By Mark Kennedy
FORT GREENE — In a season where little grows in the Northeast, something in Brooklyn is doing just that, foot by foot.
The metal guts of what will be a sleek three-tiered glass box surrounding the Theatre for a New Audience’s 299-seat stage have gone up in a former parking lot as part of the city’s ambitious plan to create a new $650 million cultural district.
“It’s going to be a destination,” said Jeffrey Horowitz, the founding artistic director of the company, during a recent tour of the work site in the Fort Greene section of the borough.
When opened in 2013, the $48-million theater will represent a milestone for Theatre for a New Audience and the city: It will be the first new stage designed expressly for Shakespeare and classic drama since 1965, and it will be the first permanent home for the itinerant company.
“We need a place to gather our activities, to set down roots in a community,” said Horowitz, who founded the theater company in 1979. “Would you go to a doctor or a lawyer whose office kept changing?”
The construction site is one of several at city theaters this winter, including the building of Signature Theatre Company’s new $66 million Frank Gehry-designed home on 42nd Street, a $57 million renovation of New York City Center and a $41 million theater being built on the roof of the Vivian Beaumont Theater at Lincoln Center Theater.
In addition to a 299-seat theater, the 27,500-square-foot Theatre for a New Audience’s home will house a 50-seat rehearsal space and a lobby cafe. It will overlook a new public garden plaza and sit along a walking path between BAM’s Opera House and Harvey Theater.
The theater will be energy efficient, acoustically isolated from street and subway noises, and offer any director maximum adaptability by allowing all parts of the inside to be modified, a nod to the theater’s itinerant past. The new stage, for example, can be switched from thrust, to round, to proscenium.
“We wanted to build a theater that had flexibility. An artist can completely shape the configuration between the audience and the stage. This is actually several theaters in one,” said Horowitz. “That idea — of not having a fixed way of doing a classic play or Shakespeare — that’s part of the artistic DNA of the theater.”
Designed by Hugh Hardy of H3 Hardy Collaboration Architecture, the new theater has a large glass facade, gunmetal gray panels, a 35-foot-tall main stage, a second-floor lobby and a central staircase — a simple form that Horowitz says is appropriate.
“We didn’t want some fantastic shape on the outside and then you came in to a rectangle. What we said was, ‘Let the outside reflect the inside,’” he says. “It is what it is. There’s no hiding.”
The Theatre for a New Audience hasn’t been waiting around for its new home. It’s been busy this winter, co-producing Cymbeline with Fiasco Theater at the Barrow Street Theatre, as well as putting on Fragments at the Baryshnikov Arts Center, and Shlemiel the First at New York University. In February, it unveils The Broken Heart — a 1629 tragic-comic gem written by John Ford — and in March The Taming of the Shrew, both at The Duke on 42nd Street.
Last season, the theater company enjoyed one of its most successful, with four sold-out productions: Notes From Underground, ‘Cymbeline, Macbeth and The Merchant of Venice, which starred F. Murray Abraham as Shylock and was the theater’s first production to have a national tour.
When it finally opens, Julie Taymor, of The Lion King and Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark fame, has accepted the theater’s invitation to direct the official 2013 inaugural production, another nod to its past. Taymor directed four plays for the troupe, including Carlo Gozzi’s The Green Bird, which moved to Broadway in 2000, and Shakespeare’s The Tempest.
Theodore C. Rogers, chairman of the theater’s board of directors, says the company has been thinking about having a bricks-and-mortar location for about 15 years. “We realized we needed a permanent home if we were ever going to be a theater of consequence and of meaning.”
Rogers, who likes to visit the construction site virtually every week, said the company had been in enough theater spaces in the past to know what they didn’t want. He recalled that one potential site had possibilities, but the search team was wrinkling their noses — a restaurant nearby was emitting a terrible stench. The team also wanted quiet: “We didn’t want the subway running through Act 3,” he said, laughing.
The shape and design of the building is something the theater has spent a lot of time on. “If we were going to build a theater, we were going to build a theater that built our art, not just enclosed it,” said Rogers.
The new site is actually the third place the theater found and each site change cost the company a 14-month delay as plans were resubmitted and red tape handled. Along the way, famed architect Gehry dropped out.
Ground was finally broken on the new site — located on Ashland Place between Lafayette Avenue and Fulton Street — in June 2011. Asked how he will feel when he finally turns on the lights, Horowitz says it will be a mixture of “a tremendous sense of pride, accomplishment and pleasure.”
“I do feel that this is going to be here for a long time — way, way after me,” he says. “My journey will be finished when I turn the lights on, but the building’s journey will go on. And that’s an incredible feeling. It’s something special.”
A part of Horowitz will endure in the foundations of the new building — literally. He has gotten permission to write a line from Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night into the concrete.
The verse speaks of a theater that has, against all odds, finally come home, and of a company and its founder marveling at the strange twists of history: “If this were played upon a stage now,” it reads, “I could condemn it as an improbable fiction.”