Performers engage with the meaning of “home” by building a house on stage

By Bliss Bowen

Construction of a house is both a setting and thematic jumping-off point for Geoff Sobelle’s unconventional performance piece
Photo by Hillarie Jason

While formulating a question to ask Santa Monica native Geoff Sobelle about his provocative “Home,” opening Wednesday at The Broad Stage, it becomes clear that standard theatrical terms don’t fully cover its parameters. Performers move in tightly choreographed patterns, there is no dialogue save for singer-songwriter Elvis Perkins’ musical observations, and a house is constructed onstage as the audience watches. Is it a play? A show? A how-to demonstration? Sobelle chuckles appreciatively.

“I’d call it a show, and I think it’s pretty squarely in the dance theatre world or physical theatre. But I don’t think of it as a play, and I don’t really think of it as strictly a dance,” he says.

Directed by Lee Sunday Evans, “Home” originated with Sobelle, now a Brooklyn resident. He “wrote and conceived and dreamt” of it for a year before entering a room with sister and dramaturg Stefanie Sobelle and set designer Steven Dufala, or the performers he later invited to join them, or illusion consultant Steve Cuiffo, whose magic tricks make the surreal substantive. Sobelle emphasizes the “deeply collaborative” nature of the show, which was created through a “process of improvisation.”

“The performers are not just actors,” he says of the cast, which in addition to Sobelle and Perkins also features Sophie Bortolussi, Justin Rose, Jennifer Kidwell, Ching Valdes-Aran, and Arlo Petty. “Every single person involved in the piece is an author of the piece, including the stage manager and the designers.”

That approach fits with its core concerns: community, family, and the difference between a house and a home. Sobelle and his team devised action to resolve eternal questions such as why everyone at a party squeezes into the kitchen, and the meaning of staircases as “liminal meeting spaces.”

“Home and housing affects all of us,” Sobelle explains, “whether you live in a mansion or you live under a newspaper. And the difference between those two words hits all of us.”

Conversations with his sister about her academic work — namely, how houses tell stories and “architecture itself can be read as a narrative form” — had informed his conceptualization. But as the show’s dramaturg, understanding that he wanted “Home” to speak to a universal audience, she warned him of dangers and pitfalls inherent in rendering the titular dwelling in three-dimensional form.

“A house reflects a particular time, a cost, a neighborhood, a demographic, a class structure, a racial structure — a lot of things,” Sobelle notes. His sister referenced Louise Nevelson sculptures, and suggested rendering the house as “a pile of doors” or windows.

“It’s both abstract and concrete, and it comprises lots of different spaces while being a cohesive whole,” Sobelle says of the structure they build onstage. Having the audience witness its construction underscores “the things that make a house a house.”

“A house is the walls and the plumbing and the electrical and the structure. Then, before you know it, you’ve been living there for 10 years and it’s a home,” he says. “You don’t think about the house-ness of it until something goes wrong, really.

“When you walk into the place that you live, what do you see? If a homebody is in that room, they of course might think of something like, ‘I’ve gotta fix that leak,’ but what they’re also thinking is, ‘That’s the place where my child grows up’ or ‘That’s the place where so-and-so broke up with me.’ But the contractor’s just thinking, ‘That window’s not square. That foundation’s not quite right.’ It’s the same space, but it means something really different. That is house vs. home. It was important to see that process, because there is a process of creation and also a process of decay. As soon as a house is standing it is in the process of falling.”

The only words heard come from Perkins’ poetic songs, which lend a grounding calm to “Home.” Perkins and Sobelle have been friends since meeting in a tenth-grade chamber music group, but they’d long been out of touch when they serendipitously encountered each other at a café near Bard College in New York, where Sobelle teaches. By then Sobelle had already tried and discarded the idea of having performers in “Home” improvise to tango music; Perkins’ suggestion of a collaboration seemed “too providential” to ignore. When the songwriter returned from the Standing Rock protests in North Dakota, he brought songs he’d written there that introduced a different sense of home and belonging, including “Bivouac,” which is now at the center of “Home.”

The DNA of the piece, per Sobelle, is “how we behave in space.” Various rites of passage occur: tenants moving in and out, a wedding, a new baby’s arrival, a funeral. A child’s height is marked in pencil on a doorframe. Meals are prepared. Laughs are shared. Time defies linear order.

“I think a lot about neighborhoods — who moves in and who moves out,” he says. “Who can buy, who can’t. Who can rent. Who has to get evicted. Those are forces. There are also other forces: the people that came before, the people that came after you who are also haunting the house in a real way, not just an ‘oogie boogie’ way. You make marks on a house. You make decisions — sometimes good, sometimes bad. The people who come after deal with those decisions. …

“You’re looking through a wall at not one slice of time but all the slices of time on top of one another. And to perhaps consider that you, in your own history of dwelling, have a bunch of roommates; they just don’t live in the same time. They live in the same space. By chance, you live in the moment you live in. But these other humans — and I must say nonhumans, because they live there with you too — they’re all there. Some of them pay rent, and some don’t pay rent. … I’m hoping it opens up a space of dream and reverie, so you, the viewer, are thinking of your own history of dwelling.

“It is not a show where you disappear. It is a show where you show up.”

Sobelle stages “Home” at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday (March 4 to 7), with 2 p.m. matinee performances on Saturday and Sunday (March 7 & 8), at The Broad Stage, 1310 11th St., Santa Monica. Tickets are $39 to $89. Call (310) 434-3200 or visit thebroadstage.org.

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