Fringe Festival to stage dance performances in four Philadelphia-area homes

When strangers walk into your house, you greet them politely, and they glance around for clues as to what your life is like. But Mt. Airy resident Tobie Hoffman, teaming with Headlong Dance Theater’s Live Arts Festival event, “This Town is a Mystery,” is prepared to offer her visitors much more.

Early this year, Headlong co-directors Andrew Simonet, Amy Smith, and David Brick began advertising for help with a unique performance concept. Instead of using trained dancers, they would recruit untrained “citizen bodies” to perform dance pieces based on the participants’ own lives, not in a theater, but in front of a small audience in the dancers’ own homes.

Tobie Hoffman, who lives with her calico cat in a small house on Wellesley Road in West Mt. Airy, was one of 40 households across the city who applied for one of four locations in Headlong’s experiment.

As Headlong Managing Director Debbie Shapiro pointed out at Tuesday night’s performance in Hoffman’s home, the company was immediately struck by the courage evident in the Mt. Airy resident’s application. While almost all of the other applicants were families who wanted to perform together, Hoffman professed a willingness to stand up and perform solo.

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“We were looking for people ready to open up and be vulnerable,” Shapiro explained. And so, for eight nights during the Philadelphia Live Arts Festival, Hoffman is turning her emptied living room over to a stage manager, an attending Headlong director, and fourteen total strangers. 

“Every house is a universe,” Shapiro said of the concept of the show. “If you go inside someone else’s house, how are the rules different from yours?” If the town around you is a mystery, perhaps stepping into another family’s life will open new perspectives on the city’s diverse residents.

The stage

Ticket-buyers who arrived at Hoffman’s home on Tuesday, clutching dishes for a pot-luck dinner to follow the show, gleaned what they could about Hoffman’s life by looking around from the chairs that lined the living room immediately inside the front door.

There was a piano, a few family photos, and a colorful glass mezuzah on the doorframe. One button on the door celebrated the Phillies’ World Series win, another read “Wage Peace,” and a third was a tiny white ice skate.

The Headlong artists sculpted the shows at the four locations of “This Town is a Mystery” based on a long and intimate interview process with the families involved. Questions Simonet and Smith posed to Hoffman included “How did you end up living in the neighborhood you live in now?” “What happens in your home when you aren’t there?” and “If someone was going to ‘house-sit’ your body for a few months, what instructions would you need to tell them?”

Beginning last May, the directors drew answers from Hoffman and developed a narrative of music, words, and movement based on her life in her home. A summer of rigorous rehearsals prepared Hoffman, who received a stipend from Headlong for her participation, to make her dance debut on a simple stage contrived by lighting and space designer Thom Weaver in her very own living room.

Locations are kep secret

In another play on the show’s theme of the mystery of others’ homes, Headlong chose to keep the sites of the performances a secret until shortly before the shows premiered, so that most ticket holders decided to attend before they knew where the show would actually take them. 

It was a full house indeed when the audience lined two walls of Hoffman’s living room, with barely enough space for stage manager Kristin Wascowicz in one corner.

The owners life story as art

In a graceful and accessible 30-minute performance, Hoffman overlapped her spoken narrative with an original piano composition and evocative movement throughout the room, explaining how she met the partner who brought her to Mt. Airy, why she stayed there, how her cat behaves when it’s alone, a serious accident, and moments when her neighbors touched her with their support. 

The chance to do the show came at a special time in Hoffman’s life. When she first noticed the call for households to participate, her mother had recently died, and Hoffman was cleaning out her mother’s former home.

“What a tribute to her,” Hoffman thought of taking a chance on the show. Emotional moments have punctuated the performance as well: someone special to Hoffman, who plays a large part in her personal narrative, passed away this week.

“Every night is just a different night,” Hoffman said, having completed a few performances and looking forward to more. “I like discovering who I am each night.”

Logistics of This Town is a Mystery

Mounting the productions has been challenging. With two different households performing their show on each of the sixteen nights of the Festival, the complicated ticketing keeps Headlong on its toes. Developing a professional-grade performance with regular folks enmeshed in family life was also new territory.

“We had to embrace everything that was in the people’s worlds,” Shapiro said, including small children, cats and dogs, a pending house sale, and a critically ill infant.

While Wascovicz enjoys the show itself, the real magic for her has happens afterward, as the strangers sit down for a potluck dinner together. Tuesday night’s gathering drew residents of Germantown, Fishtown, South Philadelphia, University City, Los Angeles, and Warsaw, Poland. Two attendees were deaf, and they joined in the conversation via an ASL interpreter.

“What’s been wonderful are the conversations that ensued afterward,” Wascovicz noted, sitting down for dinner on Tuesday. Guests went on to discuss their childhood experiences at camp, and what they thought the theme song of their household was. “There are so many gifts within the piece that you can begin a discussion on,” Wascovicz said.

Performances continue through Sept 22

Tickets to the Live Arts Festival’s “This Town is a Mystery” by Headlong Dance Theater, are $28-$35 ($18 for students and those 25 and under) and are available through the Festival website. Performances are running at four locations through Saturday, September 22. Shows at Tobie Hoffman’s house, designated “House C,” are happening on September 14th, 15th, and 19th-22nd.


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