Artistic Director Susan Feldman on the past, present and future of Brooklyn's St Ann's Warehouse
Three years after opening, Nicholas caught up with Susan Feldman, Artistic Director of Brooklyn’s St Ann’s Warehouse, to hear how the building fits into the performance landscape of the city, and how visiting artists and the company itself are still discovering its potential.
Susan outside St Ann's Warehouse. Image: Marc Franklin
NS: Susan, what does a typical day for you look like?
SF: Well, there actually is no typical day frankly – at least for me ! Every day is different. You’re thinking about what’s going on, what’s gonna’ happen next, what project is happening in the theatre right now. Like today, for example – when I walked in we’re building the set for Oklahoma and the floor has been laid down and there’s a lot of detail work that wasn’t there yesterday. So, for me one big pleasurable part of the day is to look at and see the handy work of not just the designers, but actually our team implementing the set. And seeing how beautifully they’ve made this wooden floor, and the detail and care – that’s how the day began, which was really quite nice.
Then I come upstairs and start to think about all the questions that people have about different areas of the project that we’re doing right now. It’s the start of a new season so there’s a lot of details and final aspects of the copy and the proofs, and who’s gonna’ go look at the proofs, and catching up with what happened while I was away. So there’s the marketing side of it and the visual detailing of that. We put in new posters – I was just working with our intern who made a great season video launch piece – it was really exciting and fun to see what he put together.
Then we’re talking about doing some big thing on the building that would make it feel like a marquee because Oklahoma is a big title that people will know. We can use the scale of the building and the archways to have these old shutter type things that we can use as backdrops for marketing and posters and quotes…
Then, of course, we have conversations about going to festivals such as Edinburgh, so the General Manager and I will talk about what we’re gonna’ go see, which shows, who we’re gonna’ have meetings with. I was just sitting and talking with our Production Manager and Supervisor of Production and Operations about the next show that’s coming – The Jungle – and issues surrounding the set. We were also talking about wayfinding signs that we’re having made for the building. Then we had another big conversation about styling and getting ready for our 40th anniversary season next year, so when we start to think about things we might want to change about how we do things, we’re gonna’ think about it in the context of a launch in a year.
I went to see The Jungle a couple of months ago and I read that you were taking it to New York – it’s fantastic.
Isn’t it brilliant?
Did you come to London to see it?
SF: Yeah I saw it at the Young Vic. We were just talking about the fact that we saw it on a Friday night and we decided that night, whatever night we saw it, that okay – we wanna’ do this. We literally started working on bringing it to St Ann’s that very night, you know, we met with the directors and the writers and David Lan the producer. We had a big meeting that night and then the next day, so we literally were just talking about by the time we do it, it will have been a year only from the point of when we saw it.
St Ann's Warehouse auditorium. Image: David Sunberg.
The Jungle is quite a political piece, it’s very prescient today. Are you drawn to issues affecting the day? What would you say is the guiding perspective of St Ann’s?
We’ve been around for almost 40 years so I don’t know if there’s one defining perspective. You know, it’s changed many times. There’s obviously a continuity because having been the founder, when we started we were in an old church. It was founded actually, to help bring a new use to an old building and we grew up for half of our life in that church and that was really dedicated to music. Music that was very topical and relevant and featuring very interesting artists, both classical music and people like Lou Reed and Jeff Buckley and Marian Faithful and we introduced a lot of Aron Neville and a lot of blues music. We did a piece on the comedian harmonists, a German singing group from the 30s.
There’s always been a certain activism and political anarchistic view of things. In the church, it was a place where you could bring anything. Above the theatre was the stage with a gorgeous stained-glass picture of Jesus with outstretched arms. You could look at bombs exploding and have anti-war things, and a lot of transgressive work that you could look at. There was that feeling of purpose. We were in this lofty space that had been created by a young man, really, who had designed all the stained-glass windows and they were the first made in America so we were trying to save that building. We were trying to find a purpose and adaptive use for this old building that would have otherwise been neglected. It only had thirty parishioners, so it needed a public use to compliment it as a church.
