Each month, American Theatre goes behind the scenes of the design process of one particular production, getting into the heads of the creative team. This month we look at Washeteria, created by Louisa Thompson and presented by Soho Rep in March and April.
It looks like a real laundromat, except for the gargantuan pile of laundry in the corner. What started out as a design concept by Louisa Thompson turned into Washeteria, the performance. Thompson brought in theatre artists and a team of second graders from Brooklyn’s P.S. 414 to create and play in her fantastical laundromat, located in a formerly empty storefront in South Williamsburg.
Louisa Thompson, CREATOR AND SET DESIGN: As a designer, I was intrigued by the idea of making a space that other artists could come respond to. I also wanted to provide an opportunity for artists who don’t normally make theatre for young audiences to make work for young audiences. The world of clothing and laundromats has been in my sights for a long time. When a pile of clothes is sitting in a basket, it’s kind of inert, almost lifeless, and yet it says so much about a person. That seemed like it would give birth to really interesting theatre about people: How do we get beyond the clothing? Who’s the person?
The design of the space came from me looking at what seemed like hundreds of laundromats—ones specific to this neighborhood—and collecting really great research material, looking at images of clothing and assembling a design book, and starting to build models and sketch a concept for this space. Our goal was to create two 25-minute pieces of theatre with a writer and director responding to the space.
Over time, the clothing pile became this big important part of the show for me—there’s something kind of abstract about it and beastly. It’s a character in the room. I felt that the laundromat had to have some kind of extreme quality to it; I didn’t want it to be sterile. Every day, somebody comes to do their laundry here. There are only four machines and one dryer, but if you study it from the street, you definitely feel like we’ve gone into business.
Sarah Benson, CODIRECTOR: Washeteria felt like it wanted to be embedded in this Brooklyn neighborhood rather than in our theatre in Tribeca. We wanted it to be within walking distance of the school. We developed it with these five classes of second graders who came to the space and gave us their ideas. They had a lot of input in the shape of the characters—literally, we changed everything based on their responses. Often kids just see a finished thing while sitting in rows in seats, and that’s it—but we wanted to make a space that the kids had ownership of. It was like having 100 second-grader dramaturgs on hand, which is kind of amazing.
Design is something that kids absolutely love. And design is definitely a core value for Soho Rep. In a way, this has been a natural extension of that, to figure out what happens if, on the first day of rehearsal, instead of having a script, you have a model.
Washeteria, created by Louisa Thompson and featuring her set design, ran March 21–April 5 in Brooklyn. It was directed by Adrienne Kapstein and Sarah Benson. It featured two episodes written, respectively, by César Alvarez with director Annie Tippe, and Charise Castro Smith with director Tea Alagic. The production was partially funded by the Children’s Theatre Foundation of America, who provided a lead gift of $40,000. The remaining production budget was raised via Kickstarter ($21,665) and from an anonymous foundation ($5,000).