Photo Stefan Okołowicz

Interview by Andy Goldberg, 11/28/2012

Susan Feldman

Susan Feldman

Susan Feldman is the founding and current Artistic Director of St. Ann’s Warehouse, a cultural icon in Brooklyn, New York. For 33 years St. Ann’s has commissioned, produced, and presented a wide array of innovative theatrical and concert performances, often blurring the lines between the two art forms. Under Feldman’s artistic leadership St. Ann’s Warehouse is a cornerstone of the American Avant-Garde theatre and is home to American and International artists in search of a flexible New York venue and organization. In 2008 St. Ann’s Warehouse hosted TR Warzawa’s production of 2008: Macbeth, a large-scale production mounted outdoors at the Tobacco Warehouse in Brooklyn. Acclaimed St. Ann’s productions include Lou Reed and John Cale’s Songs for Drella; Marianne Faithfull’s Blazing Away and The Seven Deadly Sins; Susan Feldman’s Band in Berlin; Carter Burwell, Charlie Kaufman, and the Coen Brothers’ Theater of the New Ear; The Royal Court Theatre’s 4:48 Psychosis; The Wooster Group’s Hamlet, The Emperor Jones, House/Lights, To You, The Birdie! (Phèdre); The Globe Theatre’s Measure for Measure; Gate Theatre London’s Woyzeck; Antony’s Turning; Mabou Mines’ Dollhouse; Lou Reed’s Berlin; Cynthia Hopkins’ Accidental Trilogy; Les Freres Corbusier’s Hell House; Enda Walsh’s The Walworth Farce, The New Electric Ballroom, Penelope (Druid Theatre) and Misterman with Cillian Murphy; TR Warzawa’s Risk Everything and Festen (The Celebration); The National Theatre of Scotland’s Black Watch and Beautiful Burnout; Kneehigh Theatre’s Brief Encounter and The Red Shoes; Young@Heart/No Theater’s End of the Road; and the American debut of Daniel Kitson’s The Interminable Suicide of Gregory Church and It’s Always Right Now Until It’s Later. In 2004 Susan Feldman and St. Ann’s Warehouse were awarded the Ross Wetzesteon Award for development of new work and “inviting artists to treat their cavernous DUMBO space as an inspiring laboratory.”

Feldman recently sat down with Signals magazine for a wide ranging interview about programming, her long-standing relationships with international theater companies, the challenges of producing a modern day outdoor Macbeth in Polish, and the importance of ‘space’ in St. Ann’s past, present, and future.

Let’s begin by talking about how you go about programming a season.

There’s no one way to curate a season that I have found in the sense that, it’s not like we sit down and say “We should have three women’s projects and then two Latin American and a music and then the site-specific thing…”, we don’t work like that. We don’t check in with all the managers and agents to see what’s going on either.  It’s much more of a relationship-building experience that develops over time. Because we’re small, we’re nowhere near the size of BAM, we don’t have the infrastructure or reserves to have several initiatives going.  We basically are one space, a middle sized theater. We’re below four million dollars [operating budget]. We don’t have a single audience, we have an audience that gathers for each show. We started a small membership over the past couple of years so we do have an individual donor base. We don’t have a subscription series. We don’t have “series” we’re trying to fill in with programs for different spaces. In a way we function like the small organization that started 32 years ago. I started it in a church and it was there as a support to help restore an old church, and we’ve kept that sort of dual mission even now. There we were trying to restore a church and help find a public use for this beautiful old building in Brooklyn Heights that had the first stained glass windows made in America. It lent itself to music, spectacle and classical and contemporary music, and you could mix up genres there. So over a twenty-year period we got to experiment with music and play around with different forms in the context of this gorgeous space, but we were coming in on a scrappy budget, creating partnerships to make use of the space.  I would say all of those things inform what St. Ann’s is even now. We’re very space driven.

