A Brave New World, at Your Doorstep
Brave New Works 2018: Ditmas Park playwrights (left to right): Emely Zepeda, Donnetta Lavinia Grays, Stefanie Zadravec, Anand Rao, and Robert Kerr.
Brave New World Rep is a theater company run by a former soap opera star who staged the company’s first significant production, To Kill a Mockingbird, on her front porch in Ditmas Park for a one-performance run in front of an audience of 1,500 under a serendipitously full moon. As she and the actor who played Atticus recalled verbatim in separate interviews over a dozen years later: “You could hear a pin a drop.”
That was in 2005. Technically, because they staged The Importance of Being Ernest at MADARTS Studio in 2004 and Shakes Pier at the Brooklyn Waterfront Artist Coalition (BWAC) fall art show the year before, this is Brave New World Repertory Theatre’s 15th anniversary. It was through that 2005 To Kill a Mockingbird production, though, that the company came into its own and announced itself to the Brooklyn and wider New York audience as something special. True to this start, its most recent production, an adaptation of Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard called The Plantation set in the post-Civil War South and staged in a small mansion on Governor’s Island, met its audience outside the box of traditional theater in order to give them a genuinely theatrical experience and, in so doing, hint at the promise of a Brave New World, indeed.
When I was arranging to interview artistic director Claire Beckman, I warned her that my first question was going to be related to the theater’s current offering, a reading series set entirely in Ditmas Park homes and one Mexican restaurant in the neighborhood. “Why there?” In answer, she replied: “Just come, and you’ll see.”
I exited the subway at the Courtelyou stop and walked down a road of unattached houses that would fit better in small town Ohio than urban south Brooklyn. Some of the houses nearer the station had bars on the windows, all the way around their wrap-around porches. As I progressed, the cross street names started taking an Anglophilic turn. Westminster. Argyle. Rugby. Marlborough. Suddenly, the bars on the windows were gone. Now the houses looked stately and perfect, many with plaques advertising their age: 1906, 1890. A low gate stood across one road, giving it greater authority. I arrived at Claire Beckman’s house, taking spontaneous pictures on my iPhone and sending them to my wife, to show her this fantasyland. My wife texted back: “Just stop.” As in: we could never afford that.
Claire (for to call her merely “Beckman” or formalize her with “Ms.” rings false) came to the door and welcomed me in.
When I spoke to Ezra Barnes—the actor who has so far played Atticus, Prospero, Walt Whitman, and Harpagon in the The Miser for Brave New World—he kept using variations of the word “welcome” to describe the theater’s ethos. It welcomes its diverse audiences. The performers welcome the spontaneous events of nature that inevitably insert themselves into outdoor performances. At her door, Claire welcomed me generously but frenetically. “We’re having a plumbing emergency,” she said, then begged forgiveness as she went to sort out her house’s problematic pipes, which houses from the turn of the century often have. I waited for her in her parlor living room, scanning the bookshelf entirely devoted to Shakespeare, gazing at the framed pictures of Claire and people I assumed were her family—Jewish intellectuals, according to her—all of them looking to me like so many black and white book jacket pictures from 1970’s. There were some glamorous shots of Claire from when she focused on modeling, TV, and film acting—she replaced Julienne Moore in As the World Turns, for instance.
Claire returned apologetically, and we sat down to drink tea and talk about her theater.
“Once you have the home, you have the community,” she said, in musing over her mission to bring theater to the doorstep of a community, or, as we acknowledged in talking about To Kill A Mockingbird, to bring the community to the doorstep of the theater, which was her home, which was in their community.
This can be tricky. Thirty minutes before the 7pm start of To Kill a Mockingbird, with the street already blocked off and white plastic chairs stuffed and overflowing to standing room with people from the remarkably diverse neighborhood, as well as people from other parts of New York and nearby communities who heard about it from a New York Times promotional piece, the cops showed up. Claire was prepared to present them permits and all the other paperwork she had lined up in the event of such an interruption. The cops didn’t care. They simply could not allow the street to be blocked and for this many people to be crammed in one place without a fire aisle. A fast phone call was made that turned into a three-way conversation between the Chief of Police, Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz, and Ella Weiss, President of the Brooklyn Arts Council. After a hasty creation of the necessary fire aisle, the show was allowed to go on. The action flowed between six porches, four in front of the audience and two behind them. By the time of the trial scene, the audience was enmeshed in the outdoor courtroom, and then watched the characters return to their houses. The last running leap of Scout (played by Claire’s real-life daughter) into Atticus’ arms carried the audience back to the doorstep where it all began—the play and the theater company. And you could hear a pin drop.
