As a runner who lives in a populous city, I’m used to getting stuck behind someone dragging their suitcase along the sidewalk. I’m all-too familiar with having to bob around food carts and weave through people standing in line to order. And I’ve developed cat-like reflexes to dodge rats, both dead and very much alive.
So when all these things happened within the first few minutes of Endure: Run Woman Show, an immersive theater performance in New York City’s Central Park, I knew it would be an authentic experience.
I didn’t know that I’d be left standing, in the middle of the park, with tears falling down my cheeks at the end of it.
Here’s everything you need to know about this interactive piece of theater in New York City—which runs through August 8 (you can buy tickets here)—what my experience was like, and why you should go and see it, too.
The Inspiration behind Endure: Run Woman Show
Endure: Run Woman Show was developed by Melanie Jones—a Canadian marathoner, Ironman finisher, and mother—and has been going since 2011, when it was first staged in Prospect Park in Brooklyn. Directed and co-produced by Suchan Voodor, it’s an interactive piece of theater, utilizing the surroundings as the set.
The show takes the audience through the range of emotions experienced while training for and running a marathon, and it explains how running a marathon changed one woman’s life. From the tedium of figuring out pace calculations to the triumph of the proverbial runner’s high (even if it only lasts for the first five seconds of a race), the show taps into the magic, the mundanity, and the transformative power of running—something to which all runners can relate.
For this current run of the show, the backdrop is the beautiful and bustling Central Park. Like Sleep No More—the popular site-specific, Macbeth-inspired production that took immersive theater to a new level in New York when it first opened in 2011—the show takes you out of the traditional theater setting and relies on you following your chosen player. In this show’s case, there is only one person—a woman—who sprints, dances, and leaps her way through the act of running. The show also has plenty of its own Shakespearean elements—all that internal dialogue that happens in the minds of most runners.
Jones based the show on her own early experiences of training for long races, such as marathons and half-Ironman/Ironman triathlon distances.
“I noticed that every kind of human experience came up on long runs: Hilarity, deep sadness, boredom, rage, weird body stuff, all of it,” she told Runner’s World. “At some points, it felt like my most profound wounds would open up, and I’d fall right into them for miles. At others, annoying jingles from commercials would loop and loop. At still others, those jingles became motivational anthems. To my writer’s mind, it felt like a whole human life was contained in a long run.”
It became artistic fuel for the writer and producer, but even more than that, it allowed her to pay tribute to the rebirth running her first marathon gave Jones, after a major depressive episode.
“I am profoundly grateful to the ministry I received from my salty 40-something running broads, my coaches, even the women I pitted myself against in races and training groups,” she said.
Over the years the show has been running, it has also attracted audience members who aren’t runners. As someone who’s turned to running during difficult times, I, however, am definitely among Jones’s prime target crowd.
What it’s like experiencing Endure: Run Woman Show
When I arrive at Columbus Circle on a scorcher of a Sunday for an afternoon performance, the humidity is thick, but like any race, the show goes on, no matter the conditions. The group of about 10 viewers are given race numbers and bibs (which double as programs), and we were directed to a tree inside the park. There, Voodor hands out headphones—sanitized, but he tells us we can sanitize them again, if we wish—and an iPod shuffle. We’d been told, via an email the day before, to wear comfortable clothing, and that there would be no bag-check.
Voodor takes on the role of race director and leads us down a path to our metaphorical start line. We make our way past a woman and her suitcase, the Halal Food Cart, and a couple of rats. Thanks to the music that’s playing in our ears, composed by Swedish musician Christine Owman, these scenes play out like the trailers before a film. It’s the first hint at how cinematic this show will be—despite the bright glaring sun of its outdoor setting.
We turn a corner, just off of Central Park West, to a small nook of the park, and through the trees I see a woman, the actor Casey Howes, who looks like she’s warming up. The voice that comes through the headphones confirms she’s at a start line—surrounded by others who are there “because of divorces … or cancer … or 50th birthdays.”
My mind thinks back to the reason I lined up for my first marathon—I thought I could help a charity by running for it, and running ended up helping me instead. “You kept handling things you weren’t supposed to handle and kept moving…” the voice continues, reminding me how much running helped me overcome the challenges of being a freelance journalist; I don’t have a 9 to 5 job, but I can always rely on 5 to 9 miles to help me deal with anything troubling me.
There’s not much time to reminisce on this anymore because the gun has sounded and Howes is off.
Voodor told us at the beginning of the show that it isn’t necessary to run in order to keep up with the show, but who is he kidding? Many in the group take off after Howes, including the woman next to me, who’s carrying an oversized handbag. In this show, you’re the cinematographer and your pace determines your shot: the quicker you are, the closer you get to the action.
Over the course of the next 75 minutes, the group tries to keep up with Howes as the performance unfolds. In our headphones, we hear Jones as a narrator, describing the meaning running has taken on in her life, and Howes acts out these words. They take shape in her body, they crystalize in her eyes, they glisten in the sweat that soon starts to gather on her neck.
There’s comedy, such as the scrutinizing questions asked by well-intentioned friends when they find out you’re attempting a marathon, and there’s tragedy. In a quiet scene within the trees, the runner lays out the pearls of what would have been her anniversary necklace on the ground around her, as she speaks about the impact depression had on her marriage.
Throughout the performance, Howes utilizes her surroundings—leaping on rocks, climbing on trees, pounding her feet through sand. At one point, she simulates a sex scene, and two young kids, oblivious to what she is doing, decide to engage in playtime right next to her. Howes takes it stride, not breaking flow. Even when tourists take selfies or a boombox passes close by, she adjusts, moves around, keeps going.
At another point, she jumps on a pole and hugs it, while we hear Jones telling us through our headphones about a volunteer she turned to for comfort during a particular race low. I think of the woman whose arms I fell into at the end of the grueling 2018 Boston Marathon, and the sensation of sweet relief takes over my own limbs. But once again, Howes is off, and I’m snapped away from my thoughts.
Nearing the finish line of the show, Howes crosses over into Sheep’s Meadow, the vast lawn dotted with colorful specks of people as far as the eye can see. She begins to run in circles, bigger and bigger as the music in our ears swells. A chihuahua starts to run alongside her, making the whole scene feel like it’s out of a movie. Just as she starts to fade from sight, the music softens as well.
And I’m in tears. It’s been so long since I’ve experienced that flood of emotions that comes at the end of a marathon, and here, in the middle of Central Park, in the middle of New York City, it’s all coming back to me: The pain subsiding, the peace rising, the end of the struggle in clear sight, the acceptance of the road that got you here.
Why you should go see Endure
If you’re someone who sees running as more than just miles and medals, this show is definitely for you. Jones deftly weaves her own experiences in through the course of an imaginary race and it’s like you’re right there with her, following the route she took to make it through, to endure, a troubling time in her life, by running. Howes is the perfect conduit for this journey—she is utterly captivating, and her expressions and movements provide the space for you to reflect on your own relationship to running, as I did.
Walking away from this performance of Endure, I’m left with a reminder, steeped in hard-earned knowledge, that running is about embracing your surroundings, wherever you may be, whoever you may be with; to just go.
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