This month, for one week only, the boundaries of DC theatre will be transformed, thanks to the collaboration between DC’s own contemporary Irish arts organization, Solas Nua and the Ireland-based Performance Corporation. Together, the two companies present Swampoodle, an original performance experience written and developed specifically for the Uline Arena, located in the former Northeast Washington, DC, Swampoodle neighborhood.
The Uline Arena, at the corner of 3rd and M Streets NE, is where the Beatles played their first-ever American concert, and where Malcolm X lectured the Nazis. The space was used as a prison in the 1970’s and then as a church, and is currently maintained by a local parking company.
The Performance Corporation’s mission is to create daring theatrical adventures that energize, challenge, inspire, and entertain audiences. After chatting with Swampoodle writer Tom Swift and his director-wife, Jo Mangan this week, that mission continues, full steam ahead here in DC, with this captivating piece, opening to audiences May 21st.
The Performance Corporation strives to stretch the boundaries of where, how, and what theatre can be. The team relishes taking audiences on site-specific journeys to out-of-the-way places, and transforming the commonplace into a realm of dramatic possibilities.
Solas Nua Artistic Director Linda Murray ventured to Ireland to see Drive By, a play where audiences drove to a vacant lot on the outskirts of town, parked, and tuned in, via their car radio, to the performance taking place before them, which was also illuminated by their own car headlights. Soon after, the two teams decided to collaborate on a piece to be produced in the States.
“We realized that there was no strong, well-known Irish neighborhood in DC,” Swift says. Murray mentioned, after brief research, a small plaque in Union Station, commemorating Swampoodle, an Irish shanty town, which was demolished to make way for Union Station, back in the 1880s. “Let’s write a play!” said Murray and the journey towards Swampoodle began.
“We wanted to find out more and needed to find a venue to produce the work,” says Swift. “We walked the neighborhood and videoed the area to see where to produce it.” Swift’s on-foot research, in addition to further online research conducted back in Dublin led him to the Uline Arena.
“From the 1860’s to 1890s, this was one of the toughest neighborhoods,” says Swift, “there was a strong feeling of history and all of this had to be made into a unified piece.”
“We printed everything, online news articles, historian’s research, the Washington Post archive, and plastered it on the walls.” Swift says everything he learned about the Swampoodle neighborhood directly informed the script. Several American actors were flown to Ireland, where they workshopped and improvised various performance styles in order to bring to life the stories that were discovered from this shantytown, including those of boxing, synchronized swimming, circus acts, and ballet. “The collaboration was videoed because these human stories have to come through.”
“It was complicated getting actors together,” says director Mangan. “We auditioned upwards of 200 actors in the late spring of 2010. Seven core cast and three supporting actors were offered roles. We worked with text Tom had written, devised other elements, and relied upon the creativity of the individuals involved. Tom wanted to write it specifically towards the people we were working with. You’ll see that all performers are called by their actual names.”
The American and Irish Cast includes: Clare Barrett, Rachel Beauregard, MJ Casey, Chris Dinolfo, Jason McCool, Adrienne Nelson, Stephanie Roswell, Karl Quinn, Anastasia Wilson.
Without revealing too much, I asked Swift to fill me in on the storyline. “It’s about a group of actors trying to put on a play in the Uline Arena about Swampoodle. The audience follows their efforts to put on the show as they fail, repeatedly.”
The script also deals with issues of race, hatred, love. “Big issues. Life in general. How to grab life and go for it,” says Mangan, “I’m sure some will leave saying ‘hmm what was going on?’ I hope for conversation, debate, and argument. Find your own answers.”
Mangan says that she hopes audiences take away a unique and new experience, noting that there isn’t much space-specific work taking place in DC. “I’m most excited by non-theatre spaces…the possibilities,” Mangan says, continuing, “I hope audiences come to this extraordinary, cathedral-like space…[and] can experience something unusual and exciting. We’re not attempting to change world.”
The performances will be non-seated and audience members will be led through the space by the cast of 10 performers. “Wear comfortable shoes,” director Mangan added.
Runtime is approximately 1 hour, 10 minutes.
Supported by Culture Ireland’s Imagine Ireland season
For more information on both organizations please visit: