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Keepers of a Dream: The Race to Save a Theater

Five members of the New Brooklyn Theater are working to save the Slave Theater. But it's a race against the clock.

Jonathan Solari is on a mission: He wants to open a public theater.

For the last ten years, Solari has spent most of his time directing theater. He has developed more than 1,000 artists for more plays than he can count while working with other artistic directors at some of the best theater institutions in the country, including the Intiman in Seattle, the Lincoln Center and the Public Theatre, to name a few.

But over the last few years, he admitted, he had grown frustrated with the theater companies in Manhattan. Because as their rents started to climb, so too did ticket prices. And as a result, large audiences were neglected.

He tells the story of an award-winning play that took place in post-genocide Rwanda that he was helping to shop for a theater home:

“It’s a beautiful play about how people’s stories can influence us and become our own. But we couldn’t get it produced because theaters were telling us they ‘had done their Africa play already,’” said Solari.

“And that seemed silly to me. I mean, you’ve done your Africa play? Africa’s a continent. A Rwanda play is going to be different than a story about Uganda or South Africa. It just seemed ridiculous to me.”

Solari realized the work he was most proud of were the projects that engaged the community. He pointed to Joseph Papp, founder of The Public Theater, one of the first people to make theater a non-profit entity by bringing the arts into underserved communities.

“I have a huge amount of respect from seeing what Joe Papp did,” said Solari, “engaging all five boroughs to bring Shakespeare and the arts into communities that weren’t being served. And there’s so many parallels for what he did and what we’re trying to do now.”

Solari wanted a theater, a public theater, one that would make art and theater entirely accessible. Sara Wolff, a longtime producer of public programs at the Museum of Jewish Heritage and a colleague of Solari, suggested the Slave Theatre, since Solari had been talking about it for years.

Ah yes, the Slave Theater, thought Solari. But the Slave theatre, while embroiled in a battle for ownership, had slipped into foreclosure and was scheduled for auction November 2012, and it was March 2012. So Wolff and Solari had to move fast.

They quickly incorporated a new company, The New Brooklyn Theatre, as a non-profit-- Wolff as executive producer and Solari as artistic director, along with three others, Brian Kushner, director of education; Natasha Sobers, general manager; and Ben Gullard, grants writer and organizer.

Their long-term plan? Purchase and restore the Slave Theater into a three-stage performing arts center that develops the work of Brooklyn artists for Brooklyn audiences.

More specifically, they want to restore the 550-seat main stage to the elegance of its original design from when the building opened in 1910, including an orchestra pit and musical productions; the main stage also would be wired with new lighting and state-of-the-art sound technology.

Upstairs, they want to build out a 200-seat black box theatre, home to three in-house productions each season, as well as make it available for rental; they also propose to add a café and cabaret for nightly programming like poetry readings to serve as a gathering space for Brooklyn’s emerging artists.

A rehearsal room also would be added on the second floor, with mirrored walls and ballet bars to accommodate productions of all types; they also would like to erect a permanent exhibit of the history of the Slave Theatre, along with rotating art displays from local visual artists.

NBT took its plan to the estate’s owner, Reverend Samuel Boykin, who gave his word of support. Their short-term plan? Raise money. Fast!

The group launched a Kickstarter campaign online to raise a total of $200,000 as seed money. So far, they’ve raised $26,700 with exactly two weeks left.

Solari and the other members of New Brooklyn Theater are holding a community forum for the fundraising of the Slave Theater on Thursday, September 27, 6:00 p.m. – 8:00 p.m. in the community room of Restoration Plaza, located at 1368 Fulton Street.

And yes, it will be called the New Brooklyn Theater: “I know people are gonna yell at me and say, ‘It’s the Slave!’” said Solari. “But I cannot be the artistic director of the Slave Theater, are you kidding me? We have to build the sort of partnerships that will allow us to open doors... and… I don’t… think… if I fill out an application for a grant from Ford Foundation for a Slave Theatre that they’re gonna be able to play ball with that. That’s real.

“But first, we need to think about getting the community’s support. There will be a presentation of the history of the theater, our full vision, and how people can get involved between then and now,” he said and then reached for his proposal. “There are little things about what this project will do for Bed-Stuy that you cannot put in a packet.

“The most important thing is to save this theater and get the doors back open. Right now, that’s all that matters.”

This is the second in a two-part series on the Slave Theater. Click here to read the first segment, "A New Life for the Slave Theater?"

Judah Spechal September 22, 2012 at 03:46 PM
Only point I agree w/ here is the name change. But let's not kid ourselves here this theatre project, besides putting up some art & naming a few rooms to honor blacks people will be skewed to the new Bed-Stuy pop. Let's not make it about some holistic community goal to honor a history for us that doesn't exist. It's just been dressed-up as such. How do I know this? History has told me so. I wish you guys a lot of success, seriously, my only request is when u see black people walk into the lobby of the New Brooklyn Theatre, u are as warm to them as u will be to others. And not suspect that something nefarious is about to go down because of our presence. You know what I am talking about. Cause the newcomers to Bed-stuy have brought a little of that "Manhattan-be suspicious of those people mentality" to bed-stuy, wish is quite disturbing.

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