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How Do You Stage an Opera for 24 Cars? Yuval Sharon Reflects on Mobile Production 'Hopscotch'

 Artbound episode "Hopscotch: An Opera for the 21st Century" explores visionary director Yuval Sharon's groundbreaking opera "Hopscotch," which unfolded in cars zigzagging throughout Los Angeles, telling a single story of a disappearance across time. Watch the show's debut Tuesday, June 7 at 9 p.m., or check for rebroadcasts here.

It took six composers, six writers, 126 performers, and a team of assistant stage managers, designers, technicians, and drivers to bring mobile opera "Hopscotch" to life last fall. The ambitious production by The Industry, under the helm of Yuval Sharon, made use of three routes across Los Angeles, each with eight limousines, and required audiences to be more than passive observers.

In a recent interview for our upcoming episode, Sharon emphasized the collaborative nature of "Hopscotch," the challenges his team encountered to produce it, and the power of performance to transform.

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Can you break down “Hopscotch” in just a few sentences?

"Hopscotch" is an opera that we created with my company called The Industry. It’s an opera that took place in 24 cars that drove all around Los Angeles. As a ticket buyer, you got into one car, and you experienced one chapter of a story for 10 minutes. The singers, the musicians, they were driving with you for 10 minutes. You would switch cars and experience another chapter of the story. You’d switch cars again, and switch cars again, and so on, and so on, and so on. And that happened throughout the city over the course of several weekends last fall.

In addition to the distinct routes that "Hopscotch" took, there was also a central location that we called the Central Hub. And at that Central Hub all the 24 journeys were livestreamed back, so that people could experience for free everything that was happening in the city simultaneously.

Why was “Hopscotch” staged? What was the point of it all?

What I think is exciting about projects like "Hopscotch" is the layering effect, of all the different meanings, and all the different possibilities that coexisted with each other, that made up the experience of "Hopscotch."

There’s part of me that says, “Yes, of course the point of it was to notice Los Angeles in a brand new way.” That was certainly one of our intentions. We can also say it was our intention to expand the definition of what opera is for contemporary audiences. It’s certainly part of the point, too. We can also say the point of it was to push all of us to limits that were beyond the limits that we thought we had. And to see what we could possibly do if we all came together and created this piece. That’s certainly one other aspect of it. Or, we could say the point of it was to explore how our inner landscape and the external landscape merge with each other as part of our everyday experience of the city as we drive through it.

I could list probably 10 things that we could say were the reason why we did this project, and that would probably only scratch the surface of the many other possible meanings, or points of view, that each individual audience member really created for themselves.

"Hopscotch," an opera by The Industry
An aerial view of the Central Hub. Built for "Hopscotch," all 24 routes were live streamed and broadcast there simultaneously. | Image: Still from Artbound episode "Hopscotch: An Opera for the 21st Century."

Did a particular experience about living in Los Angeles impact the development of the opera?

Yes. I’ve been a resident of Los Angeles for about five years. It is very infamously called the city without a center. If you look at city plans of traditional European cities, or even a city like New York, you think it kind of grows outward from a particular center. And the relationship of certain institutions, or certain businesses, or certain residences are in a predictable relationship to each other.

Los Angeles doesn’t follow any of those rules. It’s its own unruly, kind of child of a city. And that for some people can be very frustrating, and very alienating. And I, myself, have also been occasionally frustrated, and alienated, and disoriented by the nature of what Los Angeles is. But, I’ve also loved and been challenged by the adventure that Los Angeles [is]. The fact that there’s no particular center to it, no one center to it, means that life and art exist everywhere, and in a way that is quite wild and quite free.

And in many ways, the very things that we can be most annoyed by living in Los Angeles, namely driving in our own cars, are also potentially the tools of transformation -- self-transformation, and also the transformation of the city. And so, I think that over the course of the five years that I’ve lived here, I’ve noticed how I view the city, how I see myself in the city, all through the lens of my windshield, so to speak.

Through driving in Los Angeles, I’m constantly put in this dialogue between my own personal journey and the cityscape around me. And from the very beginning it felt like the breeding ground of a performance. I think at that time I didn’t quite know what it would be. But, it just seemed to me, that to really get to the essence of what it means to be part of this particular civic complex of Los Angeles means investigating that.

