NEW YORK – Susan Feldman is getting that look in her eye again. The artistic director of St. Ann’s Warehouse is talking about the monstrous, 36-foot-high set for theater company TR Warszawa’s Polish-language outdoor production of “Macbeth.”
With its two-story, four-chamber playing space, the Shakespeare staging is typical of the nontraditional fare that has found a home at St. Ann’s, earning the Brooklyn venue a growing reputation for adventurous programming. Since landing in 2001 in its current, cavernous digs — a former spice milling factory — the mini arts org has been a magnet for offbeat theater from local and international companies.
A casual observer once might have dismissed St. Ann’s as the little sister of borough neighbor the Brooklyn Academy of Music, which offers a similarly eclectic legit slate on a much larger scale. But productions like last year’s hit, “Black Watch,” and the upcoming “Macbeth,” in a newly co-opted space, are helping cement St. Ann’s distinctive identity.
“It’s extremely visual,” says Feldman of “Macbeth.” “And the sound is extraordinary, because everyone has to have headphones.”
Wait. Headphones? “We had to do it because of the noise from the Brooklyn Bridge,” Feldman explains.
Starting June 17, “Macbeth” will be performed in a public building called the Tobacco Warehouse, a vast, roofless expanse of brick-and-mortar archways between the Brooklyn Bridge and the Manhattan Bridge, in the neighborhood that goes by the acronym DUMBO (Down Under the Manhattan Bridge Overpass).
In the midst of the Gotham housing crunch, this neck of the woods is still a hot spot for condos and trendy bistros, partly because St. Ann’s has contributed to its image as an artistically fertile community.
“We’d love to be on one of those spaces in the park,” Feldman says of the Tobacco Warehouse and the green areas surrounding. “But the spaces are all state-owned, and eventually they’re going to be developed. That’s why we’re going to try putting the show in the Tobacco Warehouse: to see how it works.”
“Macbeth” is the test drive for what Feldman hopes will become a regular venue for St. Ann’s. The experiment will cost more than half a million dollars, with estimates for building the outdoor theater pegged at $150,000 alone.
But to hear Feldman talk about the hugeness of the enterprise, it’s hard not to get excited along with her.
This is not the first time the a.d. has appeared to be tilting at windmills. In 2006, she convinced Lou Reed to perform “Berlin,” his least commercially successful album, live for the first time. The production spared no expense, including music direction by the album’s original producers and stage design and direction by Julian Schnabel.
Feldman was vindicated: The performance played to rave reviews, and Schnabel’s concert film of the five-night engagement opens in limited release this summer.
Then there’s “Black Watch,” the National Theater of Scotland’s lyrical war play, which came to St. Ann’s complete with impossible-looking spatial requirements. One of the best-reviewed legit shows from last season, “Black Watch” is now on tour across the country and internationally, returning for a second stint at St. Ann’s Oct. 9-Nov. 30.
But doing substantial Off Broadway shows has been Feldman’s m.o. from the beginning. St. Ann’s main space is wide, deep and tall, with movable seating easily reconfigured to accommodate “Black Watch” or the Wooster Group’s “Hamlet,” which had a workshop run in the Brooklyn space prior to its Public Theater engagement.
The large niche isn’t one that many have been eager or able to fill, since space and funding for nonprofits like St. Ann’s are limited at best and absent at worst.
With such a pronounced taste for foreign theater, you might think St. Ann’s would find itself in competition with the more established and highbrow BAM, but Feldman says no.
Both companies have brought work by TR Warszawa to their spaces, and both have a recent “Macbeth” (BAM’s Brit import starring Patrick Stewart has since segued to Broadway), but somehow Feldman and BAM artistic director Joe Melillo have avoided getting into bidding wars.
Feldman says she’s even sent work Melillo’s way when she didn’t think St. Ann’s could handle it. But she also admits, “I guess if it ever came down to fighting over something, they would win.”
St. Ann’s now has roughly $3 million a year to spend, as opposed to BAM’s $40 million, and in order to shoulder the cost of expensive foreign work like “Macbeth,” “Black Watch” and Irish import “The Walworth Farce” (which opened April 17), Feldman and her producers have mastered the tricky art of co-production, leveraging projected box office and foreign money (which fluctuates with the dollar) against the exorbitant budgets called for by the shows.
“I’ve rewritten the folklore,” laughs Feldman about the fabled “Don’t say ‘Macbeth’ ” curse. “The new version is that every time you mention the word ‘Macbeth,’ it adds $5,000 to the budget.”
Some of that is offset by the Polish Cultural Institute, which draws on the Polish Ministry of Culture’s allotted arts funds, while some comes from individual donors and some is offset by the box office. But Feldman is realistic about the draw of Polish-language Shakespeare, especially when use of the public space requires that some tickets be free.
In the meantime, between “Walworth” and “Macbeth,” St. Ann’s is tending its roots in the New York community with the Great Small Works’ eighth annual Intl. Toy Theater Festival, which is larger than it sounds.
“We’re dividing St. Ann’s into three different performing spaces,” says Great Small Works’ John Bell. “Then we’re setting up sort of a temporary toy theater museum and a cabaret stage on a space in the lobby.”
The fest will be a community event as well as a theater production, with workshops on making your own toy theater alongside an eveninglong performance of three plays sold like a regular show.
Given the size of the sets, St. Ann’s will comfortably house everything from shadow puppetry to a German toy theatermaker who, Bell explains, “does really intense stuff like Schiller.”
In many ways, this kind of local, family-friendly attraction exemplifies what has made St. Ann’s successful, in turn making far-out gambles like “Macbeth” possible.