Profile: The Bushwick Starr

Deep in hipster Brooklyn, this venue keeps the faith.

The Bushwick Starr

The Bushwick Starr Photograph: Jared Klein

Ten years ago, when the executive director of the Bushwick Starr, Sue Kessler, first lived near the Jefferson stop in Brooklyn, cop cars used to coast up alongside her, checking to make sure she wasn't lost. The police simply couldn't believe that a young blond would be trudging through farthest Bushwick, oblivious to its rumored dangers. "I wasn't lost! I was home!" laughs Kessler, a little annoyed even now. It's true, though, that in the intervening decade, Kessler has seen the neighborhood undergo a sea change—and she and her theater have been part of it. Just before cozying up to a nonalcoholic cocktail (she's nine months pregnant), the 34-year-old doyenne has been talking with Google about its culture-coupon program. "They called the Starr iconic," she crows. "The word iconic was definitely bandied about."

Kessler and the Starr's artistic director, Noel Allain, 35, now run one of New York's best-curated Off-Off venues, an intimate, well-stocked theater that manages to eschew the usual basement fug of the garden-variety avant-garde-a-rama. After a clanging front door and a vertical flight of stairs, an apartment door opens onto a tidy 60-seat black box, with a bar and a microlounge stocked with red couches. Better yet, seasons come stocked with cowboy-zombie musicals, all-lady football comedies (by of-the-moment auteur Tina Satter) and a Ring Cycle staged around a television set. At the moment, D.J. Mendel—the longtime downtown actor-writer-muse—is swinging gently center stage, rehearsing the revival of his Beckettian noir Dick Done Broke. Filmmaker Hal Hartley focuses his camera from a corner.

This bohemian glamour is a far cry from the space's previous iterations. In the early aughts, Kessler, Allain and other fellow Skidmore grads had formed the troupe Fovea Floods around the charismatic director Josh Chambers, and they were growing desperate for rehearsal space. Prowling her neighborhood, Kessler spotted a handwritten cardboard sign. "Thank God I remembered some Spanish," she says with a sigh. "We saw it...and then tried very hard not to freak out. It was $1,400 a month." Kessler and Chambers moved in immediately, building a miniflat to one side, leaving the rest open.

Since then, Kessler, Allain and technical director Jay Maury have all made the space their home—literally. Maury reminisces (not entirely fondly) about walking through rehearsals in his bathrobe. Allain recalls battling an upstairs flood. ("That's when I became family," he says, remembering their beloved Ukrainian landlords' approval. "When I was up there, bailing in the rain.")

Eventually, the relationship with Chambers and Fovea Floods fell apart. "It was like we all got a divorce," recalls Allain ruefully. He and Kessler found themselves with a spectacular space and no company to inhabit it. A few years of programming music, rehearsals and parties—"I never wanted to go to another party," he groans—eventually wore them down, and they realized they needed something more fulfilling. In 2009, they produced their first show (Mark Sitko's Rocky Philly), which led into their first true season. Since having a premiere-season surprise hit with a rock opera, New Hope City, they haven't looked back.

Though the crash-pad days are over, a feeling of inhabited welcome still pervades the room. Mendel identifies it as a concrete thing: "We get time here. In other theaters, you get three days to load in. Here we got three weeks." His choreographer-director Dan Safer talks wonderingly about the staff's bottomless desire to dig in and help. "Most places, the venue welcomes the team; here, they become part of the team," marvels Safer. "It reminds me of those old theaters in the East Village that were such great little shitholes." He then hastens to add, "And yet, importantly, this isn't a shithole."

Allain and Kessler—who built the seating units and get misty at the thought of doing repairs—do seem incredibly house-proud. Allain talks about their Big Green Theater initiative, an ongoing collaboration with a local school; Kessler touts their Bushwhack performance festival, one dedicated to local artists. Most significantly, they're still dreaming of ways to keep helping. "When we were a company, all we wanted was space and time," recollects Kessler. "And now, it's what we have to offer."

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