What happened when we left the church is that we went into a warehouse in Dumbo at 38 Water Street which we were supposed to have for nine months. We were there for twelve years. So again, we never put down roots. We didn’t invest in the infrastructure of the building, we put up very few walls, and we developed a style that had a lot to do with being flexible and nimble and being able to transform space quite easily and simply. We had two walls and a curtain.  And then we had to leave there, we’ve gone to 29 Jay Street and we’ve basically rebuilt those two walls and curtain, and when we go into a permanent home in about three years in the Tobacco Warehouse in Brooklyn Bridge Park, we’re going to have the same kind of a space. This is something that I think filled a vacuum in New York City that’s inspired many spaces that have gone up as a result of that work. Theaters want a black box, they want an open space, they want a small space, they want a space in which they can experiment. There’s a lot to be said for giving artists a space where they can stretch and work and create things that they couldn’t create in a proscenium house.  Luckily for us, none of those theaters are the size or the breadth of St. Ann’s Warehouse, we still have a unique place.

How did St. Ann’s become a home for international artists?

What has evolved at 38 Water and is continuing now with Mies Julie, is that we became a really great space for international programming. It really had a lot to do with the openness of the space. For example, a very important life changer was 4:48 Psychosis which was a production of the Royal Court theater. They needed a place that they could transform using a large mirror and a particular kind of intimate setup. It was the first international production that we did.  And that started us down the road of doing shows that were going to have an international audience that we were going to have to find.

Part of my curatorial approach is asking: what does an artist or a company or a show want to be? How much does it need what St. Ann’s has to offer? If it can be done in twenty other places, why come here? What is the need that we fill that makes it unique to this place as opposed to another place? So if you saw the Wooster Group’s Hamlet here and then saw the same Wooster Group’s Hamlet at the Public, it was like watching – not a different show – but it took on different qualities, you watched it in different ways.  I’m particularly sensitive to that, working for 21 years in a church sanctuary that was built for a specific kind of experience for the worshippers. There’s a certain kind of focus that can be enhanced by the space that a piece is in or can be somewhat exposed for its weaknesses based on the space that it’s in.

The key thing about curating in a situation like the one we’re in, it’s going to come back to your gut and your reaction and the power something has for you that you think might transfer for other people as well. It comes from a sense of wanting to share. On the simplest levels it becomes about wanting to share an experience that you have, that you want others to have. I feel that if I get to have the good fortune to be able to go to places in the world and get to see work, I want to bring it back if I think I can open some minds to experiences that they might not get to have. I feel very strongly about that.

In 2008 you presented TR Warszaw’s Macbeth outside in the Tobacco Warehouse. How did your connection with TR Warszawa first begin?

I was invited to go on a trip with a few other presenters. The Director of the Polish Cultural Institute invited me and a few other people to come to Poland and see Polish theatre. And the first production I saw was TR’s 4:48 Psychosis and it blew me away. I just flipped over this director, Grzegorz Jarzyna. I got to know him after that and started to work with him. I just thought he was extraordinary.

TR Warszawa MACBETH at St. Ann's Warehouse, Dumbo, Brooklyn                                Photo: Pavel Antonov

TR Warszawa MACBETH at St. Ann’s Warehouse, Dumbo, Brooklyn
Photo Pavel Antonov

Was he getting international exposure at this point?

Yes, he’d already been to the Dublin Festival and his Festen had already gained a lot of international notoriety. We just brought Festen [to St. Ann’s] last April but it was done in 2001 in Dublin. He and I became very close over the years and then he started to talk about this Macbeth that was done in an old factory just outside Warsaw. And I went to see it twice. I was on a trip and I saw it at the beginning of the trip and I came back and saw it again because Richard Lanier of the Trust for Mutual Understanding was going and I wanted to see it with him because I knew if we were going to do Macbeth, it was going to be really expensive and we’d need to work together. It was extraordinary. And then we set about for two years to find a place to do it because our space wasn’t tall enough. We tried BAM, but we couldn’t afford it.  We looked in Williamsburg and warehouses. We hired a consultant to help us find spaces. And finally a very close friend of mine said, “Why don’t you just do it in the Tobacco Warehouse?” And that became such an infectious idea that we went and raised a lot of money from the city of Warsaw. It was a lot of trips back and forth and it was a really big effort on the part of the city government here and the city government in Warsaw, the national government in Poland and the Trust for Mutual Understanding and we made it happen. We built a 400 seat theatre in the Tobacco Warehouse.!