After the Ditmas Park To Kill a Mockingbird, many things changed. The very next morning, a neighborhood community leader called Claire and said, “I think you raised the property values by $100,000 last night.” Claire told me frankly that the value of her house had, in fact, tripled since she and her husband John Morgan (co-founder, technical director, and frequent actor for Brave New World) first bought it, which they had actually done with the family of another Brave New World Rep company member in the early 2000s. For Brave New World Repertory Theatre, the production, which could have easily gone down in several different kinds of disaster, ended up elevating the status of what had until then been yet another site-specific theater in New York to a very buzz-worthy theater of note that had pulled off a theatrical miracle.
Central to this miracle, beyond the logistical success of the show, was the diversity of the audience that actually saw it. As living Brooklyn legend Marty Markowitz points out, through the theater’s To Kill a Mockingbird and subsequent productions all over Brooklyn, “neighborhood children and many families were first introduced to live theater… and [became] interested and aware of the arts.” The mission of the theater became codified, as per the first line of its mission statement: “Brave New World Repertory Theatre, a Brooklyn-based company, reaches underserved audiences to promote a love of theatre.”
2006 through 2008 saw Brave New World mainly concentrating on productions in coordination with Celebrate Brooklyn at the Prospect Park Bandshell. 2007’s Crossing Brooklyn Ferry from those years brought the company into a new creative realm. Rather than being a straightforward narrative, the piece sought to use only the text from Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass to bridge the centuries of hopeful, messy, exuberant Americans that Whitman knew and those he simultaneously predicted for the future. The first half was set in Whitman’s period, on his ferry between Brooklyn and Manhattan, while the second half was set on a New York City subway making the same journey. Whitman’s poems remained the text in this latter half, but now a poem that had been spoken by the Whitman character in the first act was rapped (pre-Hamilton, as Claire teasingly points out) by a subway performer. This was, as Morgan Jenness, dramaturg for the production, puts it, “community-based theater that raises the aesthetic assumptions of what community-based theater is.”
The next major step for the theater was the two-performance run of The Tempest on the Coney Island boardwalk in 2009. The Tempest is the company’s cornerstone, with Miranda’s exclamation of it being a “brave new world” serving as its christening. Claire and the production’s Prospero, Ezra Barnes, spoke of the joys of performing it against the ocean, with seagulls flying in on spontaneous cue and Ariel running off into the waves for her liberation. Marty Markowitz awarded it with a special Proclamation from the Borough of Brooklyn, one of three he was to give the theater over his years in public service.
2010’s The Crucible at the Old Stone House in Park Slope and 2011’s The American Clock at the Brooklyn Lyceum publicly acknowledged Beckman’s long held belief that Arthur Miller is Brooklyn’s “greatest playwright.” Her relationship with his work goes back to her early acting days (Catherine in The View from the Bridge being one of her first roles) and continues with The View from the Bridge, planned as Brave New World’s next production in 2018.
In 2013, Brave New World embarked on one of its most ambitious outdoor performance events: Elmer Rice’s Street Scene, staged mainly on the sidewalk in front of a five-story apartment building on 5th Street between 8th Avenue and Prospect Park West. The murder in the play was staged in a window of one of the apartments, the actual tenants of which were given front row seats in exchange for its use. Craig A. Grant, fresh from his experience of jumping in to replace an actor on Brave New World’s production of Moby Dick-Rehearsed (“I told them I couldn’t come in to start rehearsing on Friday, but could I come in Monday. They said they were dark on Monday because they opened on Tuesday!”), described the thrill of the Street Scene production. “The guy committing the murder scene had to run around the block to come back in for his next entrance,” recalls Grant, in pointing out that actors with Brave New World have to be flexible. “Nothing is so set that it’s going to work like clockwork. You have to be comfortable breaking the mold.”
The productions of Street Scene and Moby Dick-Rehearsed resulted from the biggest grant Brave New World had yet received, when it needed it the most. On the day of our interview, Claire was still recovering from staying up until 3am working on a new grant application the night before—part of the never-ending quest.
