My bus was late for my interview with Jeff Lewonczyk, one of the core members of the team that runs the Brick Theater. When I hopped off at the corner of Lorimer and Metropolitan in Williamsburg, just across the street from the theater's wooden garage door entrance, I spotted him crossing the street. He was on an errand to restock the theater's bathroom with toilet paper. I tagged along as he stopped at a nearby bodega. "It's not the most glamorous job," he said, "but it's the kind of thing you spend a lot of time doing when you run a theater."
Back at the Brick, we hauled a wooden bench out into the sun in front of the theater so we could chat out of the way of the pre-show bustle. There were four shows scheduled for the day—all a part of the ongoing Too Soon Festival. The fest is the sixth in what has become the Brick's calling card: a series of themed festivals they present each summer.
In fact, festivals are a major component of the Brick's operations. They've hosted tens of them since they started with the Hell Festival in 2004. There's the NY Clown Theater Fest, the Game Play Fest (its second incarnation starts July 7), and the Tiny Theater Fest, in which every show takes place within a six-foot cube.
But the Brick is looking to tweak that formula in the near future. This year marks the first time they've announced an open call for productions, soliciting work from outside the set that runs the space or those they pick up through festivals. This shift will also mean looking for ways to adapt the formula that has kept the theater operating in good financial order the past few years.
Most small- to medium-sized non-profit theaters with a permanent space (PS122, Brooklyn Arts Exchange, the soon-to-be-shuttered Ohio Theater, etc.) rely on income from a combination of grants, individual donations, ticket sales, and rentals by companies without a permanent home. Rentals, even when heavily subsidized, as they often are, play a key role not only in keeping the lights on, but bringing in money while the main company develops new projects, and proving to grantmakers that the space benefits a wider pool of artists.
The Brick has been lucky in that they've managed to cover a large percentage of their costs without having to do straight rentals, thanks in part to the fact they don't have any salaried staff. And, according to Lewonczyk, they've got a good relationship with their landlord, JR & Sons, the bar next door, with whom they just renewed their lease.
All of this puts them in the unique position of being able to regularly co-produce shows with companies that present work in their space—a growing trend among indie theaters. As Lewonczyk noted, "One of the boundaries to producing in New York is that Catch-22 where you need to have a certain amount of money and attention in order to be able to put up a show, but you have to put up a show in order to get that money and attention." Their co-producing model, which doesn't require the other company to pay up front and offers a split of the box office receipts, provides a more feasible model for young companies mounting first productions. Says Lewonczyk, "It allowed us to support artists who would have had a harder time finding their niche otherwise."
Thanks to that supportive model, a handful of companies and artists have found their footing at the Brick, including Piper McKenzie (the company that Lewonczyk founded with his wife and fellow Brick Associate Artistic Director, Hope Cartelli), Eric Bland's Old Kent Road Theater, and the video game-based work of Eddie Kim (check out his Grand Theft Ovid in the upcoming Game Play fest), among others.
Still, the Brick's audience is made up largely of people from outside Williamsburg. "We get a lot of people from Manhattan," Lewonczyk said, "more than we get from people within the neighborhood." And few of the artists who work there live nearby—what performing artist can afford Billyburg these days? There are a lot of smart people trying to figure out how to shape an alternative to the trend toward ever-more diffuse scatterings of artists spreading into the outer reaches of the five boroughs. In the meantime, the Brick is holding steady as the only full-time theater venue in the heart of Williamsburg. Catering to young, rough-and-ready talent, the shows there can be hit or miss, but that's part of the point of going to see new talent—taking a risk. Besides, at $6-$18 a pop, the Brick's shows are a lot less risky than that experimental dance-theatre performance in a leaky-roofed, former welding shop somewhere near the border of Ridgewood and "East" Bushwick.
(photos courtesy The Brick Theater)