Actress and producer, Claire Beckman, put Brooklyn’s Brave New World Repertory Theater on the map with an innovative production of To Kill A Mockingbird that was staged on the front porches of Victorian Flatbush back in 2005.
Now, Beckman – who received a BFA in Acting from Carnegie-Mellon and worked in television, regional theatre and Off-Broadway for 20 years before co-founding Brave New World Repertory Theatre with her husband, John Edmond Morgan – is starring in a brilliant and immersive production of Arthur Miller’s, A View From the Bridge, skillfully directed by Alex Dmitriev, known for his many luminous Off-B’way productions.
As the show comes into its final week, we had the chance to catch up with this inventive creative team to find out more about this historic production.
SPLASH: Claire, can you tell us what immersive theater is, and how you came to form a theater company to fulfill that?
CB: When I was a kid, I visited a film set and was disappointed that I couldn’t see the story unfold before me on location. It seemed unfair the action was only seen by the immediate film crew. Later, as an actor, I worked pretty equally in theatre and film, so it felt natural to want to create theatre on site. It began in 2005 with my own front porch, and the porches of five of my closest neighbors on the tree-lined street in Ditmas Park Brooklyn where my family lives. We rented 750 chairs, and an audience over twice that size showed up to sit in the street for a site-specific production of To Kill a Mockingbird that I produced, directed and narrated (as grown-up Scout.) My real life daughter, who was 8 years old, was amazing as little Scout, and my husband and co-founder John Morgan played Bob Ewell. We all wore body-mics and Zach Williamson, our brilliant sound and lighting designer wrote the cues, literally, as the one-night-only production was in progress. It was such a sensation that I went on to direct The Tempest on the Coney Island beach and boardwalk, The Crucible with lantern light in a reconstructed 17th century farmhouse, and Street Scene on 5th street. (The latter two in Park Slope.) Most recently, I directed my own adaptation of The Cherry Orchard, called The Plantation, on Governors Island, and with all of these productions, the location becomes a character and the audience is “immersed” in the story.
SPLASH: So Claire, how did you connect with Alex?
CB: In 1989, Alex directed me in the role of Catherine in A View From The Bridge for The Philadelphia Drama Guild. I loved working with him, and even then knew I wanted to play Bea someday. Twenty-nine years later, I got to thank him by hiring him to do it again, provided he’d cast me as Bea 🙂
SPLASH: Alex, what did you think when she came to you and asked you to do this piece?
AD: Intrigued. I love the play, and my appreciation for it has only grown through working with Claire and this site-specific location.
SPLASH: We understand the play is done onboard the Waterfront Barge Museum. How did that happen?
CB: I’d directed On The Waterfront on the barge in 2009 when BNW couldn’t get the rights to View. In November 2017 we finally got the rights, after the two celebrated B’way productions were over.
AD: I had no part of that – but once I saw the barge I realized the challenge. There was no place to hide for the actors, and for the audience. I love the intimacy between the actors and the audience. When we did the show at the Philadelphia Drama Guild (an 800 + or – seat house like Lincoln Center) the production was more operatic. On the barge the audience is as close to the actors as the actors are to each other on stage.
SPLASH: How is it different to work in that space for you Alex, vs an actual theater?
AD: I really embraced the opportunity to direct this play from the moment I saw the barge, wowed by the possibilities but scared by the challenges. How do I fit a Red Hook apartment, a street, a lawyer’s office and a holding cell in an act-able space of approximately 30 feet long and 13 feet wide? (14 feet of the width was to be audience seating). I spent days working on a ground plan of the barge, moving chairs and tables and other furniture in different configurations. So I visited the barge again, and my thoughts began to take shape. Because there is a beam dead center in the playing area I was able to split the areas on either side – apartment on one side, the street and other locations on the other. The audience would be split as well, on two sides running the length of the playing area. What helped was, that in reading the play over and over and doing some research on it and Miller’s thoughts, I wanted the lawyer, Alfieri, to be central to the action. In a lot of productions he is off in a corner and gives his narration like an outsider. But he is really an active narrator. He is showing us only those scenes that concisely tell the story. So I have him move through the space, setting the scenes and moving chairs, which makes the whole barge his domain in telling us the story of Eddie Carbone.
SPLASH: And Claire?
CB: I love what Alex has done with the space. He’s created a Brooklyn apartment and exterior inside the 100-year-old barge – without denying the barge’s existence. It brings the Waterfront into the story. An audience member also commented that the shaky ground of the barge mirrors the shaky ground of the family tragedy. I love that.
SPLASH: A View From the Bridge premiered in 1955 and was known as a Greek tragedy, even though it was set in the Brooklyn apartment and surroundings of Eddie Carbone. What is the message that you feel still resonates, Alex?
AD: Throughout the rehearsal process we were commenting on how much the play is still relevant to the world as it is now. The issues that are part of the fabric of the character’s lives are alive in the streets of this city, state, country and world. Miller’s tragic tale of Eddie Carbone touches on male dominance, homophobia, incest and fears over immigrants. The #MeToo movement entered our discussions. Every day the papers had articles that echo the words and situations in Miller’s A View From The Bridge. What has been especially gratifying is that the audiences are quick to hear those echoes, and make the connections between Miller’s world and ours.
SPLASH: Claire, you play the wife. Tell us about your role and how a woman’s role has and has not changed the last half a century.
CB: Ha! I’ve been thinking about that a lot. In too many ways it hasn’t changed enough. Men still have so many more economic opportunities and as long as women bear and raise children in the prime of our lives, we will continue to sacrifice our careers for our families. I think most men have more respect for the work that women have traditionally done. It’s slowly changing, but it’s still a delicate negotiation and the person who is the primary breadwinner still determines where and how the family lives.
SPLASH: What have been the most exciting aspects of this production for you, so far… Alex?
AD: A cliché is that all a director has to do is pick a good play, cast it properly and then sit back and be no more than a traffic cop. I am blessed with a wonderful cast – each one properly placed and so wonderfully engaged in telling Eddie Carbone’s story. That is exciting. But then to watch them in performance on the barge and to hear Miller’s word and to observe the audience and their equal commitment to the story – their laughter, their gasps, their visceral connection and their applause. That’s exciting.
SPLASH: What about for you, Claire?
CB: The Statue of Liberty gazes directly at the barge. She is another character in this site-specific production. She still bears witness to the tired and the hungry immigrants, like Marco and Rodolpho, and like the children separated from their parents at the Mexican border right now. When the sun sets over her torch, our play begins. It is gratifying to be telling an important and timeless American story.
SPLASH: In this 2018 climate of Me Too and Immigration and so much more, what would you like the audience to takeaway after seeing the show?
CB: Arthur Miller was a genius because he gave voice to ordinary women and men. I’d love for people to feel acknowledged, understood and recognized, or at least to recognize someone they’ve known and perhaps even understand them just a bit better. And I hope they feel the history of the Waterfront and stop and look at the Statue of Liberty on their way home.
For more information, please visit the bravenewworldrep website.