The next two years for Brave New World were a departure from normal, as Claire took a break from being Artistic Director to act in an advisory capacity, and Shannon Sindelar filled the role of Artistic Director. Claire returned from her hiatus as Artistic Director with The Immortals, a collage play from Charles Mee using the letters and other writings of Matisse, Van Gogh, and Picasso. And then came The Plantation, yet another bold leap forward for Brave New World.
In reviewing The Plantation in its second staging in 2017 at the Commanding Officers’ old house on Governor’s Island, New York Times writer Laura Collins-Hughes referred to the production as “a startlingly visceral immersive adaptation of Anton Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard… with a humor and humanity that would surely please Chekhov.” Audience members like Claudia Roth Pierpont, who was immediately hooked by Brave New World’s aesthetic and became a donor on the spot, were surrounded by actors living and breathing a reality with them in a way that would not have been possible in a traditional theater setting. Pierpont refers to the talkback after the performance as “the most meaningful and content-full [she had] ever attended.” Craig A. Grant, who played Lopakhin, describes the experience of “showing up to the theater—I mean, island” and finding a line of people, waiting at 10:30am to see the afternoon show, many of whom likely never went to see live theater.
Performers (left to right) Alice Barrett Mitchell, Alice Kors, and Craig A. Grant in The Plantation, adapted and directed by Claire Beckman (2017). Photo: Doug Barron
The Plantation, like much of the work done by Brave New World, did not hedge from looking at race and racism and its place in defining our world. Lopakhin, who was African-American in this adaptation, could only have bought the Plantation in a short historical window after the Civil War and before Jim Crow laws would have made that impossible. Rather than be didactic outside of the language of the play, though, Brave New World’s adaptation stuck to the structure and dialogue of The Cherry Orchard, only really changing the names of places and races of actors to reflect the parallel between the freed serfs in Chekhov’s time and former American slaves in 1870.
This brings us to the present reading series in Ditmas Park, which is not a new venture exactly, inasmuch as it is a return to form. The Salon Reading Series was an early practice of Brave New World’s, referred to often as Brave New Works. In this series, playwrights from diverse backgrounds are given the opportunity to hear their developing plays in home settings that lend them other context.
One playwright in this year’s series, Emely Zepeda, was working as a stage manager on a recent Brave New World production when Claire asked her what else she did. Zepeda had never been asked this as a stage manager. She had actually been working on a play called From Clay and Water and showed it to Claire, who read it and asked if it might be included in Brave New Works 2018: Ditmas Park. Zepeda’s play is a Lorca-influenced exploration of her own family. The play will be read in a Ditmas Park Mexican restaurant called Cinco de Mayo, not coincidentally on May 5, 2018.
Other plays in the reading series include Tiny Houses by Stefanie Zadravec, A Muslim in the Midst by Anand Rao, In Search of…Sasquatch by Robert Kerr, and Donnetta Lavinia Grays’ Kilroy-listed play Last Night and the Night Before.
David Lindsay-Abaire, the Pulitzer Prize winning playwright, whose wife Christine Lindsay-Abaire has been a company member for nearly the life of the company, points out that these readings are for the playwright first and the audience second. Brave New World readings are meant to be events unto themselves, with talkbacks following the readings existing as an opportunity for playwrights to be in dialogue with their audience rather than taking prescriptive advice. Most of the dialogue happens after the talkback, over wine and snacks, in a casual organic way.
David and Christine Lindsay-Abaire actually hosted a remounted Brave New World production of Thornton Wilder’s The Long Christmas Dinner in their 1905 Ditmas Park home in 2012. Off the cuff, David refers to it as “the shortest commute I’ve ever had to make for a play.”
On further reflection, this encapsulates the aesthetic of the company. Brave New World is the theater that comes to your doorstep. Literally. It uses your table and it lives in your house. It’s on the street where you live. It’s at the boardwalk where you go with your family. It’s the shortest commute, because you’re already there.
After our nearly three-hour talk, Claire drove me back to do “door duty” at my three-year-old son’s nursery co-op. I was late, and she wanted to get out of the house. Her car vibrated loudly as we drove, for which she apologized (“it’s old”). In the spirit of Brave New World, she is quick to grab available resources, fit them to their best use, and make the most of the given situation.
True to form, she brought me door-to-door where I needed to go.