Theater Comes Home
by Ben Coleman
Gideon Irving is Living Here
In a spacious apartment on the Upper West Side sits a bespectacled young man, donning a knit beanie in a cozy and cluttered room. He is comfortably situated amidst an array of electronics and speakers. Guitars, banjos, and similar-looking (though probably more exotic) stringed instruments hang on the walls. He picks up a banjo and starts into a song. The music rings of American folk sounds, blended with other cultural influences. His voice is big and uninhibited, never lacking in sincerity. He repeatedly sings the phrase “If I belong, where do I, belong if I do?” The words seem to ache in the room; they are the words of a true wanderer, a person looking to connect. This young man is Gideon Irving, a self-proclaimed “21st century troubadour.” He has traveled the country and abroad to share his songs and stories through his unique theater pieces, and if you give him the chance, he will bring the theater right into your living room.
Gideon is currently working in collaboration with The Foundry Theatre to bring his newest one-man musical show, Living Here: a map of songs, into apartments in all five boroughs of New York City this March and April, adding a whole new meaning to sitting “in the house.” When hosts invite Gideon into their homes, they are essentially welcoming a stranger to share his personal experiences. He sings about them, talks about them, and imprints them on the minds and hearts of the audience members who are lucky enough to be a part of this intimate exchange. In Living Here Gideon unfurls tales of his travels—he has performed in over 300 homes, staying with his hosts throughout, and building his tour of “home shows” through the connections he made along the way. He shares his adventures and discusses the variety of people who shaped his journey, through a large musical vocabulary that employs a range of instruments familiar and unusual. The Foundry expresses that through “the irreplaceable intimacy of live performance[…]Gideon’s musical home shows remind us of what is timeless about sharing time together.”
To adequately investigate the fluid nature of doing a show that bounces around from home to home, rehearsals for Living Here also take place in various apartments throughout the city. The particular apartment described above belongs to Gideon’s parents. The walls are covered from floor to ceiling—one side with maps tracing the places through which Gideon has passed, another side with polaroid pictures of the hosts from his travels, and the third wall is covered with hand-decorated CD jackets (all done by audience members) as part of his “1000 People CD Cover Project.” Melanie Joseph, founding artistic director of The Foundry Theatre, also sits in the room exchanging thoughts with Gideon about the moments they worked through in rehearsal that day. Their rapport is warm, but they remain focused on the work, challenging each other to elevate the piece through their collaboration.
Melanie and Gideon were introduced through a mutual friend, but it was after attending one of Gideon’s home shows in Manhattan that Melanie approached Gideon about doing a collaborative piece with The Foundry. Gideon suspects that “Melanie was interested in the boundaries of performance, and the intimacy of a performance space, and how to explore that theatrically.”
Gideon began doing home shows by touring through various towns in New Zealand on his bicycle in 2012. He left America with merely five bookings. He returned stateside four months later having performed in 80 homes and cycling between them all. When asked how this idea developed Gideon says: “All I knew was that I loved playing songs, and I loved instruments, and I wanted to put myself in front of people. Eclecticism is what compels me as an audience member. So whipping out instruments that people had never seen, like a Jew’s harp, or an mbira, or mixing things electronically, was more interesting to me than an hour of
There is something poetic about inviting a stranger into your most personal space so he can share his personal experiences. In 2013, Gideon continued this journey on the roads of his home country, performing a two-person piece, The Gideon and Hubcap Show, with his friend Nate “Hubcap” Sloan in homes throughout the American Midwest. From New Zealand, to the Midwest, to the very streets where he grew up, Gideon’s work is zeroing in on his own home turf, New York City—where people are so guarded we barely get to know our neighbors, let alone invite them over. New Yorkers have a penchant for the unique and unusual, but it is not every day that we welcome that into our apartments, so in N.Y.C., Gideon’s breach of privacy may seem all the more shocking (though
“New York audiences are a little more jaded,” Gideon explains with a ‘no duh!’ expression on his face. “The host thinks, ‘What am I getting myself into? Am I taking a big risk here?’ But that also led me to craft my show in a more spectacular way. It really pushed me to be more creative. It’s amazing, the possibilities when setting up a home. If you just move a coffee table or a couch, and let us rearrange things for a couple of hours, you can do anything.”
