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Geoff Sobelle is a New York-based theatre artist. He is a long time member of Philadelphia’s Pig Iron Theater Company, a twice Edinburgh Fringe First recipient and one third of The Elephant Room, a show about magicians that premiered in the US in 2011, and now tours globally. The tour of his Bessie Award winning show HOME, a large-scale production originally commissioned by The Brooklyn Academy of Music was cut short earlier last year as the pandemic took hold in America, as was Dust From the Stars, a sequel of sorts to The Elephant Room, which was instead presented on ZOOM in December.
Theatre-maker, and The Edition founding editor, Melissa Chambers talked to Geoff (on Zoom) this month about magicians, the diabolical effects of magic in theatre, and what became of theatre in the strangest of years. *
Melissa Chambers: So Geoff, you made a show about Magicians, and stage magic often features in your theatre work. What’s your earliest memory of a magic trick?
Geoff Sobelle: I got into magic because I had hero worship for my cousins. They showed me something with cards, I remember the iridescent backing on them which is very iconic of magic tricks, especially in the 70s and 80s. I was maybe four, so 1975. We were in my grandparents living room and I was like, what the… I don't remember what the trick was, but I remember the iridescent back of the card.
My mom's friend, Penny Lieberman bought me my first magic trick, a little black plastic card box. It was big enough for a single playing card. The guy at the store put the card in, the nine of diamonds or whatever, closed it, then he snapped his fingers, and when he opened it, it was the king of hearts. I was amazed. I couldn’t… I was like… that’s insane.
Penny bought it for me. And the shop guy goes, Here, you'll need these. And he gave me two playing cards. And I go, I'll only need the one. I was so convinced by the trick. I was like, what would I do with two cards?
MC: How about your first magic gig?
GS: I remember my first real gig was my little cousin Aaron's birthday party. It had a big finish, which was the ‘Dove Pan,’ it’s a classic act. It’s a little silver pan, you put all of these ingredients in it and you always end with a squirt of lighter fluid and throw a match in, there’s a burst of flames and you cover it for a moment. When you open it up, it's filled with cookies.
I really went for it with the lighter fluid, I think I almost burnt my face off, it was a huge burst of flames, but it worked. Also my pan was a little fucked up, there’s a secret compartment and a lid and… what I mean is… well I can't reveal all the secrets.
MC: I’m asking a magician about magic tricks. This could be a short interview.
GS: It’s true. I think as a kid though, I was that fairly common story of a young magician, I was largely self-taught. I’d seen David Copperfield and Penn and Teller, and I think I saw Doug Henning. You read these books which are a bit like a cookbook. There’s a synopsis in the beginning that's called ‘the effect’ and it tells you what the effect is going to be, and then it tells you the methodology. Magicians are very exact about crediting too, so when they use somebody's move or handling like, I don't know, like the ‘Caps subtlety’ or something, they’ll credit Fred Caps.
MC: Like chess masters.
GS: Yeah. I’m not really a magician though, I feel sheepish to say that I'm a magician, because there are these real artists, magicians that are out there who devote their lives to this. I will say that magicians, for the most part, I think they believe themselves to be in, and they are in a very small, esoteric club. There's not many of them. I remember this from growing up, they always call it a fraternity. It's super male dominated too. It's guilty of every, you know, patriarchal cliché in the world (we could go down that road). But also it’s an extremely small club.
What I spend a lot of my time doing is thinking of how magic applies to theater. How you can apply certain psychologies or methodologies for a theatrical moment, and I have found that the theater is an incredibly diabolical place to deploy a magic trick because you're not expecting it, if you go to see a magic show, you expect to see a magic trick. And so you're watching it with a certain expectation. Whereas if you go to see a piece of theater, you're not expecting magic. So the whole suspension of disbelief thing is different. It’s a different set of psychological conditions.
