The Brooklyn troupe Brave New World Repertory Theater will perform Elmer Rice's 1929 Pulitzer Prize-winning Street Scene on the streets of Park Slope—in front of a former tenement on Fifth Street west of Prospect Park West. (There are two shows on June 22, at 1pm and 5pm.) We spoke to producer-director Claire Beckman, who's done this sort of site-specific theater in Brooklyn before.
What about the play lends itself to this kind of performance?
The action takes place on a stoop and out of the windows of an apartment building in NYC on two hot summer days. People sit on their stoops in the summertime to watch the world go by. I'm turning it around and inviting the world to stop and watch the "village" on the stoop. Especially because people seem to be engaging with each other less and less this way. Facebook has replaced the stoop.
How did you find the right stoop?
That was difficult. This stoop is my third try. I'm hoping it's the charm. The first one was too close to a fire house. The second one was too close to a hospital. They were both on two-way streets and had several other restrictions. I was fortunate to have worked with a landlord named Lori Karelas when I produced a short film last summer and needed an alleyway. She came on board for this project after the first venue fell through, but the house with the alleyway was nixed by the NYPD; I asked Lori if she had other properties, and lo and behold—this one fit the bill. A big problem with many locations is having trees planted right in front, or too small a sidewalk. The location we will be using has a sort of proscenium arch of trees and a very generous sidewalk. It also has a basement apartment, which is called for in the play. Navigating the city bureaucracy is the hardest part. Marty Markowitz has been my champion and has facilitated many of these site-specific productions because they are free, timeless classics. This time around they didn't waive our NYPD fee, so we are actually paying to provide free theater.
Is it difficult to adapt a 1929 play to a 2013 street?
Not in Park Slope. The houses were built decades before and will suit the story very well. The block looks like many in Harlem.
What are the advantages of site-specific theater?
The main advantage, and the motivation for doing it, is the scenery and the open air. There is something about outdoor theater that's pure magic. Shakespeare knew that. There are always unexpected surprises, like a bird chirping, or a full moon over a tire swing. (Better than a spotlight!) It's also a joy to facilitate an appreciation of Brooklyn's unique and historic surroundings. Art is supposed to make you stop, look and listen. What better mirror than our own community? After 30 years rehearsing in black boxes I just want to get outside.
What about the disadvantages?
Well, we try not to get on the wrong side of the weather gods. (We also have a rain-date on June 23.) This is the first time we have been charged a street-closure fee by the NYPD. That was an unwelcome surprise—and half our budget. But the show must go on! [The fee has since been rescinded.]
What neighborhood do you live in?
I used my own Victorian house in Ditmas Park for To Kill a Mockingbird. I love the neighborhood more than any other I have ever lived in. Ditmas Park is full of remarkable playwrights, novelists, artists, musicians, chefs, small-business owners. Everyone is up to something creative. And there are over 22 nationalities represented. It's not a utopia... but we do have many Muslim and Jewish Orthodox people living peacefully side by side. Cortelyou Road has its own international restaurant row. That's where I had hoped to present Street Scene, because the stoop would have been on a commercial street. It's hard to find stoops on commercial streets anymore.
Photo by Emily Gilnick