Not playing around: a guide to Brooklyn’s theater scene

JACK lights the way toward highbrow culture in Brooklyn. via Facebook

JACK lights the way toward highbrow culture in Brooklyn. via Facebook

More and more, the kind of live theater that might signal the endurance of the form is being developed, made in and exported out of Brooklyn.  As with so many other such endeavors, cheaper rent is the carrot, but theater professionals here constantly note the satisfying sense of community surrounding their projects, as opposed to in hype-beaten Manhattan. Brooklyn has a wide range of theatre companies, operating all around the borough. One company is trying to renovate the old Slave Theater, launching pad for such personalities as the Reverend Al Sharpton. Another space has been located in deep Bushwick since before the neighborhood was even a twinkle in an art-grad’s eye.

What makes Brooklyn different? “You can go to your local business and say you’re doing a show, and they care and will actually come see it, whereas in Manhattan, nobody gives a shit,” says Oliver Butler, a director who’s a founding member of The Debate Society.

“By virtue of having people come out to Brooklyn, our audiences know that they are going to get something different from a standard downtown black box. There’s no rules, there’s no fear, people are expecting to get into something weird,” says Kevin Laibson, of the Magic Futurebox.

And while the theater world has been slower in exodus than its culinary and artistic fellows, things are happening here. Interesting things. Weird things. So here’s a rundown on the rough-and-tumble companies and venues outside of BAM and St. Ann’s, with their resources and history, where a theater-goer can catch a quality show on the cheap.

THE DEBATE SOCIETY

Buddy Cop 2 by the Debate Society. via Flickr

Buddy Cop 2 by the Debate Society. via Flickr

Who They Are

Since 2004, this collaboration between writers/performers Paul Thureen and Hannah Bos and their director/co-developer Oliver Butler has been one of the more successful companies to come out of Brooklyn. Operating out of whatever space will have their off-beat but story-driven shows, they’ve ranged from The Brick to the Bushwick Starr and have just finished sold out a run of their show Blood Play at the Public Theater.

What Makes Them Interesting?

Besides the fact that everyone seems to love them, they’ve developed and written all of their shows and based many on such eclectic sources as the Decameron, the work of executed Russian artist Daniil Kharms and a 14th century Norse myth. Buddy Cop 2, a recent play, might not be an apple from the same tree, but it did manage to snag a Times Critic’s Pick, and their work currently in development takes place during two Chicago World’s Fairs, a hundred years apart.

Traditional Or Whacky-Experimentalist Theater?

Butler says that the stuff they write “comes from conceptually complicated places.” They don’t shy away from odd material, that’s for sure: the Norse Story is about a girl pinioned with goose feathers and Kharms was an early surrealist (ie. expect fork hands). But as Bos explains, “We’re never trying to be weird or complicated or trying to confuse people. The story is what matters, and I think our struggle is that we try to tell it in a place that falls between traditional and non-traditional.”

JACK

Just another day at JACK

Just another day at JACK

Who They Are

A brand new arts center in Clinton Hill that is committed to bringing to the community a wide range of cultural services. They provide afterschool arts programs to local teens and are a musical venue that at various times during the month hosts something called “hardcore improv.”

What Makes Them Interesting?

This season, their resident company, the Hoi Polloi, are premiering Outcry, a show in which Trayvon Martin, Sean Bell and other victims of racially-charged violence are put in conversation with one another. Their other premiere, Furry, is essentially about a turf war between costume characters in Midtown. If that’s not variety, I don’t know what is. Also in production is 1969’s Wine In The Wilderness, and an adaptation of John Cassevettes’s film, Shadows. Plus, the afterschool arts program for local youths. How can you not get behind that?

Traditional or Whacky Experimentalist Theater?

A mix. Wine In The Wilderness is more of a traditionally structured play, and Outcry seems like it might conform to other shows of its type, but Hoi Polloi does try to push boundaries. They recently produced a show at the Incubator Arts Project by Robert Quillen Camp called All Hands. It featured 20 actors going through secret society rituals and enacting initiation rites. As artistic director Alec Duffy states, “It wasn’t a play, but it wasn’t not a play.” Also, “hardcore improv.”

THE BRICK

A scene from The Brick's Clown Festival

A scene from The Brick’s Clown Festival

Who They Are

The go-to place to tickle your stranger theatrical fancies. The Brick rocks the multi-media approach to experimentation, and has hosted some of downtown theater’s most innovative artists, including Annie Baker, Young Jean Lee, The Debate Society, Thomas Bradshaw and Nick Jones.

