Theater in New York has an indisputable, well-worn sense of authority about it—it’s what draws tourists from Toledo to Broadway revivals and performance artists from Europe to The Kitchen, and imbues the city’s theater community with a dependable flow of resources, both human and logistical.
But to some theater artists working and living in the city, the flip side of that security is the creeping feeling that the suspense and raw thrill of making their art has trickled away, as historic downtown venues—and their audiences—evolve at a snail’s pace, and a sense of predictability settles in.
Enter Brooklyn. The borough’s relative lack of traditional performance spaces is a precious gift for Abigail Browde and Michael Silverstone, a Prospect Heights couple who have trained and worked at many of the city’s preeminent theater institutions (NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts, Lincoln Center, Soho Rep). For their current project, This Time Tomorrow, the pair set out to rediscover the sense of possibility and intense excitement that their initial experiences in New York held.
This Time Tomorrow, opens today in the rec room basement of the historic Duryea Presbyterian Church on St. John’s Place in Prospect Heights. And the show’s unusual setting has largely become its conceptual bedrock. “We’re continually asking big questions about the nature of performance,” says Silverstone. “There’s no lighting grid in Duryea, so we have to rethink theatrical lighting as a construct, which means we’re hitting really basic and wonderful questions about what theater is in the first place, questions we wouldn’t hit if we were in a theater in the East Village.”
Of course, as far as unconventional spaces go, a church is pretty conventional (consider the recent run of T.S. Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral at the Church of St. Joseph on Pacific Street, also in Prospect Heights). But thinkers have for centuries acknowledged the deep connections between performance and religion, both of which touch on the power of storytelling, collective belief, and the relationship between spectator and actor. “The community-based elements of theater—going through something with the people around you, and feeling slightly changed in sharing the experience together—makes it very exciting to work in a space so fundamentally about bringing people together,” says Browde.
The show is non-narrative, high-energy and emotional, as the audience and performers navigate the terrain between watching and being watched. In fact, there’s a clandestine manipulation of the performers by the audience, who, through their gestures and expressions, unwittingly spur the three actors through the space as they confront mental and physical obstacles.
That too is somewhat inspired by the church, where Browde and Silverstone have been attending coffee hours, game nights and services over the course of a year. They’ve come to know and engage in the life of the congregation, all while scheduling rehearsals around baby showers, broken heaters and other curious happenings in the church basement. Many of Duryea’s parishioners will be coming to the show, and the directors are admittedly nervous, since This Time Tomorrow is the first theater the church has hosted, save for religious pageants, and by any standard it’s an unpredictable show. Duryea’s leadership has an explicit wish for more youthful energy in their congregation, and working with Browdeand and Silverstone is one avenue toward that end. And they’re an integral part of the work, as Silverstone puts it, of “getting deeper to the heart of what happens when you take one group of people and put them in front of another and call it theater.”
This Time Tomorrow runs November 2-6 and 9-13 at 8pm at Duryea Presbyterian Church, 362 Sterling Pl. at Underhill in Prospect Heights. Tickets, $15, are available in advance only. More information at www.this-time-tomorrow.com.