If you recently spotted a group of people dressed in hooded cloaks ominously marching two-by-two through Gowanus at night behind a man with a birdcage on his head, don't worry, they were just en route to take a boat ride on the Gowanus Canal, that extremely toxic Superfund site and haunted dolphin graveyard. The surreal scene, which unfolded dozens of times in the neighborhood over the last month, was just one small, strange part of The Dreary Coast, an immersive site-specific theatrical extravaganza produced by Jeff Stark, an impresario of extremely unconventional theater.
Stark, who has previously staged plays and unclassifiable happenings in the New York City subway and other unusual places, raised over $25,000 on Kickstarter to bring his vision to life. A darkly comic riff on the Orpheus myth (among other things), The Dreary Coast is arguably his most ambitious project to date, and we recently asked him some questions about the show, which ends tonight with free admission for anyone who brings their own boat—email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Where did this idea come from? I've lived near the canal for 13 years, and I've been making work in the neighborhood for the last 15 years. Several years ago, I went on a tour of the canal with an environmental activist named Ludger Ballan, who worked with a group called the Urban Divers. We were on a big canoe, and he was talking about the canal and describing all of the various things that had been dumped over the years. It was a disgusting, horrifying experience, but fascinating at the same time. I had this little thought: Ludger was like a boatman, taking us on this horrible tour, and in that way, he was kind of like Charon, the boatman in Hades. I started playing with that idea. What would it be like to take a ride through Hades with a tour guide? What would we see? Who are the characters who live there? What are the landmarks? I didn't really have a story, just a thought about what it would be like to be in that audience.
Was your idea for doing a show on the Gowanus always connected to the story of Persephone? No, not at all. I knew Charon would be at the center of the show, but I didn't know who else would be there. I got a really nice residency a few years back, and I just sat down and read anything that mentioned Charon, and everything I could find about the Underworld. My favorite stuff were the Greek myths, Ovid, and Dante. Charon is in all of that, but he doesnt say much. I think he has maybe two lines in Dante. I began thinking about who he might know down there. And I realized, everyone on his boat would be miserable and afraid. Everyone except Persephone, the only character who comes and goes. She would be the only person he knew who knew about hope and joy, and because of this, he would probably fall for her. From there, a kind of doomed love story began to emerge.
Why this particular story? Our story is based on the Orpheus ascent myth. There are so many great versions of it, particularly in Ovid. I didn't think we would do better than that tale, so I just tried to figure out a way that we could tell it in a new way. But ultimately, this really isn't a show about dusty old Greek myths. It's about the power of myth and story, about creating them and living them. It's a show about the beauty of what's temporary, and the horror of what's permanent. A week from now, our show will be gone, and the environmental disaster of the Gowanus Canal will linger on.
(Tod Seelie / Gothamist)
Were you surprised by the success of your Kickstarter campaign? No. I think the way that stuff works is that you cannot be surprised. You have to go into it with a plan, and we did. What I was surprised by was how many people got on board, and that all of those people ended up being the people who bought up all the tickets.
Any advice for people trying to raise money on Kickstarter? Yes, definitely: Follow the script. Kickstarter does a great job of forcing you to explain your project in a way that moms will understand. It also seems to me that people want to fund a person and an idea as much as they want to fund a project or a show, so focus on that. And it doesn't hurt to know a brilliant designer and be surrounded by friends who can offer great rewards.
Has anyone fallen in or come close? Yes. Our French intern, Margot, stepped in up to her knee, and one of our close friends came to volunteer one night and fell in when a dead tree snapped under his weight.
Did they have any side effects? You fell in once didn't you? No side effects, but it's totally gross. I fell in once, and I was fine. It's a brackish salt water. Very nasty.
I was surprised by the intensity of the fumes floating off the surface of the water. Has anyone gotten sick or been unable to take it? No. But again, it's really gross.
(Tod Seelie / Gothamist)
Tell us about your encounters with police. Well, it's been good and bad—mostly good. Early on, when we were rehearsing on the canal and working on sets, the cops would roll up pretty aggressively. At one point, they came around a corner with their guns out while my girlfriend was working on a sculpture. But over time, they kind of got used to us. I mean, they think we're insane. But they really want nothing to do with the canal. They always tell us to call the Fire Department if someone falls in, because the cops aren't going to help us. We've also picked up a few tickets, including two for pissing outside, and one for trespassing, which forced us to change the entire ending of the show. But that was a risk we knew we were running. The rest of the show is in public space.
Any noteworthy encounters with passersby? The night I attended some guy yelled at us to "get our heads cleaned out." They're actually not so interested. In general, people in New York are on their way somewhere else. They glance over, or they smile and wave, and they move on. Every once in a while someone pulls out a phone to take a picture. But we've met a lot of amateur historians, and some of the local groups have been really great to us, including the Gowanus Dredgers, Proteus Gowanus, and the Gowanus Canal Conservancy, as well as John Quadrozzi, who let us tie up to his property up by 9th Street, and the Gowanus Ballroom, where we installed a temporary radio tower. We were also given a place to start upstairs at Lavender Lake, and when we got kicked out of our office we were welcomed by a little church called St. Lydia's; they let us turn their unfinished basement into a dressing room.
(Tod Seelie / Gothamist)
The birdcage on the guide's head looked so cool; any significance to that?
Of course. There's significance to all the details in the show, from the handmade coins, to the silver leafed crowns, to the claws on our actors' shoes. In our show, Hades is an accumulation of stories, a place with layers from Greek Myth, Renaissance poems, black metal, and Dungeons & Dragons. So basically anything about hell is fair game. Sarah McMillian, our costume designer, spent a lot of time looking at Bosch, and we developed a color palate from his paintings. The birdcage demon and the househead demon are both references to his Garden of Earthly Delights.
Any chance you'll be doing this again on the Gowanus? I don't think we could, even if we wanted. Projects like this take years to develop, and require dozens of people dedicating large portions of their lives. They're not really sustainable, but that's what makes them so special.
For more photos of The Dreary Coast, step right this way.