A Brave “New” Coney Island?

The actors ran barefoot on a sandy beach and projected their lines over the cries of seagulls. The audience sat in 1,500 white folding chairs on a boardwalk across from a mural of Henry Hudson’s landing on Coney Island.

This was not a typical production of The Tempest.

Brave New World Repertory Theatre, which takes its name from one of the most famous lines in the play, staged Shakespeare’s tropical classic on the final Saturday and Sunday of September—outside, on the boardwalk and beach of Brooklyn’s Coney Island.
The cast of seagulls. Photos by Eleanor Miller.

For director Claire Beckman, it was natural, considering historical events, to stage what she calls “Shakespeare’s American play” outside the New York City Aquarium and on the adjacent beach.

“Four hundred years ago, on September 6, 1609, Henry Hudson landed on this shore,” she told the audience at the first performance. That same year, “the Sea Venture smashed against the islands of Bermuda,” Beckman recounted, recalling the English sailing vessel that was shipwrecked on its way to the Virginia Colony, the first permanent English settlement in North America. Stories of the Sea Venture reached England in 1610, and were the inspiration for Shakespeare’s play.

“It’s the quadricentennial of these two voyages to the new world, to the brave new world where we all live,” said Beckman.

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Ariel reaches to the wind. Photos by Eleanor Miller.

Beckman, who co-founded Brave New World as a Brooklyn-based theater company with actors drawn entirely from local talent, envisioned staging this play for years, ever since she and her husband met when both were acting in the play in 1983 in Vermont.Originally, she imagined dumping sand all over a stage indoors—but soon found an unusual, better idea.

She navigated a difficult government bureaucracy, dealing with multiple local government agencies to get the permits and permissions required to perform on the boardwalk and beach. One of the biggest sponsors Beckman recruited was the newly christened Brooklyn Community Foundation. The foundation’s program officer, Stuart Post, says the organization saw Brave New World’s idea as “making Shakespeare more accessible to the public.”

Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz, who arrived at Saturday’s performance in a dark blue Hawaiian-style shirt, praised Beckman’s persistence and creative vision.
Markowitz, who was briefly interrupted by protestors shouting “No More Amphitheater!”—a reference to the proposed construction of an amphitheater in Asser Levy Park near the boardwalk—called Beckman a “visionary” and “one of Brooklyn’s most creative voices.”
Prospero and the ocean. Photos by Eleanor Miller.

“This is what Coney Island should be doing,” Markowitz told the crowd. “Coney Island is Brooklyn’s entertainment center. It was before I was born, it was when I was a boy, and has been all these years. And in the days ahead, it will be even more exciting because of groups like Brave New World Repertory.”

Beckman said that a big reason she set the production in Coney Island was to draw more attention to the arts in the area, which is a “full hour away from Broadway.” “I wanted to help the community, the Aquarium. The storekeepers are suffering,” she said, referring to the decline the local economy has seen in recent months. Coney Island has been locked in a battle with the city and private developers, who want to revitalize the area with new shops and apartment buildings, but which locals say will ruin the unique culture the area has had for decades.

Dick Zigun, founder and artistic director of non-profit Coney Island USA and the so-called “mayor of Coney Island,” has pushed for preserving what’s left of the old Coney Island, and is enthusiastic about bringing more arts and attention to the area. He hopes it’s a “sign of many, many new cultural events to come at Coney,” Zigun said in an email. “I am very pleased that this year they have picked Coney Island for their production of arguably Shakespeare’s greatest play!”

Other local artists feel similarly. Amanda Deutsch, founder of the newly created Parachute Performance Festival at Coney Island, said she was “thrilled” about bringing theater to an area that’s traditionally ignored by big-name organizations and artists. At its essence, noted Deutch, “art is community-building.”

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Many locals in the audience were aware of the unique and powerful setting. “You couldn’t buy this set for a million dollars,” observed Stanley Fox, a native Coney Islander who attended the play both days.

“Coney Island has sort of been known as a fantasy area for New Yorkers to go to,” said Christopher Salazar, who played Prince Ferdinand. It welcomes “all types of art and performance.” Beyond the metaphors of the play itself, simply putting on the production in Coney Island is all about “casting off what is old and embracing change, but also respecting the environment,” Salazar said.

Angela Lewis, who played Ariel, agreed. “I think for New Yorkers it’s extra special, just because of the emotional bond that a lot of people have to Coney Island,” she noted. “In the script there’s a couple of times where the magic of the island is brought up, which is parallel to the magic of Coney Island.”

At a rehearsal the Thursday before the weekend performances, the environment of the setting was exactly what was on Beckman’s mind. While a sound technician tested recordings of thunder over the speakers, Beckman encouraged her cast to engage with the surroundings.

“The sea is a character,” she said to the actors. “You have this incredible set. I want you to have this experience that nobody else in The Tempest will ever have.”

Beckman said it’s not hard to draw parallels between the world of The Tempest and the environment of Coney Island. “The magic and mystery of Prospero’s Island and of Coney Island—and the allure of it—we’re sort of drawn to it without knowing why,” she said. “We can’t let go of the magic of the place.”

Audience members appreciated the set – actors performed both on the boardwalk and the sand of the beach—and the strong performances from Alvin Hippolyte, playing a deep-voiced Caliban, and Ezra Barnes as powerful and cunning Prospero. Lewis’s Ariel was enhanced by her Caribbean accent—a nod to both the historical shipwreck in the Bahamas and the play’s overarching themes of colonialism and slavery.

Fran Olk and Rena Samin, residents of nearby Manhattan Beach, have subscriptions to Manhattan’s Roundabout Theatre Company but were eager to attend an event so close to home. They were pleased by the professional and high-caliber production. “The staging is so great!” said Olk. “It’s nice to see the resurgence of life in Coney Island.”