I think those years of work always influenced what came after. We did a lot of work with multi-artist concerts – Hal Willner and John Cal for example. They were always these sort of transgressive outliers who were really not commercial but popular, and kind of leaders in their excellence and in their perspectives. I think that’s always been part of St Ann’s and that probably comes out of me being liberal and growing up in the 60s and being part of the Vietnam War and all that, and understanding that people need forms of expression and ways to gather together and emote together and feel things together. I think that height of emotional response to things has probably been the most consistent thing in our life.
When we left the church and moved down to Dumbo and were in these warehouses – these blank spaces – we kind of lost the height of what was so amazing about the church, but we gained all this depth in these big empty warehouses, which happened to be great acoustically. That was very lucky – suddenly we could bring a lot of theatre in, because the church wasn’t really great for theatre. It was good for puppet theatre and spectacle, but it wasn’t great for plays. So then we had these places that were great for live theatre – we still kept doing music but not as much, because theatre we could run.
Then we brought in the Wooster group and Mabou Mines who are avant-garde companies. Unlike Europe, we don’t have a lot of companies – certainly back when we came here in 2000 into Dumbo, there weren’t a lot of companies. But those were the two that were the avant-garde masters, so we invited them in to become part of St Ann’s Warehouse because they needed a bigger space to work in and we could offer that. So we took a lot of the values and feelings that we brought with us from the church and music and just started to expand it to theatre.
The Tobacco Warehouse site in 2013.
What do you think the building’s history, architecture and surroundings contribute to your practice there?
Well, I think for sure the brick wall and the open space were a very big influence in the design that we ended up with. We’ve also been very influenced by certain British theatres – a big one was the Courtyard Theatre up in Stratford-upon-Avon that was the temporary theatre for the RSC while they were refurbishing the RSC Theatres and The Swan. That’s how I came across Charcoalblue, actually, because I really fell in love with that theatre. It was a blank slate, but it lived inside this sense of history, I guess is the best way to put it.
I feel like we had that in the church, here we have that in these warehouses, and then we also saw the Young Vic and we saw all the wood and natural materials that were being used and this tobacco warehouse that was a ruin when we got here, just a big empty shell, leant itself to everything that I had been learning about in my travels. To Asia, to European theatres – that there could always be this journey where you leave the street behind and you could come through a garden. You could go to the Tate Modern through the birch trees at the front, and just seeing this over and over and studying the waterfront on the Southbank and sitting there and watching how things went by. And being able to think about our waterfront, which up to that point had not been really very much utilised.
We knew that we were gonna’ keep it historical and use the real walls. We knew we were going to adapt many of the things that we had learnt in the church in the warehouses, so we put in catwalks throughout the whole building because we wanted to be able to make theatre anywhere in the space. We wanted to be able to activate any part of the space for music, or for visualisations or anything. It was the idea that the audience and the artists were always in the same space. We didn’t want it to feel like “oh this is this part” and now you walk into the other place where the theatre happens – you can make the theatre happen anywhere, in many, many different configurations.
We had made the decision that we were going to keep the outside triangle as a public space – as a garden. That was another big decision. And that wasn’t to make it our lobby, because we had a beautiful lobby, but to make it something that would be contiguous to the building and something that people could use. It was a connectivity for us from the theatre to the park. And we’re still actually learning how to activate it – we have a big title of our name “St Ann’s Warehouse”, but we haven’t been using the entrances and we’re just about to finish the exterior of the wayfinding signage. So each entry point, like the main entry point into the garden will say “garden”, “studio”, “theatre” and “stage door” – so it took us a long time to figure out the orientation of how you even go into the building.
We never identified from the beginning what was going to be the entry point. What was the front? What was the back? Because the frontage – really the way the building had always been used in its history was off the waterfront. It wasn’t for people; it was for goods. None of the archways had doors or shutters – it didn’t have doors and windows, it was really a storehouse for tobacco or goods that were going to be moving on to other places. So the place itself had a certain transience that we had too. It was interesting to be able to keep that sense of openness and not defining things.