Were there any changes to the production in New York besides moving it outdoors?

The big change that I participated in and was instrumental in making it happen, was that I suggested they put Shakespeare’s soliloquies back into the play. Everything in the script was a contemporary adaptation that Jarzyna wrote himself. So it was Polish vernacular based somewhat on Shakespeare and then translated into English, which was a little bit sketchy. But I felt we missed the soliloquies. So for the production here, he created a top layer [to the set], a third story. The set was a two story building and it was like a cut out.  It had four chambers, so you were looking at the inside of the building, four rooms. Two were below and two were across and he built a third layer which had a mezzanine on the third floor and a big wall which became a projection screen for the soliloquies, where they would project the live video blow ups of the big heads. There was a real sense of terror in the show at St. Ann’s because every time the actor playing Macbeth would get up on that third story railing, holding onto nothing, every night I would freak that he was going to fall. So the danger was real. And also, every night when the second floor chamber caught on fire, I would go to the special effects guy and ask, “Are you sure that fire is under control?” And every night he would say yes. And every night I would be worried that it wasn’t and every night it was. The gunfire was loud and the fire department would come and the police would come sometimes, and here were these guys with guns, and it was very wild. Plus we had the weather going on, we had a lot of storms. We were on such a tight schedule and tight budget that we could not miss one load-in day.  We had to open on time and we only  had ten performances. We ended up cancelling the last two because it had rained, not during the show, but because there was so much electricity on the set, we couldn’t do the show .


Photo Stefan Okołowicz

What role did the technology and the special effects have in the production?

The whole metaphor was about modern warfare…or modern ancient warfare. Jarzyna wrote it originally in 2007, it was called Macbeth: 2007, (we did it in 2008), after he saw the beheadings that were happening in Afghanistan at the beginning of that war. That was his way to enter Macbeth, to take that conflict and that kind of primitive warfare and set it in an Arab country under a terrorist situation. He made Macbeth a very daring military leader, and he made it like a film. He wanted it to have all the technology, all the danger, and all the excitement of a film. So one of the reasons that I wanted the soliloquies back was because all the long shots worked and some of the medium shots worked, but there were no close-ups, and that’s what the blow ups of the soliloquies gave us, the close ups of the characters.

The look deep into the character that you don’t get from the long shot.

Exactly. They all looked too small against the outdoor backdrop of our vast city. And the fact that it was right across the river from where 9/11 had happened also had a certain resonance for us. The other big issue was the production had a fantastic soundscape, original music, and the actors speaking in Polish. It was so noisy there [in the Tobacco Warehouse] that we gave everybody individual headphones and ran the entire sound design through the headphones, so that everybody got their own experiences of the sound. It was like a living movie. It was like a gigantic drive-in except you weren’t in a car. Grzegorz likes the blood and guts of these classics. He likes to really get to the heart of what is happening on-stage. I would say he’s sort of like a neorealist. He goes for the realism.

Can you talk a little bit about your relationship to another production about war, the National Theatre of Scotland’s Blackwatch?

It was one of those very rare experiences in the theater. What was really really extraordinary about it was that first time we did it the [Iraq] war had been going on for about two years, and right before it, there had been a play called Journey’s End that closed on Broadway and Clint Eastwood had made these two movies about the war and they had failed at the box office. There were these big articles in the New York Times about how nobody wanted to see or read things about the war. And then Blackwatch came and the audience went nuts. People had the need and hunger to know about the war, to talk about the war, to see a piece that wasn’t about Americans except tangentially, but was so much about the soldiers’ experience, in a non-judgmental way, that really took you into the battle, using music, using movement, using non-verbal story-telling. I think Blackwatch opened the floodgates for people to talk about the war. The Times review came out on a Monday and by Tuesday we were sold out, so we realized we had a show that people needed to see. The moment it closed we booked it to return the following fall for a seven week engagement. It was a seven or eight week run and again the whole run sold out really fast. By then people were talking about the war, and there was really an anti-war movement, and other artists were making shows about the war. Now the Times was writing articles asking if there was too much about the war. It just goes to show how quickly things can turn and how much effect and impact a show can have on artists and audiences, as well as the media’s decision on whether they are going to write about it.  Then we did it a third time two years later, and by that time the troops were coming home. This time NTS had re-cast the tour with very young actors who were the same age as the actual soldiers. We wanted to remind people that these were the guys who were going to be coming back a few months later, so it still had a certain resonance that was important in relation to the actual war.


