Bridge Work

Brooklyn's New Alternative Theater

Walk down Williamsburg's North 6th Street and you may notice a purple light shining on the front of a brick warehouse. Push through the building's metal door, and you'll find yourself on a catwalk that borders a huge area filled with water. The shallow pool opens onto a dark bar lit by wall-mounted candles. It's cozy and homey, but don't get too comfortable, because at any moment those candles may suddenly combust, sending fire and smoke into the air. In the midst of the flames a weird ceramic creature does the Saint Vitus dance.

"It's like jumping into a giant sculpture," says Robert Elmes, one member of the triumvirate (along with Fred Valentine and Chris Plante) that runs the Galapagos Art and Performing Space, one of the new theatrical hot spots in Brooklyn.

Hold on a sec. Theatrical hot spots in Brooklyn? Oddly enough, yes. And while artists of every variety have always lived in Brooklyn, it's only recently that companies and spaces here have begun to develop that most elusive of things: a real community.

Ten years ago, Brooklyn was home to plenty of theatrical endeavors: there was the New Theatre of Brooklyn and BACA Downtown. BAM was hosting Lee Breuer's Warrior Ant. And Dick Zigun's Coney Island USA was producing plays as well as its manic sideshow. But TNT and BACA went out of business when public arts funding dried up, and Zigun, immersed in landlord and IRS battles, stopped producing plays five years ago. BAM, of course, lives on, but it has never really tried to cultivate an indigenous Brooklyn audience (the company hires buses to shuttle tonier Manhattan audiences who are too squeamish to take the 2 train under the river).

Galapagos represents a different sort of aesthetic. For one thing, the art is totally financed by the bar—avoiding subservience to grant programs. Perhaps more importantly, there's little dependency on Manhattan audiences. On any given night, tattooed and leather-clad artiste-types perch at stools around the bar, furiously smoking cigarettes and drinking draft beers out of plastic cups. It's a young, hip, Brooklyn-based clientele.

Elmes and Valentine are old hands at the Williamsburg performance scene: they were members of Mustard, a company that hosted huge multimedia events in deserted warehouses throughout the neighborhood in the early '90s. In 1995—sticking to their condiment theme—the guys took over an old mayonnaise factory (if you look closely, you can still see the giant vats overhead). After three years of renovations, Galapagos officially opened four months ago. The inspired madness of those old Cat's Head–era one-night stands still informs the aesthetic: Multimedia is the operative word in the flexible, 60-odd-seat performance space behind the bar. But there's a mellower, more mature atmosphere. "We're all in our thirties now," says the ponytailed Elmes, in his wide-eyed, earnest way. "We're better at what we do now than when we were in our twenties, and we're looking for a sense of community."

The rumpled Valentine, a visual artist by trade, nods. "The guy from the local pizzeria came over with a fireman that lives next door," he says. "They just wanted to check out what we were up to. And the fact is, they dig it."

That sense of community means reaching out to other artists in the neighborhood. One theater company, Crux, has office space upstairs, and another, the Flying Machine, is in residence. A multinational group of performers, the Flying Machine is headed by two well-scrubbed Americans, Josh Carlebach and Colin Gee. The two hooked up in Paris in 1994 while studying at the Jacques Lecoq School. After graduating, they convinced three other schoolmates to follow them to New York and start a company.

"We knew that if we were serious, we needed a free rehearsal space," says Carlebach in between drags of a cigarette. "And not just some place every other Wednesday night for three hours." The group created their first piece, Sad Since Tuesday, in a Carroll Gardens church basement, but the priest booted them after getting wind of the weird stuff going on. Homeless, the company went searching for another space and found it in the then uncompleted Galapagos. Now the company rehearses in Elmes's building five days a week, for as many as eight hours a day, an idea that seems absolutely insane to most struggling theater folks in the city.

Rehearsing across the river is one thing, but performing here? "Lemme tell you," says Carlebach. "We did a four-week run of our last show, Utopians, at the Theatorium on the Lower East Side. Now admittedly, we were the first group this new space was presenting, but we performed for dismal audiences....Dismal." He shakes his head and mutters. "For four weeks.

"But then," he continues, snapping himself out of it, "we came back and did a monthlong run here at Galapagos, and we were selling out. People were coming in off the street. Just from papering Bedford Avenue a little bit. Would that happen in Soho or the Lower East Side? No way."

So they don't have a problem being pegged as Brooklyn artists? "I like the ambiguity," says Gee. Then he hedges: "Anyway, it's the work that defines you. Not the geography."

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