Bringing Performers Back Home to Brooklyn. Q&A with Director of New BEAT Festival
Brooklyn is in the midst of a renaissance. More and more artists, actors and writers call Brooklyn home these days, making the borough a major source of New York City’s art and culture. Yet this bohemia mostly exports its creations. Other than musicians who gig in Williamsburg and beyond, most Brooklyn-based performers rarely grace a Brooklyn stage. A new arts organization called BEAT (Brooklyn Emerging Artists in Theater) wants to change this, bringing Brooklyn’s performing artists back home.
Artistic Director Stephen Shelley came up with the idea for BEAT in 2011. September 12 marks the start of the first BEAT Festival, which will feature major artists such as Elevator Repair Service and poet Lemon Andersen, who have garnered international acclaim, but haven’t performed in Brooklyn until now.
Q: Why Brooklyn?
A: There is a community in Brooklyn, but it’s unstructured. Everybody’s working in their own microcosmos. I was stunned to realize that many of them didn’t even know each other. There’s no natural way for them to meet each other. There was a glaring need. BEAT will help fertilize the ground for collaboration.
Q: You have said that “Brooklyn is home to a thriving performing arts community, but there is no outlet for them to be seen.” What do you mean by this? What about the venues participating in BEAT?
A: There is actually only one true theater participating, which is the Irondale Center, but it’s not even really focused on presenting Brooklyn artists. What usually happens is artists self-produce in various venues and their audience will come, but there is little opportunity to reach beyond that. One thing that’s of interest to me is getting Brooklyn based artists to show their work to other Brooklyn based artists. BEAT creates a partnership between these spaces and artists in hopes of building a community where diverse audiences and acts can engage each other.
Q: In the past, did Brooklyn just not cultivate an audience to support the performing arts?
A: What we’re seeing is a movement in the direction of Brooklyn becoming a real epicenter for performing arts, whereas before it was a fertile ground for artists without the audience. It’s exploded in the last 10-15 years. Very renowned organizations have moved here, including Mark Morris Dance Group and Theatre for a New Audience. Plus, we have two of the most renowned arts institutions in the world: BAM [Brooklyn Academy of Music] and St. Ann’s Warehouse. There’s been an arts community here for a very long time who have been doing meaningful contemporary art, but I don’t know if what we’re doing with BEAT could have happened 10, 20 or 30 years ago – seems as though now is the right time.
Q: What are you doing to ensure the festival doesn’t just attract the art community, but also the Brooklyn community at large?
A: We’ve formed partnerships with community-based organizations such as Brooklyn College, Brooklyn Historical Society and the Brooklyn Chamber of Commerce. They’re all helping us reach into their respective communities. We’re going to do some free performances at MetroTech during the day, which may attract a new audience, but I think the primary answer is our ticketing policy. There’s a general consensus that contemporary performances aren’t very accessible, so we’re offering $20 tickets to every performance. If there are any unsold tickets, they’ll be available for suggested donations at the door. Also, by virtue of having a physical presence in different communities, it helps with exposure for people to see there are are things happening there that don’t usually happen there. We’re also working with various schools in a campaign to give 500 tickets to 500 students.
Q: How can you afford to do all this by charging just $20 a ticket?
A: We want to create something meaningful and broad but it needs to be accessible. Hopefully it’ll gain more support from corporate businesses and other financers who also see the value in that. Many of these venues have also donated their spaces to us, so we’ve saved a lot of expenses there.
Q: You’re also giving $1 of every ticket back to the community.
A: At the end of the festival, we’ll tally how many tickets we sold and turn that into grants. We’ll get an organization to match that and give grants back to the community; one for theater, one for dance, and one for voice. We don’t only want to reveal performance art, but also nourish new and emerging talent.
Q: Aside from selecting only Brooklyn-based artists, how did you go about curating this lineup?
A: Brooklyn has a lot of festivals going on already, but none of them feature performing arts, so I started by choosing three disciplines to represent: theater, dance and voice. I followed every lead that people provided for me, even with Elevator Repair Service, which I was certain we wouldn’t get, but we did.
Q: Brooklyn is so diverse; do you think these artists accurately represent a borough of 2.5 million?
A: I don’t think we could possibly represent it in one year, but I think we did a pretty good job.
Q: Is there a characteristic that sets Brooklyn artists apart from the rest?
A: Artists are not only drawn to Brooklyn because of lower rents and more space, but there’s a strong sense of community here. One can carve out space here to really try something new and different. There aren’t the same pressures you find in Manhattan where commercialization of the performing arts is more and more an issue.
Q: What does performing in Brooklyn mean to these artists?
A: Many of these acts have been seen all around the world, but never in Brooklyn. What we’re doing is creating the opportunity for them to be seen by their neighbors, their families. Lemon Andersen’s been one of the most excited artists about this. I know that for him, he’s particularly interested in performing “County of Kings” in Brooklyn and feeling that atmosphere.
Q: The festival is modeled after European theater festivals, where the festival more or less takes over the town, right? How have you garnered buzz around it and gotten local businesses on board?
A: One thing that always interested me in those festivals was the sense of community in and around the performing arts. Every night after the shows, there would be a location where everyone would come together and mingle, have drinks and wind down from the day. There were also lots of unique performances at venues where there weren’t usually performances. This reached deeper into different parts of the community and opened it up to people who might not normally go there. We tried to do that with the BEAT Festival by having extremely diverse venues in various parts of Brooklyn and having the artists tour from venue to venue. We’re hoping to broaden the artists’ audience bases and at the same time have these spaces reveal new ways to use them. The largest representation of that will be Elevator Repair Service’s performance installation, which will take place amongst the stacks of the Brooklyn Public Library. Also, we’re having The Irondale Center be a post-performance hub where audience members and artists can meet each other.
Q: Are there any Brooklyn businesses planning something to complement the festival?
A: We have a package called BEAT Saturdays where you see two performances, go on a tour of the venues and have a meal at a local restaurant. In the big iteration of the BEAT Festival, we want to involve all restaurants, bars, cafes and lounges surrounding each venue to serve as locations for post-performance activities.