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Most New Yorkers dwell in pint-sized apartments—conceiving of a space bigger than a few hundred square feet is nearly impossible. So when Anita Durst, artistic director of Chashama—the nonprofit group of theaters, gallery spaces, and studios—first told Suzan Eraslan about a 20,000-square-foot potential performance venue in Industry City, in Brooklyn’s Sunset Park, Eraslan assumed she’d heard wrong.
But she'd heard right. It wasn’t long before Eraslan and her partner Kevin Laibson were sold on the gigantic, bare-boned fourth-floor warehouse space that smells faintly of lemonade. “We stepped three feet in, and I don’t think we even looked at each other before I said, ‘We’re taking it, right?’” Eraslan recalls.
Their theater, Magic Futurebox, is now a little over a year old (the name derives from Laibson’s nickname for his computer). The co-founders have been producing their own adventurous work alongside shows presented in curated residencies. Their donor-driven “Build a Better Box” fund-drive campaign is in full swing, and they rent out the big space for film and photo shoots and other special events, like the Björk Ball, an unofficial launch party for the Icelandic popstar’s recent album.
Eraslan and Laibson met when the two were both working at the Tank, she as programming director, he as a theater curator. “Suzan was my boss, and I tricked her into quitting her job to start a theater company with me,” says Laibson with a laugh. The two had worked on a series at the Tank called Public Domain in which six plays were paired to six directors in an online audience voting system. The series aimed to put up readings, but many artists wound up presenting fully staged shows. Deciding to start their own production company, according to Laibson “was less of a decision to work together and more of a discovery that we had to.”
The day after Eraslan handed in her notice at the Tank, Durst, who serves on the Tank’s board, informed her of the new, partially subsidized space acquired by Chashama. The funding would only last for three months per an agreement between Chashama and Bush Terminal, a real estate agency. After a three month test run, the duo renewed the lease and took on extra work to funnel back into the company. “I was mopping floors and taking teaching jobs, and Suzan was soldering for a boutique guitar pedal company,” Laibson recalls.
This month, Javierantonio González’s Open Up, Hadrian, directed by Meiyin Wang, will receive a co-production by Magic Futurebox and Caborca Theatre (September 12–29). Wang also directed the first show that Magic Futurebox presented, Tommy Smith’s Forth, a hallucinatory experience in which audience members walked through a minute of darkness to arrive at the smallest corner of the space.
Says Wang, “I like to approach Magic Futurebox as a puzzle for each project.” For Hadrian, she has wrestled with creating a story about the Roman emperor Hadrian in an industrial warehouse. She and her design team have chosen PVC pipes to evoke a forest, Astroturf as carpet turned grass, and an overhead projection will create a river. “We are trying to echo the classical era while rooting it in the heightened reality of now,” she says. “Elizabeth Barrett Groth, our costume designer, describes it as ‘PoMoGrecoRo.’”
This won’t be the first time Magic Futurebox has appeared bunker-like. In The Pestilence Is Coming! A super fun musical about how you will probably die!, which Laibson directed in July, the warehouse was turned into a post-plague squatter city with piles of cardboard and fake garbage. The venue’s extra footage, however, doesn’t necessarily equate to huge audiences. For Pestilence, and a number of other shows, audiences have been capped at just 40 people, to help create a sense of being in the void.
With real estate at such a premium, Eraslan and Laibson also admit to feeling a certain amount of responsibility in their programming. In November, they will present a commissioned piece by Miranda Huba, Bloody Lullabies for Brave Women—proceeds will benefit the New York Abortion Access Fund.
“Whenever someone comes to us who really needs our space specifically, we work hard to get them in,” says Laibson. Eraslan concurs: “It ended up being our accidental mission,” she says. “We started out as a production company interested in technology-driven work and ended up with a space that has little electricity. So we’ve shifted to making big theater specific to this site.”