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Gideon Irving Will Perform In Your Living Room

Date: Apr 17, 2015
In Living Here, this boundary-pushing solo artist performs not in a theatre, but in someone's living room


It's not every day that you get to perform for a chicken. But that's just what happened to Gideon Irving during a recent performance of his one-man show Living Here: A Map of Songs. The venue was an apartment and the chicken belonged to the host. "We sang to the chicken," he recalls with a mixture of amusement and incredulity. "I got to hold the chicken; it was a very fancy chicken."

That's one of many stories that Irving has picked up as a modern-day traveling minstrel. Since 2012, he has performed his original tunes and tales in more than 300 living rooms in three countries, lugging his 10 instruments behind him wherever he goes, usually via bike. Anecdotes from his uncommon theatrical adventures make up the basis of Living Here, which was commissioned by The Foundry Theatre and created in collaboration with founder Melanie Joseph and associate artistic producer Kate Attwell.

True to his chosen form, Irving is doing his song-and-story cycle in a different NYC apartment every night through Saturday, May 2. Performing in people's living rooms may be unusual, but it's not unheard of. Earlier this year, I caught Caps Lock Theatre's Mrs. Mayfield's Fifth-Grade Class of '93 20-Year Reunion in someone's East Village pad. Actor and playwright Wallace Shawn originally performed his solo play, The Fever, in friends' living rooms back in 1990 before moving it to the Public Theater, and there have been other examples over the years (Ethan Youngerman's The Sublet Experiment, David Wise's Momma's Knishes, and The Dependable Felons' The Whiskey Tango Living Room Tour to name a handful).

Still, performing in strangers' homes remains fairly rare, and it makes the immersive theatre experience much more intimate and unexpected. I recently sat down with Irving over coffee, and he regaled me with tales of biking across mountains, making friends with his audiences, and why he believes the living room is the best place for theatre artists to perform today.

Diep Tran: How did you start performing in people's homes?

Gideon Irving:
I was in this band with my favorite musician, Raky Sastri -- a good friend, he actually worked on this show -- and we were touring across the country for like two years, getting better and playing in bigger places. But I just wasn't excited about those spaces. I don't like clubs; I don't like bars; I don't like loud. I'm just an old, grumpy man. So these guys in the band with me, their favorite band was Neutral Milk Hotel. And the musical saw player from that group, Julian Koster, had been performing in people's living rooms and bedrooms for years. I saw a show of his in an apartment in Bayside, Queens, and it was the best show I had ever seen, hands-down. It was a beautiful, intriguing, alternative space. And that was when the idea kind of popped into my head. Then my buddy Hubcap, who had spent some time in New Zealand, said that would be the perfect place to start building a show [like that], because you want to play small towns in rural areas. Touring acts usually go to big places, so these small towns would be really receptive to wherever your show is at. At that time my show was a total mess, a jumble of god knows what. But they were so happy that I had biked there, and it was a great place to workshop something. Then in that process, I felt like I had a show. And I continued to tweak it. It was kind of a harebrained suggestion but it worked out really well.

DT: Was that original show in 2012 all songs and stories too?

At the beginning it was just more songs. And then as I got more confident, I felt I had permissions to tell stories, to be weird, to create signs and experiment with participatory stuff. I even did magic tricks. In Living Here, more than my other shows, we're trying to find the meaning and the arc and how it all fits together. I approach my shows -- outside of this Foundry one -- as just an evening of collective experiences, where meaning might accumulate by the end. I'm happy to do anything in the moment that creates joy or that is fun.

DT: This is actually the second show I've seen performed in a living room this year, after Mrs. Mayfield's Fifth-Grade Class of '93 20-Year Reunion! It seems like it's a growing trend.

It's spreading like wildfire. I think it's our response to feeling disconnected. With Facebook, the internet, a thousand e-mails a day, everything planned out... it's all compartmentalized. I think there's an ancient Greek connectivity in our blood that we're longing for as a culture. So I think it's part of that, a desperation for intimacy. Also, I think people are tired that every time they want to hear music, it's in that same kind of [club] atmosphere. That's a very particular type of space, you know? As much as we're used to it and people love the loudness of everything, I think it wears off after a while and we just want something else. It's a very different listening experience [in a living room]. People are more present, no one is escaping, there's nowhere to go.


DT: They can't leave without you seeing them.

Yeah. I think it's different for the audience, too, to be in that space where they feel their presence and their attention is so much more important than in a big club or in a theatre. Then for the artist, there's an amazing audience that's present. You get to actually meet people. Part of the fantasy and romance of touring is going to different places, seeing different people, meeting different cultures. [In reality], you're on the road playing clubs, you're traveling all day, you're exhausted, you're loading and unloading. You don't get to meet anyone. There was a 10-year-old girl at the show a couple of nights ago. It was her place and she was sitting in the front row. And after my postcard song, I asked her if she would be my friend, and she said, "Yes!" really enthusiastically. And I continued and she stopped me and she said, "No, no! Gideon! I made a mistake! I'll be your best friend." And then after the show, she gave me a really long hug and asked if she could stay in touch. We made a plan to go for a jog this summer.

DT: I read that you normally carry your instruments with you on a bike or cart. How does it feel, with the Foundry, to have someone else carry them on your behalf for a change?

GI: It's pretty weird. That's never happened before, and I'm certainly not getting used to it. I do miss touring in a hard way because that becomes very much part of the performance. I biked 11 hours in the rain in New Zealand over a mountain range to get to a show once, and there were five people there. One of them was 3-years-old and another was 85-years-old, and both of them fell asleep while I was setting up the show! And they woke up after the show. But I still played the show for those three people and gave them everything I had. Them knowing I had biked all day in the rain and then doing that show -- and then waking up to do it again the next day -- that was part of the performance and part of the story, and I love that.


Diep Tran is a writer and editor based in New York City

Photos by Julieta Cervantes