Out Of 'The Object Lesson,' An Education In The Power Of Kept Things
Sunday is my last broadcast as host of Weekend All Things Considered at NPR West. I'm moving back to Boston, and with packing well underway, after the broadcast I'll be sleeping between piles of hastily labeled boxes.
Weirdly, a couple of weeks ago I experienced a nightmare version of this very scene, when I attended a show called The Object Lesson at the Kirk Douglas Theatre in Culver City, Calif.
"This is not respectable theater. I don't even know if it is theater," jokes Geoff Sobelle, the creator and star of the show.
Sobelle, whose background is in performance art and magic, has transformed the inside of the theater: There's no distinction between stage and seats, between performer and audience. Boxes of all shapes and sizes are everywhere — on the floor, covering the seats, stacked halfway to the rafters. And most of those boxes are labeled — "report cards," "8th through 12th grade," "packs of incomplete playing cards" — not that that helps make sense of anything.
There's no stage as such; the audience and performers are all in the same space. The only place to sit is the floor, or on the boxes labeled "seat." Everyone is encouraged to open up the boxes, see, touch, even smell what's inside — all before Sobelle even enters the space.
Thanks to the interaction with these weird, wonderful and random objects, by the time he does appear, the wall between him and the audience is already down. As Sobelle flits among his objects, which bring out stories and monologues — he's interacting with all of us. Some are called upon to provide a catalogue of their own objects — the contents of purses or pockets.
At one point, an audience member was asked to answer the phone. Before she knew it, she was on a dinner date with Sobelle. He made her dinner using a random assembly of what's around — a table, a box of food and a pair of ice skates, which he used as cutlery.
"It's meant to be an improvised, crazy night that you don't expect," says Sobelle, "but somehow all these things come together and you have this inspiring night of romance."
The audience member was such a great sport, I actually thought she was a paid actor, but she was just one of us. The weirdest thing about it all is that when the scene ends with the couple breaking up, there's a real, palpable emotional moment — even though it's all total theatrical fakery.
"By going up to somebody and having them have a real experience, they've just performed a kind of documentary of seeing their own house in boxes," Sobelle says.
He says it happens every time, and not just with the people he pulls up to perform. This show is weird and fun, but Sobelle says there's a real point to it all.
"It's a meditation on our relationship to things, and to objects and stuff."
He says he was inspired by George Carlin's 1986 stand-up routine, in which Carlin comments on society's obsession with stuff.
"That's what your house is: a place for your stuff with a cover on it," Carlin says in the monologue.
Sobelle is constantly amazed at how easily people attach their own meaning to the thousands of objects he's assembled. At one recent performance, a woman in the audience latched onto one particular object and wouldn't let go. It was a figurine of an AT-AT, the four-legged walker from Star Wars.
"She was cradling this AT-AT like it was a puppy," says Sobelle. "The whole show, for like an hour and a half, the whole time, she's walking around with it. It was very mysterious, the love this woman had for an AT-AT. I just thought it was really cool."
As I pack up my life into boxes, I feel deeply for that woman with the AT-AT. It's not just a Star Wars toy: It's your son when he was 6, your lover's odd sense of humor or that family vacation from 1987.
The power, the value of objects — unless they're made of gold — come from our memories. Try throwing those away.
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