There is beauty and wonder of breathtaking scope filling the stage at ASU Gammage this month.
From the Native American/science-inspired “Story of Everything,” to the devised theater piece that builds a house before the eyes of the audience, artists at ASU Gammage are tackling sweeping stories to challenge and awe their audiences.
Creating a home
On October 19, something unusual will take place on the stage of ASU Gammage, something that defies the conventional in an attempt to tell a story that is bigger than a single plotline.
“Home”—created by Geoff Sobelle, designed by Steven Dufala, directed by Lee Sunday Evans with original music by Elvis Perkins—is a collaborative, devised theater event that uses illusion, choreography, construction, music and live documentary to portray the life cycle of a house while delving into such broad themes as migration, gentrification and housing.
During the show, a house becomes a home and people in it appear, live their lives and then disappear again.
The production, which was conceived in 2014 and opened in Philadelphia in 2017, is a collaboration between many people, a creation that pooled their talents to see what would result when they were all combined.
Sobelle says he began dreaming about what the show could be in fall 2014 and made his first proposal about home in the summer of 2015. Then in the early spring of 2016 he gathered collaborators and they began work on it.
“I will tell you that for me that is the fastest I’ve ever created something,” Sobelle says. “It was really quick and it demanded a kind of organization and attention that I’m not used to. It was very different from what I’ve done in the past.”
His previous work, “Object Lesson,” had been a solo show, so for his next project, he wanted to put a lot of people on stage. However, he also knew that he couldn’t tour with a big group, so he started thinking of ways that the audience could be moved onto a proscenium stage. The resulting idea was a dinner party and the work grew from there.
It is important to Sobelle to always work with people he loves to work with and this informs the pieces he uses to construct the show.
“Steven Dufala, for instance, the set designer—he’s not really a set designer, he’s a visual artist,” Sobelle says. “I love the guy and how his brain works.”
Then, while he had never thought much about tango music before this creation, he fell in love with it during the process and realized it was necessary for the show.
“Elvis is a really old friend of mine from high school,” Sobelle says. “I love his music and we reconnected while I was making the show. He came and saw some early drafts. I asked him, would you want to collaborate and he was really excited to do it. It wasn’t like I was looking for a musician, more like Elvis landed in my lap.”
Sobelle’s earliest obsession is with illusion, he says, defining himself as a magician. He says he’s often thinking about magic when he’s making these devised shows.
“It’s a good discipline to draw on as an artist because it makes you have to be disciplined,” Sobelle says. “You have to be very clear about what the audience is seeing, very technically clear about what you are trying to achieve and how, what the space is going to look like. To make the house appear the way we do, things had to be a certain way. It made a lot of choices easier for us.”
For Sobelle, it is the camaraderie and the vibe of the people who have worked on the show that has made it special.
“We’ve all fallen in love with each other,” Sobelle says. “I literally married one of the people and we just had a baby. Home is happening for real and that’s pretty delightful.”
There are six actors in the show, plus a troubadour who is a musician and actor. One of the actors is a child who is cast locally.
Since opening in 2017, “Home” has traveled around the world and Sobelle says no matter what the culture, audiences relate to the show and its themes. They’ve performed in North America, Europe, Australia, New Zealand and Asia. Within Asia, they’ve performed in Hong Kong, Taiwan, and South Korea, three very different cultures.
“This is an amazing thing,” Sobelle says. “In every one of those places, someone says ‘I don’t know how it is with you, but here housing is really stressful.’ It is a thing the world over. There is just a shortage of housing. We are performing in urban centers. In New York, of course that is a thing, I didn’t realize that was such a big thing in Hong Kong.”
He also says he’s been amazed at how universally it is received, that whether in South Korea or New Zealand, everyone thinks naked bodies are funny, everyone loves seeing a little kid on stage, and everyone is at first scared to come on stage and then they end up loving it.
“It’s not that different from place to place.”
