BAM Cultural District Adds Jewel To Crown: Elizabethan Theatre for A New Audience
By Lore Croghan
Brooklyn Daily Eagle
Shakespeare would feel right at home.
Even the trap doors in the stage floor work the way they did back in his day.
There's a new Elizabethan-style theater in the BAM Cultural District, the Theatre for a New Audience, that harkens back to the Bard's day – with a modern twist.
Renowned theater architect Hugh Hardy “conjoined” an Elizabeth courtyard playhouse with a modern black box, founding artistic director Jeffrey Horowitz said – giving actors and directors a special place to make magic.
Tuesday, Mayor Bloomberg inaugurated the stunning glass-clad theater, which was 17 years in the making, with a ribbon-cutting and a dose of Shakespearean puns.
“Friends, Romans, Brooklynites, lend me your ears,” said Bloomberg, who proclaimed the Downtown Brooklyn theater “a 'Dream' come true” in reference to “A Midsummer Night's Dream,” which started previews last Saturday.
He wielded the ceremonial scissors alongside dignitaries including city Department of Cultural Affairs Commissioner Kate Levin and Dr. Leonard Polonsky, whose foundation gave TFANA a $10 million gift. The spanking-new playhouse at 262 Ashland Place is named the Polonsky Shakespeare Center in the foundation's honor.
Borough President Marty Markowitz dished up his own renditions of the Bard's lines, speaking of the new theater's site in “this blessed plot, this bagel borough, this Brooklyn.”
The $69 million project, for which the city provided $34 million in funding, has at last given a home to TFANA. It has been an itinerant theater for three decades, working in rented venues mostly in Manhattan.
“I don't have any words for it – it's astonishing,” Horowitz told reporters during a special tour before the ceremony. “It's a blessing, is what it is.”
He and TFANA board chairman Ted Rogers had been trying to build a theater since 1996.
“This theater is part of something much bigger,” said Horowitz, a Ditmas Park resident, who lauded the city's partnership with private philanthropists, which made playhouse construction possible.
TFANA is the newest of more than 40 arts institutions that have taken root in the BAM Cultural District. The mini-neighborhood, which city officials currently refer to as the Downtown Brooklyn Cultural District, was conceptualized by Brooklyn Academy of Music chieftain Harvey Lichtenstein.
The district, which is now undergoing a wave of residential, hotel and arts construction, has been called “the next Lincoln Center,” only more diverse.
Horowitz showed off the Samuel H. Scripps Mainstage, which has seating galleries that wrap around the stage.
“Think of it as a bullring,” he said. “Instead of putting people farther away, you bring the audience in closer. There's a community gathering around the play.”
The auditorium is twice the height of a typical off-Broadway playhouse.
“Look up – it's 35 feet high,” he said. “You can fly people and scenery.”
Julie Taymor, who is directing “Midsummer Night's Dream,” has fairies Puck and Titania fly to make their grand entrances, The New York Times revealed in a recent profile of the “Lion King” visionary.
The space can hold as many as 299 seats or as few as 99 – and can be configured in seven different ways.
“You can see I love this theater,” Horowitz said, pointing out details like ebony balcony railings that are comfortable to lean on.
Next to the main stage there's an acoustically isolated studio named in Rogers' honor that can seat 50 people. If doors separating it from the main stage are opened, a stage that's 100 feet deep can be created.
Horowitz led the way to a vast room beneath the stage called the trap room. The stage floor above it is covered with a series of trap doors – each 3-by-6-foot panels that weigh 80 pounds and can be lifted by two people – that will come in handy for grave-digger scenes and other Shakespearean theatrics.
The theater is built on acoustical rubber pads and has 16-inch concrete walls to keep out noise from the subways and Downtown Brooklyn traffic. Inside the auditorium, wood panels ensure great acoustics – nobody will need to wear microphones.
The glass walls of the lobby make it seem like it's an extension of the handsome plaza outside, and allow one public space to merge with another, Horowitz pointed out. Portraits of Shakespeare by famed artist Milton Glaser hang on a banner inside the front facade and decorate a lobby wall.
TFANA's new home is 27,500 square feet in size and is inspired by the former Cottesloe Theatre, the smallest of the auditoriums in the renowned National Theatre in London.
Taymor revealed at the ribbon-cutting that the play she really wanted to stage for TFANA's debut was “Macbeth,” which she referred as “the Scottish play” in theatrical tradition.
She was reluctant to do “Midsummer Night's Dream,” having seen Peter Brook's famed version. But she relented after realizing many playhouses have used the Shakespeare comedy as their inaugural works – it's about “a blessing of a wedding, a blessing of a house,” she said.