St. Ann’s Warehouse Tries To Bring a Massive Macbeth to the Brooklyn Waterfront

When Susan Feldman first saw Grzegorz Jarzyna’s version of Macbeth in a former munitions factory in Warsaw, she was enraptured.

Feldman, the artistic director of St. Ann’s Warehouse in DUMBO, always loved the play but had never seen a production she found fulfilling. This one was different: In the first scene, set on a battlefield, flares erupted in the cavernous industrial space. As wind and sound simulated a landing military chopper, Macbeth’s command squad—monitoring from a high-tech control room—implored him not to invade a mosque. From a raised seating section on the factory floor, the audience watched the video-saturated action unfold simultaneously on multiple stage tiers and screens.

“You couldn’t believe that anybody could do this with live theater,” says Feldman. “It was so spectacular, with the smoke and the lights and the explosions and the fire. The whole physical production is so beautifully orchestrated.”

At that instant, Feldman thought: “New York has to see this production.” She immediately approached Jarzyna about bringing this TR Warszawa show to St. Ann’s. (The company’s production of Hanoch Levin’s Krum, which has won an Obie for director Krzysztof Warlikowski, played at BAM last October.)

But in the weeks, months, and years after that 2005 Warsaw trip, Feldman found herself charging into a battle of her own: Like most nonprofit-theater producers in the U.S., she has had to struggle against the odds to pull off a non- commercial international collaboration. And the sheer scale of this intensely visual Macbeth­—which will play for 12 performances starting June 17—has brought a massive challenge to Feldman and her staff.

Part of the original appeal lay in Jarzyna’s broadened focus: The director moved the drama beyond the standard study of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth’s murderous individual psychologies. Through his quasi-cinematic spectacle, Jarzyna emphasizes what Feldman calls “the supernatural forces” driving Macbeth, and turns the whole world into a brutal battlefield rife with insanity.

Expansive and metaphysical thinking—so characteristic of Poland’s distinguished stage history—comes naturally to the 40-year-old Jarzyna, artistic director of TR Warszawa, one of Eastern Europe’s most vibrant companies. Jarzyna has interpreted everything from Euripides to Thomas Vinterberg films, and he’s often drawn to experiences beyond rational comprehension. For Macbeth, the director and his ensemble blend Shakespeare’s original text with contemporary language, creating a new adaptation. (St. Ann’s will project English supertitles.) “Mixing genres of cinema and stage was the idea from the beginning,” he says by telephone from Poland.

In the current economic downturn, that risky aesthetic alone would have deterred many nonprofit-theater producers. Poor exchange rates—coupled with swelling airfares, lodging, and shipping expenses—can break already-tight budgets. (For Macbeth, 32 Polish cast and crew members will come to New York.) On top of that, producers need to factor in post-9/11 visa hassles and uncertainty about whether local audiences will turn out for unknown artists and groups.

“Whenever we collaborate with international artists, we assume a significant demand for extra resources to accomplish the task,” says James Nicola, New York Theatre Workshop’s artistic director. “As resources dwindle in the current economy, we will have to weigh very carefully the value gained by doing such projects.”

Nicola has been trying—so far without results—to produce an off-site project of his own, a collaboration between director René Pollesch (from Berlin’s Volksbühne) and American actors called 24 Hours Are Not a Day, with an environmental set by superstar designer Bert Neumann. After a few years of effort, Nicola says: “We are still hoping this will happen, although the financial resources required are rather immense.”

Feldman harbored no doubts about Macbeth—which doesn’t surprise colleagues familiar with her tenacity. “Once Susan sees a piece and it touches her,” says Mark Russell, producer of the Under the Radar festival, “she will cross highways of burning coals to make it happen.”

Money, it turns out, was only part of the logistical challenge. The production, says Feldman, “is too tall for St. Ann’s.” The set required several meters more of overhead space than the organization’s DUMBO warehouse has. So Feldman and Jarzyna began investigating other performance locations, hiring technical consultants to make drawings and draft a budget for each potential site. Jarzyna would fly from Poland to see each venue—sometimes just for a day. They found suitable pier sheds on the Red Hook waterfront, but then discovered they were going to be torn down. A factory under the Williamsburg Bridge fell through. They thought of BAM’s Harvey Theater, but the dates wouldn’t work. At one point, Feldman seriously considered raising the roof on the DUMBO warehouse—even calling up the landlord.

After about a year of searching, they finally found a location with no roof—right across the street from St. Ann’s at the Tobacco Warehouse, part of the state-owned Empire–Fulton Ferry State Park. They got permission, though the site’s landmarked status entails complicated construction rules for the set and seats. Feldman was happy to comply. “Grzegorz was intrigued by the fact that it was across the river from where the Twin Towers were, the place where the battle has come to America. He really liked that idea. And it is a ruin.”

While Jarzyna was making regular visits to Brooklyn, Feldman found herself traveling in the other direction to procure additional funding from Warsaw city officials and from the Polish culture and foreign ministries. (She estimates that the Polish side is putting up “almost half” of the budget, which will come to more than $600,000 for all production and construction costs; the rest is coming primarily from American foundation support and the box office.) Feldman reckons she’s made 10 round-trips across the Atlantic.

Now that she’s in the home stretch, Feldman has concentrated on finding solutions to more concrete problems. For instance, the site near the Manhattan Bridge is too noisy for the show’s intricate soundscape. So she and Jarzyna decided that each audience member will wear muff-type headphones; the sound will be mixed live at each performance and piped into the personal headsets.

“This whole thing is not practical,” says Feldman, sitting in her theater on a recent afternoon, laughing and massaging a pinched nerve in her neck. “But I would say that every problem has been solved. It’s all excessive—but that’s what it is.”

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