Expediting Intimacy: The Foundry’s “Living Here: A Map of Songs”
On a recent Sunday, my boyfriend Nick and I visited the living room of a stranger. The place was on Duane Street in Tribeca. We took the elevator to the 10th floor and turned left down the hall, toward the sound of a little crowd, and we found an apartment door standing open. The hostess—busy and smiling—happened to be standing near her entryway as we dropped our coats. We introduced ourselves, thanked her for having us. She offered us each a drink. On we went—into the conversations and stories waiting inside her living room—bumping into an old friend and making a few new ones.
Soon enough, the hostess flicked the lights off. Two miniature stage instruments on short booms glowed to life on one end of the room, illuminating a grove of musical instrument cases standing on their ends, each with a three-dimensional façade of a building, complete with LED-glowing windows. The mini buildings were like a tiny version of the financial district; behind them, we could see the real financial district towering outside the apartment. Gideon Irving, a self-described modern-day troubadour, entered the lit area and sat on a stool. He was just a few feet from us, but he also loomed like a friendly giant among all those tiny buildings. He cracked open one of the buildings, pulled out a banjo, and launched into song.
We visited that Duane Street apartment to be a part of “Living Here: A Map of Songs,” The Foundry Theatre’s production of Gideon’s songs and stories. The piece is being presented in living rooms throughout the five boroughs until May 2nd. That night, Irving wove a series of self-reflexive tunes and monologues telling of his years as a traveling musician, playing concerts in people’s homes. He rambled playfully and soulfully through his deeply felt questions: Where am I from, where are you from? How are we connected? Where do we put down our roots? Can we even make that choice? Can we put roots down all over the place, if we love the world that much?
Gideon played each of his instruments with ease and facility—twelve instruments over the course of the evening, from kazoo to harmonium to mbira to electronic vocoder pedal. His style, which he called “stovetop folk,” feels homey and acoustic, with the occasional plugged-in stylistic departure. Gideon said the “stovetop” in his coined genre refers to how he makes his music with “a little bit of this and a little bit of that,” like a good cook making do with whatever might in the pantry. He used his voice in the same wide-ranging way, venturing from deep round tones to surprisingly high falsettos. He seemed particularly comfortable in his upper range, and he spent time there in his songs. His tones were often delightfully surprising, disorienting. As Gideon played, we learned to be prepared to go just about anywhere with him.
…A few days after the performance on Duane Street, I get to have coffee with Gideon. I ask him about the wish he describes in the show: to never settle down, to always keep roving the world and making new connections. He tells me about Dunbar’s number—an anthropological theory about the maximum number of close personal relationships anyone can cognitively maintain.
“I think the limit is supposed to be something like five people in your inner circle,” Gideon says. “But I don’t think it has to be that small. I want my number to be higher than that! I want to disrupt the status quo—how I live, how I make a living—so that my number can go up.”
I ask him why—what gives him the need for a number that’s higher than the one this Dunbar person identified?
“I’m ferociously curious about connection,” says Gideon. “When I was little, at family gatherings and parties, I always hung with the adults. I was deeply offended by the idea of a ‘kids’ table.’ Why separate any of our communities from each other? I feel like it’s my responsibility to take advantage of the privileges that were given to me, to make real contact with people and to take in the world and share it.”
And: “This show expedites intimacy by performing it in people’s homes. We cross that boundary into the personal. There’s much more of a possibility of a real, emotional exchange.”
The scenes and pieces of music in “Living Here” expanded on these thematic questions. Gideon told a story-song about his travels, painting vivid portraits of some of the characters he’s met on his cross-country and international journeys as a performer. He digressed into origin stories: of the potatoes he ate in one town, which grew in one state and were exported and reimported across international lines. He articulated the origins of many of his instruments, too—how the harmonium was given to him as a gift by a rapt audience member, and how the banjo’s dingy head was collecting little dusty bits of each place it went with him. In one piece, Gideon reflected on the son of one of his past hosts, a young man named Sterling growing up glued to his mobile device, missing out on real connection. And Gideon sang a song about postcards, about his desire to keep in touch with everyone he meets, racing through a funny, rueful, cascading catalogue of the unfolding lives he tracks via snail mail and phone call.