 "Hopscotch," an opera by The Industry
Image: Still from Artbound episode "Hopscotch: An Opera for the 21st Century."​

Tell us about that experience of driving through the city, looking through that frame of the windshield of the car. How did those memories influence "Hopscotch"?

So, if you use a car to get around Los Angeles, and many Angelenos do, you start to experience the city as a kind of rush of sensations. You move through the city in a way that you stop paying attention to the street life. And in many ways, one of the things I wanted to do with "Hopscotch" was to shift people’s attention back to the streets.

And so, often we configured the audience in a situation in which they weren’t facing the singer, or weren’t facing the instrumentalist, but were instead facing out onto the street. And the music of the opera in a way became a kind of live soundtrack for their own experience of a city street they may have passed a million times.

But, through that disorientation of what the music and the performance provided, hopefully the audience was able to see it in a brand new way. That for me was one of the key ideas behind "Hopscotch," is one of the things that I would think about a lot as I drove around Los Angeles, and would pass the same sites over and over again.

So, in many ways "Hopscotch" became about reconfiguring the audience’s point of view, and asking them to pay attention to streets that they may have seen a million times, but never quite in that context. And that really started by taking away that destination, that sense of knowing where you’re going. Removing that entirely, I think, I hope allowed the audience to really appreciate the ride for what it is, and not the path to a destination that may or may not be clogged with traffic, or may or may not be the fastest route. Or, may be a dire need of some street work.

To take all of that away, and to actually notice the vibrancy of the neighborhoods that make up Los Angeles really was a central idea.

 "Hopscotch," an opera by The Industry
An aerial view of the limousines that transported audiences across Los Angeles for "Hopscotch." | Image: Still from Artbound episode "Hopscotch: An Opera for the 21st Century."​

Do you think art can function to re-contextualize familiar ideas, or places, or people?

I think it’s one of the things that art can do more powerfully than almost anything else... which is to enable us to look at the world with new eyes, and to be able to see and comprehend the world around us in a totally different way.

We, as humans, have our limited perspective on the world and on life. And art gives us this chance to really see the world from a totally different point of view, and a totally different set of eyes, and different set of ears.

I think in many ways it’s one of the missions of art to de-familiarize the things that we take for granted. And I think there’s probably nothing we take for granted quite as much as the city around us, that we’re so used to seeing that it becomes habitual. The street life, and the streets and the roads we take, and the path to work. That sense of habit is something that I really wanted with "Hopscotch" to shake off.

And I think there is something about new music and a new view of life that art provides, that I hope gives audience members the tools to appreciate their own life in a deeper and richer way.

How did "Hopscotch" interact specifically with L.A. as a piece of art?

This work was collaborative in a way that I think nobody was really fully aware of until we were really far along with it, because the city streets themselves really collaborated on the making of the piece. The composers and writers really had to continually edit and shift their particular pieces to fit the stretch of street that we decided to have the performance happen in. And in many ways, driving the particular roads that we had selected, or looking for the roads we selected based on the characters or whatnot, ultimately influenced exactly what kind of music we wanted to create, and what kind of story we wanted to create.

And as such, the neighborhoods ended up having a significant, if not always direct, impact on what the piece was. So, for example, to get from one of our locations which was the aqueduct to the L.A. River, the shortest distance between those two roads was a dirt path. And we had to really think of what can we create in this dirt path that will still feel like it’s a continuation of the world of "Hopscotch," but nonetheless can’t quite function in the way that any of the other pieces really worked.

 "Hopscotch," an opera by The Industry
Image: Still from Artbound episode "Hopscotch: An Opera for the 21st Century."​

What are some of the themes of the show. How did the stories develop?

The story and the texts grew out of lots of writers’ meetings. We had a group of six writers. And we’d often get together and start talking about what this story could actually be. But, our basis for that was a kind of one sheet with lots of different bubbles on it, what I call the kind of thematic map of the entire piece. Unlike the map of the city, the thematic map was really disorganized and all over the place, and quite chaotic, and quite loosely connected one to another.

But, on that thematic map, there were key ideas. One of them was the idea of the layering of a city, and the idea that the present life of the city naturally implies all of its historical layers of what previously happened at that particular site. And the historical nature of certain buildings, or historic roads, how those still live in our present day understanding of the city.

