Staging the Brooklyn Navy Yard’s Slippery Temporalities With Polybe+Seats

credit: Kevin Gillespie

“It’s anachronistic in the way a museum mashes times together, mushes them up, and doesn’t really take place in any particular time but is referring to a lot at once,” said playwright Avi Glickstein, referring to NYC theater company Polybe + Seats’s new site-specific work A History of Launching Ships (somewhat after Washington Irving), premiering at the Brooklyn Navy Yard’s BLDG 92 this October. Culturebot attended a rehearsal at the year-old history museum last week and sat down to chat with Avi and (artistic) director Jessica Brater over drinks in Gowanus.

“Jessica and Polybe asked me and…I was excited by the idea of doing an original play that was specifically written for a Brooklyn location that had some historical resonance and using the location as well as the history to write it,” Avi explained. “With an all female cast,” he added, “and somehow ‘about’ women’s experience there.” The company approached BLDG 92, a museum that opened last autumn, dedicated to the history and renewal of the Brooklyn Navy Yard. The young organization, “has been extremely welcoming and accommodating to us,” Avi commented, “we’re really thankful to have such generous partners in this project,” which will be the first play ever performed in the space.

The building itself consists of a four-story expansion and a brick colonial. The latter, a former residence, was once home to a naval commandant’s family and Polybe’s work performatively remembers the museum as such, in an inhabitation that awakens ghosts recorded and imagined, including a missing commandant and his wife, industrious twin step-daughters (partly inspired by the Yard’s “twin” drydocks + Avi’s nieces), a chorus of working women from the Second World War, Gothic motifs after Washington Irving, and as a kind of catalyst, Elizabeth Burgin. A little know female figure from local US Revolutionary War history, Burgin helped more than 200 prisoners escape from British prison ships docked in Wallabout Bay. More people, commemorated in Fort Greene Park, perished from disease and abuse on the ships than in all the war battles combined, I learned, and no foreign vessels have ever docked there since.

Hunted by the British as she enters Avi’s script, Elizabeth finds herself in this unnamed and absent commandant’s fictive home. Their “small insular world” is filled with the twin’s blueprints of “abstract ships” and marked by a “ghostly aspect” such that “in different ways, for each of these characters, there is a sense that there may be someone else there who they might see but who might not be present for someone else,” Jessica explained. Towards this end, the work engages an eerie poetics of corporeality and spectatorship that “pushes our history of non-traditional staging one step further.” The team has referred to early silent cinema to create a gestural vocabulary suggesting “small bits of film, looped, repeating motions, dropped frames. Movement that isn’t recorded in time as it actually occurs and feeling disjointed or outside of time.”

No stranger to site-specific work, Polybe has made theater beyond the proscenium arch since 2001, at such other Brooklyn locations as the Old Stone House in Park Slope and the Waterfront Barge Museum in Red Hook.  In A History Of Launching Ships…, the audience travels throughout the building, which according to Jessica, whose grandfather worked at the Yard, “will be an interesting next step for us to try to actually move these people around so that now, included in their point of view, will be their negotiation of the space and their negotiation of each other in order to be able to have access to what the performer is doing and saying.”

Performers disseminate language that shifts between quick repartee dialogue, found song, dream sequence, storytelling, and long speeches all in a kind of hybrid vernacular.  Monologue both allows for the unreliable narrators to “hold court” and share multiple perspectives, a signature feature of Polybe’s work, as well as lead the audience to different sites of performance throughout the museum. “We want to activate their intuition and their intellect and their emotion and moving people around physically is perhaps a way to keep them present,” Jessica explained, mentioning however that audiences will “have some choice as to whether they want to come forward or hang back, where they want to stand in the space to get their own view, sort of as you have when you visit a museum on your own: you can choose to look at something on the wall if you’re not interested.  But hopefully you are!”

Light and sound design provide additional orientation in a play embedded in an already immersive non-theater space, though their project here is inclusive and expansive rather than oppositional. “We want to squeeze all the juice out of what’s already there,” Jessica commented, and indeed, they’ve found BLDG 92 to be ripe with scenographic potential.  The production reframes artifacts like giant anchors and blown-up nautical photography as stunning set pieces and finds dynamic spatial choreography in the building’s balconies, stairwells, and windows.

“We are also feeding the audience cake,” Jessica shared, “and maybe some people will get to drink some milk and (SPOILER ALERT!) receive baby favors.”


A History Of Launching Ships (somewhat after Washington Irving) 

October 11-28 // Thursday-Sundays // 8pm

BLDG 92, The Brooklyn Navy Yard, 63 Flushing Avenue (at Carlton Street) Brooklyn, NY

Tickets here:

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