In every performance, Gideon brings his unbridled self into these intimate spaces, building connections though an artistic experience that reaches every audience member present. Gideon states, “The greatest thing that happens is after a show ends when I’m more or less left with the hosts and their group of friends. They’ll often show me the most special ‘thing’ they have. Like a family heirloom, or journals, or in the morning they’ll try to take me to do the thing that makes their town special.” It is hard to imagine a theater experience getting more personal than that.
This heightened level of intimacy may be the next step forward for the theater world. In the 21st century, theater is being pressed to define itself against television, film, and digital media to determine what makes it unique and special, and the answer is always: live performance. By creating a shared experience between the audience and the artist that is live, the immediacy of a theatrical piece is already amplified. When this immediacy is compounded with intimacy, the potential to achieve a personal connection with the audience soars. Gideon is certainly exploring this in his work, and he is not alone.
Rising Phoenix Rep (RPR, an Off Broadway theater company with the mission to “rediscover the craft of a raw and vital living theater”) and their artistic director, Daniel Talbott, are particularly interested in an intimate exchange between artist and audience. Daniel expands on this, saying, “I am more and more obsessed with having fewer and fewer audience members. I have this dream of building a theater with only 10 seats in it, and then the play gets to become this really special intimate experience for that audience.” RPR has done plays on the beach, in bathtubs, in apartments, on street corners, and also in traditional spaces like Cherry Lane Theater and Playwrights Horizons, yet in Mr. Talbott’s experience it is often the smaller spaces that produce the most energizing theater pieces. “Smaller spaces are a truth box, they force the performers to be more honest,” Daniel says, and they also strip the audience of a place to hide. The greater the level of intimacy, the more difficult it is for anyone (actor and audience alike) to fake it.
Molly Murphy, an emerging theater director, echoes these sentiments: “I think people are after the intimacy—the closeness to the art, the closeness to the artist. It gives the audience member a sense of participation without having to get up out of their seat.” Molly is another practitioner of “apartment theater,” having produced a series of shows in her own living space. “I really wanted to create an opportunity for myself and other artists to work on plays, new and classic, in a way that unburdened us of economic pressure,” she says. “To practice the craft, present a piece for people, and yet keep the work in a bubble of safety[…]The evening was always free. The programming lasted approximately 45 – 60 minutes, and there was always a party after. Folks could mingle, talk about the work, and it cost me about 75 dollars to produce.”
The economics of producing theater in New York City is another uphill battle constantly faced by theater artists. Yet these three entrepreneurs have discovered a way to create work that touches their audience deeply and keeps their bank accounts in the black. Gideon Irving always maintains “the economics of [a home show] are way more manageable,” and Daniel Talbott adds, “the lack of financial resources gets your imagination to burn brighter, and it forces you to be more innovative.”
With so many obstacles for theater artists to overcome, it is encouraging to see these hurdles thwarted by creativity. Though Gideon’s methods (as well as Daniel’s and Molly’s) seem unconventional, they actually tap into the very essence of theater. These pieces are immediate, intimate, and also, ephemeral. Daniel dreams of creating a theater for 10 people, Molly’s shows exist only for those present in her apartment, and Gideon is similarly unconcerned with his work living on through video recording or live streaming. “There are not a lot of videos of me online, and I’ve kept it that way,” Gideon states proudly, “I’ve incorporated very performative acts into the show to make it clear that this is not meant to be recorded. I want people to be surprised. Because it is always much more of a theatrical experience than people expect, and I like playing with that.”
Theater is a flash in the pan, and it is extinguished seconds later. Artists like Gideon are determined to maintain the fleeting essence of theater in their own work. Though he does not just impart these feelings from a stage on high, he hand-delivers them to your door. Sometimes we need to turn away from that glorious proscenium, and vacate those 1,500-seat Broadway houses, for this level of closeness is irreplaceable and impossible to reproduce. By sharing his personal stories in one’s home (maybe your home), Gideon Irving and The Foundry are delivering a theater experience in the most intimate way possible. Find a hosting apartment in your borough, curl up on the couch, and listen as Gideon strives to reach you. Connection is just a sofa cushion away.
Gideon Irving will perform Living Here: A Map of Songs in apartments across N.Y.C. from March 11–April 19. For tickets and further information, call 212-777-1444 or visit thefoundrytheatre.org.
BEN COLEMAN is a critic, dramaturg, occasional theater producer, and an active member of the Drama Desk Awards' Nominating Committee. By day he serves as the literary associate for Samuel French Inc. He is also a contributing writer for Theasy.com and Breaking Character. BFA Syracuse University; Master's Degree Brooklyn College. @benreviews.