At least, at the end, there will be food. Nobody gets in the door without a covered dish to share.
Deep into the final stages of This Town Is a Mystery - Headlong's latest risky citizen dance proposition, which presents four separate dance/theater performances in four Philadelphia homes, starring the people who live in them - the question looms large:
Do the McQueens, the Bosticks, the Aryadareis, and Tobie Hoffman, and their surprisingly similar houses in Wissinoming, Tacony, South Philly, and West Mount Airy respectively, add up to art?
This is the chance Headlong has taken with these four families, who have been working on their performances since April. Unveiling of the results begins Friday, as part of the 2012 Live Arts Festival, in House A and House B. (You can't choose: You buy a $35 ticket, after which you are e-mailed an address. Most people will not know which house corresponds to which letter.)
Houses C and D have their premieres Sept. 10. After that, two households perform on alternate nights.
Philadelphia theatergoers are adventuresome and curious, it seems, because several performances were sold out weeks ago.
Simonet says Headlong's peculiar concepts - in one, called "Pusher," they approached potential audience members "and sold dance like drugs" right there on the street - are meant to counter an age of spectacle, where "you can deliver to so many people over the Internet."
"Why do we need dance?" Simonet asks rhetorically in an interview not long after a rehearsal at the Bosticks' home, where Leah Bostick has won a tough negotiation over removing a speech about her Buddhist faith. "One of those things we offer is intimacy," he says. "There's a real movement in the arts world to make it easy and convenient and cheap and short, easy to understand, like going to a movie.
"What some people really need is something really hard, a little cryptic. Convenience is sort of deadening."
He said This Town Is a Mystery grew out of driving around Philadelphia and realizing how little he knew about what went on inside people's homes in neighborhoods beyond his own: "Who's in all these houses, and what lives are being lived?"
He says, "We've gotten interested in working on all kinds of performers, all kinds of bodies and movements and stories, profound and funny and intense. If this household was a show, if it had a dance performance piece, what would that show be?"
Headlong advertised for households that wanted to participate (there's a small stipend) and came up with these four. (Simonet had hoped for someone in a fancy Rittenhouse condo, but ended up with four solid rowhouses of working people.)
Since April, they've been visiting, workshopping, probing and experimenting, shaping and rehearsing - Shannon Aryadarei says it has been like a personal theater camp for her three buoyant children. The goal is a 20- to 30-minute dance/theater performance driven by architecture and emotion, narrative and rhythm, illuminating inner lives, household dynamics, and rowhouse staircases.
The material from the households is a little like what mature artists might base their plays or novels on, or what someone in the family might one day draw from for polished reminiscences.
But the performance can't wait for that sifting of the years. "It is a little more raw," Simonet says. "It's the empirical data. The fact that they're up there is great. But it needs to be full and complex and coherent, the way we would ask of any performance."
Having said that, he concedes: "At this point I feel confident with two of them, and the other two have a long way to go."
At the McQueens' in Wissinoming, things remain alarmingly in the planning-and-exploring stage. But the McQueens don't seem to care.
Mom Kendra, dad Calvin, and daughter Kenya, 19, a Penn State Brandywine cheerleader in fuzzy pink slippers, are still working with Simonet and Smith to tease out a storyline, trading probing questions that feel part family therapy, part highbrow actor improv exercise. They will be joined by son Kassean, 12.
A family of great emotional range and energy, this will be their last great project in Philadelphia - they are planning to move to Florida. (House for sale, FYI.)
The focus is mostly on Papa Bear, Calvin, a youth counselor, who is talking out a possible theme based on the three different Calvins he has been in his life. Kendra, a social worker, is down in the basement working on air guitar renditions of Nirvana songs. Simonet is building a narrative structure in which everything is done three times, according to each of those Calvins.
"It's kind of exciting," Calvin said. "It's a family project as opposed to an isolating project."
And it's true. Even without any actual content, the effect of seeing the family work this out together, at home, trusting themselves to the experimental dance guy, willing to draw back the curtain, is pretty spellbinding.
"This is part of the glue to the family," said Kendra. "This is our 'Goodbye, Philadelphia.' "
The Bosticks, who want their show to be a mystery, bar watchers from rehearsal.
But afterward, mom Leah and son Adam, 28, show a bit of their pas de deux, bending at the waist, a little Fred and Ginger against the orange walls. Daughter Princess, 24, is also part of the troupe. (Baby Preston, 9 months, will not be making his stage debut.)
"They have really truly expanded us, introduced us to stuff we didn't know about," says Leah.
The narrative strength of their story focuses on the family's late matriarch, Leah's mother, and all the potent emotions her memory elicits.
"This is like an unknown world, performing arts," Leah says. Princess adds, "They literally turned us into performers. . . . It usually takes me two drinks to get some rhythm. I can't dance. It's phrases, and movements and basically timing together." Says Adam, "We tell a story with our movements."
As for the rehearsals, Leah says, "The preparation, I call it the therapy session. He asked me questions nobody had ever asked us."
At the Aryadarei home, a little magic is emanating from their tableau of South Philly and Iran - chaotic love, intensity, and hilarity. Just don't expect to find a parking space.
Their performance centers on dad Zahed's memories of childhood in Iran. The three bouncy children (Sulaimon, 11, Sydney, 10, and Shaheen, 6) dance and sing against a backdrop (literally, in the kitchen, dancing cheek to cheek) of two parents who seem rather in love.
Billed as the only family in the world with the name Aryadarei (an immigration official's mistake), they seem to create theater effortlessly out of their chaotic gratitude for one another's company.
"We want it to be natural," says Smith. "The love of a family makes life beautiful."
Which brings us to Tobie Hoffman of West Mount Airy, who works at Drexel University and lives alone, making her show a one-woman act, albeit with a supporting cast of piano, crown molding, and staircase.
"I like her using the doorway as a partner," says Amy Smith, as Hoffman rehearses a dance sequence in which she rises from the piano bench, whooshes around to face the audience (and her cat) and tell the story of meeting her former husband.
"It's really twisted, and it has a nice momentum to it," Smith comments on the improvised moves.
Hoffman, 59, is the only one in the four households who actually had heard of Headlong. "I've always admired their work," she said after her rehearsal, sitting on her porch, up a long staircase from the street. "It's been really profound."
She says she had thought a lot about home after her mother, who had taken care of her own home for 43 years, died recently.
"This is about home," she said. "It's been really profound. I hope it's satisfying for the audience, the people paying money."
'This Town Is a Mystery'
7 to 9 p.m. Friday through Sept. 22 at two different houses on alternate nights.
Tickets: $35, plus a covered dish to share at the post-show potluck. Location will be e-mailed after the ticket is purchased.
For details and to purchase tickets and to learn about the Live Arts Festival/Philly Fringe's scores of other productions, go to www.livearts-fringe.org. Box office: 215-413-1318.
Contact Amy S. Rosenberg at 215-854-2681 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on twitter @amysrosenberg.