So, that was one of the themes, thinking about the layering of the city, which of course, beyond the real history, has the imagined history. And here in Los Angeles, of course we have a lot of imagined history through cinema and through the film industry, where those layers are also brought on, especially in a building like the Bradbury Building, where you’re moving through this hallucinatory scene of Lucha imagining that she’s lost her husband, Jameson. And I can’t imagine any audience members not also thinking about at least one of the movies that they’ve seen that was filmed there, "Blade Runner," you can think of 20 off the top of your head that used that amazing building as its location.

So, the layers of history, and also that blur between the line of fiction and reality is something that was one of our themes from the beginning. I also thought it was really important to think about the theme of the inner life of an individual in relation to the external life of the city, and how the car becomes this kind of meeting point of those two.

And one of the other themes that all of the writers connected with, and I think anyone that lives in Los Angeles connects with this idea of the search for a center. Again, with Los Angeles not having one center to what it is, how do we find a center personally and individually? That search is something that is civic, but it’s also highly personal. It’s connected of course to the idea of an inner landscape of a person, and that connection to the external landscape.

I think that the whole notion of the Central Hub was aspirational, which means it was also highly artificial. So, it provided a resolution. It provided a sense of closure, I think, to the whole afternoon. But, I think like all good art, it’s meant to be a promise, or a potential, rather than a realization. As soon as it becomes a realization some people might have thought that we were creating a cult of some sort, some sort of religion. And I didn’t want that. I don’t think that anyone that worked on "Hopscotch" would want that.

"Hopscotch," an opera by The Industr
Audiences watch as the 24 chapters of "Hopscotch" are live streamed in the Central Hub. | Image: Still from Artbound episode "Hopscotch: An Opera for the 21st Century."​

What was the most difficult aspect about putting this whole production on?

Well, let’s see. I think there are so many obvious challenges that were inherent to what "Hopscotch" was, starting from just the nature of how to actually rehearse it. You know, every aspect of it was challenging, because every aspect of it needed to be thought from scratch. Not being in a theater meant that every single spot that we were at required us to think -- Where are people changing? Where are people going to the bathroom? Where are they taking their breaks? And that had to happen for all 24 chapters.

There really was no one size fits all answer for any one part of this project. And as opposed to thinking of the army of people that worked on "Hopscotch" as that, as an army, we had to think about it as a large group of individuals that each have their own challenging path through this particular project.

Every single artist involved with this project met with some difficulty of some sort. I, personally, love the challenge. Obviously! Otherwise we wouldn’t have ever done it! We never would have come up with something like this.

"Hopscotch," an opera by The Industry
Image: Still from Artbound episode "Hopscotch: An Opera for the 21st Century."​

Let’s talk a little bit about site specific performance and "immersive theater," how "Hopscotch" took a production out of a typical theater and placed the audience in the scene.

I think that the art I aspire to create is work in which the audience really feels free to be a co-creator. That they do not feel like there is one path that they must follow, and [that] they must have this particular key to unlock the one door in which everything will be revealed. Instead, I like the idea of inviting the audience into a kind of labyrinth of potential meanings. And one in which they really kind of become a co-author of the experience.

And there’s a lot of ways to do that. One of the things that was exciting for me about "Hopscotch," it was so many different modes of spectatorship merged into one. And what I liked about that was that there would be one car, for example, that would be highly participatory, where you would put on a headband that would be reading your brainwaves, and that would actually dictate the music that was playing in the car. As wild as that sounds, that actually is what happened in one of the cars. And in this way that was highly participatory and interactive, and that you could not just be a passive spectator of that particular car ride.

But, the very next car ride, actually the very next chapter, was the Million Dollar Theater. You’d walk into the Million Dollar Theater. And that was a very much more, I guess you could call it, immersive type of relationship as an audience member to the art experience, in which you walked into the theater. It was yours to walk around in 360 degrees, and there was a performance planned on your walk up the stairs, and a performer on the stage, and then the walk down the escape stairs with speakers, and so on. Really like an immersive environment, really, for that one particular chapter.

And the chapter after that was then actually a very detached experience of looking out the window and hearing a percussionist in the car, drumming on the car basically, in which your focus was really just outside. And that opened you up for something that was almost more like kind of a fourth wall, really, kind of presentation of the wedding scene, in which two people were getting married and not paying attention to you as audience members at all. But, the Jameson that was getting married was revealing his inner thoughts at that particular moment as you drove through that particular part of town.