Susan signs a beam.
Now that we’ve been here for a while and we see how people use it, it’s become much easier to navigate. I would say we use the exterior a lot, the entry points. We use the garden, we use the north plaza, so I would say we use the whole building.
And the other thing, in terms of history, when we decided that we were going to use the original walls – we had to build a roof structure which was all steel beams and steel columns which is what supports the roof – we had to find the right material to bridge the old roof line with the new roof. So we chose glass bricks, which also took us back to the clerestory of the church. I was used to stained-glass windows and a clerestory, and we didn’t make these stained-glass, but we do have this strip of light that crowns the building all the way round, which also reminds me so much of the church. There are times when I walk into the theatre that I call it the church just by accident. It feels very connected to where we started.
You work with theatre-makers from across the world, how do international practitioners react to the building when they first arrive?
We’ve had so many amazing experiences. I mean, they’re all different, but even when we were working on the building – on the design, when we started working with Charcoalblue – I remember we set up certain interviews with Gav and Andy for them to talk with artists that had used the space. So they were talking pretty much to Americans, I guess, at the beginning. They talked to Lou Reed, and what was it about the acoustics that he loved, and talked about the church. And then we talked with Liz LeCompte from the Wooster Group about what she loved about 38 Water Street. People always loved the church when they walked in and artists loved the Warehouse (38 Water Street) when they walked in there, because these were unique spaces and they were really going to get to experiment. Then when people walk in here, they have the same feeling. A number of them, including Mark Rylance who had been with us in our temporary spaces when we were coming into this space, he stood in certain spots where I guess as an actor he could feel the space – even before it was actually built, while it was still under construction. And the Donmar women – Phyllida Lloyd and Bunny Christie who had done Julius Caesar in the temporary warehouse – they were already thinking about how to redesign for Henry the IV, and what became the trilogy of The Tempest. Creating this theatre in the round because they wanted it to have that feeling of being in a women’s prison. They ended up creating a big caged yard and they recreated that very theatre over in Kings Cross. So I think that people have been very inspired. When Benedict Andrews came in when we put in the turntable for Streetcar, and we sort of exploded the whole building and audience beyond the columns, it was extraordinary because we built the columns into the set. People just love it. Emma Wright, all her stuff that she’s been doing with us - the two temporary warehouse, then we did 946 here – it was so beautiful. Then we turned it into a thrust stage – I mean I think they just love it.
Construction progress continues.
You mentioned the wayfinding project you’ve just finished – how do you see the space and the organisation developing over the next 10 years?
We were just talking about how hard that is – I hate that question (laughs) - because there was no predictability from the beginning. It wasn’t like “oh and this is what we’re going to do and over the next 5 years this is what’s going to happen”. It’s always been very immediate, and we’ve been able to respond to changing times. In terms of the work that we’ve been able to bring over, it’s always been the most pressing work that reflects what’s going on. The Jungle is the perfect example – for them to be able to write that piece in response to an experience that they had just had. And I’d already seen the original photos by Sarah Hixon from the camp. So then to have these guys go and write a piece that could bring back that immediacy. It’s catching over here – we now have our southern border going on and the craziness of immigration rules now. Just the whole right-wing push of the world. I really feel like it’s very, very important to be upfront in terms of activism. We’ve got to step it up and find the work that’s really keeping the non-white male world alive. Active. Loud. Strong. I feel like the next 5 years are gonna’ be really important, certainly in this country, but in the UK as well. You know, keeping the borders open, making sure we can work internationally and keep these collaborations going. Being able to draw from each other and try to keep this humanisation first and foremost. That’s what we’ll be trying to do.
What do you find draws an artist to work with St Ann’s Warehouse?
