Absurdist performer sets the table in Austin for chaotic, immersive dinner party
Sometimes our rituals around food can feel like performances, especially if you're someone who partakes in fine dining. Just look at feature film The Menu and its surreal commentary on all its presumptions. Austinites who want a taste of the absurd — without the sinister overtones or actually eating food — have a chance when Geoff Sobelle stops by with his critically acclaimed immersive performance Food, from February 1-4.
Sobelle is a "renowned clown and devotee of the 'sublime ridiculous,'" according to a press release, but the performer has some serious credentials. The Stanford University graduate studied physical performance at the Paris school of a late mime, been awarded a number of fellowships and grants, toured and taught internationally, and recently been profiled by the New York Times through the lens of his current touring show.
Food invites guests to sit around a massive, white table-clothed dinner table, which Sobelle tends as a waiter — white smocked uniform and all. Video teasers of the performance show increasingly chaotic snippets of the action: The server-imposter messily pouring wine, watering a pile of dirt on the table, and ice fishing through a hole in across the seemingly snowy expanse.
Photo by Maria Baranova
"What if I never stopped eating?" Sobelle posited on a phone call to CultureMap, amid the subtle din of pots, pans, and running water while making lunch.
It must feel like that on tour, when by the New York Times' count, the performer consumes 9,000 calories per show. (The logistics of preparing this much on the road is, according to Sobelle, "a bit of a magic trick.") But — the white table cloth and conspicuous overconsumption aside — he says the inspiration is derived not restaurants, but food in all its forms, in every human era.
"I really love themes that are really basic and simple, but then gargantuan and impossible to wrap your arms around," says Sobelle. "Food seemed to be a really good way into that. On one hand, audience members could really bring themselves and their own experiences, and their own cultures, and their own family, and their habits into it; and at the same time, we could take a step back and think about ... this incredibly successful populous creature, the Homo sapiens."
Audience participation is an integral part of the performance. Sobelle keeps the details quiet to avoid spoiling the show, but the teasers show audience members speaking into microphones and passing around a baked potato wrapped in foil. At some point, they're asked to share a recipe or cooking preference, and this is a good opportunity to notice certain cultural patterns.
Photo by Maria Baranova
At the Edinburgh International Festival, for instance, audiences were from far-flung places and could only appreciate each other's recommendations, if not relate to them. In Nashville, at a recent show, the locals laughed at each other's input with recognition.
Austin's unique color will be a mystery until the shows begin unfolding; Sobelle has never been, although he has long wanted to bring projects to Fusebox or the University of Texas, which collaborated in organizing this programming, and admires local theater group the Rude Mechs.
"It's a very American show, in many respects, which was not something I realized so much until actually taking it abroad," he says. "There's some obvious stuff — without giving too much away — that is very much about how our country looked maybe prior to 1600. ... This show does take a step back, so we think about this transition from like Homo sapiens as hunter-gatherers, to agriculture, to consumer; those big chapters."
Audience members with a fear of improv may rest assured that although they may be asked to participate, the structure of the show is rather "instructional." Sobelle leaves slots open to ask for certain input, but isn't necessarily riffing through the show. Guests may "throw" something at him — ideas rather than food, although his word choice sounds like the latter — but he will soon get back on track.
"I realized when I said that, that it probably came off that way," says Sobelle. "I hope that's not the case. But again, it's a mess of my own making. So if they do do that, I have only myself to blame."
Texas Performing Arts and Fusebox bringFood to the McCullough Theatre in five performances from February 1-4. Tickets ($53, discounts available for UT students and other demographics) are available at texasperformingarts.org.