The Bushwick Starr, an innovative nonprofit theater in Brooklyn, got some bad news during the pandemic: Its longtime second-floor Starr Street loft was being converted to residential housing.
The theater would have to move.
“It was an existential moment for our organization,” said Sue Kessler, who founded the Bushwick Starr in 2007 with Noel Joseph Allain and now serves as its creative director. “But with all the hardship everyone was experiencing last fall, we didn’t want to share more bad news until we knew where, or if, we would land.”
Jarring as the June 2020 move-out notice was, Kessler said it was not exactly a surprise: They’d always known the building would eventually be brought up to code under New York City’s loft law, which requires its second and third floors to become residential. She and Allain had also felt themselves outgrowing their “beautiful, darling space” at 207 Starr Street, with its steep stairs and rickety chandeliers. “We’d long wanted to move down to street level to be more accessible,” she said.
They looked at about 25 spaces in and around Bushwick, always with a long-term lease in mind. But the moment they laid eyes on a former dairy plant for sale at 419 Eldert Street, just over a mile and three L stops from their current space, they knew they’d hit the jackpot.
“It had everything we wanted — a single story, a ground-floor lobby, 5,000 square feet of space,” said Allain, the theater’s artistic director. “And the price was much more within our reach than some of these other crazy, $10 million buildings we’d seen.”
They bought the building in May 2021 for $2.2 million and got to work planning their new home. Construction is set to begin in April, and they intend to open in fall 2022.
The renovated building will include a dressing room, rehearsal space, scenic workshop, office, gallery and an outdoor area for events. A black box theater will seat 90 people, up from 72 seats in the Starr Street space.
But most important to Kessler and Allain is the accessible, street-level lobby, where they’re planning artist talks, film screenings and gallery shows to showcase the work of local artists. A folding garage door facade will also allow events to spill out onto the cul-de-sac street.
And though the theater will no longer be on Starr Street, the name will remain.
“We lucked out on that one,” Allain said, laughing (they’re still in Bushwick, by about 30 feet).
A permanent neighborhood presence is a logical next step for the experimental theater, puppetry and dance space that’s served as an incubator for the work of the Tony-nominated playwright Jeremy O. Harris (“Slave Play”), and Daniel Fish, who directed the recent Tony-winning Broadway revival of “Oklahoma!”
Kessler and Allain had been renting the Starr Street loft, which they converted to a black box theater, since 2001, when it served their now-defunct experimental theater company Fovea Floods. “There was no money,” Allain told The New York Times in 2014.
It “was desperate, adventurous and maybe a little naïve,” Kessler added.
But the Bushwick Starr — which opened several years before the neighborhood acquired its next-big-thing status and kombucha-on-tap bars — became home. The metal front door, painted brick and wooden support columns were dingy, yet elegant — and curiously welcoming. By 2010-11, it was a bright spot on the Off Off Broadway map.
Now Kessler and Allain, who began working at the theater full time around 2012, can finally afford their own space. (Though Kessler says there are a couple of things she’ll miss about the Starr Street loft: The “glorious” city views and hydroponic garden on the roof deck.)
The theater, which anticipates operating with an annual budget of about $1.5 million, has announced a three-year, $10 million capital campaign to raise funds to support the acquisition and renovation of the space, as well as for expanded programming. Allain said they have $6 million already committed from the city, private foundations and individual donors, but are relying on the campaign to raise the remaining $4 million.
In the meantime, Allain and Kessler have a full season of shows planned for 2021-22, including four productions, all of which will be staged at other venues while the Eldert Street space is under construction.
But first, a celebration. Ellpetha Tsivicos and Camilo Quiroz-Vazquez, founders of the theater company One Whale’s Tale, are hosting an outdoor, quinceañera-themed block party at the new space on Oct. 10. The free event will have music, dancing and food, and will allow community members to peek inside the Starr’s new home before construction begins.
In November, the season officially starts with the world premiere of Hillary Miller’s “Preparedness,” directed by Kristjan Thor, which follows the faculty members of a moribund theater department as they are forced to undergo self-defense training in order to maintain their funding, at HERE Arts Center (Nov. 11-Dec. 11). Next is a new iteration of Agnes Borinsky’s chamber play “A Song of Songs,” which is set to be staged in partnership with the Bushwick chapter of the social-justice organization El Puente at its Williamsburg location in early 2022.
In the spring, the actor and playwright Ryan J. Haddad’s newest autobiographical play, “Dark Disabled Stories,” a series of vignettes about the strangers he encounters while navigating a city not built to accommodate his walker and cerebral palsy, directed by Jordan Fein. Closing out the season is a summer production of Tsivicos and Quiroz-Vazquez’s immersive “Quince” (Tsivicos directs), which follows a queer Chicana on the eve of her 15th birthday as she grapples with her identity as a first-generation American. Venues have not yet been decided for either show.
The vaccination and mask policies for the four shows may vary and also have yet to be determined, Allain said.
If all goes according to plan, the ribbon-cutting for their permanent home will take place in a little over a year. In a video call from the new space last week — which still looks very much like a warehouse — Allain seemed a bit in awe of the leap the theater was taking. “It’s the biggest lift we’ve ever tried as an organization,” he said. “It’s a bit of a moment of truth. I really hope people come through.”