There was a breathless ongoingness to the phrasing in Gideon’s music. In several songs, his words repeated and repeated with an insistence that began to feel like desperation. Do I care if I get through to you?, he crooned in the final song. Yes I do yes I do yes I do yes I do…
…I ask Gideon about that final song of the show, in which he segues from “yes I do” to a balladic version of the tune “No Business Like Show Business.” I tell him there’s a mournful quality in that rendition; that listening to it, I felt he was acknowledging the impossibility he faced as a traveling performing artist, longing for deep connection but always moving on to the next town and the next new friend. Gideon seems surprised by my take on that piece. “That’s good to know that it felt mournful,” he says. “I actually mean it as a celebration—I want to sort of have a gleam in my eye there, to say: Yes, I love what I do, and I do want your love. Desperately.”
This was the emotional core of “Living Here”: the tension between Gideon’s desperate desire for deep love and presence, and his compulsion to pursue his vocation as a traveling artist. The conflict between these two dreams might have been illuminated more deeply in the piece. For now, though, Gideon is working on making both dreams come true. The self-reflexive nature of “Living Here” was successful: there we sat, in a stranger’s living room, hearing songs from a man about his life playing traveling shows in people’s living rooms. There was the sense that whatever happened that night on Duane Street—the wine glass that shattered in the kitchen midway through the show, perhaps—might become a new story told in some new living room the following night. We were becoming a part of Gideon’s timeline, of his circle of friends, even as he unveiled them for us. During his postcard song, he flung postcards into the audience, freshly addressed to people who were actually among us, people he’d presumably met before the performance began. It felt as though we all might get to receive postcards from Gideon sometime soon. It felt as though Gideon just might be able to pull it off: to keep in touch with everyone; to put his roots down everywhere; to get all of our love at once.
In an early monologue in “Living Here,” Gideon used a small shadow box with a “cranky”—a spooling roll of fabric, with illustrations lit from behind by a light Gideon held—to animate his story. The figures on the fabric were simple line drawings. It was here that he explained his response when people ask him whether he wants to settle down, have kids: no. He declared his sixty-year plan to keep on traveling and making music, and as he cranked the fabric roll, it revealed an image of a great big tree with roots that went down everywhere. It was hard not to feel that Gideon’s wishes were ambitious, beautiful, and naïve, all at once. Then, as the cranky kept turning, a drawing of a beautiful flower emerged to represent the climax of Gideon’s vision: a sense of presence and connection with everyone in the world. It was a simple, beautiful illustration, but there was a hole at the center of the flower and the fabric above the hole was singed and brown. “This is where I accidentally burned my flower the other night,” Gideon said, “because I thought I was a magician.” We laughed. This, to me, captured the many facets of “Living Here”: Gideon’s idealism; the impossibility of his yearnings; his dogged optimism combined with his disarming, authentic honesty; and the sense that his dream may just succeed or catch on fire right there in front of us, tonight, in the present tense.
I chat on the phone with Melanie Joseph, The Foundry’s Artistic Director who commissioned this piece and co-directed it with Kate Attwell. Melanie describes “Living Here” not as a narrative theatre piece, but as “an accumulating mechanism, like a musician with an album. The experience is not sequential, but consequential.” I’m thinking about my feelings that accumulated at that Tribeca apartment, listening to Gideon. In his sound, there’s a gratifying attention to resonance: his explorations of pitch and range in his own body, and a fresh, surprising moment when he picks up his banjo and sings into the back of the head of the instrument, finding the pitches to vibrate the banjo strings with a ghosting twang. That resonance, of course, parallels the sense of connection he seeks as with his traveling singing and storytelling. …Melanie articulates, as part of the mission of The Foundry, the intention to extend an invitation to her audiences, “to offer some joy.”
“The term ‘build community’ is so exhausted,” she says. “We want to bring people together in a way that’s real, authentic. I’m interested in theatre where form and content double one another.”
After Gideon’s final song in “Living Here,” Nick and I waited to meet him, to say hello. On the way toward the door, we got to say thank you to our hostess. We hadn’t spoken with her since we arrived. It was a fleeting evening—living here briefly, here in this living room, reflecting on what it means to “live” and to be “here.” Our hostess said goodnight to us, and she remembered both our names.