared about the whole thing. But last night a bunch of us carpooled and biked to a performance.
Joe is a river hero around here. He is incredibly knowledgable about the LA River ecosystem and wrote a highly respected book on the subject. He has actually kayaked the entire length, proving it is navigable. A longtime volunteer/staffer of Friends of the LA River (FOLAR), he is an artist. And gardener. And cook. But not an actor! (He did fine, was glad to see us.)
When we got there we saw some strange stuff at the end of the road.
A bunch of us got there an hour early to do an educational walk along the river. This section does have the usual concrete banks, but the bottom is natural because the water table is so high here they can’t get concrete to stay put. There are bike trails on both banks. My neighbor Randy is a bike messenger and rides here several times a week, especially likes it as a place to have lunch.
This section of the river is called Taylor Yard. Lots of water – it comes from a sewer reclamation plant upstream. “Toilet to tap” was such bad PR that they just dump the nice clean water in the river.
Access is awful, you can live close by, but have to drive miles and miles to get to the river. This is changing. We heard a lot about the plans to reclaim the river from its concrete straitjacket. And that’s sort of what the play was addressing. Characters included radicals with jackhammers, locals who did not want their neighborhoods changed by construction. (Plans call for hundreds of little feeder streets to direct foot traffic to the riverbank.) I was not allowed to take pictures of the performance.
Just before the walk ended I saw a great blue heron in the river. Then a heron was one of the first characters in the play. Notice how the bank drops off right behind the stage area to the right of KwanWu. They used the hidden bank as a backstage area. They even used the opposite bank of the river in one scene. But mostly they just used the road as the stage, in the area under the lights.
All the scenery and set design elements had been pulled out of the river, including the old car. Same with elements of the costumes. My favorite was a marvelous sea turtle whose carapace was covered with squashed beer cans.
These were used to make a house, too, as you see here, next to the band.
The most interesting element of set design was the river, which was in every scene. Almost everyone walked in it. Some characters swam or kayaked in it. It was the star of the play. The character who did not walk in it was in an electric wheelchair (Mallard). But she pulled an invisible monofilament string so her ducklings swam in it as they followed her.
Critters like Mallard, Ridley (turtle), Heron, etc. were all played by people, believably, except this excellent puppet played a river spirit and she was so fine! There was plenty of humor – one character was named Cachoo so every time she was introduced, the response was “God bless you.” Joe’s character was modelled on Joe.
Can’t describe the whole plot for you, but I can tell you how the play ends. The character called “Roger Vadim!” who opened the play admits that he’s not the famous director, drops his exaggerated French accent and his jackhammer and his radical ways. He pulls a photo out of his pocket and displays the Seine – a beautiful dramatic urban scene in Paris, with plenty of greenery, steps going down into the water, boats, fishermen, birds, tall buildings, walkers, streets. The idea that we could have a beautiful human-scale riverscape here in the great city of Los Angeles comes to life in a whole new way.
I found that there were tears running down my cheek. The entire performance was moving and thrilling and discreetly educational, rewarding and entertaining and heartwarming and alarming and something of a call to arms.
We were mostly freezing, even though the temp was around sixty, as the weather is quite damp (they call it the “June Gloom,” but the gardens benefit)… for an hour or so we were so engrossed we forgot the chill and the discomfort.
The Elizabeth will always feel like my home river, but it’s a thrill to encounter this same spirit of can-do must-do river restoration three thousand miles away, with hard work and a big heart and an intuitive feel for what it really takes to heal a river.