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Tuesday, October 4, 2016

Reimagining the Majestic Theater

“I can take an empty space and call it a bare stage.
A man walks across this empty space whilst someone
else is watching him, and this is all that is needed for
an act of theatre to be engaged.”
Interior of the Majestic (now the BAM Harvey Theater) circa 1987.
In 1987, BAM’s leader Harvey Lichtenstein sought a venue for Peter Brook’s theatrical epic, The Mahabharata. He and Brook investigated the derelict Majestic (which Lichtenstein passed on the way to work) by climbing up a ladder and through a window. It was ideal—an amphitheater-style layout which resembled Brook’s home theater of Théâtre des Bouffes du Nord in Paris.

It was renovated in 10 months with assistance by the City of New York, interested in reviving Fort Greene. The mezzanine level was removed, reflected also in reducing the portals flanking the proscenium from three levels to two, the orchestra seating raised and expanded, and the ruined flip-down seats replaced by benches (now, 853 modern seats), among other changes. The decaying look was kept; it uncannily evoked Bouffes du Nord down to chipped layers of paint. The nine-hour Mahabharata was a hit for BAM—the first of many productions that have defined the Harvey (renamed for Lichtenstein in 1999) as a favorite theater for leading directors and performers around the world. Peter Brook returns this Next Wave with his production of Battlefield, which focuses on key themes of The Mahabharata, while serving as a poetic coda to the engaging history of the space itself.

The Harvey Theater first opened as the Majestic in 1904, four years before BAM relocated nearby after its original building on Montague had burned down. As part of the entertainment district, the Majestic showed dramas, vaudeville, and test runs for Broadway hopefuls. In 1942, it was converted into an elegant cinema house by a Parisian who had fled the Nazis, but by the 1960s, it was shuttered, in part due to the rise of TV. In 1967, Lichtenstein began his long and fruitful tenure at BAM, a highlight of which would be the opening of the Majestic.

BAM campus during an earlier period of construction and growth surrounding the Academy. Photo taken sometime before 1910 from the intersection of Flatbush and Lafayette Ave. A painted sign advertising the Majestic Theater is visible in the background.

Opened in 1904 as a venue for live theater, the Majestic Theater was repurposed in the early 1940s as an elegant movie house. In this photo circa 1945, the marquee advertises the film Hitler, Beast of Berlin, a popular “hiss and boo” film of the World War II era, as well as a rerun of the 1920 film King of the Circus starring Russian-born actor Gregory Ratoff and a Three Stooges comedy.

Photo: Michele Ann Travis
Exterior of the Majestic Theater in May, 1987, during its renovation for the October opening of Peter Brook’s The Mahabharata. The theater had been acquired by the City of New York in 1984. In an effort to establish a downtown arts district $4.2 million was earmarked by the City to transform the Majestic.

Peter Brook in 1973 in the Lepercq Space, newly renovated for the residency of his International Centre for Theatrical Research, the first major renovation project Peter Brook initiated at BAM. Over the course of six weeks Brook and some two dozen actors and musicians (among them a young Elizabeth Swados and Helen Mirren) held participatory group improvisation workshops, performances of Conference of the Birds, and events that included children on-site in Brooklyn neighborhoods.

Photo: Bengt Wanselius
Harvey Lichtenstein, 1995. President and Executive Producer of BAM from 1967—99.

Peter Brook, Harvey Lichtenstein, and Joseph V. Melillo pictured among the assembled at the Cultural Services of the French Embassy in New York City, November, 1986. Peter Brook is announcing the collaboration between Lichtenstein and Melillo for the international tour of The Mahabharata, scheduled to open the 1987 Next Wave Festival.

Interior of BAM’s Majestic Theater in 1987 after renovation. Chloe Obolensky, designer of the 1987 English language production of The Mahabharata notes, “we limited ourselves to the basics of color, earth, water and fire—these are eternal, timeless elements.” Forty cubic yards of sand, clay, straw, and water were blended to create a 4-inch thick earthen deck that took three weeks to dry. Before the deck was laid, two bodies of water were created, both 2-1/2 feet deep; a stream; and an oblong pool. Fire fuel was provided by an enormous propane tank.

Renovation of the stage, 1987. The orchestra floor was demolished and the new deck, five feet above the original stage, linked the stage and house. The renovation buried the first row of boxes and created a far more intimate space of 900 seats.

The original 2300-seat theater, a proscenium house with a full stage, mezzanine, and balcony, was converted into a thrust that filled most of the orchestra level. Jean-Guy Lecat worked with architects Hardy Holzman Pfeiffer. Lecat writes that the feeling of totally subjective distance was linked to shape, colors, and materials, and also—fundamentally—to acoustics. “I had to find a way of giving each spectator the feeling of being with the others and within the same performance space.”

Photo: Marc Enguerand
Rehearsal of Peter Brook’s Carmen in Théâtre des Bouffes du Nord in Paris. BAM’s Majestic Theater resembles the deliberately distressed, decaying look of this theater, home to Brook’s company, International Centre for Theatre Research.

Interior of the Majestic Theater in 1987. Peter Brook wrote that “One day, the Bouffes and the Majestic will be out of date. But if they still continue to be living spaces it is because they are ‘open’ or ‘undefined.’ In being anachronisms, they are not of yesterday, today or tomorrow. They are ‘alive’ because of their color, their texture, their proportions, and, above all, their humanity. They are open to many types of work, because they make no statement. This is what ‘chameleon’ means.”

All photos courtesy the BAM Hamm Archives unless otherwise noted.

Peter Brook's Battlefield plays the BAM Harvey Theater through this Sunday, October 9.

1 comment:

  1. I've seen a couple of other events at other places, but this was my first time in here. It was amazing! Great venues in San Francisco, it's smaller than those bigger places but it is still a fair sized venue. Food was great and I think it's recently renovated - it didn't seem old or anything.