Brooklyn’s first theater festival, the BEAT Festival, kicks off tomorrow: over 12 days, 13 acts will hold 38 performances at eight venues around the borough—in Williamsburg, Park Slope, Flatbush, Red Hook, Coney Island and more. We talked to artistic director Stephen Shelley about the theater scene in New York and how it’s moving into Brooklyn.
Why didn’t something like this didn’t exist already?
I think we’ve reached a true moment of ripening. There are so many performing artists here now that something simply had to happen. I also think that most artists are so fully focused on their own work, that they wouldn’t have time and energy to build something like a festival. The attraction for me was to be creative in both a community-building and business way within the performing arts community. BEAT was the perfect project for me.
The theater scene in Brooklyn feels like it’s still establishing itself, unlike the music or literary scenes. Do you think that’s accurate?
I do. Much of this is due to the emerging performance artist community largely relocating here in the last decade. People are still trying to find their way. But there are more established communities here that have had consistent presences for many years; they are just not very commercial about their work. I hope that the BEAT Fest can create visibility for many of these artists.
There’ll be performances in venues in many different neighborhoods; was that kind of all-borough inclusiveness important to the planning from the beginning?
Definitely. It is hard to call something “Brooklyn” and not include various of the diverse and dynamic communities here. Each year we will reach into different parts of the borough and make theater. This is integral to our cause.
Why do so many theater artists live in Brooklyn? There are so few theaters relative to Manhattan.
A few reasons. One would be the simple equation of more space for less money. But, I think there is a deeper feeling of community here too. Wherever one lives in Brooklyn, one feels the chance to build a support network here and an audience. By and large, Manhattan is very fast and very commercial. Performing artists more and more reject the notion that a new work must be rehearsed in four weeks and performed for one or two. The formula is less interesting—and less possible—from a developmental point of view. In a lot of cases, what is happening in Brooklyn does not confine itself to a schedule. People here are looking for what’s “next” in the art forms.
What do you hope Brooklyn audiences will get from the festival? What can theater do for people that other media can’t?
My hope is that people will open to the diverse talent here, but also see how daring and inventive these artists are. There is so much happening here, and much of it is at the forefront of theatrical development. Also, I am drawn to the phenomenon that contemporary artists are less and less interested in conventional venues. So, we also seek to celebrate space as part of our event. There are so many interesting places here to perform, each of which offers itself uniquely to a live performance. Theater is about immediacy, and about witnessing the human experience via a unique form—be it a play, dance, poem, song. Some say that theater has become less and less important. My belief is that given the various ways contemporary culture and community are fractured, we need the intimate, human interplay of theater now more than ever.
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