Boom Town on the East River: Brooklyn's Exploding Theatre and Arts Scene Is Powered by Economics and History

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   Context is everything. Dress me up and see. I'm a carnival barker, an
   auctioneer, a downtown performance artist, a speaker in tongues, a
   senator drunk on filibuster.
   --Jonathan Lethem, Motherless Brooklyn

Harlem in the 1920s, Black Mountain in the 1950s and Greenwich Village in the 1960s--arguably three of the most influential artistic and cultural hotspots of "the American century." Could it be that the spirits of these movements are all alive and thriving--in Brooklyn, N.Y.? There's certainly a similar confluence of artists, geography and audience. "It's New York's Left Bank--artists rub up against each other," says Jeffrey Horowitz, artistic director of Theatre for a New Audience, the classically oriented not-for-profit company that is relocating to its first permanent home right next to the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM), in a yet-to-be-built facility co-designed by two of the world's eminent architects, Frank Gehry and Hugh Hardy.

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According to the Brooklyn Arts Council directory, there are more than 115 multi-disciplinary arts groups based within the borough, and listings for more than 80 theatre troupes. "Face it. Brooklyn's hot," says Virginia Louloudes, executive director of the Alliance of Resident Theatres/New York (A.R.T./NY), which offers subsidized office space to Brooklyn theatre companies. "Theatre has always been here because of the Brooklyn Academy of Music, and if the scene is not completely formed, it's been emerging for a while."

Yes, dozens of theatre companies, galleries, trendy restaurants and clubs have opened up in the last 10 or 20 years. But they're mostly small, low-budget alternative outfits. On its own, Brooklyn's 2.5 million people would rank it the third most populous city in the United States behind Los Angeles and Chicago; its population is more than Boston, Seattle, San Francisco and Denver combined. Yet those four cities host more than 20 theatres that are members of Theatre Communications Group. Brooklyn has two. So is the borough's cultural scene booming or hopelessly behind?

Context, of course, is everything, as one of Brooklyn's best novelists, Jonathan Lethem, writes at the opening of Motherless Brooklyn. Brooklyn's context is necessarily shaped by America's largest "theatre scene," which lies just across the East River in Manhattan, home to Broadway commercial productions and mainstream resident theatres like Roundabout Theatre Company, Manhattan Theatre Club, Lincoln Center Theater, Playwrights Horizons and the Public Theater, to name just a few. That leaves Brooklyn theatre artists to co-opt the margins, producing work for the most intrepid audiences, as well as for the dozens of diverse local communities.

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That context seems to have forged a distinguishable aesthetic among the newest theatres in Brooklyn. I think of it as a kind of gothic postmodern. The signs of "late-stage capitalism" abound in the warehouses, factories and industrial plants that have been abandoned as jobs and manufacturing have fled to other parts of the globe. That created "cheap space"--two words that New Yorkers rarely hear put together and that artists and performers especially crave. Whole buildings are being turned into performance spaces and galleries. Recent conversions include two in a burgeoning section of town called Gowanus: the Brooklyn Lyceum, and the Old American Can Factory, which houses an artists' complex of studios in six buildings. A nondescript Williamsburg garage is home to a couple of the city's most avidly adventurous ensembles, Collapsable Giraffe and Radiohole.

One prescient developer, David Walentas, bought up a bunch of buildings in DUMBO, a forlorn, desolate industrial area "down under the Manhattan Bridge Overpass." He has given whole buildings to artists--free--with the understanding that they can be used as cultural outposts until he's ready to convert the spaces into high-end housing. …