MC: Do you think that most people are kind of programmed as audience members from seeing magic shows as kids? This might be a horrible assumption to make but I’d say most people as kids will have been taken to a magic show or seen it at a circus, or from street performers, right? I didn’t see a theatre show until I was 14 or so… my early memories of being in an audience are mostly magic.
GS: Maybe. I mean, that's an interesting question of what you see for the first time on stage. And it's going to depend, of course on who you are and where you come from and what your demographic is and how you grew up, of course. But, you know, it's so interesting, in this country, I would say that the thing probably people see on stage first is something in church. You know, I bet in the United States, I would imagine people see singers in church, or people presenting something in church… I'm just following this little tributary of my imagination now… cause I’ve never really thought about this before. But it's kind of interesting if you think of where performance really does come from, way back when. It comes from a spiritual, you know, religious ritualistic place. And was all about rules for living. Like how to get your chickens pregnant or whatever.
MC: OK, so if you wouldn’t describe yourself as a magician, what would you say you are?
GS: That actually really depends who I'm talking to. I usually say a theater artist.
And I prefer that because I'm not an actor, that’s not really what I do. If I say I'm a creator, I feel like that's a strange thing to tell somebody if they're not involved in theater. But it’s funny, if I say I'm a theater artist, generally people think that means I'm a scenic painter. That's what I get oftentimes if I'm talking to somebody totally off the street. Well, what do you do for a living? I'm a theater artist, and then I usually have to describe the theater projects too because they're not really plays. I like to steal something from Pig Iron Theater Company who I worked with for a long time. They always say they make theater for non theater-goers, which I always really loved. So I tell them, well, they're not really plays. They're like performances. And then I'll maybe describe my show HOME and I'll say, for instance, in the last show I made you start with an empty stage and one performer. And by the time you've finished, there's a two story house on stage and 50 people, so it combines magic and dance and performance and crazy stuff with audiences… and by this time, either we're having a conversation or that person has driven away and I’m like: … thank you, officer!
MC: Let's talk about that theatre show HOME. Before the pandemic hit and you could do anything, you were doing HOME, the biggest thing I've ever seen you do, you’ve toured it to different parts of the world, I saw you in the Edinburgh International Festival. Can you describe what HOME is?
GS: Sure. OK, yeah. HOME thematically: it's a performance that offers an audience a space to meditate on the difference between these words: ‘house’ and ‘home’. That's what we jumped off when we made it. There’s a house in it, but it's a house like you've never really seen. It's a huge dollhouse almost, or a child's idea of a house.
MC: And the show does start with some pretty good stage magic, right?
GS: Yeah, well, the house sort of appears out of nowhere. Then, and there’s 7 of us in the show who play all the roles, we build the rest of the house on stage in the first quarter of the show, in a kind of time lapse so that the structure is almost the main character.
Before you know it, it's painted and there's a host of people working on the house who we call ‘the contractors’. We were interested in these as those people that you never see necessarily. The people that build your house. But it's not their home. It's your home. For them, it's just a house.
And then those people are gone. And then there comes a host of new people who live in that house and / or that apartment or that wigwam or whatever the structure might be to you.
There's no words in this performance, it’s more of a dance. And the choreography is made from everyday movement. So you're watching people doing the dishes and making their bed and sort of engaging in acts of domesticity. And largely alone, like you're mostly seeing solitary people going about their lives. Sharing the same shell like hermit crabs. The thing that is really at the center of HOME is that it collapses time. You see these generations of people living in the same space over time. But you’re not ever sure if they’re in the same time.
The idea is that the home that you live in, most likely someone lived in before you and more than likely someone will live in after you. And just as you live with the traces of those people who came before you, their good and bad decisions that you either live with or alter like floors and paint color and ceilings and light fixtures. You are leaving traces for people who come after you and they also will live with or change the decisions you made. And so in a weird way, you share that space. You have these kind of ghostly roommates.
