“My ties and ballasts leave me . . . I am afoot with my vision.” —Walt Whitman
I’m not the Luddite I used to be. Though I started out writing reviews in longhand (honest), I eventually accepted the need for a Smith Corona, and from there it was just a small conceptual step to a Mac.
But I seem to have drawn the line at handheld tech. I say “seem” because my rejection of smart gadgets isn’t entirely voluntary. My hands actually rebel whenever I try to use my wife’s iPhone. I double-tap or tap the wrong thing or press down when I should be tapping and it sends me off into virtual territories from which I can’t always find my way back. That—along with the low-grade terror I feel at the sight of an entire el car filled with people staring into the pale glow of their tiny screens—has forced me to confine my personal electronics to a flip phone that until very recently wasn’t even set up to receive voice mail.
So I was naturally apprehensive about En Route, an immersive performance piece that requires audience members/participants to receive instructions electronically.
Created by a Melbourne-based company called One Step at a Time Like This, En Route has been enacted in various Australian cities and at the 2010 Edinburgh Festival Fringe. Chicago Shakespeare Theater brought it here under the aegis of their indispensable World’s Stage program. The piece is set up something like a scavenger hunt—only you’re hunting alone and you’ve got no specific idea what you’re hunting for. I was sent to a spot in the north Loop where I met a good-natured, patient One Step member named Paul who strapped an Atrix MP3 player to my arm and hung headphones on my head so that my mystery trip could be accompanied by 15 recorded tracks featuring (a) music by interesting Chicago artists, (b) spoken-word passages, and (c) the occasional prompt, as in “Cross the street and play track nine.”
Paul also made various attempts to set up real-time mobile communications with me. Ha! That sure didn’t work. As far as I was concerned, the worst part of En Route was walking around the Loop festooned with gear that wouldn’t function—at least not in my hands.
But that was a small price to pay for the exquisite experience I ended up having.
Resourceful Paul found ways to get messages to me in spite of everything. Listening to the MP3 player—which I didn’t louse up as much as I did some of the other equipment—I spent nearly 90 minutes trekking from destination to destination. I went beneath the sidewalks; atop a 12-story garage; through stores, cafes, lobbies, maintenance enclosures, and a surprising number of alleys. At one point I found myself in a hotel room. There was a red cardigan draped over a chair and a woman’s clothes in the closet, and the voice on the player had turned noirish. I thought, “Ah, this is where it turns into a solve-it-yourself mystery.” But it didn’t. The piece remained blessedly MacGuffinless from beginning to end.
It didn’t turn into a self-guided tour, either. Or worse, into one of those colossally condescending attempts to reintroduce me to my city, help me see it afresh, etc. Turns out One Step have far more arrogant intentions, worthy of artists. Their piece isn’t about getting us to see the city but about getting us to see, period. And I’d say that in my case, for a precious interval that started during En Route but outlasted it by a couple hours, that happened. Somewhere along the line, the soundtrack, the changes of scene, the instructions, the indeterminacy of it all combined to tear me loose from my intentions and allow me to do the sort of seeing that starts with a willingness to tell yourself you’ve got nowhere else to be and nothing you need to do. I temporarily forgot to want anything. A little sadly, I found the feeling nostalgic. I used to have it all the time.
On one of the 15 MP3 tracks, a voice quotes from Rainer Maria Rilke’s Diaries of a Young Poet, saying, “in our gazing lies our truest acquiring. Would to God our hands were as our eyes are: so ready in grasping, so wide in holding, so carefree in letting all things go; then we would become truly rich.” During the summer of 2011, when so many of us are frantic about meeting expenses, holding on to our jobs and homes and insurance, Rilke’s remark may seem naive to the point of irresponsibility. But that’s what makes it worth remembering.