Culture

Theatre

Geoff Sobelle is making a house a ‘Home’ at Sydney Festival

By Steve Dow
The creator of this participatory performance is keen for the audience to add their own stories

Home. Photograph by Maria Baranova-Suzuki

In 2007, Los Angeles-born theatre maker Geoff Sobelle purchased a modest two-storey home from a Chinese woman in a racially diverse neighbourhood in Philadelphia. The house was in need of extensive renovation, so Sobelle began digging up multiple layers of linoleum laid on the floor over the decades.

As he excavated this archaeological cross-section of floor coverings, Sobelle began imagining the many people who had lived there, separated by time and just “one-sixteenth of an inch” beneath their feet.

When such identical “row houses” were built for shipyard workers a century earlier, they had been filled almost exclusively with Italian immigrants. “I imagined what it would look like if we were all having a party together, people of these different eras fighting over the fridge,” says Sobelle.

“We’re always sharing space with these ghosts, with the people who have come before us and the people coming after us. They didn’t dream of you, just like you can’t imagine them, but it’s your home and it’s their home. We think of space as ours, but it’s not.”

Sobelle, whose “sublime ridiculous” productions hew to the absurdist lineage of Buster Keaton – pushing comedic ideas past their logical limits – was inspired to create Home. It’s a “play” in the broadest sense, with no words (at least not in the expository, narrative sense), which had its Australian premiere at the Brisbane Festival in September. Home returns for the Sydney Festival in January.

On an initially bare stage, six adult actors and one child, all with a background in movement as performers, help build the wooden frame of their two-storey home. With the aid of time-lapse photography, created by a team including an “illusion” consultant as well as set, technical, lighting and sound designers, the audience can soon see painted walls and furniture, and witness the home age from past to present.

The performers go about the mundanity of life: getting in and out of bed, taking a shower, bringing home the supermarket shopping, taking meals out of the oven. There is no ad-libbing in Home, which is built out of improvisations in a rehearsal room; naturalistic entrances and exits upstairs and downstairs are choreographed in synchronicity, while composer and troubadour Elvis Perkins wanders through the actors’ lives, playing guitar.

Gradually, invited audience members begin joining the performers, first in a trickle, then by the dozen, until 50 people are onstage, taking part in extraordinary ordinariness: a wedding, a funeral, a birthday party and a new baby. The production should begin to feel “hilarious” for the audience, says Sobelle. “Bacchanalian and drunken like a Fellini movie.”

But that response, he says, is up to the audience member. Sobelle also teaches at Philadelphia’s Pig Iron School for performers, whose curriculum builds upon the late French movement instructor Jacques Lecoq’s pedagogy of physical theatre and mime; Sobelle adheres to the school’s “fervent belief you don’t know what a thing is until it’s in the space looking at you”.

The creator’s sister, Stefanie Sobelle, an academic specialising in the intersection of art and architecture, is the production’s dramaturg. During the making of Home, the Sobelle siblings found memories of their own childhood home in California were sometimes similar, sometimes deviating in curious ways.

“Ultimately what I’m interested in is not my stories but your stories, the stories of the audience, and for you to fill that house with your own memories, and to think about these times – happy, sad, whatever, doesn’t really matter – just to think about space,” says Sobelle.

“The show is not in any way attempting to tell specific stories. I ask the performers to bring themselves to the work [but] I’m not interested in small stories; I’m much more interested in a larger gesture, which is seeing the lifecycle of a house rise and fall, and you’re watching the people passing through even if just momentarily; you’re getting the sense of all this life force going through, but you’re not wrapped up in the details of their little particular dramas.”

In an era when our political leaders decide who gets to be part of this thing we construct as home, when millions of refugees are shunted between nations, and when world leaders build walls to dissuade newcomers, might Home give audience members pause to think about those who lack one?

“I hope it can be taken as all of those things,” says Sobelle.

“I aim to create an open space that allows an audience space to dream and draw their own questions and things to talk about. It might sit with them for days or weeks afterwards. It’s trying not to be didactic in any way. That’s why I’m not telling any story; I’m offering a space for you to fill in with your own. I’m there to set a table and you sort of bring the meal.

“All of those things, I certainly hope that people go there, but it’s up to them. It’s very hard not to think about the millions of refugees and people who don’t have homes. I think in Australia you do have these questions of whose place this is and whose country this is when you think about home. I hope the piece allows a person to go there but there’s nothing that demands that.”

Steve Dow

Steve Dow is a Melbourne-born, Sydney-based arts writer.

@dowsteve

Home. Photograph by Maria Baranova-Suzuki

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