MC: Do you know what the Stone Tapes are? Have you ever heard that theory before? It’s this esoteric metaphysics idea that human energy is recorded in walls. Recorded like on a tape. And there are people who can claim to be able to read the stone tapes. It's an energetic theory about people in place over time.
GS: I haven’t! I’d like to read about that. I mean, I’m not surprised though. I think people, even the most cynical, skeptical people will tell you that there's an energy happening in a house or a structure, you know, whether or not you believe in a haunted building or not, it's hard to completely disassociate yourself from the hand that makes the thing or the body that spends (or spent) a lot of time in a place. You’d have to be a fairly insensitive person to just walk in a structure and not feel anything.
The idea behind the performances is they’re meant to be a space to meditate on little details about that time spent. Like the moment you came home with a sick cat or the moment you were sick, and you sat in that chair and looked out the window. They’re really ordinary moments, not big dramatic things. My sister, Steph Sobelle, who's the dramaturg on the piece, says that HOME is a container for living. We thought about that a lot. We thought of the house itself like a body where the attic is a kind of mind or beamer space of memory. And it's a repository for collection. And it's where you store things, but you don't necessarily use them. And the bathroom is literally like the guts that have the plumbing and the intestines of the house. And the heart is always the kitchen for people. Way back when the fire, the hearth was always at the center of people's domiciles because that's part of why you have a structure to live in, is to be warm and to be with one another. And so when people gather in a kitchen at a party now and we all laugh at that phenomenon, it makes a lot of sense. It’s a primal thing.
So HOME, the show, points at all that, It leaves you there to walk around in your mind and your memories and your life, really. It’s not a didactic show, it's meant to sort of set the table and then you go to the bar afterwards and talk about these things. And in a way, that's the show. Or that might be the show. But there is a third act to the whole performance.
MC: Yeah tell us about that. It’s a pretty good trick.
GS: So what starts to happen is that the doorbell starts to ring and people come over. First, it’s the host of a party. A housewarming party, and they’re a member of the audience. They are an unprepared, non performer, and from the moment they’re up there, we (the performers) are giving them moment-to-moment instruction. Then more and more people from the audience start showing up, they just keep on coming, and then the characterization of the party changes. It becomes a baby shower, a birthday party, then a graduation party, a wedding. All the ways that you would use your space to celebrate moments that you do mark time with. In a way, the first part is about privacy, ordinary moments alone. Then the ending is about public space, the house as the space of celebration. For me it has a kind of feeling that's very not of this moment too. It feels like the 60s. Like Jaques Tati. Decadent and exponential, like it just gets bigger and bigger and bigger.
MC: The effect though is a house full of people who all look like they live there. I remember this really vividly. Eventually, the performers in the show got lost among these audience members; there was like 45 people or something. And they’re all doing complicated things, laying tables, getting props, doing the dishes like they owned the place. And as a theatre-maker I’m sitting in the audience madly trying to figure out how you’re doing it.
Am I right in thinking that the cornerstone of a good trick is mostly engineering where people are going to look and pull the strings while they're not looking?
GS: Yeah sure, yeah. But I think I think I would maybe make a slight adjustment to that. There’s a really amazing magician who I’ve come to know named Asi Wind, he’s phenomenal. I saw him give a talk recently and he used this word that I think is incredible, which is ‘conditions’. So for a magician, if you're a card magician, or a close-up magic magician, there are certain conditions, like you might leave a card box on the table and you just sort of like throw it to the side. Well, the audience knows that it’s there but doesn’t think about it much, doesn't pay attention to it, or in magic lingo, they're not ‘burning’ it. If you could make their card appear in that card box, that would be pretty astounding because it's something that they're aware of, but they're not focused on. It's a part of their periphery. And for you as the magician, you have a slight advantage because since they're not burning it, you're more likely to succeed in secretly doing something with that little card box.
