“Cutting through chit chat kit kat” with Gideon Irving

Photo by Maria Baranova

With new songs, stories, and surprises in store My Name is Gideon: I’m Probably Going to Die, Eventually, returns to NYC for a limited engagement November 30th through December 15th, 2018 at the Brick Theater in Williamsburg (Tickets $25).

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

My first interaction with home-show-performer Gideon Irving was in November of 2016. I attended his show at Rattlestick Playwrights Theatre not knowing who he was or what to expect. I left the theater feeling like Gideon and I had been friends for years. I recently had the privilege of asking Gideon some questions as he prepares to return to Brooklyn for a limited run of his show, My Name is Gideon: I’m Probably Going to Die, Eventually.

What inspires you the most about performing in living rooms?

Having a small audience, made of friends and neighbors that often know each other, creates a lot of surprises for me. Folks are more at ease in a home to play with their friends, laugh, talk back, participate unabashedly, hoot and holler, and eat lots of pie. There is a looseness that invites play in a home.

It’s a challenge to get audiences in a home when they can’t preview the show. They just have to trust their host and take a chance, and that host has often not seen a show yet. It’s a big soup of trust and chance where I’m the only one who really knows what’s gonna happen. As a result, I get the brave ones, the ones who don’t need to know everything in order to give something a go. That’s a really special audience to begin a show with. I love that! What a place to start from.

Often, on the road, people gift me things: a polka winning accordion, an odd doll with a curious jingle bell inside from 1952, a giant mascot dog mask, a jar of pressurized beef etc, etc. These objects often find their way into the show, as do some stories folks share or odd moments they create. People are weird and they’re more apt to share their eccentricities around the hearth with their people.

Above all – the thing I find most inspiring about playing in homes is the experience of trust and curiosity. I find it very powerful that people around the world have opened their doors to me again and again just off the recommendation of a friend and then fill their house with people to see…..something. It’s a real leap of faith or hope or fun. Folks often ask, “Are you ever scared or freaked out staying with people you don’t know?” My answer is sincerely no. I’ve played in hundreds of homes and I’ve just received incredible hospitality. Lately I’ve been particularly engabulated by people across political divides gathering for my shows. That’s felt meaningful and I’ve been really happy to connect across that divide. In the beginning I would worry about my shows any time I was playing for any new demographic: How American is my show? How straight is it? How white is it? How dumb is it? How English speaking centric is it? And what do any of those things even mean? Finding a voice that feels comfortable singing some songs, acting like a goofball and inviting folks to join me has felt less and less like it belongs to any given category and more just a human thing. A thing of fun. We have the fun in the home. Yay fun.

Each night during My Name Is Gideon: I’m Probably Going To Die, Eventually, you ask for an audience volunteer to give you lodging. Are you ever worried that no one will volunteer?

It’s a funny thing that as a team with this show we have never come up with a backup plan if no one volunteers. I really don’t know what I would do since the end of the show depends on someone coming through. I actually ask for a few volunteers in order to play this game and whoever wins the game takes me home. That sounds off, but ya know, platonically. I suppose if no one volunteers we just……. wait longer for someone to volunteer!

How has depending upon the hospitality of strangers affected your art?

Spending time with strangers has made me better at cutting through chit chat kit kat to get to the deeper stuff. As a means of survival, being with a different group of new people night after night I’ve learned to ask different questions. Instead of – What do you do? I might ask – What do you love to do? It’s amazing how taken aback people are by that question. And then they talk about something they love and they light up.  Instead of – Where are you from? I’d ask something like – What are you looking forward to? I continue to try to look for better questions for people I don’t know. Folks like answering new questions, different questions. I think we are all hungry to be shook a bit out of our mold, our collective and often boring practices of interacting. Being able to get to something more personal with people and doing my best to offer meaningful parts of myself has maintained my interest in being a social creature. It’s shown me again and again that the real gold is in people’s curious little details.

As an artist I definitely aspire to explore more of those details. The temptation is to explore large important themes like love, loss, hope and sandwiches. But the art that really connects to me is about the little tiny very specific pieces of life, always needing to retie your shoelace, the way your kid wipes his tears away with his palms, the way someone’s hair looked under a neon sign, the oddly beautiful mold encasing a dead bug at the bottom of a puddle on a mountain, ya know shit like that. Talking to lots of different people and hearing this astounding collection of huge little details has made me more excited and interested in both people and art making. It serves as a reminder how universal the personal can be. Tom Waits is really good at that. His song Kentucky Avenue I think is a great example.