What Makes Them Interesting

Every summer they host a themed festival with names like “The Pretentious Festival” and “The Comic Book Theater Festival.” They annually conduct a clown fest (terrifying) and a fest that involves video games in performance art (neat). And if you never thought a theater that celebrates comic books and video games could attract people of importance, The Brick once hosted the late playwright/dissident/Czech head-of-state Vaclav Havel and Madeline Albright during a festival celebrating the man’s work. Read something by Havel some time, and you’ll know that he fit right in (Albright a little less so).

Traditional Or Whacky Experimentalist Theater?

On a scale of 1 to 10? 12. When talking about their adaptation of a Tennessee Williams play, artistic director Michael Gardner sent me this link, and said, “We heart madness and playfulness and creative destruction.” In that vein, he once invited someone to review a play called Nothing, in which no one was present and nothing happened (for The Pretentious Festival, natch). In February, the theater will undergo a 10-year reboot, with a new mission and a new ethos, but chances are the insanity will last on through the next ten years.

THE MAGIC FUTUREBOX

What's in the box. via Facebook

What’s in the box. via Facebook

Who They Are

A production team with access to a 20,000 square foot space in a still-functioning factory off the 36th Street stop of the R, so gird yourself for a trek, and probably an adventure.

What Makes Them Interesting

20,000 square feet of development, rehearsal, and performance space is nothing to sneeze at, and this season the folks here intend on utilizing it for each of their upcoming shows. Committed to an immersive experience, they’re creating everything from a hip, underground restaurant to a field of bones in ancient Rome. Magic Futurebox is attracting all sorts of artists whose ambitions have not had the physical room to grow until now.

Traditional Or Whacky Experimentalist Theater?

Again with the scale, 5, with tentacles reaching out to 1 and 10. Many typical Broadway goers or musical theater aficionados might be a bit perturbed by, say, a glitch-pop Chekov musical or a fairy-tale play about abortion, but downtown scenesters and Brooklyn artists wouldn’t bat an eye at that sort of thing. Story remains the key.

THE BUSHWICK STARR

Just another weekend, fire dancing in your underwear at the Bushwick Starr. via Flickr user Graham Coreil-Allen

Just another weekend, fire dancing in your underwear at the Bushwick Starr. via Flickr user Graham Coreil-Allen

Who They Are

A presenting organization and full-scale performance venue, The Bushwick Starr has been nurturing and banging out new works since 2001 and has resided in their current black-box digs since 2004.

What Makes Them Interesting?

How many of you knew there was a Jefferson stop in 2004? How many of you actually lived in New York in 2001 (I didn’t)? These guys have been so far out in the theater trenches for so long that it boggles the mind to imagine them trying to get people to come to their shows way back when. People who put on work here love them, because they’re a group that presents works-in-progress, ongoing performance workshops, and full-scale productions? After Sandy hit, people were walking from Manhattan to see a show here. Not East Williamsburg, people. Fucking Bushwick.

Traditional Or Whacky Experimental Theater?

A little of everything, as befits a space and ethos with such an open door policy. They’re finishing up a run on The House Of Von Macrame, a musical pop horror fashion show by Joshua Conkel and Matt Marks that “is a celebration of stylish European horror films from the 60s and 70s, an extravaganza of design and spectacle, and an exploration of iconoclasts” as well as an annual eco-playwriting program and green theater festival.

THE NEW BROOKLYN THEATER

They've got plans for this, yes they do. via Facebook

They’ve got plans for this, yes they do. via Facebook

Who Are They?

A company that has the ultra-ambitious plan to purchase and restore the historic Slave Theater in Bed-Stuy, and make it into premiere performing arts center.  Needless to say, they need your help.

What Makes Them Interesting?

The Slave Theater is a gorgeous space that deserves some deep-pocket love: if all goes to plan, the theater will include a 500-seat main-stage complete with a state of the art sound system, projection capabilities, orchestra pit and lobby. The second floor will include a rehearsal space, offices and a 200-seat black box theater. The original lobby of the theater will be converted to a neighborhood cafe and bar, with a stage perfect for readings and concerts. They’re planning on teaming with local businesses in August for their Nights In The Park event, and if their 2013 season is any measure, the company has a vested interest in retaining the roots of their space, with three new works that draw on the black experience and African-American arts.

Traditional Or Whacky Experimental Theater?

Variable, but seemingly committed to works by and concerning African-Americans, which is itself a rather radical notion, even here in New York. A commitment to art and the community? The world (and Brooklyn) needs these kinds of dreams, and these dreams need the support of patrons. Where’s Jay-Z when you need him? 

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