In the beginning was a big bang
On October 26, the artist, scientist and poet Kealoha will narrate “The Story of Everything.”
It’s a story he is uniquely qualified to tell with a background that blends extreme achievement in the realms of both science and poetry. He earned a degree in nuclear engineering from MIT and was Hawaii’s first poet laureate.
Raised in Honolulu, he pursued soccer, basketball, theater, ukulele playing, hula dancing, surfing and break dancing all while being ranked ninth in the nation in the National Math League and getting a perfect 800 in his math SATs.
Fast forward to 2011 and the artist-scientist found out he was going to be a father.
“The first thing I did was freak out,” Kealoha says. “I wasn’t ready to be a father, I didn’t know how to change a diaper. The one thing that kept coming up was that one day this child will ask, where did we come from? I don’t subscribe to the creation stories out there. The thing I do subscribe to is science, so I started to write from a science perspective.”
He started from the Big Bang and began to realize that he had a story with protagonists and antagonists. There was a hero, villains. There was hate and peace.
“There were all these different things and I kept writing about what came next—the stars, our solar system, then life on this planet that evolved to humans, humans who migrated from Africa to the rest of the world,” Kealoha says.
When he was done writing, the story transformed into a multi-media show, “The Story of Everything,” that incorporates poetry, science, storytelling, music, dance, visual art, chanting, and projections. It is a visually stunning piece that features projections by Solomon Enos, music by Taimane and the Quadraphonix, oli presented by Kau’I Kanaka’ole, and dancing by Jamie Nakama, Jonathan Clarke Sypert and Jory Horn in collaboration with Wallana Simcock.
And center stage is Kealoha as narrator and storyteller leading the audience through six scenes—five based on the past and one dedicated to the future. The first five focus on the history of where we come from and the future looks at global climate change, which he says is scientifically the biggest problem we need to solve as a species.
“The idea was to wrap all this information into something that was digestible to a normal, everyday person, to make it fun and enjoyable and memorable and to engage people through multiple senses,” he says.
Kealoha says the scale of this project makes it like the thesis or grad school project he never had to write.
“It is everything I know wrapped up into one theatrical evening,” Kealoha says. “I’ve tried to wrap up all the different messages and teachings I’ve had not only through science, but life. There are a lot of life lessons through the whole thing that really bring out what the science is trying to tell us. This is to me, my magnum opus. For me, this is the biggest and most ambitious thing I’ve ever done.”
The musical elements came naturally to him. He incorporated the types of poetry slam and storytelling he’d been doing for the past 18 years and then adapted those musical genres that fit the story, whether it was Woodstock or disco or world music or ancient Hawaiian or modern ukulele.
He says he is a huge fan of visual art, so he employed Enos, someone he called Hawaii’s best fine artist and the most cutting-edge fine artist around. He had him draw 130-some pictures to aid in the storytelling.
“Everyone learns in different ways,” Kealoha says. “The more different ways you can approach the subject, the more it can stick. We’re talking about everything here, so you have to throw everything at the wall to see what sticks.”
He’s also intent that good storytelling promote science and make it less intimidating. Taking his inspiration from such great science communicators as Carl Sagan or Neil deGrasse Tyson, he draws upon all the art forms he is familiar with to help people get on board with science literacy, something he says is crucial to our survival as a species.
“Science is hard and cold and art is warm and fluffy, if we can make science more warm and fluffy, it allows people to be touched and moved by it in a way they weren’t open to it before,” Kealoha says. “It’s a fun show. At the very least, (audiences) will be entertained, but if do our job correctly, they will also have learned some things or at least fallen in love with science in a way they weren’t already in love with it.”
“Home,” ASU Gammage, 1200 S. Forest Avenue, Tempe, asugammage.com, 7 p.m. Saturday, October 19, $20 general admission.
“Kealoha: The Story of Everything,” ASU Gammage, 1200 S. Forest Avenue, Tempe, asugammage.com, 7 p.m. Saturday, October 26, $20 general admission.