National Theatre of Scotland BLACKWATCH

What has been the process of conceiving and designing a new space for Tobacco Warehouse been like?

We moved to DUMBO in 2000 and we had been looking at the Tobacco Warehouse since 2002. In 2010 there was an RFP (Request For Proposal) that came out for the Tobacco Warehouse but we’d been thinking about it for years. And we’d also been dreaming about a permanent space that would capture the feeling of a warehouse – this idea that when you’re in the theater we’re all under the same roof. It’s not like, here’s the audience and here’s the stage, it’s that the whole building is one space.  We wanted the ability to have an open space, we wanted to be flexible, to change it around. We didn’t want to have walls, we didn’t want to define dressing rooms, and we wanted it to be natural.  I had seen this place in Stratford [in the U.K.] called the Courtyard Theatre that was a temporary building that had been built by the Royal Shakespeare Company to be their prototype while they were re-building the Swan and Royal Shakespeare Company.. I walk into the building and it’s literally a Corten steel box. I could see the structure of the building, it was like a warehouse made out of steel with plywood walls, it wasn’t finished – it was like heaven to me.  So I became obsessed with that building and I got to know the theatre consultants who were these guys called Charcoal Blue who operate out of London. So when the  RFP came out for the Tobacco Warehouse we hired them to be our theatre  consultants and we put together a document which became our brief for what we wanted the place to be.

And then we had to talk about what it meant to be in a historic structure in the park, which was always interesting to me because we had come from a historic structure starting in the church. We always felt that we had a dual mission, that not only were we a theater, but that we were there to restore this old church and give it an alternative life. Then when we moved to DUMBO we felt we were building a neighborhood. So when we were going into the Tobacco Warehouse we were going to help build a park by being the cultural entity in the park.

The first thing we had to get Charcoal Blue and the architects to understand – they would start to draw spaces, and I would then erase all the walls.  They would draw these rooms and I would say, “Can you just get rid of that wall?” I was constantly taking walls away. It took a long time for them to adjust to the fact that we were not going to have walls. [For example,] the thing that was interesting about the catwalks was that the theater consultant kept talking about the “theater” and I kept saying, you know the whole space can be the ‘theater,’ it’s not all going to be the same theater all the time.  You have to remember that if we want to turn the space around, we have to be able to do that. Where they were initially pushing us was where there was one configuration where you could have 300 seats end on, or a concert with 600, or you could have the audience on this side and that side and the play in the middle, or…, and I kept saying, you know what, NO! What we have to be able to do is, the artist comes in and tells us they want to hang from the ceiling over here and they want to be able to get to over there and the audience is going to be here and we’re going to open out onto the street. We have to be able to adjust the building to what is wanted, even if there are certain setups that are going to be most frequently used. So if there are going to be catwalks, then the catwalks need to extend beyond the curtain line of the “theatre.” That means that what’s “lobby” and what’s “theater” have to be able to blur. You have to constantly broaden the concept of what’s the “theater.”  It’s all the theater.  The whole room is the theater.

Andrew Goldberg is a theatre director, multi-disciplinary artist, and educator.  His work has been seen all over the world including New York City, Chicago, London, Edinburgh, Dublin, Berlin, and Perth, Australia.  He is making his Broadway directing debut this spring with Macbeth starring Alan Cumming.  After completing his M.F.A. in the Performance and Interactive Media Arts program at Brooklyn College in May, he will begin his doctoral studies at the CUNY Grad Center in the Fall. 

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