How one man’s theatrical flop became a designer’s inspiration

By Nadia Bailey

Cast of The Crocodile Jess Stanley, James Cerche, Cait Spiker and Joey Lai in costume with costume and set designer Dann Barber (centre).Credit: Darrian Traynor

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In Dann Barber’s world, a person can play a waiter and a table at the same time. Discarded boxes become walls to other realities; scraps become intricate masterpieces.

The Melbourne-based designer’s work has recently been seen in productions such as Victorian Opera’s Melbourne, Cheremushki, Kadimah Yiddish Theatre’s Yentl and Red Stitch Theatre’s The Amateurs. For him, the theatre’s stage should function as “a physical poem” – in other words, it should have a certain sense of heightened, compressed meaning.

“You want the audience to come away with an emotional response to the space,” he says. “There has to be a poetic sentiment you’re building the design around, so it’s not purely aesthetic.”

Set and costume designer Dann Barber in his studio. Credit: Penny Stephens

Barber’s practice encompasses set and costume design. In both, his work marries the gothic with the painterly: he is interested in things that do not have pretensions towards naturalism. The creators he admires – like Terry Gilliam, Jan Švankmajer, Jane Campion – are distinguished by their singularity of vision. Each has an aesthetic that is both instantly recognisable and unmistakably their own. It’s this consistency that he strives for in his own work. “I am interested in being typecast,” he says. “I admire designers where you can see the hand of that person [in their work].”

Barber studied drawing and fine arts at RMIT, but the theatre was his first passion. In his final year of university, he went to see Love Never Dies, the splashy, critically panned sequel to Andrew Lloyd Webber’s The Phantom of the Opera.

It was this production, he admits somewhat sheepishly, that inspired him to pursue set design. “I was so blown away by how the design was so strange, and entirely world-building, and completely immersive, that it could be so fully realised,” he says.

He recalls scouring the program to find out who was behind it – which turned out to be the Czech Republic-born, Australia-based designer Gabriela Tylesova. She had trained at NIDA in Sydney, so Barber promptly enrolled in the same degree.

The set for Victorian Opera’s production of Melbourne, Cheremushki.Credit: Sarah Jackson

At NIDA, Barber excelled at model-making and got a taste for working in independent theatre. After graduating, he spent a few years working in Sydney, then returned to Melbourne, where his first big break was creating the sets and costumes for a production of Angels in America at fortyfivedownstairs.

He is a naturally collaborative creator, and this production introduced him to a core group of Melbourne-based independent creatives whom he’s worked with ever since.

One of those creatives was director Cassandra Fumi. The two have recently worked together on The Crocodile, an absurdist black comedy about a struggling actor obsessed with fame and the attention economy, inspired by the Dostoevsky story of the same name (as in the short story, much of the play takes place in the literal belly of a crocodile).

To underscore the “meta-theatrical” elements of a play in which the central character is an actor, being played by a real-life actor, Barber created a set comprised of a series of boxes within boxes, like a scenographic babushka doll. The effect is witty, unexpected: it neatly sidesteps obvious design choices in favour of something more idea led.

On stage, the actors are outfitted in extraordinary Elizabethan-inspired garb, leached of all colour. An Elizabethan doublet was crafted from a regular man’s suit, cut up and refashioned to create the distinctive tabs at the waist and shoulders typical of the period.

A Y2K-era leather jacket and “all manner of leather goods” were enlisted to create a striking gothic jerkin and matching hose. Each outfit was then embellished with paint to make it appear as if it were a sketch transformed into three dimensions.

Dann Barber pictured with some of his drawings for The Crocodile.Credit: Penny Stephens

It’s this painterly, tactile quality, this interest in the emotional pull of an object, that typifies Barber’s style. “Everything should be touched; everything should have a layer of painting or a layer of craft,” he says.

Barber is drawn towards using cheap, readily available materials in his practice: cardboard, papier mache, house paint. The boxes that make the set for The Crocodile were sourced from the pavements of Sydney Road. The clothing used to make the costumes came from op shops like Vinnies. He spends a great deal of time haunting the aisles of his local Bunnings.

For Barber, limitations are nothing more than creative opportunities. “There’s an intimacy to making these shows that I love,” he says. “As a designer, how resourceful can you be with a small amount of budget? You can make these shows so ambitious, if the palette or the textures are sustainable and achievable.”

The Crocodile runs from September 21 to October 1 at fortyfivedownstairs.

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