At TFANA's new home, a creative space inspires artistic expression

October 23, 2013

More than 30 years after its founding, Theatre for a New Audience finally has a new and permanent home at Polonsky Shakespeare Center, an intimate and flexible courtyard theatre designed by Theatre Projects.

With an October 22 ribbon-cutting, the 299-seat theatre, situated at 262 Ashland Place, Brooklyn, proudly joined the burgeoning Downtown Brooklyn Cultural District. After more than 10 years of design and construction, the opening of the Samuel H. Scripps Mainstage at Theatre for a New Audience’s Polonsky Shakespeare Center marked the first theatre built in New York City for Shakespeare and classic drama since the Vivian Beaumont at Lincoln Center in 1965.

Designed in partnership with H3 Hardy Collaboration Architecture, we sought to create a venue that’s structural flexibility would allow for maximum artistic flexibility. With an orchestra floor that can be altered into endstage, thrust, flat floor, and arena configurations; seating platforms equally as malleable; and an innovative rigging system that allows infinite scenery hanging possibilities, Theatre Projects created a space that can be either cozy and personal or grand and awe-inspiring.

You can see an animation of the theatre's transformation here

"The presence of the audience in the galleries around the room creates a constant lively decoration of the room," said Richard Pilbrow, Theatre Projects’ founder and project leader for TFANA's new home. "The intimacy between actor and spectator is enhanced by the audience on the surrounding galleries; and its flexibility stems from the ability to entirely re-shape the stage. The narrow rectangular proportions of the room encourage this intimacy, while simultaneously the height of the space creates a potential sense of the epic."

Inspired by another of our venues, the Cottesloe Theatre at the National Theatre in London, Theatre Projects sought to take the best qualities of the iconic courtyard theatre — it’s intimacy, verticality, and plasticity — and improve upon them with more flexibility, a deeper stage, and more backstage area.

The hallmark of courtyard theatres — intimacy between the audience and actors — is achieved elegantly at TFANA’s new home through the use of two galleries, which wrap around the back and sides of the theatre, placing the audience suspended above the stage. This verticality allows for a dynamic closeness between parties, making the audience active participants rather than passive spectators.

A mission-driven design led us to create a venue with the capability to contort in as many ways as TFANA saw fit. With the group’s artistic goals in mind, Michael Ferguson, project manager on the theatre, sought to build an infinitely versatile venue. "Adapting to a different space for each production was part of what fuelled TFANA. They have a creative legacy and didn’t want their home to change their dynamic approach to the art," Michael said. "For them, artistic philosophy and freedom were key."

"Arranging the audience around performers to achieve close communication between the two is the challenge of theatre design," said John Runia, a member of our design team. "TFANA’s new home achieves this in an extremely compact and efficient building that leaves out nothing."

Jill Collins, rigging equipment designer for the theatre said, "It’s a very versatile space. They can open the backstage area all the way to the rehearsal space. They aren’t limited by the size of the room, only the size of the building."

For its inaugural show, Theatre for a New Audience’s Polonsky Shakespeare Center will host A Midsummer Night’s Dream, directed by Tony, Emmy, and Oscar award winner, Julie Taymor. Taymor is perhaps best known for her groundbreaking stage production of the Lion King. The show will run from November 2 to January 2, 2014.

The mission of Theatre for a New Audience is to develop and vitalize the performance and study of Shakespeare and classic drama. In 2001, Theatre for a New Audience became the first American theater to be invited to bring a production of Shakespeare to the Royal Shakespeare Company, Stratford-upon-Avon.

TFANA is committed to a reverence for language, a spirit of adventure, a commitment to diversity, a dedication to learning, and a spirit of service. Those values inform their interactions with artists, how they interact with audiences, and their approach to organization management.

At TFANA's new home, a creative space inspires artistic expression
Credit: David Sundberg
At TFANA's new home, a creative space inspires artistic expression
Credit: Francis Dzikowski