Is Downtown Brooklyn the new theater district? David Walentas, the developer famous for turning Dumbo from industrial wasteland into its present chichi incarnation, thinks so, and he’s willing to foot the bill to make it happen. The self-proclaimed “Pied Piper of Dumbo,” who’s taking his tune to 110 Livingston, the former Board of Ed headquarters he’s turning into condos, is offering at least ten years free rent to a theater group that takes up residence there. Walentas’s son, Jed, says they “think [having a theater] will be good for the neighborhood,” though it’s obviously not bad for business, either, to have apartments situated in a thriving, artsy area, which isn’t exactly what Downtown Brooklyn is — yet. Walentas previously worked the same M.O. in Dumbo, where he subsidized rents for St. Ann’s Warehouse, Smack Mellon Gallery, and Jacques Torres’s workshop to keep the neighborhood “edgy” (gruppy?) though decidedly upscale.
Unsurprisingly, borough president Marty Markowitz is bullish on the whole venture. “[This] corridor can be known as Brooklyn’s Off Broadway,” he says. “You got the BAM Cultural District on one side of Flatbush, Theatre for New Audiences is relocating here, the Kimble Theatre and the Lyceum on Fourth Avenue, the Brooklyn Heights Players.” And arts groups are biting. Claire Beckman, artistic director of the Brooklyn-based Brave New World Repertory Theatre, which performs its productions in rotating venues, including galleries, private homes, and, last year, the streets of Flatbush, says her group has been working overtime to come up with a plan ever since they heard the call for proposals. “It’s all I think about,” she says. “It’s time for Brooklyn, which has a vibrant arts and dance scene, to have one for theater, too.” Besides, she says, it’ll give Manhattanites, many of whom have fled to Brooklyn, a place to spend less than $200 a ticket to see a show. (Beckman says their ticket prices would range between $20 to $60 apiece.) “Theater in Manhattan is motivated by tourism,” she says. “You have to open with a Julia Roberts or Liam Neeson. I know hundreds of brilliant actors who can’t get arrested on Broadway.”
There’s no free lunch, though. Whoever wins the lease will still need to hit up deep-pocketed supporters to pay for what may amount to half a million dollars in renovations. “It’s a big undertaking,” says Jed Walentas. “We want someone with credibility so they can bring audiences to Downtown Brooklyn. It can’t be three kids out of NYU.”
— S. Jhoanna Robledo