2018-01-18 / Front Page

Turning a Tiny House into a Big Idea

By Rob Duca


Nora Eschenheimer and Jesse Dufault's tiny house/theater will be part of the 2018 Preservation Society of Newport's annual flower show in June. The front lawn of Rosecliff will be adorned by several tiny houses, the latest rage in architecture and design. (Photo supplied) Nora Eschenheimer and Jesse Dufault's tiny house/theater will be part of the 2018 Preservation Society of Newport's annual flower show in June. The front lawn of Rosecliff will be adorned by several tiny houses, the latest rage in architecture and design. (Photo supplied) The concept came to Newport’s Nora Eschenheimer three years ago when she was backpacking through Europe and heard of a clown troupe of actors who were traveling to Syrian refugee camps to cheer up children. “That sparked the idea of a traveling theater that would bring a little bit of joy and light to places that desperately need it,” she says.

Cut to the present, and Eschenheimer, a 27-year-old professional actor, and her 29-year-old boyfriend, Jesse Dufault, also an actor, have nearly completed building a 160-square-foot traveling theater that they plan to take to regions hit by natural disasters, impoverished communities, schools, parks, hospitals and nursing homes. In addition to bringing theater, music, film and education to these venues, they will also utilize their tiny mobile theater to collect and transport food, first aid, building supplies and provisions wherever needed.


This identical to-scale model built from scratch by Jan Slee is a 1-foot-to-1-inch representation of the tiny house theater that has been built full-scale to 8 feet by 20 feet. Slee, using scale model materials and furnishings from his doll house collection created the prototype with the purpose of showing Nora Eschenheimer during construction a perspective of what finishes could be considered. With functions similar to any home, there is a bathroom, a living area with full kitchen, a sleeping loft, plus an additional loft (not seen here), that will provide the residents with 250 square-feet of living space. Complete with a deck porch to be used for theater productions, the “tiny travelling theater” will be transported on a two-axle trailer. (Photo courtesy Jan Slee) This identical to-scale model built from scratch by Jan Slee is a 1-foot-to-1-inch representation of the tiny house theater that has been built full-scale to 8 feet by 20 feet. Slee, using scale model materials and furnishings from his doll house collection created the prototype with the purpose of showing Nora Eschenheimer during construction a perspective of what finishes could be considered. With functions similar to any home, there is a bathroom, a living area with full kitchen, a sleeping loft, plus an additional loft (not seen here), that will provide the residents with 250 square-feet of living space. Complete with a deck porch to be used for theater productions, the “tiny travelling theater” will be transported on a two-axle trailer. (Photo courtesy Jan Slee) “If you can’t go to the theater, the theater will go to you,” Eschenheimer says. “It’s just a way to bring some kindness to people’s lives. When that’s your goal, you really can’t go wrong.”

The tiny Gambrel-style theater has soft blue siding, with white trim, Palladium windows, French doors, and a corrugated asphalt roof that can endure the high winds of highway driving. Once completed, the theater will also feature state-of-the-art lighting, and sound and visual effects. “It will offer all the magic of professional theater, but in a compact, mobile space,” Dufault says.

Eschenheimer envisions staging productions ranging from Shakespeare and ballet to musicals, comedies and even puppet shows. “We want to send a message of hope, and uplift spirits with these shows,” she says. “We also want to bridge language barriers with shows that are visually heavy, so we can go to places that predominantly speak a different language.”

They plan to perform pop-up shows around Rhode Island this summer at hospitals, nursing homes, high schools and middle schools. “We’ll start slow in Rhode Island before jumping into a natural disaster site,” Eschenheimer says. “We want to iron out the kinks, figure out what works and what doesn’t with the lighting and the sound.”

They have not yet set an itinerary for more extensive travel, for which they will seek grants to help defray the costs. “As disaster relief, education and entertainment, we check a lot of the boxes for grants,” Eschenheimer says. “But our overhead costs are minimal. We can travel and perform shows for very little.”

Along with help from Newport’s Jan Slee, who calls himself an “amateur architect,” Jesse’s father, Gene, a master housebuilder, and Eschenheimer’s father, also named Jesse, who helped build the trailer that holds the theater, the couple have been working around the clock to complete the project in time for it to be shown next month on a national cable television show that features tiny houses.

“We’ve spent 12-hour days, seven days a week since mid-October working on it,” Eschenheimer says.

The tiny traveling theater will also be on display at the Newport Flower Show on June 22-24 as part of the exhibit “Cottages: Smart and Small,” being held at Rosecliff.

“We’re going to build a tiny house village on the front lawn at Rosecliff, with about a half-dozen tiny houses,” says Jim Donahue of the Preservation Society of Newport County, which is holding the flower show. “It will be sort of a town common. We wanted to have a communal presentation space, and that’s what we’ll use the theater for.”

When Eschenheimer first envisioned the tiny traveling theater, she phoned Dufault at 2 a.m. and asked to meet to discuss it. “We had just begun dating, so of course he said sure,” she says. “If it had been now he’d probably ask if it could wait until the morning.”

They met at an all-night coffee shop and sketched out plans for the tiny theater on the back of a paper napkin. But they soon realized that turning concept into reality would be somewhat more problematic.

“People think that because it’s small that it will go faster,” Slee says. “Uh, no. Working with a limited space means that all the cuts are short and you have very sharp angles. That makes the architecture tough.”

Eschenheimer was not completely lacking in building experience. A self-described “do-it-yourself” person, she builds puppets. “That’s all materials and learning to work with what is available, which is kind of like what a tiny house is,” she says. “You figure out what materials work together, keep layering stuff on top of one another and eventually it becomes a house.”

Initially, the house was going to be designed more as a lightweight box, but Eschenheimer realized that it would need living accommodations, such as a bed, shower, bathroom and kitchen. “When you go to a disaster site it’s important that you are self-sustained,” she says. “Otherwise, you’re adding to the problem. So, it developed into a tiny house that is also a theater.”

Therefore, the cast, which could consist of local performers or artists recruited at the destination, will be kept small when visiting a natural disaster site. “The theater can comfortably sleep five and uncomfortably sleep eight,” Eschenheimer says. “Depending on where we go, we could caravan down with our cast or pick up a troupe at the site.”

Eschenheimer concedes that building a tiny traveling theater seemed like “an insane idea” when she broached the subject to Dufault three years ago. “But when all your passions align, you have to go for it,” she says.

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