Is there such a thing? “The Brooklyn Style”

Notes on Everyman company: ie. Is there such a thing as a Brooklyn Style?  Was The Everyman Company half-a-century ago exemplary?

Ask me:

Q: What is the theater?
A: It’s one absurdity piled upon another at such propulsive speed that the audience doesn’t know quite what happened but are still on their feet cheering at the end.  If you’re lucky.

(THE BROOKLYN STYLE)

The event described succeeds by commitment, not polish: in many respects, the roughness essential to its verve, is also what disqualifies it from the consideration of the more traditional theater audience.  The Brooklyn Style is all-welcoming, it’s family, the values it celebrates are rooted in the community of its participants.  The standard of success is not measured by making the NYTimes Style Section (though that would be a kick) but in the quality of the experience shared: Right there. In the moment. On the ground.

I see and hear the Brooklyn Style as much in Whitman’s robust incantations as in the loud rock ‘n’ roll songs employed by Everyman on it’s summer seasons on different streets all over Brooklyn.

Whitman’s rough usage was and remains entirely Brooklyn in it’s energy and it’s delivery.  Revolutionary on so many fronts, that multitude he contained was all of Brooklyn – a city that swelled beyond all recognition during his lifetime. Whitman also epitomized the Brooklyn Style – he is bardic, not classical – writes with his entire body (think about it) and sought not to describe a world but to invent one.

The professional theater at the start of the ‘60s had very discernable standards – Actors studied technique – Stage Managers and crew were both industrial engineers and social lubricant.  The objective was to achieve a reproducible standard of achievement: the professional show ran like clockwork.

What had started as a commercial standard with the boom of urban entertainments in the mid-19th Century had bled over into an aesthetic standard by the late ‘50s. (Think of the elaborate and unprecedented production values given such stagings as My Fair Lady in 1956)

One Brooklyn guy, one of my heroes, Joe Papp, started shaking things up in the late 1950s.  His Shakespeare stagings were rough, sometimes crude, often funny in the “wrong” places: but he reminded people that the Elizabethean mob had been a noisy, social affair.  That players had to earn your attention, that that theatre was a mutual act of pretend.

I remember seeing his so-called “Naked” Hamlet when it played at the 9th Street bandshell in Prospect Park when I was 13.  1968.  I didn’t know “shit from shinola” (as my dad would say) about Shakespeare but I thought it was amazing.

150331 Brooklyn Boys

That was the same summer as the first Everyman season.  Let’s be honest, the grant was a youth employment scheme: the people who funded did so to “help” keep kids off the streets (by putting them on the streets).  They never realized just how talented so many of us dumb-ass Brooklyn kids turned out to be.  (By 1972, six Everyman alum were on scholarship at Julliard.  I was on scholarship at Columbia.)

My attempt after realising that no one else was doing it - by the time I directed my next show I'd got author Tama Janowitz to design them.
My attempt after realising that no one else was doing it – by the time I directed my next show I’d got author Tama Janowitz to design them.

 

The Brooklyn style eschews conventional set ups and delights in building events around found environments.  (My bold adaptation of Trojan Woman had many flaws but setting it in the crumbling pre-DUMBO waterfront was genius.) You felt that a war had taken place on its deserted and derelict streets.  Of course audience were scared to come  – #1 Front Street was an awesome shell of place forty years ago,  and way too far from the F train and way too near into  Brooklyn – even for people from Brooklyn.

150331 manhattan-bridge-tower-in-brooklyn-framed-through-nearby-buildings
Yes. DUMBO in the 1970s. Imagine it at night.

 





The disinterested interest of the legitimate theater guarantees that at its worst the commoditized experience will be merely boring:  with the Brooklyn Style you can never tell for sure.  It could get dangerous. When Brooklyn goes bad you could end up floating in the Gowanus.    Literally.

Brooklyn is Burlesque – it’s Minsky’s and Gypsy Rose Lee – Last Exit to Brooklyn, too.  And Henry Miller –

The Brooklyn Style derives its unique edge from the shared sense that we’re doing something we really shouldn’t be doing.  The line between audience and performer becomes blurred.  You’re never sure just who is watching who.  The Brooklyn style (BS, for short – revealingly) is purposefully democratic: of course the players tell the story and, hopefully, in such a way that attention is held, that viewers are engaged. But that story has an open side to it through the unfolding moment: it is both the story and the telling of the story (“Every time the story is told, the language is re-invented” )

The Brooklyn Style has humor (the vagaries of stand-up are central to its rhythms) It creates fun without condescending: creating connections between players and viewers.  You know the place.  Its incongruity and its rough instinct are the signs of its authenticity. An ontological sky-diving.  You know anything can happen there and that you just might be there when it does.

Okay, its the Open Air company I founded in Dublin.  But it still in the Brooklyn style with lots of Everyman syle creativity.
Okay, its the Open Air company I founded in Dublin. But it still in the Brooklyn style with lots of Everyman syle creativity.
Theater is one absurdity piled upon another at such propulsive speed that the audience doesn’t know quite what happened but are still on their feet cheering at the end.  If you’re lucky.  In the photo above we were lucky.  Horizon Theatre Company, St Stephen’s Green, Dublin, 1983.

Decades ago I used to say:  “Art is the creation of joy”   By joy I meant an exaltation; terror and tragedy are among its possible features. Not exclusively. Comedy remains a very strong component of achieving that state.  Laughing oneself silly is always good .

Tragic heroes are destroyed by their virtues: Comic heroes thrive by their vices.  Once you’ve figured that out the rest is a piece of cake.

To be continued…

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