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Theater as You’ve Never Seen It Before

Lisi Stoessel (Col '06, Grad ’08) makes all the world a stage

Lisi Stoessel (Col '06, Grad '08)

As a child, Lisi Stoessel filled sketchbook after sketchbook with drawings of characters. She’d start with simple human forms and turn them into what she describes as “fantastical” figures. Their background stories evolved in her mind as quickly as her pencil moved across paper. “I have always been drawn to the elements of character, the idiosyncrasies that create a being,” she says.

Stoessel (Col '06, Grad ’08) went on to study studio art and then received her MFA in scene design from UVA. Today she is a theater artist working in scenic design, puppetry and performance. She has designed sets for more than 30 shows up and down the East Coast and in Chicago. Her work has been praised by the New York Times and her set for the Berserker Residents was selected as one of the top ten 2010-2011 New York Theatre season scene designs by The L Magazine.

“Lisi’s designs for the stage always combined a visual artist’s control of color and shape with a scene designer’s understanding of space,” says Tom Bloom, her professor and mentor at UVA. Stoessel is grateful for the holistic elements of the MFA program. In addition to learning classic components of scene design she spent time in the prop shop and studied scenic painting. She also worked in her first truly nontraditional theater space, staging Iphigenia and Other Daughters, a play based on various Greek tragedies, in the sinkhole outside of Culbreth Theatre right before the building went under renovation in 2007.

Set of the play “Owning up to the Corn” written by Sarah McCarron and directed by Adrienne Mackey at the Meeting House Theatre in Philadelphia

“The challenge of set design is balancing your right and left brain, thinking practically and creatively at the same time,” Stoessel says. The process often consists of long hours spent working alone in a studio. “I found I wanted more collaboration,” she says. “It was the extrovert in me wanting to get out.”

Babs, a marionette Stoessel made in Prague
In 2010 she traveled to Prague and studied marionette carving with Mirek Trejtnar, a master puppeteer. Much like the characters she drew in her childhood sketchbooks, Stoessel’s puppets have their own stories. She describes “Babs,” a marionette she made in Prague. “She was originally a young French can-can dancer named Babette. But she became sassy—bawdy, really. Her name needed to reflect that, so it was shortened to ‘Babs.’ The names for my puppets emerge with their characters.”

While in Prague, Stoessel honed her skills as a puppeteer. She performed in a production of Pinokio at a street festival. “The whole world opened up,” she says. She began thinking about all of the elements of putting on a show—scene, movement, character, even dance.

Now more than ever she looks for collaborative opportunities in theater. One of her favorite experiences in scenic design was Survive! at Swim Pony Performing Arts in Philadelphia. The production was in a basement fallout shelter and the audience could choose different characters to follow, leading to different scenes and outcomes. “It was a ‘choose your own adventure’ scenario. The designers, directors, and performers were all in conversation about the show’s story,” Stoessel says.

“Survive!” performed by Swim Pony Performing Arts at the Arts Underground at the Wolf Building in Philadelphia

Lisi Stoessel (Col '06, Grad '08)

Currently she is working as the scenic designer of the Philadelphia Shakespeare Theatre’s production of Titus Andronicus, “the Pulp Fiction of the Elizabethan Age” as the theater company puts it. The production incorporates puppetry and shadow play. Stoessel designed the set to resemble the Grand Guignol, a theater in Paris known for its violent, titillating shows. “That theatre had originally been a church, so I designed a gothic-style façade. The use of scale in the design accommodates both full-sized actors and smaller-sized puppets. Architecturally, I aimed to to communicate a grand feeling,” she says. Clearly, Stoessel has no problem achieving this in her art, no matter what shape it might take.

“Titus Andronicus” performed by the Philadelphia Shakespeare Theatre in 2012

Set of “Scorched” performed by the Forum Theatre Company at Roundhouse Theatre in Silver Spring, M.D.