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In 'The Object Lesson,' Geoff Sobelle wants you to go through his stuff for the sake of theater

Audience members with creator/performer Geoff Sobelle (standing on table) in “The Object Lesson” at the Kirk Douglas Theatre.
Audience members with creator/performer Geoff Sobelle (standing on table) in “The Object Lesson” at the Kirk Douglas Theatre.
Craig Schwartz

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When you walk into The Kirk Douglas Theatre in Culver City these days, it’s a bit of a shock. There's no stage and all the seats have been removed.

Instead there are thousands of cardboard boxes, stacked on all sides to the 30-foot ceilings. Many of the boxes are filled with an assortment of random objects that belong to Geoff Sobellle, the creator and sole performer of “The Object Lesson.” 

The show calls on audience members to not only react to Sobelle’s personal effects, but also their own. What ensues is often a revealing look at the emotions, stories and value we attribute to the items we carry around with us every day, or keep squirreled away in our garages and storage spaces. 

Sobelle spoke with The Frame’s John Horn about the thinking behind the very strange set and what theatergoers can expect from “The Object Lesson.”

Interview Highlights

What was the motivation for that set?

It’s obviously a room that’s filled with boxes. But at the same time it’s kind of empty, like when you walk into a storage facility. There’s a feeling of anonymity ... One of the first thoughts with the boxes was that these things could then be revealed and come out. And you, the audience, could be the instigator of that. And that got really exciting to me.

We should make it clear that these are not a couple of dozen boxes.

There’s like 3,000 boxes.

But the audience is not just going through your stuff, they’re going through their own stuff. At one point you ask a couple of audience members to share what they have in their purses or pockets. I’m curious about what you learn about people through the objects they have.

The idea is, in that section, all you hear are the names of the things in their pockets. They are invited to say a few things at the end if they like. But for the most part they don’t. And it’s just a list of objects, and then it’s rearranged in order of least value to greatest value... It’s a snapshot of people and their objects. Sometimes it’s really boring and I love that. And sometimes it’s quite meaningful and I love that too.

And what does it teach you about people?

I’ve learned that people really value their cellphones. [laughs] But I think what I’ve really learned is that people don’t necessarily consider the things that they have on them, myself included. And therefore, there’s often a lot of humor in this section. Because in going through their bag, there’s a lot of discovery — personal discovery. And people end up cracking up and laughing hysterically at the things they have in their bag.

Sometimes they think it’s embarrassing at first to have a toothpick or used Kleenex or baked goods. And then they end up having this sense of empowerment. And owning it, in a way, as they put [their items] back into their bag. And then there’s these moments of real revelation. Like a guy had a Starbucks card he was going to give to his son when he went to college. It was this meaningless card, but a meaningful token. And I think it revealed itself to him in that moment.

But then you really get into the heart of the matter, which is the value an object has, the narrative that an object can tell. I’m wondering if you think the world is divided into people who save objects and instill in them meaning and narrative, and those who don’t even trust or believe in objects and want to get rid of them.

Maybe. I wonder about why we hold onto things ... I don’t consider myself a hoarder or anything like that. Although my sister did give me a definition of hoarding. She said that hoarding is when you think [an] object has feelings ... So I do think some people definitely give a lot more meaning to objects than other people do. I don’t know if it’s such a straight divide. In the process of doing this show, I went through a pretty big cleanse and wanting to just minimize my own stuff. And I definitely had this phase of getting rid of things, donating them, trashing them. And it felt great, but it also felt like I was drinking bleach or something like that.

A lot of the boxes onstage are filled with your own things. So, when the show is over, when it moves, will you get rid of some of it?

I’m going to have to kind of reassess. So, I guess, maybe I haven’t gotten rid of things. They’re in a kind of limbo. There is something that happens though, when you have an object that means something to you and you put it on a stage. Then it does become, for all intents and purposes, an art object or a prop. Whatever you call it, something has changed. The intimacy that you had with that thing is forever different. When you see it being handled by strangers and the lack of care, or different kind of care, or sometimes straight up contempt they might have for something and throw it down — suddenly the meaning is changed. I can’t even tell you what, exactly. It’s not diminished, it’s just different.

"The Object Lesson" is at the Kirk Douglas Theatre through Oct. 4. 

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