A garage turned theater. Photo by Tess Orrick for The Brooklyn Ink
Nestled between a commercial printer and a telecom service provider, and across the road from an aluminum workshop, a theater is not what you’d expect to find here on this industrial corner in Sunset Park. Yet while the former garage may lack the physical attributes of what we think when we imagine a theater, but for the Target Margin Theater, that is not a concern.
For 26 years, the Target Margin Theater company has been performing in borrowed venues. In that time, the shoestring-budget group earned a reputation for its imaginative retelling of classic stories. This is their new home.
David Herskovits, the group’s founding Artistic Director, says the new space is a theater because they call it a theater. “The physical markers that people assume that make it a theater, those are just assumptions,” he said. “The mission of this company is to explode those assumptions.”
Recent productions by the Target Margin Theater include a five-hour presentation of Mourning Becomes Electra and an adaptation of The Tempest. The company, Herskovits explains, is currently working with the idea of The Thousand and One Nights, a collection of Silk Road, Middle Eastern, North African, and South Asian stories. From this the company will create some small-scale productions based on the folk tales, which are planned to start in March 2018, and one larger theatrical production, 1001 LABS, which will begin in May 2018. Herskovits says The Thousand and One Nights will either end with the last production in the series, or when the last person who had any involvement in it dies.
After a five-year search, the theater company announced on November 9 that it had found its first permanent home—in this warehouse on 52nd Street between 2nd and 3rd Avenues. The new space now houses the company’s offices, two rehearsal studios, and a theater.
The decision was driven in part because it was what the company could afford. But with no art district in the area, Herskovits says he could also see a need in the community. Sunset Park has, to a large extent, remained protected from the changing cultural ethos of north Brooklyn and this is something that appealed to him.
Herskovits says he had been in no rush to find a permanent space. The Bronx, Long Island City, and north Brooklyn were all places he explored as a possibility but none of them felt like the right fit. “They don’t need us in Bushwick and I’m not excited about moving to Bushwick,” he said. “It was exciting to come here, to make a leap.”
A grand opening festival in early November kicked off the company’s arrival in Sunset Park, with 90 artists participating over three days in what Herskovits describes as “a great big housewarming party.” Of the artists performing, some had worked on Target Margin’s first show back in 1991, others were people they had come to know over the years, and some were brand new.
The company’s leaders say that it has no money, no assets, and relatively few possessions for a theater, but that the value of the company lies in its people. Community engagement, too, is a top priority for Target Margin Theater and members are trying to establish relationships in their new community. Moe Yousuf, the group’s Assistant Artistic Director, attended this month’s community board meeting—his second, he says—to introduce the group, and to try to start a conversation by listening to what the community needs rather than talking at them.
“This is a neighborhood that is incredibly diverse,” he says. “There’s a lack of diversity, as we know, in theater in New York City at all levels. So the fact that we could engage the community,” he says, is important to how the company will shape its future programming.
Herskovits says years as a roaming company, creating one-off performances, led to the feeling among company members that they were exploiting the people. It was the lack of meaningful connection to a community that drove Herskovits to look for a permanent home.
Thus, the group’s long-term goals include hiring interns from the area, conducting programs with local high schools, and using more local people working on the production and technical sides. Another hope is for the space to become a resource in the neighborhood, providing alternative performance spaces where work can be made cheaply.
Among company members, the theater has been affectionately dubbed “The Doxsee” in commemoration of Lenore Doxsee, a founding member and resident designer of the Target Margin Theater. Doxsee died earlier this year, on May 19th, after a four-year battle with ovarian cancer. Herskovits first looked at the location in Sunset Park more than a year ago, but says he wasn’t going to move to it without having Doxsee see the space and discuss with her what it would mean practically from a design perspective. The two had worked together for almost thirty years.
The company officially moved from their offices in Fort Greene to Sunset Park in April. It was “a very intense period because we’re moving into this space, we did this show that was extremely demanding that we’d been working on for years that went very well, and Lenore was dying,” he said. “She was really dying right before my eyes every day.”
Despite the long history of the theater company, its arrival in the neighborhood is a new venture and Herskovits is not naïve about the challenges their unconventional location brings. While discounts for local residents will help, the neighborhood doesn’t come with an inherent audience. But, he says, perhaps that is part of the charm. “It reminds me of being in the East Village in the late eighties,” he says. “It reminds you of the place in New York where you went to go do stuff because you could afford it and there was nothing going on. It’s sort of the speakeasy approach to marketing.”