Embrace curiosity. Rorschach Theatre’s ‘Dissonant City’ begins.

A package of items mailed to your home prompts an out-of-the-box outside experience.

Note: Rorschach Theatre’s Dissonant City: A Psychogeographies Project is a season-long experience across multiple locations in Washington, DC. Subscribers receive seven monthly boxes, each of which reveals a new location and a new chapter in the ongoing story. This review includes spoilers for Chapter One.

It’s an exciting premise: a mysterious box appears at your home. Contained in the box are artifacts and objects that give hints to a larger story, as well as an address and invitation to explore an unknown location. Travel to that location and follow instructions in the box to go on a journey of the mind and body that promises to “dive into more than a century of DC music and find out just what it means to be immortal.”

In Chapter One of Dissonant City: A Psychogeographies Project, the music explored is by John Phillip Sousa and the mystery location is Congressional Cemetery.

Photo by Rebecca Calkin.

First, you receive the small cardboard box in the mail. Upon opening, the first object you encounter is a guidebook detailing where to go, relevant information (address, directions, parking/transportation, accessibility), a map, actions to take upon arrival, tips for making the most of your experience, a suggested soundtrack, and other things to explore. There is also a small sealed packet, meant to be opened on-site.

For those who choose not to travel, an at-home experience option is provided. This includes a link to a YouTube video that moves through the location and shows all of the marked destinations. While the video does showcase each highlighted space on the map, the experience can only reach its true potential in person.

I arrived at the Congressional Cemetery just before noon on a beautiful temperate autumn day. The slight chill in the air coupled with the imposing gate and aura of the cemetery set the right mood for an experience that was thoughtful and reverent while also being adventurous and stimulating.

Photo by Rebecca Calkin.

At the first location on the map, John Phillip Sousa’s grave, you are prompted to open the sealed packet, explore the objects in the box, and listen to some of Sousa’s most famous marches. Through the objects, a loose story is revealed. One object reveals a lost soul writing words that went unsaid, with a particular relevance to Sousa’s grave. The other delves into the mythological realm — pairing details from Sousa’s own novella with the grand scale of Greek and Roman myth — and gives added context to the locations soon-to-be-encountered on the map. Starting with this moment of introspection, reading, and calm set the tone for the journey ahead.

The locations on the map were thoughtfully chosen to show comparisons and contradictions, highlight gravesites and memorials from controversial or historically marginalized figures, and feel relevant to the objects from the box. For instance, the 9/11 healing pole, carved by a master carver of the Lummi Nation, represents both healing after a national tragedy as well as a remembrance for tribe members who died in Washington DC while negotiating treaties or conducting business with the U.S. Government.

Photo by Rebecca Calkin.

One of the highlights of the guided tour was a selection of LGBTQ+ graves, those brave enough to be themselves and love openly in more dangerous times for queer folks. Juxtaposing this was the nearby fenced-in gravesite of J. Edgar Hoover, a man with a complicated legacy, who used his FBI to oppress, surveil, arrest, and threaten the lives of Black, LGBTQ+, and pro-civil rights activists and artists.

Photos by Rebecca Calkin.

This show didn’t quite live up to the promise of illuminating DC’s music scene, but it did lean in to the “psychogeography” in the title. It engaged all five senses and facilitated discoveries in a place with the heft of history (and a dash of the occult). The cemetery had a distinct soul and aesthetic, and Rorschach Theatre’s guide gave license to uncover the hidden and forgotten.

Dissonant City provokes us to slow down, wander, explore, and take another look at the world around us with fresh eyes and see new intersections, interactions, and comparisons. While raising questions about legacy and tradition, it is left open to the audience to come to their own answers. Does the meaning behind viewing a grave of a Native American chief change when the neighboring prison is in full view? Does stopping at a monument shaped like an accordion feel different after visiting the grave and hearing the music of Sousa? Why are some remembered and who are we leaving out?

The Congressional Cemetery itself is a blend of the old and new, with graves from the 1800s and 2020s side-by-side — a detail that I perhaps noticed and appreciated more keenly because of visiting this location through the lens of Dissonant City. With or without the box, it is worth a visit, but the guidance from Rorschach Theatre made the visit deeper and more thought-provoking.

Ultimately, the box isn’t what’s powerful about this experience. The real strength of Dissonant City comes in taking the space and time to explore, be present in a space, embrace curiosity, and reflect.

Scrooge (Jay Tilley) and Granny (Tatianna Crawford) joining the fun at the Fezziwig ball in ‘A Christmas Carol the Musical.’ Photo courtesy of Rooftop Productions.

Running Time: Experienced on your own time. Boxes are mailed monthly.

Dissonant City: A Psychogeographies Project will culminate with a live performance of Angel Number Nine in the summer of 2023. Participants can join at any time and will be sent the chapters they missed. Subscriptions for Dissonant City are $185 and are on sale now online. Each purchase includes seven boxes by mail and one ticket for the in-person summer performance. Additional tickets for the live performance will be available in spring 2023. (If you missed Rorschach’s two previous Psychogeographies Projects, Chemical Exile and Distance Frequencies, each is still available to purchase for $89. For more information and a link to FAQs go to rorschachtheatre.com/dissonant-city/

CREATED BY Kylos Brannon, Adam Ferguson, Jenny McConnell Frederick, Navi, and Jonelle Walker

Rorschach Theatre’s immersive ‘Chemical Exile’ is a night full of wonder (review by Ajani Jones, July 18, 2022)
Rorschach’s enchanting ‘Distance Frequencies’ ends in beauty and love
(review by Kendall Mostafavi, July 29, 2021)


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