I think about that with the theater a lot and especially with HOME, because it's about behavior just like that. You're really spending about an hour watching people, the performers, behave in a house, and of course it is realistic, but we're doing it to tango music and it's like dance also. So we slowly introduce theatrical language that you kind of learn. And then when you see the audience members, part of what’s wild is that we are already imitating the way audiences will move in that space, that's a big thing about how we choreographed, so that by the time you're seeing an audience member move in that space, they move like we do because actually we move like they do.
And so with the audience on stage in HOME you will see people who suddenly either lose an instruction we’ve given them or they get a little lost. They just go to the kitchen, even though it's not a real kitchen. Nothing works, they go to the kitchen because that's where you go.
In the magic trick of HOME, I would say that those are all conditions, that this theater show’s magic, whatever the hell it is, the effect is really exposing human nature. The thing I find interesting is that these things can be put on stage and on display. There are certain innate mechanics of how we are, how we live our lives. That's more interesting to me, for instance, than a narrative story. I personally find that deeply enthralling. And it gives us some strange clue as to what we are.
MC: This month I saw you performing on Zoom. Dust From the Stars is a sequel / not sequel to The Elephant Room, a collaboration with Trey Lyford, Steve Cuiffo and director Paul Lazaar that first debuted back in 2011 and turned into a bit of a downtown phenomenon with a lot of designers and stage managers and others contributing to its culture over tours since. What is The Elephant Room?
GS: Originally the whole idea of this strange thing called The Elephant Room was how do you do magic on stage? That was really the question, because there is a big problem in just performing magic. We’ve been talking up until this point about how you might do magic in a theater context, like in performance, but if you've noticed there's no quote ‘magician’ in HOME, there is no ‘magician character’. There's nobody who possesses magical powers or professes to, and yet magical things keep happening. So it’s not really thought of as magic. It's more like… surprises. Whereas the very amazing Teller (of Penn and Teller) would define a ‘magic show’ as this. He, and I'm paraphrasing, he says you have to have a magician because the magician needs to orchestrate what Teller defines as a kind of wrestling match between what you (the audience) see, and what you know to be true. You, the audience, need to engage in that struggle. You have to lose that struggle and you have to enjoy losing that struggle. That is his definition of a good magic trick. And the magician is key because there has to be a person who is taking you on that journey. And so as opposed to a magician that lies to you, which is I think often the cliché, Teller’s brilliance is that it's the magician that's actually telling you the truth. And even then you won't see because we have these blind spots, the magician can take advantage of those blind spots.
But that is partly also why it's so different when you go with a ‘magic show’ because of this role of the magician versus a theater show where there is no magician, but magic happens. Teller would call that just special effects. By his definition ‘magic’ can only happen if there's somebody there to orchestrate it.
So with The Elephant Room we were like, oh, that's super interesting, but who is that person? And who has the audacity to command that sort of power? What is that? And so we created these magician characters.
MC: I saw The Elephant Room in Manhattan the year it came out. My memory is that there’s these three guys who are together in what looks like a lounge room, magic tricks ensue. There are phone calls, there’s people from the audience. There’s disappearances, and for some reason, ultimately, an elephant. But the characters are the point.
GS: Yeah, the characters were cobbled together out of a huge variety of things, ultimately they’re these three misfit guys, and there’s no reason these men should be hanging out together, but for their mutual love of magic. And that, again, that is like magicians. If you go to a magic club, you're like... how are all these people together?
MC: At the beginning of this year, in the midst of a tour of HOME, you were also supposed to premier the new Elephant Room: Dust from the Stars commissioned by the Center Theatre Group (CPG) in LA. Then suddenly you were doing neither with no notice. What happened when you decided to do Dust from The Stars on Zoom instead.
GS: OK, it's funny because already, this Elephant Room sequel was just not meant to be. We had gotten a commission in 2012 that didn't need to be The Elephant Room again, we wanted to make a show about outer space. So we created a show we just called The Space Show or Space. We've been working on this show now for eight years, but something would keep happening to put it in the back seat. Getting the stars to align to do this thing was so fucking hard. And also, we wanted to make a show that had a minimum footprint, that didn't have a bunch of designers, and was mostly just the three of us with the director Paul Lazaar. What that meant though was that after each workshop CPG would say, you guys came in under budget, do you want to do another workshop?
