People Who Make NY Special

How the Bushwick Starr’s Cofounders Create Wild and Ambitious Theater

For the leaders of Brooklyn’s hottest off-Broadway theater, innovative productions have brought critical raves and box-office gold.

Photo by Kent Meister/Courtesy of Bushwick Starr

In the northwest corner of the trendy Brooklyn neighborhood on the street that provided its name, the Bushwick Starr has become one of New York City’s most reliably exciting black-box theaters, consistently producing thought-provoking, risk-taking plays and performance art every year. More and more often, its shows sell out well in advance of their consistently strong reviews. After more than a decade of productions that have served to elevate a veritable who’s who of the underground theater scene, the Bushwick Starr has developed a reputation as a spot that, in the words of Sue Kessler, the venue’s cofounder and creative director, “prioritizes new and bold work.” We spoke with Kessler and cofounder and artistic director Noel Allain, as well as the Starr’s producing director, John Del Gaudio, about how they do it.

bushwick starr founder sue kessler
Sue Kessler / Photo by Kent Meister/Courtesy of Bushwick Starr

What Should We Do: How was the Starr founded?
Sue Kessler: Noel and I went to Skidmore College together in the late ’90s and self-produced a lot of work there. We spent an abundance of time and money and energy renting out venues to mount our productions, loading in shows and hustling to get our work seen. Working mainly as performers and not producers taught us what it is to be a guest in somebody else’s space.

At the same time, we were learning firsthand all the elements that it takes to manage a healthy theater company. It didn’t take much to diagnose ours as not very healthy, by which I mean to say that we didn’t have a well-functioning infrastructure. Around 2005 or so, we started to notice that Bushwick’s artistic community was growing; a lot of young creative types from the city were migrating to Bushwick. Eventually the lightbulb went off: Why are we spending thousands of dollars to rent space in the city to do our plays when there’s a potential audience right here? Our original company played itself out, but not before we found and took over the physical space that’s become the Bushwick Starr.

We took a year to experiment to see what was possible and who would come. We held parties, concerts, performances, and festivals; we basically said yes to anyone who wanted to try anything and completely exhausted ourselves. Eventually we stopped, took our own temperature, and opted to re-form as a nonprofit theater. We realized we wanted more of a stake in the art, more say in curation, and to focus on a mission that could really serve artists. So we set out with the goal of supporting new work that communicates unconventional ideas in unexpected and exciting ways.

bushwick starr founder john del gaudio
John Del Gaudio / Photo by Kent Meister/Courtesy of Bushwick Starr

WSWD: Was there a turning point in which the theater really took off?
Kessler:
There were several, but the moment that stands out in my mind was when John joined our core staff from Target Margin Theater. He’s been a tremendously inspiring collaborator and friend who has helped steer the ship to where you find us today.
John Del Gaudio:
I would say that the spirit here, the willingness to do truly off-the-wall theater, has been inspirational and intoxicating for me.

bushwick starr founder noel allain
Noel Allain / Photo by Kent Meister/Courtesy of Bushwick Starr

WSWD: How do you choose the artists who perform at the Starr?
Noel Allain: We get to know artists over a period of time before we invite them to make something new at the Starr. The question I usually start with is “what are you most excited about making next” and 9 times out of 10 that’s the piece we go with. It’s about bringing artists into the space who we really trust and supporting them in their creation process. It’s also about bringing a diverse group of artists together in one season who are making work in different disciplines. We love to mix it up. We’re a performance space that does a wide range of work.
Kessler: When an artist comes to us, there’s not an expectation that they have to present their most refined, perfect project. We want them to have the freedom of expectation, the opportunity to build the work they’ve most secretly wanted to see happen. We want the thing that’s wild and ambitious.
Del Gaudio: Anyone who is pushing themselves and the form and content of theater. We want people who are making art for the now, contributing to our cultural moment. We like to say that we’re programming people, not plays. We want to be able to give artists a tailored experience, not just creatively but developmentally. We aren’t frightened of working with artists who need more time to build their vision. More and more, we aim to plan further out, sometimes years out, while still making room for the immediate.

We want people who are making art for the now, contributing to our cultural moment. We like to say that we’re programming people, not plays.

WSWD: Booking “people not projects,” as you put it, seems to differ from what most of your contemporaries are doing. Do you think you’re setting a trend here?
Kessler: I do think the model works and it shows! Many of our shows go on to other venues, and we’ve become a go-to spot for presenters to see work by emerging artists. We love that and we love that the platform we present is providing access to broader audiences for performers from outside the mainstream.

WSWD: As many of the artists you’ve worked with have graduated to bigger rooms and national tours, how much larger do you think the Starr can become? Obviously, you can’t get bigger than the size of the theater allows.
Kessler: The hope is that we eventually can get bigger physically! We would love to find ourselves in a larger space on the street level at some point, and to build our staff so that we can give more support to our artists.
Allain: I also think we’ve got a lot more room to grow in ways beyond the physical size of the room. Part of our growth needs to concern how we can more effectively work with other arts organizations to serve the local community. That’s an ongoing process that has less to do with money and more to do with time and intention. But don’t get me wrong: Just to stay the size we already are takes a lot!

WSWD: And yet you keep your ticket prices surprisingly low. On average, shows cost between $15 and $25.
Del Gaudio: It’s a priority.
Kessler: Everything needs to be in scale. Many of the artists we work with have a core of fans who are younger and simply don’t have $50 to see a play. We don’t want to alienate them or the local audience that’s come to see us as their alternative to downtown Manhattan theater.
Allain: Several years ago, we got feedback from industry friends suggesting we should charge more for tickets, that we might be undercutting the value these artists bring to the stage. That’s something we thought about: People may decide a show isn’t important if you charge too little for it. There’s maybe something to that, but, at the end of the day, it’s all about access. We never want to turn anyone away, artist or audience, solely because of money.

Many of the artists we work with have a core of fans who are younger and simply don’t have $50 to see a play.

WSWD: Can you tell me a bit more about the upcoming show at Bushwick Starr?
Allain: Starting in May is Cabin, a dance-theater piece by Sean Donovan, about a relationship between three men who have carved out a private space for themselves in a cabin upstate. We’ve been following Sean for a long time; he’s an amazing performer who really does it all and performs with a number of great companies and choreographers. In the past few years he’s increasingly focused on creating his own work, and we’re very excited to finally get to present him at the Starr.

I want to be careful not to spoil the piece by telling you too much about it, but I can tell you that it utilizes many forms of performance: text-based storytelling, dance, video, live music. Sean is mixing these different modes together to build something close to a tapestry of memory.

bushwick starr
Photo courtesy of the Bushwick Starr‎/Facebook

WSWD: Outside of the work you are producing at the Starr, what’s some of the best theater you’ve seen over the past 12 months?
Kessler: I loved Oklahoma.
Del Gaudio: Slave Play at New York Theater Workshop and What to Send Up When It Goes Down at the Movement Theatre Company are the ones that have stuck with me the most.
Allain: Agreed on all of those, and I would add in Daddy at the Vineyard and Royal Osiris Karaoke Ensemble at Abrons.

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