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Why designer Doss Freel used trash to create his latest set
Welcome to Behind the Scene, TDF Stages' ongoing series where theatre artists write about their creative process.
The cliché of the NYC starving artist is almost as old as the city itself. But what's it really like these days for an aspiring artist in this ever-gentrifying town? Stable Cable Lab Co.'s new show, Because Me at the Wild Project, examines the struggle of twentysomething Else, who works at Trader Joe's and tries to create artwork in her Brooklyn studio. After paying her bills, she realizes there's little left over for art supplies. So she looks to the streets to find her raw materials.
Turns out all of us at Stable Cable were in the same boat. When we first met with Because Me playwright/director Max Baker, we knew that after paying the creative team and renting the theatre, our budget wouldn't cover things like, say, the set I was supposed to design. So we took a cue from Else and turned to the streets. A list of all the items we needed to mount the show was sent out to the cast, creative team, and crew, and we became an army of treasure hunters. We searched for a lot of specific things, like a table and chairs, but there were vague requests as well, like "art."
I have been Stable Cable's resident scenic designer for the past five years. One of my first productions with the founders of the company was Kill to Eat (a patriot's song) at Ithaca, NY's Hangar Theatre. I spent the better part of a week collecting trash from the city's streets to populate that world, but all the furniture and props were bought or built. Because Me offered us the opportunity to take that idea much further. Since we'd worked with Max on Live from the Surface of the Moon earlier this season, we had a mutual trust. So there was that moment when we looked at each other and said, "Yeah, we can pull this off!" Without the background of that production, this from-the-streets concept would have been far more difficult to sell.
The script came out of several workshop-style rehearsals with the actors who brought their own lives and experiences to the piece. The set also evolved collaboratively with the objects collected inspiring the company and vice versa. There was a particularly grand moment when one of our members found out he could get his hands on an old-fashioned claw-foot bathtub, and we ran to Max to ask if we might use it. While I was partial to the idea of a tub onstage, after a few rehearsals it became clear that it wouldn't work and the idea was dropped. One of the upsides of sourcing your set from the streets is that if something doesn't end up being used, it can go right back to where it came from!
The strangest piece by far was found early in the process by our producer: a damaged mannequin. He sent me, my assistant, and Max a photo of it in an email asking if there was a place for it in the show. We all responded within minutes promising to find one, and now there's a whole bit about it in script.
The company also made all of Else's art in the show. We had an "artwork intensive" rehearsal in which 10 members brought in supplies and things they'd found on the street. With so many hands at work, there was a risk that the pieces wouldn't look like they were created by a single person. So we made sure at least three people touched each work, which resulted in a style with vibrant and fluid backgrounds, and high-contrast focal points. Without the company working together on every aspect of this production, Else would have never found her voice.
Doss Freel is a New York-based designer. Hailing from Metro Detroit, he currently lives in Brooklyn with his amazing wife, Keegan, and dogs, Severus and Bellatrix.
Photos by Doss Freel. Top image: Stable Cable's artwork intensive rehearsal.
Because Me opens Friday, October 29. Tickets are available through TDF's Off-Off@$9 Program.