Geoff Sobelle has presented multiple original performances on stages across the globe, as a solo artist, as part of a duo and with Pig Iron, a company of experimental artists, with whom he spent 13 years. But it’s the first time one of his stage works, HOME (his newest) is coming to his birthplace, Santa Monica.
“I’m excited because my parents still live here and I haven’t done a lot of my work in the L.A. area. Now, I’m performing in my own backyard!” he said in a recent interview. HOME opens tonight for a brief run at The Broad Stage through Sunday.
Sobelle is a veteran of the revered Edinburgh Fringe Festival, where adventurous new work often finds life far beyond the festival setting. He’s won several “Fringe First” awards, the Total Theatre Award and the Carol Tambor Best of Edinburgh Award for such works as “Flesh and Blood & Fish and Fowl,” “All Wear Bowlers,” and “The Object Lesson,” which also appeared in L.A. at the Kirk Douglas Theatre a few years ago.
EDINBURGH, BAM AND THE WINCHESTER HOUSE
In fact, Edinburgh Fringe is where the Broad Stage’s artistic director discovered HOME. Sobelle was inspired by a commission from the Brooklyn Academy of Music, aka BAM, known for progressive and avant-garde performances, to produce a new piece for its Harvey Theatre.
“I really thought about the space first,” he said, “and wondered what can fill it.” He’d performed his one-man show, “The Object Lesson” at BAM’s Fisher Theatre, a black box space rather than a proscenium stage. “Object Lesson was a solo show, so my first thought was to fill the Harvey with something completely opposite, to have a big group show where I could fit the maximum number of people on the stage. And for no particular reason, I’d also been thinking about something regarding a house and a home.”
Growing up, he and his sister Stefanie Sobelle were fascinated by the Winchester Mystery House as an example of strange Americana and spectacle. “My sister became an academic who’s done 20 years of scholarship on the difference between the words ‘house’ and ‘home,’ looking at stories that houses tell, how houses are portrayed in stories, but also how architecture itself is a narrative form. So, she was a natural partner to bring into this work.”
HOUSE AS HOME
After many years discussing collaboration, his sister became the dramaturg for HOME. As described by Lily Janiak in the San Francisco Chronicle, the action of HOME consists of: “A small ensemble (that) transforms an empty stage into a furnished two-story home with electricity and running water, all in mere minutes. A home is never just walls and ceiling: it gives you dignity and humanity. It holds who you are. Such is Sobelle’s expansive vision.”
“The way I work,” Sobelle said,” is to pick a subject and try to go as wide as I can, then zero in on something that grabs me and feels like there’s a theatrical language we can eke out of it. I was on a residency in upstate New York looking at an abandoned house that might once have been nice but was completely dilapidated.
“I thought, how do you render this in two-dimensions, do you paint the house first and add the weed-overgrown fence, or paint the fence first and paint the house between the slats behind it? Then I started wondering whether you paint the people in the house and began to consider the things hidden inside the house that, even if you don’t see them, are part of it.
“That led me to thinking about theater, how you can manipulate time and space, especially with illusion (Sobelle has also performed as a magician); could we see the time-lapse of a house being built, and how might the audience put themselves in it? All these spaces we live in, we share with the people who came before us and those who come after us. We’re all kind of haunting each other, making marks that somebody else will have to clean up.”
For Sobelle, sharing space is both personal and professional. “You begin to realize the theatre you’re sitting in is also a house. And for me, it’s about the individuals and our working relationships and the home we’ve built together in the theatre. There’s very little language in the show. It’s not like everyone’s mute onstage, it’s more like you’re looking through a house without a front wall from a block away, you can’t really hear what’s being said, and most of what you’re seeing are people’s private moments. There’s movement language, scenic language and magic language and all these things work together to make the piece lift off.”
THE AUDIENCE TAKE-AWAY
Sobelle has hopes for how the audience feels after the performance. “ When they look around the theatre, I hope they’ll feel differently upon leaving than they did before coming about the people sitting in the theatre with them. And perhaps they’ll realize that they are sharing more than just that theatre with these people.
“Other than that, you will definitely see the old cliché ‘it takes a village’ on display. My name is on this thing but I am just the person proposing ideas; there are a lot of people involved in the creation of this work, and I hope that is well understood.”
Sarah A. Spitz is an award-winning public radio producer, retired from KCRW, where she also produced arts stories for NPR. She writes features and reviews for various print and online publications.