You’ve performed in hundreds of homes across many different countries. Traveling that much must get chaotic. What grounds you?

A bath? Seeing my friends and family, though they are scattered about the globe. Quietude when I can remember how much I love it. Things that shake me out of my patterns. Me and my partner spent a couple days blindfolded a little while ago. We made food and went for walks and lived life just in this radically different way for us, without looking at things. We invited my parents and brother to join us but of course they had to put on blindfolds too. New experiences of body or mind really help me remember how much new there always is if I’m curious enough for it. I’d say trying brand new things grounds me. It’s helpful not needing to enjoy them. I think we miss out on a lot of incredible experiences when we are always asking will I like this? Will it be fun? Rather than will this be meaningful or interesting.

What brings you joy?

Touching the back of my uncle’s bald soft head when I hug him. My dad singing a song. My mom going on a rant. My brother illuminating a difficult concept. Picking my love up at the airport. Seeing her kid in the high school musical. Seeing her other kid meditate. Fatty asian foods. People of different beliefs laughing about how stupid they both are. Great Danes. Mediocre Danes. Great Dame Judi Dench. The movie Birdman. Microfibers. Jokes that aren’t funny. Jokes that are funny. Making new shows. Taking new risks in shows and slowly figuring things out. Sending letters in the mail. Failing with gusto. The idea of failure. My cousin Shapi’s smile. The day I figure out how to turn my laptop news alerts off. The zombie apocalypse and how it will simplify everyone’s dreams and hopes and struggles into the simple task of survival. Clear soups. Opaque soups. Working with people smarter than me. Playing with people funner than me. Sex. Raquetball (looks fun). Turritopsis dohrnii the immortal jellyfish that in a controlled environment with no predation continually returns to its polyp state through a process called transdifferentiation and Pointillism.

If you could pick a favorite song or moment in your show My name is Gideon… what would it be and why?

I can’t tell you what it is till you see it. It’s a secret. But I’ll tell you why it’s a favorite. It’s the hardest thing I’ve ever tried to do in a show. Took me about 80 hours of practice and I couldn’t even tell if it was possible to make it work at 40 hours, but I pressed on. It happens towards the end. It’s a simple really complicated thing that takes all the pieces of my brain and always has the potential to fall apart. Having brought it to life makes me excited to try things I think I can’t do. That could be something grand and astonishing or something simple, like algebra. So, so many things I absolutely can’t do. I’d like to try doing them.

In 2019, you will be traveling 5,000 miles across the United States on horseback.  What have you been most surprised by as you’ve prepared for your horse tour?

My relationship to fear and how it expresses itself or quiets itself around horses. I’m a generally fearful person. I think everyone who has a backpack on the subway is carrying a bomb, every mosquito bite could be cancer, every headache is a neurological meltdown and every time someone I love is ten minutes late I figure they’ve been smushed by a mega-truck. I don’t have a healthy mature relationship to death and dying. Part of me feels like we just might figure it out and we could all do something other than die, like….. live! That’s my way of coping with absolute reality. I know it ain’t good and I’m entirely too interested in different elements of the trans humanist movement which is essentially driven by tech billionaires dedicated to solving death.  While I work on that, I’ve been moving towards this horse tour, arguably a more dangerous endeavor than, well, not doing a horse tour. Learning how deeply sensitive horses are has necessitated a transformation of fear into respect and caution. Horses have the most incredible ability to power through all kinds of challenges, but they are taking their cues from you and are in a deep partnership with you. If I am fearful they can feel that in my weight, my body position, the tension in my butt cheeks, all of it. If they take their cue from my fear that’s when things can get a lot more dangerous. The need to be confident and clear and steady in order to be safe is really interesting and beautiful to me. I don’t think of myself as naturally being inclined to any of those behaviors, but on top of a horse, this epic giant of muscle and wild feeling, those qualities become essential to keep myself safe and my horses safe. This disciplined practice of caring for your companion and being deeply aware of what is happening all around you is really challenging and worthwhile. Just beginning that conversation. I’ll be purchasing two horses in March and training extensively with them for 5 months before departing.

We are all “probably going to die eventually”. What do you wish for your audiences before that happens?

Oy! I dunno. My Papi always said “If you do not believe the water to be as deep as you wish, then ask others what waters they believe are to be you.” Now I never had the faintest idea what he meant, but I asked my dad, Papi Jr, and he translated it as “Hope is where curiosity rises above fear.” That connected. I’d wish people to be curious and curiouser.


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