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.”
Both the work and the geography define GAle GAtes et al., a company founded in 1995 by Michael Counts. It’s early morning in DUMBO, and the rumpled, shaggy-haired director is preparing for the opening of his new multi media extravaganza, Tilly Losch, overseeing the load-in of the set—a three-dimensional replica of Andrew Wyeth’s Christina’s World. (The show runs through December 19.)
Counts’s vision was too expansive for Manhattan, so in 1996 he made a sweet deal with father-and-son real estate magnates David and Jed Walentas on a 37,000-square-foot space on DUMBO’s Main Street. The space housed last year’s oversized multimedia piece, The Field of Mars, which was vaguely inspired by Tacitus’s firsthand account of the burning of Rome.
Of course, DUMBO was hardly a secret. “Pioneers don’t exist without a frontier,” he says of the artists who moved in as long as 10 years ago. “I consider us between two poles. The changes in this neighborhood—and I suppose we’re part of them—are positive.”
That’s not necessarily the point of view of old-timers, who see the gentrification of DUMBO (plans include a waterfront retail center along the tiny and rather depressing Empire-Fulton State Park) as a threat to their world of sunlit lofts, solitude, and cheap rents. There’s been a fair amount of “Walentas out of DUMBO” graffiti, and even Counts experienced antagonism when his art exhibition posters were torn down. Still, that doesn’t intimidate the director, who is intent on doing his part to open DUMBO up.
“BAM proved that people would travel to Brooklyn to see something unique,” he says. “If we were doing the same old crap, we wouldn’t survive.”
“Dumbo is dead,” says Jeff Gurecka. A grungy-looking character with longish blond hair and a small nose ring, Gurecka is one-fifth of the Dean Street Field of Operations, self-described “poly-disciplinarians.” Gurecka got into performance through the back door and, like Michael Counts, is actually trained as a visual artist. “I have a studio in DUMBO,” he goes on, “and I’m getting pressure to get the fuck out.”
Gurecka and fellow FOO-er Elyas Khan are hanging out at Freddy’s Bar on Dean Street in Prospect Heights. Seven or eight years ago the place was a creepy cop bar. Now it’s an artist hangout, home to open-mike nights and Lurch magazine, Brooklyn’s scrappy xeroxed literary journal. It’s also home-away-from-home for the Dean Street FOO.
Actually, their only home. The FOO recently lost their space down the street, a loft Khan and comember Corinna Hiller shared. “It was a great space,” says Khan as he strokes his Mephistopheles-like beard. Unfortunately, the vagueness of the lease caught up with them. “It was owned by a Venezuelan rock star who suddenly had a hit,” he says enigmatically. They were evicted.
Their new nomadic existence appeals to Gurecka. “We’re gypsies,” he says. “We’re prepared to do what we do anywhere.” That means a stint at HERE, a spring show at P.S.122, even a gig on MTV. For the FOO, being a Brooklyn company is less a tangible reality than an attitude.
“Hey,” says Gurecka, “the Field of Operations is constantly shifting—it’s growing. I mean, we’re not going to change our name or anything.”
“This is our neighborhood,” says Khan.
“I don’t mind being identified with Brooklyn,” adds Gurecka, taking a gulp from a very dark-looking beer. “Being from here, you basically have a sign on you that says that you’re a little tougher, a bit more abrasive. People say,” he assumes a snotty Soho voice, “‘Oh, Brooklyn—I wonder what they could be up to.’ Or, ‘Oh, it must be so ha-a-a-rd to work out there—’ And it’s like, ‘Fuck you.”‘
It’s a Monday morning back in Williamsburg, and Tina Fallon, one half (along with Tor Ekeland) of the company Crux, is at work in her office above Galapagos. “Oh, yeah,” she says. “We’re totally a Brooklyn company.”
Maybe so, but once again that moniker has a different connotation. The three-year-old for-profit company supervises all things technical for other theaters and dumps the money earned into its own artistic endeavors. Crux is known for its “24-Hour Plays” series, in which seven or eight plays are written, cast, rehearsed, and staged in a 24-hour period. But while the group rehearses and has meetings in Brooklyn (“Seventy-five percent of the people we work with live out here”), their shows are almost always staged in Manhattan, lately at the Present Company’s Theatorium.
Fallon is unapologetic about the fact that the company doesn’t perform in Brooklyn. “The scale of the space we need isn’t really available here,” she says. “And in spite of the influx of money into this neighborhood, it still seems that most people spend their cash on food, beer, videos, and used furniture. If they want live performance, they’re going to Manhattan.”
When Crux moved into their offices, Galapagos was far from completed. “We helped a lot with work on the building,” she laughs. “The deal was for every hour of work, Robert Elmes would pay us with three pints of beer. We lost track of it somewhere along the way, but we’re still getting free beer.” But that kind of laissez-faire attitude is changing. For better or worse, there’s more fiscal responsibility in the air. Crux is very much a “tenant” at Galapagos (“Oh, yeah,” says Fallon, “we pay plenty of rent”), and so Fallon and Ekeland have been dreaming of a space of their own. They’re currently in negotiations to buy a building nearby: a roofless one-story structure sandwiched between a fish factory and a garbage dump. However, the company can’t possibly afford its preposterous $300,000 price tag.
“I really don’t want to sound like I’m pining for the good old days like some stupid old fucked-up ex-hippie,” says Fallon, who has lived in Williamsburg pretty consistently since 1989. “But things are changing. I knew once people were writing all these articles about the scene, it was going to be over.
“Hey,” she says, “do you know where we can move next?”