So, for me what was really fascinating was that the mode of spectatorship was always changing from car to car.

"Hopscotch," an opera by The Industry
Image: Still from Artbound episode "Hopscotch: An Opera for the 21st Century."​

When you’re working on the stage, inside a theater, you have certain control. Working on “Hopscotch,” was it hard to relinquish that kind of control where you can’t tell the audience what they should do, or guide their attention to a certain place that you think is important?

Well, this piece was fundamentally a piece about relinquishing control, but also learning about where -- actually, you know, the entire experience was such a balancing act between relinquishing control, because there was so much that we would never be able to dictate or organize the way we could if it was a normal theater.

But then, also realizing where were the places we could exert a tremendous amount of control so that the variables were as predictable as we could possibly make them. And even then, the things that we expected to happen didn’t happen, and the unexpected happened.

There’s an amazing life lesson about that, for me, and for everyone involved with that, which is that we really have very little control in our own lives! And any sense of control is a wonderful, lovely delusion that is worth us cultivating. But, life is really about opening yourself up to where you do not have control, and to learn to accept the changes around you, and to adapt to the changes around you.

There’s something about that that’s inherently, I think, theatrical, because it implies that sense of improvisation, and that sense of learning to deal with the waves as they come at you. But, I think that there was something about the practice of doing "Hopscotch" that made it all that much easier for all of us when all of a sudden something happened, and we had to respond to it. And the singers, musicians, instrumentalists, and actors, and everyone involved with "Hopscotch" would often have to make decisions on the fly, based on the shifting circumstance.

And there was something about that that I feel like that practice of doing that for all of us, is something I think gave us tools for appreciating and understanding how to live our own lives. And finding your way to stand in the midst of a constantly flowing stream. In many ways that was exactly what "Hopscotch" was --- this constantly flowing activity. And finding your footing in it was not easy, was not easy for anybody. But, the practice of doing that, I think has a deeper significance.

Yuval Sharon of The Industry
Yuval Sharon is the artistic director of The Industry. | Image: Still from Artbound episode "Hopscotch: An Opera for the 21st Century."​

Do you have an especially poignant memory from the process of creating the show, or of the show itself?

There are so many. You know, each chapter really had its own unique process. And so the culmination of this project when we were finally doing all three routes, performing simultaneously, it was like this beautiful symphony of challenges and memories, and difficulties and excitement. So, all at the same time to have this car with the projector on it running through the tunnel -- that’s something that took us forever to try and figure out. That was just happening.

And how to hear the trumpet player from one roof top on our other roof top... to finally figure that out was such a joy. The idea of being able to hear the motorcyclist, Jameson on the motorcycle, inside the car with totally pristine sound. All of those things that were an image in all of our heads, to see that realized, there was the elation of each and every challenge that we overcame, because it was always exciting.

But, when they all came together, and all 24 of them could coexist, that was something that I thought -- I almost don’t have words really for what that felt like, which was watching this kind of micro-community of artists take ownership of this piece, and take ownership of these ideas, and make it totally their own.

I was extremely moved by that, the very first time that we did it. It was really like the opening day performance, and that feeling of all of it happening without me, that suddenly I actually felt like, “Well, now I have nothing much to do except just try and enjoy it.” It was really amazing to me.

What do you hope that "Hopscotch" leaves behind as a legacy?

You know, because it’s a performance that will very unlikely ever be done again, the nature of it, the scale of it, it’s so hard to imagine doing it ever again. But, I hope that what it has left behind is this inspiration for the people that saw it, or heard about it, experienced it, or read about it, who might think that maybe the things that we don’t think are possible, might actually be possible with a bit of investigating and with the kind of commitment of bringing it into the world.

I mean, when I was telling people about "Hopscotch," no one could believe that I would actually dedicate two years of my life to bring something to life that they saw as so foolhardy and really completely implausible in execution, certainly. The idea that we would open ourselves up to this highly unpredictable traffic grid which everyone bemoans all the time.

And then to say that, even the seemingly impossible grid of traffic is potentially the platform of a transformative artistic experience. I think that just showing that that is possible, I hope that does inspire people to look at what they think is impossible in new ways.

 

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