“Death Valley Junction”, Lulu Obermayer ©Mayra Wallraff

Walling the Desert

In “Death Valley Junction”, playing 21 and 22 January as part of Tanztage Berlin 2022 at the Sophiensæle, Lulu Obermayer staged a ‘solo duet’ with one of her artistic foremothers that got me wondering where — in this love song to a performer and to performance — the audience fits in.

Everybody enters the performance space as individuals. Everybody gets their own smile from a person who some of us mistake for an usher or house manager. Everybody gets a warm “Hi, I’m Lulu, thanks so much for coming.” Then we are seated, the lights shift to separate the risers from the stage, and Lulu greets us again as ‘the audience’. She thanks us for our effort in showing up, emphasises our collective identity as observers, and tells us she couldn’t do this without us, thereby implying that a performance needs a public.

Next, through Lulu, we meet Marta Becket. Marta, a mid-career choreographer and Broadway dancer, left New York City and the tour circuit in the 1960s for the desert. Lulu describes it as a sort of self-commissioning. By taking over an abandoned theatre (monthly rent: $45), Marta gave herself the freedom to dance in ways no funder, venue, or other choreographer would ever have asked her to dance. She performed three days a week, in her new home in the tiny unincorporated California town of Death Valley Junction, for decadesno matter the size of her audience. Since Death Valley Junction is a non-place, a transit site, an intersection, the size of Marta’s audience was often zero.

Lulu’s “Death Valley Junction” is a performance lecture that creates the space for two lives to dance a duet. It’s her homage to a guide she never met but followed into the desert — Marta died a few months before Lulu encountered her story. Tracing the performance space with a freestanding spotlight, Lulu conjures this desert, painting Death Valley Junction’s sparse landscape onto the walls with her words. I watch from a full house, aware of having been called more explicitly into my role as a member of the audience than I usually am. Lulu has made a point of saying she needs us in order to dance this duet. Her absent partner, meanwhile, was someone who, apparently, didn’t need a live audience at all.

Lensing Marta’s life through her own, Lulu says Marta went to Death Valley Junction so that she could have the joy of performing whenever she wanted. But, like Lulu, Marta was also pulled to the desert by a guide: in her case, an abandoned theatre. To access her joy, she needed this familiar shell to fill. She often performed to the empty seats of the Amargosa Opera House, yet she spent years painting an audience onto its walls. The form her audience took was inspired by an iconic era in the institutional history of theatre, the Spanish Golden Age, and it included the queen and king at its centre. To me, this gesture seems to be less about missing an audience than it is about Marta needing to bring the conventions of the theatre with her, like a compass, into the great unmarked unknown.

Lulu word-paints Marta’s theatre onto the walls around us, over the desert, letting us picture it before showing video footage of it. It reminds me of the little local theatres I know from my years performing in community theatre productions as a kid, in a rust belt US city. They were clumsy, heartfelt renditions of an Anglo-American canon, “Twelfth Night” and “Fiddler on the Roof”, “The Mikado” and “The Children’s Hour”. Later Lulu shows archival footage extracted from a VHS tape. Marta is in a tutu, springing across the theatre’s courtyard and gesturing on its diminutive stage. Sound and images are distorted from what I assume is the ageing of the tape, slowly degrading in the absence of a viewer.

Towards the end of the show, Lulu reads from the essay she wrote when she was applying for acting school. Through adult Lulu’s mouth, eighteen-year-old Lulu bares her heart. Once, as a child, after watching a behind-the-scenes TV spot on the little girls who were cast in the Broadway revival of “Annie”, I cried all night because I wanted to be an actor. Young Lulu’s platitudes (the theatre is her heart, the stage is her home, theatre people are the only people she has loved) spring from the same well. It’s hard, however, to say exactly what children like us were loving there. It seems to have been so obvious to us that we were incapable of putting it into words. In the face of such vast feeling, you need a grounding hand to reach for when the unbroken view to the horizon starts to make you dizzy. You need somebody watching. Either that, or the institutional conventions of the stage.

Photo: “Death Valley Junction”, Lulu Obermayer ©Mayra Wallraff

“Death Valley Junction” by Lulu Obermayer was performed at the Sophiensæle as part of the Tanztage Berlin 2022.