In the past, the intimacy of inviting strangers into your home was often at the service of making money by selling products for Amway, Mary Kay or Tupperware.
But the 21st century has heralded a new twist on rolling out the welcome mat.
A trend gaining momentum in Atlanta has homeowners teaming up with theater companies, visual artists, comedians and musicians to create art exhibitions and one-night-only performances in their homes. In these living room shows, both audiences and performers have a chance to come together and bask in the glow of creativity without the excessive cost and rude public behavior that so often characterizes live shows.
Pop-up living room performances distill a new interest in community building to offer moments of interpersonal connection that break through our solitary, technology- and social media-dominated lives. It’s all part of a sharing economy where the usual boundaries of personal property and personal space are disrupted by new business models and a desire to commune in new ways, à la Airbnb, Lyft, Uber or WeWork spaces.
In May, New York-based performer Siobhan O’Loughlin traveled to Atlanta to perform her one-woman show, “Broken Bone Bathtub,” in the most intimate private spaces imaginable: residential bathrooms.
Wearing nothing but a concealing raft of suds, O’Loughlin directed questions at her small audience — perched on stools, potties and counter tops — inviting them to reveal their personal anxieties and histories while one audience member gently washed her hair.
“Broken Bone Bathtub” is centered on the bike accident that left O’Loughlin with a broken arm and a need to traipse to friends’ apartments to use their bathtubs. That is the plot, but the story is very different. At its heart, the show is about a deep desire for meaning and human connection.
“People have talked to the group about all manner of things, from eating disorders to sexual assault and self-mutilation and grief and trauma and anxiety,” says O’Loughlin, who is performing the show in Houston and East Hampton, New York, homes through September. “People have cried openly about loss.”
Such is the power of art played out in the intimacy of one’s home and not on a stage where the audience sits in a pool of darkness while the performer is blinded by a beacon of light.
Atlanta’s Out of Hand theater has been staging one-person performances with a social justice hook in private homes across the city for six years. Minka Wiltz, who has performed her solo show “Shaking the Wind” in the homes of judges, professors and attorneys, says these types of performances offer a fresh challenge for performers, tapping into a very different skill set.
“When I can look up and see the tears and emotion on the audience members’ faces, I am also challenged to stay in the moment while making sure to give the audience time to enjoy the moments as they unfold,” she says.
These intimate shows not only topple the fourth wall between performer and audience, but they also break down barriers between audience members, says Ariel Fristoe, artistic director for Out of Hand.
“You can go to a play in a theater and go home without ever talking to anybody but the person who takes your ticket,” says Fristoe. “In a home, you are greeted by the host and the Out of Hand staff and introduced to other audience members over food and drinks. Then you sit down together and watch an hour-long show about a social justice issue, and afterwards, everyone eats and drinks and talks. Our shows in homes are really a mix of cocktail party and community conversation.”
Two national organizations that bring pop-up performances to homes around the country and the globe began operations in Atlanta this year. London-based Sofar Sounds made its Atlanta debut with five concerts in May and have already scaled up to 19 in August. Los Angeles-based Don’t Tell Comedy has brought comedy shows to homes as well as rock climbing gyms and art galleries. Sofar and Don’t Tell Comedy are part of a trend disrupting the usual bar and nightclub scene of distracted audience members on cell phones or incessantly chatting during sets.
“Don’t Tell was absolutely created as a response to the negatives that come with comedy club culture,” says comedian Sam Gordon, who produces and hosts Don’t Tell Comedy events in Atlanta. Among those negatives she cited were “drink minimums, overpriced menus and, up until recently, very limited diversity in lineups.”
Perks for performers
For performers, living room performances provide an economic benefit by not having to contend with the cost of paying for brick-and-mortar spaces.
“We are performing this way because we can’t afford to put work up in venues,” says O’Loughlin. “If I was renting a space, I wouldn’t be able to do this,” she admits.
They also get the pleasure of performing in front of audiences that are fully engaged.
“It’s really great to be exposed to people who genuinely want to listen,” says Nashville musician Hadley Kennary, who played a recent Sofar event in Old Fourth Ward, where audience members sprawled on pillows on the floor or became one with well-worn couches. Each time a new singer began a set, the room grew silent, every eye directed toward the chair set up in a corner of the living room.
Attending a Sofar or Don’t Tell Comedy show requires signing up online without knowing who is performing and receiving an address the day of the event. Cody Turner, Sofar Sounds director in Atlanta, says applications for a spot at a Sofar show are now up to 300 people per show. The audience is expected to stay for the entire performance and respect the performers by keeping interruptions to a minimum.
Galleries join the trend
It’s not just the performing arts that have seen the impact of in-home experiences. Several Atlanta galleries are also doing their part to dismantle the usual barriers between artists and their audience.
Jamie Steele’s Camayuhs gallery is a contemporary art space tucked into her charming Peachtree Hills cottage.
“I like to think of Camayuhs’ openings more like a house party than a ‘gallery opening,’” she says. “The domestic atmosphere lends a comfortable vibe, and people are more relaxed. I think if you are someone who doesn’t usually look at art or go to openings, you could feel intimidated or out of place. I’m hoping that people don’t feel like that at Camayuhs.”
Although they are currently on hiatus until they find a new gallery space, Steffen Sornpao and Jordan Spurlin of Good Enough gallery have hung art shows in homes in Capital View and Gwinnett County.
“I believe showing in these intimate spaces breaks the social anxiety of attending a typical opening because you’re in a familiar environment with a level of equality felt between artists, curators, viewers and friends,” says Sornpao.
“People are looking for unique, personal experiences when they go out,” says Out of Hand’s Fristoe. “We all have access to outstanding art on our TVs, tablets and phones. And a lot of the time, it’s great to stay home and watch incredible performances from your couch. So when you invest the money and effort to go out for arts and culture, you want to have an experience that you can’t get from your couch, something personal, something local, something unique — an experience that includes human interaction that you just can’t get on any device.”
Out of Hand. “Conceal and Carry,” Sept. 7-Nov. 17. $30-$22. Living rooms throughout Atlanta, www.outofhandtheater.com
Sofar Sounds. www.sofarsounds.com
Don’t Tell Comedy. www.donttellcomedy.com
Camayuhs Gallery. 137 Mobile Ave., Atlanta. By appointment only. www.camayuhs.com
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