So we kept working at St Ann’s Warehouse in Brooklyn (who were part of it), cause of, you know: employment, just making space shows. And at one point, Susan Feldman at St Anne’s was like, oh, I thought you were doing the Elephant Room guys, but in space. And we were like: that is an absurd idea. That's a misunderstanding… No, we're not doing that. That's crazy. But then our producer said, again, you're under budget do you want to do another workshop, and we thought, well, maybe we should try Susan's crazy idea. The space show was, by the way, very sci-fi and kind of, self-important, it was very serious, and then we thought, what happens if these three weird magician guys are doing that space show instead? And then this whole weird thing happened.
So, finally we were going to debut it and then Louise, my daughter, was born. So the show went on ice. And then we're like, OK, but we'll do it in 2020… And then the pandemic struck. It just was never meant to be.
But then we thought, well we could do it on Zoom. And we really went back and forth and were like, no, that's not going to work, nothing good happens on Zoom. But here was the sticking point, Centre Theater Group said, we're desperate, what are we going to do? We're just doing staged readings. We have money for you, so can you try?
And so in a way, it was employment. We realised we could have a job in this moment where everything'd dried up. HOME was canceled, everything's canceled. So we're like, fuck it. Let's try something. Both the Philly Fringe and Center Theater Group funded us and actually, other than paying for our time, which was a lot, it was all spent making and trying a lot of different things. You didn't have a set designer, the constraints of production for Zoom are very different, obviously. There's no footprint. There's no truck rental, there's no storage, there's none of that. But we did need equipment, green screens for instance, and then we spent a long time figuring out what we could do.
A big question of the workshop for Zoom though was just: who’ll really give a fuck? Like aren’t we just watching TV? At the end of the day, why are we doing this? You can go on Netflix and see 'The Martian', isn't that more interesting than anything we're going to do?
And so we decided that the actual difference is that with us, you’re on a Zoom call. That’s what it needs to be. The interesting thing is the interactivity. And even if people are annoyed with Zoom, there's something incredible about it cause it’s the only thing in the world where you can see everybody all at once and they're seeing you. And so if you take the medium for what it is, there is something interesting there.
So we set it up as an actual Zoom meeting, an annual magicians meeting that you have joined, and the space show becomes more like a work in progress that we are going to show you. We're showing you in the midst of this meeting our space themed magic act.
MC: It was a huge call when I watched it. Joined it? I don’t even know what you’d call it. There were about 100 people there when I saw it I think. In a similar way to HOME too you made us all into a character, magicians turning up to a meeting, which got me away from the fact that I was sitting at the same desk that I use to check my bank statements. It really worked. Where were you all while you were performing it, were you in the same place?
GS: Oh, no. The whole thing was made remotely. I haven't seen those guys since forever. I'm in upstate New York. Steve's on the Lower East Side. And Trey’s in Philly. Paul's in Brooklyn, our stage management was in New Jersey and LA. So, no, we never were in the same space. Julian Crouch, who designed a bunch of stuff for it, though, and all the spaceships, he lives twenty minutes from me. So we were in the same space with some frequency.
MC: What did it feel like performing on Zoom, describe that feeling?
GS: It's a weird feeling. I don't know how to describe it. I definitely felt like I was performing. I could feel the audience. The first is when things went wrong, which they, of course, do. And they absolutely did like technically, but they always do at a theater show and you've got to roll with it, you know, like the same panic. But that feeling of adrenaline, of course, still happened. I mean, a cool thing for magic though is that you’re also dealing with a camera. So, you know, the world's your oyster with finding and disappearing objects and things like that. There's some things that are easier, and some things that are harder because there's certain things that are harder to believe. And actually in the end there's not that much magic in the show.
