Geoff Sobelle: ‘I imagined all these roommates, just separated in time not in space, leaving marks for one another’

Home is a visual physical spectacle that combines choreography, live music, illusion and audience interaction to interrogate the idea of home

It is breakfast time in Quebec City, and theatre artist Geoff Sobelle is at the kitchen table, “the circus” of his young family buzzing around while we talk. Sobelle is on tour in Canada with Holoscenes, in which he performs with a rotating cast inside a big glass box that fills and empties with 12 tons of water while the performers sit inside executing mundane tasks: reading the newspaper, peeling fruit, tuning a guitar. Created in collaboration with director Lars Jens, it is typical of the kind of work that Sobelle has become known for over the past two decades: conceptual, playful and underpinned by illusion. When Holoscenes finishes, the California-born, Paris-educated showman will return to his home in New York before travelling to this year’s Galway International Arts Festival with Home, the theatrical spectacle that has become his signature work.

Home is a visual physical spectacle that combines choreography, live music, illusion and audience interaction to interrogate the idea of home. What is the difference between a house and a home? Sobelle asks us to consider, as the architecture of a sprawling domestic structure appears from nothing in front of our eyes. A commission from the Brooklyn Academy of Music, Sobelle says “the scale of the thing was one of the first jumping-off points” for the creation of Home. Some of his earliest work after graduating from the prestigious Jacques Lecoq school of clowning was influenced by the physical slapstick of silent movies and the work of Samuel Beckett — all wear bowlers, for example, took its title and its central millinery prop from Waiting for Godot — and Sobelle was used to working in “unconventional spaces, black box theatres” for the execution of this work.

However, with the Brooklyn Academy invitation came the potential for making something in the Academy’s Harvey Theatre. The auditorium, Sobelle says, “is modelled on Theatre Bouffe du Nord in Paris, the theatre that Peter Brooks worked out of, and it is this big, beautiful space, the kind of space that it is every theatre artist’s dream to play in. BAM said, ‘if the idea merits it, you can do your show there’, so in a way I created Home as a site-specific show, to fit that space.” A performer whose work is grounded in the visual, Sobelle immediately began to consider “a design that would have a poetic potential, but also be really interesting from a spectacle potential as well”.

At the time, Sobelle was living in an old house in South Philadelphia. “It was around 100 years old,” he remembers, “and that’s old for the US. I would often think of the people who lived there before, all of the marks that they had left behind them, and all the marks I would leave for the next people who would live there. There was this moment where I had to do repairs in the kitchen and there was this old linoleum tile, and I was trying to clear it, but underneath was just more linoleum. People had just put a new tile on top of the old one and this had been done over and over, so when you cut into it there was this core sampling. It looked like geological stone.

“But each one of those tiles represented another household; another generation of people, who never would have imagined another pair of feet standing there; another group of people who would also believe very strongly that this house was their home. I imagined all these roommates, just separated in time not in space, leaving marks for one another [as they go about] the prosaic day to day of living in that house — showering and pooping and brushing their teeth and eating their breakfast — the same thing that people are doing everywhere in apartments, mobile homes, wherever they might call their home.”

A piece of work inspired by these musings, Sobelle thought, could be both intimate and epic, individually and universally resonant. It could be specific “about a particular place” but abstract too; “home can be a feeling or a colour, you can feel at home without being in your home”. It seemed to Sobelle to be just the kind of idea that could fill the Harvey Theatre.

Sobelle describes the resulting work as a piece of “dance theatre with significant contribution from the audience. There is no dialogue, no words, but there is certainly a structure, a rigorous structure there, even if there is nothing dramatic in it that you might consider with a play.” He describes the key to his approach to the live theatrical event: “I have always been interested in the power of the group exercise of the theatre. We come in as [a] group of individuals and we have some kind of galvanising experience, so by the time we have left we are all laughing [and] clapping together, you are almost part of a chorus; that connectivity is what I am mostly interested in.”

Inviting the audience to take part in his work is one way in which Sobelle achieves this. He describes by way of example a moment in his 2016 performance of The Object Lesson, in which two audience members were invited on stage and “instructed to go through their bags and take the contents out and name them as they went. Then they had to organise the contents and put them back in order of greatest and least value. Even though they weren’t performing per se, because of the light, the microphone, they were performing. Sometimes it was dead boring, but other times it was fascinating, as people had to make choices in real time, and it was often beautiful and enthralling because it told you something about who they were at that moment. It gave you a portrait of that person on the stage.”

The Object Lesson was for a solo performer and when conceiving Home, Sobelle was interested in “making a big group show with a lot of performers on stage, like 40 people, but I had to figure out a way to get those people on stage and there were concerns. It would be hard to tour with a big company like that, so I thought we would hire [performers] locally, but I thought that might be complicated. Then I started thinking about how we might use the audience, whether we could develop a method for working with audience members that wasn’t hard to watch or do, that would focus the energy toward making it a great experience for audience members to be on stage.”

In the end, Sobelle settled on seven performers — which include him and his wife — with the audience, those invited on stage and those who stay in their seats, filling out the rest of the cast.

Despite the unrepeatable nature of each encounter, however, Sobelle has been heartened by the pattern that has emerged over four years of performing the work both in America and abroad. “Because it’s a party scene,” he concludes, “what happens is what happens at a real party. People gravitate towards the kitchen. That is where the good time is.”

Home runs from July 20th-24th at the Black Box Theatre as part of Galway International Arts Festival, which runs from July 11th-24th

Sara Keating

Sara Keating

Sara Keating, a contributor to The Irish Times, is an arts and features writer