Two arts buildings — the century-old Brooklyn Academy of Music and the more recent Mark Morris Dance Center — never seemed quite enough to merit that corner of Fort Greene the name of Downtown Brooklyn Cultural District, as City Hall continually insisted on referring to it over the years. But with the Oct. 21 unveiling of the Polonsky Shakespeare Center, the new Ashland Place home of the 34-year-old itinerant nonprofit Theatre for a New Audience, Kings County can truly boast that it has an artistic center.
Stand inside the lobby of the graceful, glass-faced box, designed by renowned theatre architect Hugh Hardy, and you can easily spot BAM to the right, not a hundred yards away. Stand in front of the theatre, in the spacious plaza, dotted with circular red benches, that fronts and surrounds the building, and the BAM Harvey Theatre on Fulton Street and the Morris Dance Center on Lafayette are visible as well.
"We talked a lot about transparency," Jeffrey Horowitz, the artistic director of TFANA, said, referring to the three stories of glass that make up the facade of theatre. "The theatre is not a citadel."
Behind the facade, visible to passersby, is a large, colorful banner depicting Shakespeare's familiar face. The abstract rendering of The Bard's visage was created by the famed graphic designer Milton Glaser, best known as the creator of the "I ♥ NY" logo. Inside are other pointillistic portraits of Shakespeare, no two the same. "Shakespeare comes into focus as you bring him into focus," explained Horowitz of the pixilated painting style. Because he reasoned that there was no definitive image of Shakespeare, Glaser created multiple artworks. "All these portraits are reflective of artistic diversity," added Horowitz.
Horowitz said the Glaser contributions were long in coming. He first asked Glaser to design something for the company in 1989. The artist replied, "If you're still around in 20 years, I'll do a poster for you." In 2009, Horowitz returned and held Glaser to his word. Horowitz is good at waiting. He's waited 13 years for TFANA's permanent home to be built. Never possessed of its own space, the company began searching for a permanent home in Manhattan in the late 1990s, but nothing seemed right. Then Horowitz was invited by BAM director Harvey Lichtenstein to meet him in his Brooklyn office. There, Lichtenstein encouraged Horowitz and his associate, Ted Rogers, to give up on Manhattan, which was "chockablock" already with theatre companies, and move his troupe to Brooklyn.
Many delays ensued, and the plot of land on which TFANA was to build — city park property — changed three times. (Frank Gehry was once set to collaborate with Hardy on the structure.) But, step by step, the project got done. Ground was broken in 2011. "The government, the donors, the staff, my friends, my family, they never gave up," said Horowitz, with evident wonder in his voice. "They got very frustrated, but they never gave up."
The building was erected with $34.4 million in City funds coupled with $30 million in individual donor support. ($3.6 million of the capital campaign goal of $69.1 million remain to be raised.) A $10 million gift from The Polonsky Foundation gave the theatre its name. The city owns the building, on which TFANA has a 30-year lease, with an option to buy.
The building is being billed as "the first classical theatre built in New York City in more than four decades." The playing space is a combination of an Elizabethan courtyard theatre, as might be recognizable to Shakespeare, and a modern black box theatre. Horowitz said it was inspired, in part, by the Cottesloe, the smallest of the theatres inside the National Theatre in London.
The rectangular stage — named the Samuel H. Scripps Mainstage — is surrounded by 299 seats, divided over three levels, including two balconies. Though snug at first glance, the space is deceptively large. The three levels of seating means a high ceiling and remarkably vast fly space. "It is double the height of any Off-Broadway theatre," said Horowitz. "Because we had height, we brought the seating in closer. Think of it as a bullring."
With the removal of a window and a wall, the back of the theatre can be extended into a neighboring studio space, giving the stage a potential of 100 feet of depth. Furthermore, in a nod to Elizabethan stages, there is a trap space below the stage, allowing set pieces and performers to rise up from below the floor.
The stage overall has seven possible configurations, including theatre-in-the-round and a thrust stage. What shape it takes is up to the discretion of the director and their vision for their production. Moreover, the space can be shrunk to 99 seats or 50 seats for development projects and readings.
To shield performances from the noises of the street, the theatre was encased in 16 inches of concrete. Thus, during shows, none of the many subways that snake under Ashland Place will be audible. The lobby will eventually include a cafe and a book kiosk.
A group of politicians and artists gathered for the official ribbon cutting, including Mayor Michael Bloomberg, Brooklyn Borough president Marty Markowitz, board member and Shakespearean actor Mark Rylance and Julie Taymor, who is directing the new theatre's inaugural production, A Midsummer Night's Dream.
"It's anonymity is wonderful," said Rylance of the all-black auditorium. "It's not imposing its character on you. It's waiting for words to fill it."
Taymor mentioned that she had worked at TFANA at every stage they have temporarily called home over the years. But she was enthused by the idea of presented a production in a new borough, for a potentially fresh group of theatregoers.
"Now I understand the 'new audience,'" said Taymor. "Now the theatre's name finally makes sense to me."