Artists go where they can, let’s just say (she laughs). But resources, audience, prestige, possibility… I think one of the things that artists really like here is that they feel like they’re in a workspace. They actually feel like this is a place that’s been designed for them, and they have this opportunity to transform it to what their vision is. Not only that, they have the chance that it’s actually going to be realised. This is something that I also felt when we were in the church as well, and in all the warehouses and here.
The thing that I think artists responded to the most was this sense that what they were putting on the stage was going to be communicated as vibrantly and as hopefully as they had wished. Their dreams came true in terms of the heightened intensity of the experience between them and the audience. And the other thing that I said about these longer runs, it gave the companies and the particular artists a chance to make a relationship with American artists. The long term relationship that we’ve had with Enda Walsh and the early years of working with John Tiffany and Steven Hoggett. The fact that we did Black Watch 3 times over 4 years, and just kept putting that show out there and more and more people were responding to it. The reason we were doing it is because that story had to be told and there were many, many people that hadn’t seen it, even from generation to a generation. I really think that was very important to be able to do that, and the only reason we had to do it is because nobody else could figure out how to do it.
I don’t understand why no one else could figure out that they could have an open space. Now, finally, it does seem like there are going to be many more open spaces here. But early on, after we did Black Watch the first two times, we tried to take it to the armoury. Well why don’t you do it? You would have bigger audiences, but it takes a certain kind of imagination or risk – or a sense of do we really want to try something that we don’t know how it’s going to work out? Whereas now, people are embracing that idea more. I do think this idea that you can get your vision actualised probably drives artists the most. Especially artists who are not going to Broadway yet, or are not at that kind of commercial level where there’s going to be a tonne of money thrown at the project or they’re going to be working with stars. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, it’s great when that happens – Harry Potter is fantastic right! But you know, it’s still John and Steven doing what they do. I think good producers are also what attracts artists.
The exterior of St. Ann's Warehouse. Image: Dustin Nelson
And finally – do you have any advice for organisations looking to establish their first permanent home, or really lay down their roots in the way that you have?
Okay, thank you because that’s a really good question – that I think I can answer! I think the biggest advice that I would have for an organisation that’s been itinerant, that’s looking to establish a new home, is that they need to understand why they need a new home, first of all. And then, what is it about them that has given them the longevity that they’ve had before they have this new home – or even would be ready to embark on a new home. What is it about them that was so special and how much of that was connected to being temporary and being itinerant. Because those are things that in many cases you might not want to lose. So it’s not only “what is the promise of a new home going to be”.
What I always loved was when we went from the church to 38 Water Street; and then from 38 Water Street to 29 Jay Street; and then from 29 Jay Street to the tobacco warehouse; that when people talk about St Ann’s – the ones that have been around for over 30 years or something – they remember St Ann’s as one experience and they relate and bring it to whatever place we’re at. People will go “oh yeah I saw Black Watch here” or “I saw Lou Reed here” – they didn’t! They saw them in a totally different building, but they feel like they saw it here. And even when we were getting the inspection for this building, the inspector came walking through and said “oh yeah I remember this place, yeah, I had to do an inspection here once before”. But it wasn’t here, it was one of the other buildings we’d had. But it was laid out the same and it still had that sense of open space. So I think there’s a certain thing about home that you carry with you that makes the new home. It’s not the other way around.
Susan Feldman, St Ann's Warehouse Artistic Director
In 1979, Susan was hired by the New York Landmarks Conservancy to define a new use for St. Ann and the Holy Trinity Church in Brooklyn Heights. Following a series of innovative arts programming, Susan continued at St. Ann’s Artistic Director taking the institution from the original church, via a temporary venue, to its first permanent home in Dumbo, Brooklyn. She is responsible for building St. Ann’s into one of New York’s leading performance spaces, introducing audiences to cutting-edge work from across the world including transfers from the National Theatre of Scotland and beyond.
St. Ann's Warehouse has made its home in a neighbourhood between two of the noisiest transport thoroughfares in the City – the Brooklyn and Manhattan Bridges – which presented a challenge.