MC: There’s is one pretty good card trick.
GS: Oh the John Cusack trick? The E.S.P. trick? We've spent a lot of time on that. We actually spent a lot of time cutting away other magic to give that its strength, because in a way the thing that helps a magic trick on this medium, it's a little laborious, but you have to, again, accentuate the conditions. And so when you really feel that the chances of somebody saying a thing and then that thing coming out in reality and that you have to believe it's reality and not some green screen effect or something, all of that has to be in play.
MC: You're from LA originally. But in my mind, you're a native New Yorker artist, you’ve been making work there for a long time. Just before the pandemic hit you and your partner Sophie Bortolussi who’s also a performer moved with your daughter to upstate New York to a converted church.
GS: Yeah, we came up here to the church which had kind of fallen into our lap, I mean, so to speak, we had to move hell on earth to figure out how to do it, financially and whatnot, but we bought this space into our lives to make work, because it's a big space. That's the whole point of this move. We had not anticipated being here full time, but we were on tour and we had someone in our apartment in Brooklyn. So we actually didn't have another place to go when the HOME tours all shut down. So we stayed here. By the time the Brooklyn subletter left we were like, it's awesome here and we don't really want to be in New York City. I think a lot of people did something similar, who could, you know, who had the means or had the good fortune or whatever. We don't think about how fortunate the timing of all this has been. But, meanwhile, I have definitely been watching as everything's dried up. I roll with a fairly resourceful group of artists, I don’t really know any straight actors. But for the folk I know it was a really dry spring and summer. But then actually things were being made. Film and TV have gone back on, sort of. I think that there's conditions though that show just how terrible those industries are, actually, that actors really are not respected and their health and well-being is not necessarily taken care of, like there's sort of a bare minimum. But again, I'm not the expert, there are other interviews to be had on that.
But for theatres also, there's a serious one-two punch because as all of this social justice stuff has come to the fore at the same time here, we’ve seen how white American theater is. This has all happened over the summer, I think a lot of theatres are having a great reckoning. And if they weren't already dealing with the fact that they have no audience, they're certainly being held accountable for holding up a white patriarchal culture. And worse because many have been claiming to be this throne of democratic principle, and open mindedness. So I think a lot of theaters are like, OK, this is a good moment for us to… figure our shit out.
I'm also dealing with academia. Bard College where I work is seriously grappling and really having their feet held to the fire by some incredibly ambitious, honest students, students that are really like, no, we're not… we’re sticking with this. We want to see the world change and: awesome. That’s a phenomenal thing. So I think there's a major moment of upheaval and nobody knows what's going to happen. But I have to believe, I can't imagine that things are going to go back to business as usual. It's not possible, vaccine or no. The audience, when they do come back in, you're going to be dealing with a kind of trauma of having been on your own for so long and not feeling comfortable with a group of people. And now you're going to ask people to sit in a crowded theater.
I hope that performances as we wade back in, well, I hope that we actually wade back, and not just hit the ground running, but I don't know. You know, that's me talking. I'm sure there's others that really actually run things that feel differently.
GEOFF SOBELLE is an American theatre artist dedicated to the “sublime ridiculous.” He is the co-artistic director of rainpan 43, a renegade absurdist outfit devoted to creating original actor-driven performance works that look for humanity where you least expect it, and find grace where no one is looking. He has been a company member of Philadelphia’s Pig Iron Theatre Company since 2001. He teaches workshops in the USA and abroad and is a faculty member of the Pig Iron School, PA and Bard College. He lives in upstate New York. Website
Image credits (top to bottom) Geoff Sobelle, photo by Jauhien Sasnou; HOME, photos by Xavi Montojo, The Elephant Room, photo by Scott Suchman L-R Geoff Sobelle, Steve Cuiffo, Trey Lyford. ZOOM shot Dust From the Stars, L-R Trey, Geoff, Steve.
*this interview is based on a live conversation and has been edited for publication