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L.A. River Becomes the Focal Point for Epic, Ongoing Experimental Theater

A light shines on blue cloth outlining a shadow puppet and a shining on a leaf-like object. The performance is part of at "Firefly Nights," an in-person COVID-safe experience that falls within the "Rio Reveals" series.
"Sleep No More" theater director Mikhael Tara Garver unearths the L.A. River's 8-mile deep stories and histories in an ongoing work of experimental theater called "Rio Reveals."

If there is a silver lining to the pandemic, it is that restrictions have inspired original thinking and unconventional solutions. So, instead of holding their annual gala fundraiser, River LA has decided on a daring and counterintuitive alternative. They are putting on a show. “Rio Reveals” is not just a show, but a universe of stories and characters that will be an engine for ticket sales, awareness and community outreach for the foreseeable future.

“This is a really big experiment,” theater director Mikhael Tara Garver of 13Exp tells KCET. “River LA has been incredibly brave in a time like this to say, ‘We could just go on pause, or we could try this thing that should be a way to create energy around something like the river.”

Watch Lauren Bon and Metabolic Studios' "100 Mules Walking The Los Angeles Aqueduct," which recognizes the role of water in Los Angeles.

Watch Lauren Bon and Metabolic Studios' "100 Mules Walking The Los Angeles Aqueduct," which recognizes the role of water in Los Angeles.
Artbound: One Hundred Mules Walking the L.A. Aqueduct

“Rio Reveals" runs through Feb. 7 with tickets costing $25-40. The multi-platform multi-media show includes a team of over 80 performing artists, fine artists, technicians, writers and musicians presenting a panoply of stories that combine live, pre-taped and digital elements. Like open-ended Legos, these elements combine and re-combine depending on the viewer's choices, making for a tailor-made audience experience.“My interest around a work like this is not made by one voice, but many voices making up one experience,” said Garver, “You can’t enter the river twice, you can't look at the river the same way twice. Each decision opens up different stories to you, and different voices and artists.”

Dancers performing by the Los Angeles River banks at night. The performance is part of at "Firefly Nights," an in-person COVID-safe experience that falls within the "Rio Reveals" series.
Dancers performing by the Los Angeles River banks at night. The performance is part of at "Firefly Nights," an in-person COVID-safe experience that falls within the "Rio Reveals" campaign. | Courtesy of "Rio Reveals"

To start, Garver and her team of writers researched different periods of the river around various points of view, driven by the question of how history is told. "The river itself is actually eight miles deep. Underneath every layer, before the concrete, are actual layers of our history. There are fossils and objects held under there, frozen in time."

Director Mikhael Tara Garver
Director Mikhael Tara Garver | Jenna Bascom. Courtesy of "Rio Reveals"

With eight miles of history to dig through, Garver unearthed dozens of stories that unfold in unique ways in "Rio Reveals." "It's an experience that brings us together around the Los Angeles River from your computer, your phone and where you're sitting in your home. You book a time, and you do it together with a group of other people," Garver explains. "We're utilizing everyday technology to connect people. If anything, this is the most user-friendly platform I've ever seen."

Following a live intro, audiences are presented with a menu of different points on the river. By clicking, they enter an area and follow stories by clicking again. The “Central Avenue” portion of the map yielded a story about fictional 1950s jazz singer Bette Vale, including songs, interviews and conversations. Have your phone nearby because occasionally a number pops up, offering another platform with which to connect. Most pieces run a minute or so and usually include spoken word, music and montage.

The logistics for a production like “Rio Reveals” are mind-boggling. Throw social distancing into the mix, and it's nigh impossible. Garver directed through Zoom, often shooting a performer's video. Content capture was primarily the product of entertainers self-taping, so exposure to COVID was minimal.

A perfomer wearing a face mask by the North Atwater Multi-modal Bridge. The performance is part of at "Firefly Nights," an in-person COVID-safe experience that falls within the "Rio Reveals" series.
A performer wearing a face mask by the North Atwater Multi-modal Bridge. The performance is part of at "Firefly Nights," an in-person COVID-safe experience that falls within the "Rio Reveals" campaign.

River LA’s Krisztina "Z" Holly is taking a chance on this unique fundraising approach, but innovative thinking is kind of her thing. Best known as the creator of the first TEDx in 2009, Holly is the founding executive director of the Deshpande Center for Technological Innovation at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the Vice Provost for Innovation and founding executive director of the Stevens Center for Innovation at the University of Southern California. At River LA, she is a founding donor and board committee vice-chair.

She was introduced to Garver in the spring of 2020 and began working on "Rio Reveals” in June. Her confidence in her director is based on a track record that includes commissions for The Kennedy Center, The Goodman Theater, The Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston, as well as American Repertory Theater, where she directed the site-specific theater sensation, “Sleep No More,” based on Shakespeare’s “Macbeth.” On its website, her company, 13Exp, calls itself, “The first original content experiential studio with social impact in our DNA.”

Click right and left to see photos from the production:

Performers on the banks of the Los Angeles River. The performance is part of at "Firefly Nights," an in-person COVID-safe experience that falls within the "Rio Reveals" series.
1/4 This is a specific caption for this gallery.
Dancers at the North Atwater multi-modal bridge. The performance is part of at "Firefly Nights," an in-person COVID-safe experience that falls within the "Rio Reveals" series.
A performer holds a light in an alley. The performance is part of at "Firefly Nights," an in-person COVID-safe experience that falls within the "Rio Reveals" series.
A performer wearing a mask holds a foil object around her. The performance is part of at "Firefly Nights," an in-person COVID-safe experience that falls within the "Rio Reveals" series.

“It’s costing us quite a bit,” says Holly about the production. “We see this as an investment for the long term. We took a huge risk with hope for a huge return, but that will be amortized over the next couple of years. It’s so freaking scary, but nothing great and amazing and innovative has ever happened by taking the easy way.”

As vaccines come online and the pandemic devolves, the show will evolve, with portions becoming more like normal site-specific theater. "They commissioned with the intent that this was a proof of concept for us to then continue on," says Garver about a production that is built to scale up or down based on restrictions. "You can experience this iteration at home with a plant next to you and some water. It's looking at the river in a way you've never looked at it before. It's a perfect metaphor for L.A., our interconnectedness. The tributaries of the river, we all come together from different backgrounds that connect us all. Every great city deserves a great river, which is what we're trying to do here."

In its current state, “Rio Reveals” isn't theater, it's not T.V., and it's not a movie. What it is is harder to say. "We live between physically live and digital things. That's where this new thing that doesn't have a name exists," Garver explains. "There is exceptional physical live work, and there is exceptional digital work. But that space between has fizzled because we can't give it a name, and it looks different each time. It's kind of how we live. And this, to me, is experiential. It's not one or the other, intentionally."

For Garver, something as sprawling as “Rio Reveals,” which is designed to explore primary, secondary and tertiary characters season after season, is more ambitious and more demanding than anything that’s come before. You could call it the climax of a brilliant career, but you’d be wrong. “My hope is that this is an example of a way that we can continue to evolve,” she says. “My hope is this is the beginning.”

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